KEYS TO BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
(How to Enjoy the Bible)
BY: E. W. BULLINGER
PRINCIPLES OF HOW THE WORD OF GOD INTERPRETS ITSELF:
I. AS PERTAINS TO THE VERSE:
A. The meaning of a word or words is to be gathered from the scope (subject) of the verse, and not the scope (subject) from the individual meaning of the word or words.
1) The meaning of a word(s) must be attained from the subject of the verse (passage) in which it is found.
2) Scope †: what the one subject being handled is all about; this always furnishes a key to understanding the meaning of the word(s) used.
† Note: Not the same as context (context has to do with the interpretation and sense of a passage as distinct from the actual meaning of its separate words). Also, you may see that a verse forms part of a larger context that has a particular scope or subject. (E.g., II Pet 1:20).
B. The subject of a verse is to be gathered from its structure.*
1) “It will be found, like all the works of GOD, to be perfect in form and also in truth. All GOD’s works are perfect: and, as His Word is the greatest of His works, we must look for and expect to find perfection here. There is no portion of the whole Bible that is not constructed according to a perfect plan. The literary portion is as perfect as its truth. And here, we must explain what is meant by Structure; so that the whole subject may be more clearly understood. There is a Law of Correspondence, running throughout the literary form of sacred Scripture, by which the same words are repeated in various ways, and the same thoughts repeated in other words. Correspondence [parallelism] is of three kinds: Alternation, Introversion, and Complex (a combination of Alternation and Introversion).” In addition, we read in The Companion Bible, Preface:
“… these Structures constitute a remarkable phenomenon peculiar to Divine Revelation; and are not found outside in any other form of known literature. This distinguishing feature is caused by the repetition of subjects which reappear (known by some as ‘Railways’), either in alternation or introversion, or a combination of both in diverse manners. This repetition is called ‘Correspondence,’ which may be by way of similarity or contrast; synthetic or antithetic.”
* Note: This is a very detailed principle. For more information on structure, consult How to Enjoy the Bible by E. W. Bullinger, pp. 199-226.
C. A word or words must be interpreted and understood according to Biblical usage.
1) This is distinct from meanings or definitions placed upon them by lexicons, commentaries and
a) They are often merely based on etymology, tradition or usage at another period of time than the time in which they were spoken or written.
b) Compare sources and observe changes of usage that can be traced through different spans of time.
2. This subject of Biblical word usage can be considered as follows:
a) English words and expressions that have come to be out of use (extinct), e.g.,
“Away with” à tolerate (Isa 1:13).
“Go to” à come now (Jas 4:13).
“Trow” à to suppose; imagine (Luke 17:9).
b) Usage of English words has changed, e.g.,
“Prevent” à originally meant “to precede,” “go before.” It now means “to hinder.”
“Publican” à originally meant a tax-gatherer. It now means an innkeeper.
c) Greek word usage has become changed either by GOD or man:
1) By GOD, e.g., angelos à in Greek, any messenger. GOD uses it as a messenger from GOD, and “the Angel of the Lord.” ecclesia à used in Greek only of a town’s meeting; of its residents (Acts 19:39). GOD uses it concerning the assemblies of GOD’s elect.
2) By Man, e.g., zoopoieo à in Classical Greek, meant to produce live offspring, but in New Testament
Greek, to make alive again in spiritual or resurrection life (John 5:21,65,63). paroikos à in Classical Greek, meant neighbor, but in New Testament Greek, sojourner (Acts 7:6,29); foreigner (Eph 2:19); strangers (I Pet 2:11).
d) Different, yet concurrent, usage of a Greek word should be observed in English, e.g.,
‡parousia à used of the presence of individuals (I Cor 6:17, Cor 7:6,7).
used of Christ’s presence in the air (I Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15).
used of Christ’s presence on earth (Matt 24:3,27,37,39).
used of the presence of the “lawless one” (II Thess 2:19).
‡ Note–each usage represents a separate topic.
e) A consistent usage of Greek words should not be deviated from in the English.
1) Greek words do not always have different usages.
