How to Interpret Scripture

Perhaps you have heard someone say something like, “That’s just your interpretation of the Bible,” when they disagree with something you have just stated to be true from the Scripture. And in reality that assertion is correct. It is “our interpretation” of the Bible, but there is much more implied by that response. The usual implication in that response, is that the Bible is intended to mean different things to different people. In fact, this is where we often hear something like,“ You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say.” But is that so? Is the Bible entirely subjective? If it is then the authority of the Bible to speak to our culture, our personal sins or to reveal God and Christ is seriously undermined. If the Bible cannot be clearly understood by us, then is it really the authoritative Word of God to men? No! It is not. Sadly, that is often the exact purpose for saying such a thing. Unbelieving men do not desire God to speak with authority, power and clarity. But, believers can also fall prey to this thinking even though they do want to hear and understand God’s Word. It is, therefore, vital that we have a correct understanding of how to interpret The Scripture.

The New Testament preachers and writers clearly believed that words and grammar had precise and objective meaning. Jesus began the pattern by referring to the Old Testament in the following way:

Matthew 5:18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Jesus ground it as fine as the letter and punctuation marks.

Paul also admonished Timothy by listing the ways in which the Scripture is profitable. It is only profitable for these purposes, if it is authoritative and can be understood clearly by men:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

Peter warned men against producing their own personal interpretation of Scripture. God speaks and we are to listen to what He says.

2 Peter 1:19-21 “We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Throughout the history of the church this high view of Scripture has not always been the case. But, during the nineteenth century there was a strong return to the conviction that every portion of the Bible should be understood in its clear and obvious form. Because of this simple idea, that the Bible means what it says, a great deal of truth was recovered from the Scripture. By allowing the words, grammar, and even the literary devices of our language to be understood as we would normally understand and use them, the Scripture regained much of its authority to teach, reprove, correct and train Christ’s Church.

During the 20th century this system of interpretation largely captured the heart and mind of the believing church. Many, but not all, of the denominations that rejected a literal, grammatical and historical method of understanding Scripture became largely unbelieving within a generation or two.

Today, men on both sides of this debate concur that the method of interpretation will determine our understanding of the Bible.

There are two methods with which men approach the Scripture. All true believers desire to know what God says in the Bible. The contention arises over how we will determine that. Can the Bible be made to say “anything you want it to say” or is it to be understood in a narrower and less subjective sense? These two methods of interpretation are typically referred to as The Allegorical Method and The Literal Method.


An allegory is “the expression, by means of symbolic fictional figures ….. of truths or generalizations about human existence.” [Webster]

With this method the literal and historical sense of Scripture is subordinated to an assumed hidden meaning. The words and events become an allegory. Sadly this is sometimes done to escape theological difficulties or to maintain religious views not clearly taught in Scripture.”

The allegorical method seeks understanding apart from the clear intention of the words and grammar. It does not labor in the text to draw out the meaning of the writer by applying principles of grammar and syntax for the purpose of understand the actual meaning of the language.

In the allegorical approach there is no escaping the conclusion that the primary authority is not the Scripture, but the mind of the interpreter. What the religion, upbringing, and culture of the interpreter bring to the passage then becomes the meaning of that passage.

“When once the principle of allegory is admitted, when once we start with the rule that whole passages and books of Scripture say one thing when they mean another, the reader is delivered bound hand and foot to the caprice of the interpreter.” [A. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation]

There is no way to test the conclusions of the Interpreter.

“To state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a second-sense meaning, and that the principal method of interpreting is “spiritualizing” is to open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination. For this reason we have insisted that the control in interpretation is the literal method.” [Bernard Ramm]

Are there allegories in the Scripture? Not in the above sense, The Bible is not a fictional book written to teach hidden lessons to its readers. Its accounts are true. Creation, The Flood, Jonah’s fish, The Virgin Conception and the miracles and resurrection of Christ all actually happened as reported in the 66 books of the Old and New Testament Scriptures.

If any imagined meaning can be assigned to these true accounts, then language ceases to serve its proper purpose of communicating the thoughts of one mind to another. Through The Scripture, the thoughts and purposes of God are intended to become the thoughts and purposes of men.

There are however, metaphors, types, symbols, similes and parables in the Scripture. The use of any of these does not constitute the use of the allegorical method of interpretation.

