Hermeneutical Principles for Bible Study

By Joel Hayes

15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV)

1 – Hermeneutics is Simple

The first principle is that hermeneutics is simple. You don’t need to take a college course on hermeneutics. You don’t need to read a pile of academic textbooks on hermeneutics. You don’t need a scholar listing a bunch of theories so you can understand how to study your Bible. Hermeneutics is simple. It’s easy. God tells you how to study your Bible and then you do what God says. Hermeneutics is no more complicated than that. God tells you how to study in 2 Tim. 2:15 and you apply that principle to your study time in Scripture. God also gives examples in His Word of good and bad hermeneutics. If you want to understand how to study your Bible, study what the Bible has to say about how to study. Hermeneutics begins and ends with what God has to say about hermeneutics. If a hermeneutical principle doesn’t exist in the Bible, it doesn’t exist at all.

2 – Study includes Meditation

The second principle. Study includes meditation. Remember when we looked at 2 Tim. 2:15? We spent a whole message studying the word “study”? And you remember that Webster’s 1828 told us that study is a setting of the mind or thoughts upon a subject. This is the application of the mind to books, or to any subject, for the purpose of learning what is not before known. Webster also told us something else I did not know. Study includes meditation. Study is not merely you having your nose in a book for hours at a time like you’re preparing for some college exam. Study is not spending hours reading commentaries or reading excessively wordy articles by me. Study is just the setting of your mind upon a subject, and study includes meditation. That’s you thinking about a verse. You’re comparing spiritual concepts in your mind to find answers. You’re asking yourself questions about something in Scripture and then thinking about the answers. We’re all accustomed to having a question and Googling the answers, but God designed His Word for you to meditate upon it, think on it, and when you meditate, I think He wants you comparing spiritual concepts in your mind.

3 – Shew Thyself Approved

This brings us to the next principle. Why do we study? 2 Tim. 2:15 tells us why we study, which very few books mention. We study to shew thyself approved unto God. Do we have to study in order to earn God’s approval? We earned His approval the moment we got saved when we accepted His gospel of grace by faith. So in what sense are we showing ourselves approved? Are we showing that we’re already approved by God or are we showing how we got approved by God? YES. In both senses of the word “approved.” You are showing that you’re approved because of your faith. You’ve shown that you were worthy of that approval because you met God’s requirements, you accepted His gospel of grace by faith. You earned that approval because of your faith. You believed and trusted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as a payment for all your sins. You’re continuing to exhibit your approval status because of your life of faith even now. ALSO, your consistent study of His Word rightly divided makes you knowledgeable of God’s will for today. You have a thorough grasp of the gospel. You have a thorough grasp of who you are in Christ. You know how to live and how to have victory in your walk. And your study of His Word helps you to live with joy and hope. All of those aspects of your walk demonstrate that you’ve been approved of God because of your faith. And through study, you are now equipped to answer every man. 2 Tim. 2:15 is as much about identification as it is about hermeneutics. You’re now living in light of who you are, which is how you show yourself approved unto God. You are showing yourself approved because you’re living that life of faith. You walk with love and hope. Because you studied enough to know who you are, you’re actively trying to live in light of who you are. And in all of that, you are showing yourself approved. You’re showing yourself already accepted by God because you’re living in light of who you are.

4 – Rightly Dividing is also about Context and Literal Hermeneutics

This leads us to our next hermeneutical tip. Rightly dividing is also about context and literal hermeneutics. I’m sure most in our audience tonight are like me and they’ve heard a bazillion sermons on rightly dividing the word of truth, making those distinctions that matter between prophecy and mystery, law and grace, especially between Israel and the church today, the Body of Christ. We have to make a straight cut between what is speaking to us and what isn’t in the Bible. But I also learned something new. Rightly dividing the word of truth isn’t simply about making those distinctions when you study. Rightly dividing the word of truth is also about context. You can’t make those distinctions that matter unless you are always considering context whenever you’re reading His Word. Rightly dividing the word of truth is God telling you to always be conscious of context. There’s another hermeneutical principle at work here also. Rightly dividing the word of truth means that you are also always accepting at face value what you’re reading. Rightly dividing the word of truth demands a literal interpretation in order for you to be able to rightly divide it. 2 Tim. 2:15 is as much about context and literal hermeneutics as it is about all those distinctions that matter.

