Echo Zoe’s Systematic Method of Biblical Interpretation

July 17, 2007

PrintAs Christians, our personal Bible study time is perhaps the most fruitful experience we can engage in in our walk with the Lord. Church sermons, Bible commentaries, fellowship with other believers, and small group Bible studies all work together to help us better understand the Truth of God's word, but ultimately it is our own quiet time in the Scriptures that have the most impact on our understanding of the faith that is given to us.

It is for this reason that it is important for us to consider how we go about reading the scriptures. A systematic method of interpretation that is consistent and logical will guide us in understanding the Scriptures more fully, and aid us in avoiding faulty doctrine that is the direct result of bad interpretation.

While having been a Christian for over eight years now, I am very new to world of Biblical Hermeneutics, and have as yet an elementary understanding of the subject. Nevertheless, I would like to share my own method of considering the Scriptures during my own study time in an effort to assist those who may not even have considered the subject themselves, and also to provide my brothers and sisters in Christ the opportunity to assist me, and anyone else reading this, in improving upon this method so that I (we) may be even more fruitful in our understanding of the Bible.

There are many things that are necessary to consider in order to interpret a given passage of scripture correctly. The following are the various considerations I use when reading scripture so as to best practice proper Biblical exegesis (reading what the scripture says) and avoid Biblical eisigesis (reading what I want the scripture to say).

  • Consider the Genre – Traditional Evangelical Christians are often criticized by their more liberal counterparts for “taking the Bible literally“. Many Evangelicals counter with the question “If we aren't supposed to take it literally, how are we supposed to take it?” The criticism and the responsive question imply that the issue is a matter of all or nothing. The Fundamentalists of the early 20th century fell into problems of bad doctrine because they insisted on always taking the Bible literally; and likewise the contemporary, post-modern, liberals fall into bad doctrine by following the opposite principle, and insisting that scripture is never to be taken literally, that it is a collection of metaphors.

    The simple answer to both is that one must begin their system of interpretation by considering the genre of the passage in question. For the most part, historical narrative should be taken literally. Noah really did build an ark to survive a global flood, Jonah really did spend three days in the belly of a giant fish, Abraham really did attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, David really did kill Goliath, and Jesus really did die on the cross and raise on the third day. Parables are stories told in order to hide Biblical truth from the immediate audience (those present when they were originally told), and yet reveal Biblical truth to the followers of Christ (see Mark 4:11-12), such passages clearly should not be taken in the most literal way. Poetry is another genre that is prevalent in the Scriptures, which sometimes should be read literally, and sometimes should be read figuratively. The same can be said of Songs. Prophecy, in my experience, is given literally in the majority of instances, but has it's share of passages that should be taken figuratively (Much of the book of Revelation). Fortunately for us as readers, if a verse is figurative, proper interpretation can be found elsewhere in Scripture (The beauty of Revelation is that proper exegesis will take the reader into every other book of the Bible in order to correctly understand the passages of the Bible's final book.

    In some of these instances, we haven't yet answered the question of literal vs. figurative text, but considering the genre is only the consideration in interpretation. If we haven't answered the question yet, we will with further consideration.

  • Consider the Primary Audience – Another way to word this is to consider the Historical Context. Every book of the Bible was written with a primary audience in mind. Much of the Old Testament was written to the nation of Israel (the Jews). The Gospels were written to the Church (as a whole). The Epistles were written to specific churches, with the understanding that they would be spread throughout the Christian world.

    Quite often in the Old Testament, God makes promises to a specific group of people. For instance the land grant of Genesis 17, which promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his physical descendants (v. 8 ); the promise to regather the nation of Israel to the land after the 70 year Babylonian captivity (Jeremiah 29:10); and the promise to the wayward sons of Israel to restore their land if they abide by God's requirements of them (2 Chronicles 7:14). Often Christians disregard both the historical context and the literary context in order to claim these promises for themselves. Such readings rob the original audience by diluting the promises made, and lead to disappointment when these promises aren't fulfilled in their own lives.

    Likewise, the Epistles were written with a specific primary audience in mind. Often they were written to commend specific church communities for correctly carrying on in the Faith, or to reprove them for falling into bad doctrine or practice. Understanding who that audience was, what the issues the faced were, and why the author stressed specific points is very important in considering the implications of the text and how we are to apply them in our own lives and in our own Biblical understanding. For instance, Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to address the issue of Judaisers coming into that church and teaching that they must abide by the Jewish Ceremonial Laws in order to approach God properly. Paul exhorted them that they were under a New Covenant, and that the Judaisers were teaching a different Gospel. One example of a teaching that Paul was rebuking was the necessity of circumcision, and says in 5:2 “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” It would be proper understanding of this scripture to disregard circumcision in regards to believing it necessary to approach God, but improper to create from this a new law forbidding circumcision altogether.

