The need to interpret

These are my notes on Chapter 1 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

The aim of interpretation isn’t trying to discover what no one has ever seen before. This tendency to uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (“I’m so clever!”), a false understanding of spirituality (“only the really spiritual can get this”), or vested interests (looking to support a theological bias).

The aim of good interpretation is to get at the plain meaning of the text.

We invariably bring to the text our experiences, culture, etc., and assume that our understanding is the same as the Holy Spirit’s or the human author’s. Additionally, the fact of reading the Bible in translation influences your understanding. What’s more, not all ‘plain meanings’ are plain to all Bible-believing Christians, e.g. proponents of both infant baptism and believer’s baptism find support in scripture.

The corrective to bad interpretation is good interpretation based on common-sense guidelines.

Scripture is both human and divine. Because it is God’s word it speaks to all humankind in every age and culture with eternal relevance. Because God chose to speak through human words in history, each document is conditioned by the time, language and culture in which it was written. The tension between eternal relevance and historical particularity demands the need for interpretation.

To interpret properly what it meant to them then, one must learn the special rules that apply to each of the literary genres in the Bible.


This is defined as the careful, systematic study of the scriptures to discover the original, intended meaning. Everyone is an exegete. The only question is whether or not you’re a good one.

The key to good exegesis is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask of it the right questions, in particular those relating to context (historical and literary) and those relating to content.

  1. Historical context: This has to do with the time and culture of the author and readers, and the occasion of the book (i.e. what prompted its writing). It helps to know that Isaiah wrote before the exile and Haggai after it. A good Bible dictionary can help here. As to occasion and purpose, this can usually be found within the book itself. Consult Bible dictionaries and commentaries only after making your own observations!
  2. Literary context: Words have meaning in sentences. For the most part, biblical sentences have meaning in relation to the sentences before and after them.
  3. Content: This has to do with meanings of words, grammatical relationships in sentences, etc. Ordinarily, outside help is needed.

Useful tools for doing exegesis are a good translation, a good Bible dictionary, a good Bible handbook and good commentaries.


For the purposes of this book (How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth), this is understood in the narrower sense of seeking the contemporary relevance of ancient texts.

We don’t begin with the here and now because the only proper control against making the Bible mean whatever we want is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text. A text cannot mean what it never meant.

2 thoughts on “The need to interpret

  1. Nelima, this is one of my favorite books! I think it gets at the heart of Biblical interpretation as well as any book I have seen, and I think the first chapter sets the stage and challenges many Christians. There is a need to interpret Scripture, and we do it so seemlessly that we don’t realize we are doing it. There is a great need to be intentional and take into account genre, cultural setting and literary context. Thanks for the reminders. You will certainly enjoy this book!

    1. I agree that it’s a great book, and I wish more people would read it. It’s unfortunate that those who need to read it most are also the least likely to do so, and they make the Bible mean whatever they want. Sigh.

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