5 – Let Scripture Interpret Scripture

2 Peter 1:20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

The prophets didn’t write down their own interpretations of the Word of God. The prophets simply wrote down the Word of God regardless of whether they understood those prophecies or not. If you’re going to learn to study the Word of God, then you have to take God at His Word. The prophets weren’t writing what their thoughts were about what God had said. The prophets wrote the Word of God itself. When you read the Word of God, you are accepting at face value the fact that you are actually reading the Word of God. The issue is not how did the prophets interpret what God said. The issue is are you accepting that what you’re reading is the Word of God… This whole line of thought also parallels a crucial hermeneutical principles we’ve mentioned a few times: the prophets didn’t interpret the Word of God for you. The Word of God interprets itself. So you come across a reference to the ‘day star’ or ‘the morning star’ and you want to understand what that means. A prophet isn’t going to interpret that for you, because the Word of interprets itself. So then you find another reference to a day star or a morning star and you start thinking critically and you compare spiritual concept with spiritual concept in order gain a greater understanding of how you should interpret that expression. That is how God teaches you by encouraging you to dig into His Word and compare spiritual concepts in your mind. And this whole principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture is also a giant refutation of subjectivism, that is, people sitting down, reading a verse and saying, “What does this verse mean TO YOU? And what does this verse mean to you? And to you? And you?” That verse is not about whatever it is you want that verse to be about. That verse is about what God wants you to know and you compare spiritual concepts with spiritual concepts in order to make sure that you have an accurate interpretation of what God means in the text.

You can’t get a better teacher of the Word of God than the Word of God itself along with the Holy Spirit who is using the method of comparing those spiritual concepts to help you to understand the will of God. And Peter would reinforce this very point in the next verse. He says in 1:21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Now this verse is mostly used to help explain inspiration of Scripture, holy men of God were moved by the Holy Ghost. But in the context, this verse is meant to solidify in your mind the unquantifiable value of the Word of God because of how it was inspired and written. In other words, you can’t get a better teacher of the Word of God than the Word of God itself because all of it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. All of the Word is more sure than anyone’s eye witness story about what they saw Jesus do when He was alive. All of the Word is more sure than anyone’s personal, subjective interpretation, because the Word interprets itself. Anyone who stands up to teach the Word, that person is merely showing the people how the Word has already interpreted itself. What the Word says will always be more important than anyone’s private subjective interpretation without any consideration of context or cross-references.

So to sum up this hermeneutical principle – we need to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. This leads me to my second Bible study tip.

6 – Actively Compare Spiritual with Spiritual

One of my favorite studies from this series was comparing spiritual with spiritual in 1 Cor. 2:13. People often say “comparing Scripture with Scripture.” That’s not what Paul says. Verses didn’t exist back then. Paul’s talking about comparing spiritual concepts. The Spirit teaches you by comparing the spiritual concepts that are in those verses. Bullinger would make the point that the Greek word for comparing was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word for interpret. Thus, comparing spiritual concepts is THE method of Biblical interpretation. Comparing spiritual concepts IS hermeneutics. That is how hermeneutics works. You cannot rightly divide unless you’re comparing spiritual concepts and you’re saying, “I see the distinctions. This concept is for us. This concept is not.”

So I would suggest if you’re doing a Bible study, just take one verse and compare the words and the spiritual concepts in that verse. I mentioned on the podcast yesterday, Eph 4:32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. There is a ton of concepts to compare and contrast. What’s the difference between kind and tenderhearted? Is tenderhearted a behavior or motivation behind the kindness you show others? Paul’s also begging a comparison between forgiving one another and to do that even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. Why does he talk about God forgiving you for Christ’s sake? How is it that we are to forgive others for Christ’s sake just as the Father had forgiven us for Christ’s sake? Meditate on the way we’re to forgive with the way that God has already forgiven you. We forgive even as the Father has forgiven us begs a comparison. And you comparing those concepts develops your ability to think critically, to discern God’s Word with greater clarity, and you profit from those comparisons, which you’re then excited to share with other believers.