“A metaphor uses one kind of object or idea in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.” [Webster] There are many metaphors in the Scripture. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” He was speaking metaphorically of food that would satisfy the deepest hunger of men’s lives. As a rule, metaphors are single words or short phrases used to clarify a concept. Paul used an entire series of metaphors with the Corinthians to describe the spiritual blessings of Israel by comparing those blessings to physical objects in the wilderness.

1 Corinthians 10:1-4 “I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”

A parable makes use of metaphor and simile to illustrate a spiritual truth with a physical story. It explains what is unknown to the hearer by using what is known to the hearer. Parables differ from allegories in the following ways: They are not made up fantasies that contain hidden truths. They are stories that do happen all the time or could easily happen in the real world. The events depicted are often known to the hearer. If the stories are not already known, the listener is easily able to imagine the physical events taking place. The lost sheep and coin are perfect examples of that.

To illustrate: The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 does not employ any elements of the “allegorical method” to find hidden meaning in a plain text. It falls into the metaphor category in which the teacher explains the unknown to his students by comparing it to something that is known. The story was perfectly believable and had undoubtedly happened in real life many times before Jesus used it to illustrate the grace and forgiveness of God for wayward and undeserving sinners.


“The literal method gives to each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking.” [Bernard Ramm]

“Literal interpretation” means, to interpret in terms of normal, everyday speech and grammar. If the text is clearly metaphorical, like in the case of Christ’s parables, then the interpreter follows the clear intention of the writer. If the words are obviously symbolic then the interpreter looks for the literal meaning of the symbol.

For Example: When Jesus said, “I am the door,” a literal interpreter would know that the clear and normal usage of door is not in play here. Jesus was not made of wood with hinges and a bolt. This is a symbolic use of door, the meaning of which was well known to Christ’s culture and still known to ours today. It is symbolic of the way into something.

Men in all cultures rely upon the use of the literal, grammatical use of language to communicate. In commerce and education the literal use of language is essential.

Illustration: When a man goes into a meat market and says, “I want a pound of hamburger.” What does he mean? The hearer [or reader in the case of Scripture] is not free to decide what “one pound” means, because we have a normal meaning already assigned to that word. If we applied the “non literal” approach to language in this illustration we would say that the hearer of [reader] was dishonest if they did not respond with 16 literal ounces of hamburger. Men cannot and do not live in a world that allows the allegorical use of words in everyday life.

Parables, types, and symbols all depend on the literal meaning of words to make any sense at all. To say “Jesus is the Great Physician” has no meaning if there is no agreed upon literal meaning for the word ”physician.”

Illustration: “A sower went forth to sow.” Is this a parable? Yes. The spiritual message of the sower depends squarely on the literal meaning of words like “sower,” “seed,” “ground” and the like.

The Bible makes perfect sense when taken literally most of the time. “If the plain sense makes common sense, seek no other sense.”

Literalism does not rule out types or symbols. When these are obvious in the text, they are interpreted and understood for what they are.

The Literal, Historical,and Grammatical method will keep the imaginations of men from running wild.

“This method is the only one consonant with the nature of inspiration. The plenary inspiration of the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit guided men into truth and away from error. In this process the Spirit of God used language, and the units of language are words and thoughts. The thought is the thread that strings the words together. Therefore, our very exegesis must commence with a study of words and grammar, the two fundamentals of all meaningful speech.” Bernard Ramm


The “Allegorical Method” seeks a hidden meaning and regards the actual meaning of the words as secondary to the “spiritual truth” hidden in the text. It can never ground its conclusions in objective truth, only the ideas, conceptions or religious beliefs of the interpreter.

The “Literal Method” is based on the normal everyday meanings of the words, grammar and syntax. It is to interpretation what the “scientific method” is to other fields of discipline. It allows us to test the truth of any interpretation. Different men who are faithful to The Literal Method will independently arrive at the same meaning of almost any given text of Scripture.

Community Bible Church is entirely committed to the literal, historical, grammatical method of interpretation. We trust in, and submit to, the authority of the Bible. We believe that, although God cannot be fully known by men, The Bible is a clear revelation of Our God to His creature. We study it and preach it because we believe it is true and because in it we see the glory of God and find Eternal Life in Christ. We affirm that God alone is the source of all truth and never the imaginations of men.

“Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.’” Romans 3:4 cf. Psalm 51:4

Pastor Paul Anthes