2) Many Greek words have one consistent usage and should therefore not be departed from in the
–e.g., “withhold” (katecho) in II Thess 2:6,7 in the A.V. is “let” & “withhold”; in the R.V., “restrain.” See Matt 21:38; Luke 4:42, 8:15, 19:9; John 5:4; Acts 27:40; Rom 1:18, 7:6; I Cor 7:30, 11:2, 15:2; II Cor 6:10; I Thess 5:21; II Thess 2:6,7; Philem 13; and Heb 3:6,14, 10:23. By reviewing these scriptures of the Greek word katecho, we see that “hold fast” is the correct rendering vs. “withhold” and “let” of II Thess 2:6,7.
D. The words must be in harmony with the verse as well as with all the scripture relating to the scope.
E. Scripture buildup; narrative development.
II. AS PERTAINS TO THE CONTEXT:
E.W. Bullinger wrote:
“If this be disregarded, then a word, a sentence, or a verse, may be taken out from its context and interpreted of something quite foreign to its original intent.”
A) The Nearer Context
–This is what may be found on the same page, or opening; or to the greatest extent either on the pages or within the chapters close by.
B) The Remote Context
–This is in reference to the Word of GOD as a whole, within its own context, for each separate verse.
Each verse must be read and understood concerning the whole book.
— Each verse stands in its own immediate context as well as the context of the Bible as a whole,
thereby being interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture.
III. AS PERTAINS TO PREVIOUS USAGE:
— In order for Scripture to interpret itself, it is essential that words, expressions, and utterances be interpreted regarding their first occurrence. (This is an important key to a word’s resulting usage and meaning, or at least a director leading us toward the essential point linked to it. However, remember that every word has its relationships and contexts – never forget the context)
IV. THE PLACE OR LOCATION OF A VERSE CAN BE INDISPENSABLE TO ITS COMPLETE INTERPRETATION.
–Some verses of scripture illustrate their main importance from the revelation contained within them, while others from certain words used within the revelation. Still others obtain their main importance from the place where they are found written.
— i.e., Why is this verse here? Why is it in this particular section of the Bible?
V. YOU MUST RIGHTLY-DIVIDE THE WORD OF GOD REGARDING SUBJECT MATTER AND DISPENSATIONS (ADMINISTRATIONS).
A) E.W. Bullinger writes:
“While the Word of God is written for all persons, and for all times, yet it is as true that not every part of it is addressed TO all persons or ABOUT all persons IN all time.” [emphasis ours]
I Cor 10:32–the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Church of GOD (three distinct classes).
B) Dispensations (administrations)§
— oikonomia: the act of administering. E.W. Bullinger writes:
It is either the ACT of administering or of the TIME during which such act of administration is carried out.” [emphasis ours]
§ See Appendix A–Dispensation/Administration
For more information, consult E.W. Bullinger’s How to Enjoy The Bible, pp. 83-99.
VI. THE DIFFICULT VERSE MUST BE UNDERSTOOD IN LIGHT OF THE MANY CLEAR VERSES ON THE SUBJECT.
— Meaning that no one verse is to be interpreted or understood in a sense contrary to the others that are clear.
A) E.W. Bullinger writes:
“If one passage appears to be repugnant to others, then there is something amiss either in the translation of it, or in our understanding of it. In either case it behooves us to examine it and see where the fault lies. The one, apparently more difficult passage, must be understood, explained, and interpreted by the others which are quite plain and clear.”
VII. THE INTERPRETATION AND THE APPLICATION ARE ALWAYS WITH RESPECT TO WHOM THE VERSE OR PASSAGE IS ADDRESSED.
— The interpretation of a verse is not necessarily the same as the application of that verse.
A) E.W. Bullinger writes:
“The Interpretation of a passage belongs to the occasion when, and the persons to whom, or of whom, the words were originally intended. When that has been settled, then it is open to us to make an application of those words to ourselves or others, so far as we can do so without coming into conflict with any other passages.” That which we apply to ourselves cannot contradict that which is already addressed to us.
Anyone desiring a deeper and fuller understanding of the principles illustrated here is encouraged to consult E. W. Bullinger’s book How to Enjoy the Bible, published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. ISBN 0-8254-2213-2.
KEYS TO BIBLICA INTERPRETATION [E. W. Bullinger] 1