7 – The Answer to Most Questions is in the Context

Years ago, we had men’s breakfast on Saturday mornings. Sometimes I would ask a question. I’d get no answer. Pastor Fred would look around the table to see if there were any takers. No one. Then he’d say, “Well, brother, let’s first look up the verse and read the whole context.” Sometimes he’d read a section of verses. Sometimes he’d read the whole chapter. Didn’t matter to him. He’d read more than what everyone might agree is acceptable context for that verse. Since then, I’ve come to learn that that was Fred’s process when he has no clue what the answer is. But I noticed something. After we’d read a verse in its context, everyone always had something to say. Why? Because, more often than not, the answer was usually in the context or in a good cross-reference.

8 – Look Up all the Cross References

I love looking up cross references in the Treasure of Scripture Knowledge. Not every cross-reference they have is fitting, but sometimes the bad cross reference is just as interesting as the good cross reference. If a cross reference is bad, then why is it bad? What are they missing? Or what am I missing?

9 – Embrace all Forms of Engagement with Scripture

Some hermeneutical books would say, look, Bible reading is not Bible study, but I don’t think it’s necessary to study every time you open your Bible. I tend to embrace all forms of engagement with Scripture. It is okay to just sit down and read the book of Esther just because you love the story and you want to experience the story again? There’s nothing wrong with that. I would argue that there is a time and a place for studying and time and a place for reading, too. But there IS a distinction between reading and studying. Reading is casual, usually done for pleasure. When you’re reading, you’re just taking in the content. You’re not trying to gain a mastery of the content. And that’s what study is for.

10 – No New Hidden Truths

Here’s another Bible study tip. When you’re spending time in His Word, comparing spiritual concepts, your goal interpreting Scripture is not to discover some new hidden truth no one has ever thought of before or to find a way to be unique in your interpretation. Your goal is accuracy in your exegesis. “When the plain sense of the scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”

11 – Interpret Literally Unless You Have Good Reason to Think Differently

I quoted a number of dispensationalists defending a literal interpretation. I’ll just quote Charles Ryrie again from his book on Dispensationalism and chapter 5 on “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism:” “If God is the originator of language and if the chief purpose of originating it was to convey His message to humanity, then it must follow that He, being all-wise and all-loving, originated sufficient language to convey all that was in His heart to tell mankind. Furthermore, it must also follow that He would use language and expect people to understand it in its literal, normal, and plain sense. The Scriptures, then, cannot be regarded as an illustration of some special use of language so that in the interpretation of these Scriptures some deeper meaning of the words must be sought. If language is the creation of God for the purpose of conveying His message, then a theist must view that language as sufficient in scope and normative in use to accomplish that purpose for which God originated it… If one does not use the plain, normal, or literal method of interpretation, all objectivity is lost. What check would there be on the variety of interpretations that man’s imagination could produce if there were not an objective standard, which the literal principle provides? To try to see meaning other than the normal one would result in as many interpretations as there are people interpreting. Literalism is a logical rationale.” Amen.

12 – Thinking is Better than Memorizing

There was a book I read ages ago called the 60 Second Scholar by Michael Heiser, which had 100 Bible Study Tips. Maybe a quarter of those were decent. He did not rightly divide. He had no confidence in the Textus Receptus. But one point he made was that thinking is better than memorizing. He wrote, “Being able to recollect a verse with precision does not mean you understand it. You could memorize your tax forms, but that isn’t going to provide answers to any confusion that may arise from what they say. It’s the same with Scripture. I could memorize the entire Bible, but how does that nurture my comprehension? My precise recall would be the same as simply reading the text word-for-word had I never bothered to memorize it. Whether reciting or reading, I might not know what any of it means in any given place. My point is not to call for a memorization boycott… Rather, my aim is for you to realize the memorization and study are not interchangeable concepts. Real Bible study demands thinking. Memorizing words is not the same as pondering what words mean.”

13 – Believing What the Bible Says Isn’t Bible Study

Heiser: “But one excuse I’ve heard over the years pushes my buttons: I already believe what’s in the Bible, so why do I need to study it? Just typing it makes me growl. Think about what such a statement really says. What I know and believe is the important stuff. My faith is based on something someone told me. I believe what I can’t necessarily explain and might not really understand… What I’m saying is that if you cannot give a coherent ‘reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Pet. 3: 15) that goes beyond what your parents or your pastor told you, your voice will be no more credible than anyone else whose beliefs are just hand-me-down.” End quote. I’ll go one step further. You need to study your Bible because the truth is better news than anything you’ll hear in denominations. I’ll go another step further. 2 Tim. 2:15. God instructed YOU to study. Grace isn’t about what a grace pastor said and do you believe that. Grace is about YOU studying the Word for yourself like a good Berean. God wants to know what YOU think about what HE said in His Word to you, not how many sermons you heard.

14 – Don’t Confuse Correlation with Causation

Again Heiser: “One of the most common logical fallacies is the confusion of correlation with causation. The fallacy is presuming that two things that are related in some way— perhaps by timing, or similarity of appearance or theme— must mean that one causes or leads to the other. Whether you’ve ever had a formal course in logic or not, you’ve encountered this one. You can literally find examples of it every day in newspapers, blogs, and of course commercials. I ran across one today— a television report that dutifully told viewers about the ‘interesting fact’ that as the shoe sizes of elementary kids increase, so do scores on standard reading exams. Sure, both studies, run at the same time and even on the same kids have a correlation, but did one really cause the other? Should I despair if my child has small feet…? Confusing correlation and causation can be comical, but when it shows up in sermons, Sunday School lessons, and Bible study resources, it isn’t funny.” Then Heiser tried to offer a Biblical example that made no sense. For us dispensationalists, we have no problems of coming up with Biblical examples of believers confusing correlation with causation. For example, just because you read the word church in Acts 2:47 does not mean that the church began in Acts 2:47.

15 – Insist on Being a Slave to the Text – Let It Be Your Master

Again, Heiser, and here he’s making the same point we’ve been making about subjectivism. Studying Scripture isn’t about you imposing your views onto the text but rather allowing the text to change your thinking.

16 – A Poor Argument in Defense of a Biblical Truth is Still a Poor Argument

Last one from Heiser, “Sloppy thinking in defense of truth is no asset. People who want to believe what you say will question your reliability as a resource. People who want to attack what you believe will exploit the advantage you’ve handed them. There’s no place for poor thinking in good Bible study. Time spent in Scripture has a way of exposing flawed ideas and interpretations. The result will either be better interpretations or forming new conclusions that more clearly derive from what is found in the biblical text. What you believe about the Bible needs to be coherently articulated from its contents.”

17 – Bad, Bad, Bad Hermeneutics

The next tip has to do with bad hermeneutics. We’ve pointed out that some people like Rodney B. who became a universalist was dreaming up brand new hermeneutical principles that aren’t true. I won’t go through it all again, but all of that leads us to the question: how do we identify when some new dreamed up hermeneutical principle is unbiblical? When there is no Biblical precedence. If that hermeneutical principle doesn’t exist in the Scriptures, it doesn’t exist at all. We do not make up new hermeneutical rules that have no Biblical precedence.

18 – The Don Webb Principle

Don Webb passed away. He wrote Basic Bible Doctrines. I met him once at Cedar Lake and he told me something that stuck with me. When you read a verse, ask yourself, “How would you explain that verse to someone else?”

19 – Bible Commentaries

With respect to Bible commentaries, use them, but always think for yourself.

20 – Nothing Is More Valuable than You Alone with the Word

Of all the opportunities we have now with all the books and all the videos and all the podcast and all the time we can spend in our churches, nothing is more valuable than you having one-on-one time with Him.