  • Consider the Literary Context – Perhaps the most obvious consideration we should engage in when reading any text, Biblical or otherwise, is to consider the passage in question in relation to the text around it. Quite often, we can resolve issues raised by dishonest use of scripture by reading the paragraph that it is contained in, and secondarily the paragraphs before and after the verse in question. Often bad doctrine arises from the practice of “proof texting” scripture in order to justify one's position on a given issue. Cults and sects do this all of the time to justify bad doctrine, and good Christians don't let them get away with it. It is important that we do not criticize the cults for doing so while at the same time being guilty of it ourselves. Typically, when believers do it, it is with the best of intentions, or is done because we become so familiar with a verse through it's common use in group settings or Christian pop culture, but it is an incorrect interpretation nonetheless.
  • Consider Whether the passage is Normative or Unique – Another common mistake in Biblical interpretation is to confuse these concepts. Is what is going on in a given passage normal? Does it happen to every other person in a similar circumstance? Or is what is being described unique? This is usually a cause and effect question. Does a given cause always have the same effect? If the cause is the same, but the effect changes, it is safe to say that the passage is unique. If the effect is always the same, the passage is probably normative.
  • Consider Whether the passage is Prescriptive or Descriptive – This consideration is similar to the previous one. If a passage is historical narrative, generally it will be descriptive, that is it is describing something that happen. On the other hand, Biblical exhortation, typically, is prescriptive – it is prescribing what should or should not be done, how we should act, or what we should believe.
  • Consider the Application to the Church as a Whole – This is one consideration I haven't seen included as a Hermeneudical on per se, but most good Bible Scholars do acknowledge it one way or another. When reading a passage of scripture and attempting to apply it, we must be aware of brothers and sisters in other times and places and consider whether it could apply to them the same way. The easiest way to understand this is to look at today's American “Prosperity Teachers”, who teach that God has a wonderful plan for our lives and that He wants us to have the best of everything: the biggest house, the coolest car, the most beautiful wife, the best children, the biggest bank accounts, etc. Such a theology completely disregards, and even insults, the saints in poor countries under severe persecution. No Christian in North Korea would be focussed on material wealth. Likewise no Christian in America should be focussed on material wealth either. However, every Christian has needed to have their sins forgiven, regardless of when or where they lived.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Reading Contemporary Definitions into the Text. – A great example of this is from Revelation 3:15-16 {i}I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. The modern understanding of hot, cold, and lukewarm is that hot is another word for ‘passionate', cold is another word for ‘distasteful', and lukewarm is another word for ‘apathetic'. However, if we consider the primary audience (historical context) we see that the letter to the Laodiceans would have been understood much differently by the people of Laodicea. The city of Laodicea had as its source of water a stream that came from the city of Colossae and another that came from Hieropolis. The stream coming from Colossae came from a hot spring, and the one from Hieropolis had as its source a cold spring. Jesus here is saying that their deeds are neither like those of the Christian Colossians nor like those of the Christians in Hieropolis. What it is not saying is “I would rather that you had a distaste for me than be apathetic.”
  • Placing One's Own Theological Grid Over the Text – This can be the easiest of errors to fall into. We become so attached to our own theological views that we refuse to acknowledge passages in direct contradiction to those views, or we take the wrong view on whether or not a passage applies to us today in order to maintain a view we hold dear. An example of this is from Matthew 7:21-23 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness. This passage is explained away by hyper-dispensationalists as not applying to the Church. …he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven is seen as an act of works, and because the Church exists in the Age of Grace, and salvation is not by works, they argue that it can't apply to this present Age. Never mind the fact that this passage is stating that people will try to enter Heaven by their works, and the focus of this passage is Jesus' admonition to be known by Him rather than justify themselves by their works.
  • Interpreting With Ulterior Motives. – A good example is from Romans 1:26-27 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. This passage clearly speaks of homosexuality, however some will say that it actually speaks of pedophilia. Because they are motivated for one reason or another to dismiss Biblical admonitions against homosexuality, they must reinterpret passages that clearly address it to make it say something it does not say.
  • Parochialism – Parochialism is the error of holding a doctrine simply because your church or denomination holds that view. One example of parochialism is Matthew 1:24-25 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. Here the Catholic Church view of Mary being a perpetual virgin is the error. Parochialism involves believing an errant doctrine simply because your denomination or church holds that doctrine.
  • Individualism – Individualism is the opposite error to parochialism. The error of individualism is holding to the view that one could rely completely on the scripture, and involve no other human being. In other words, you could isolate yourself from the rest of the world and hold a complete and inerrant view of the scriptures with nothing but your Bible to go by. I had this error described to me in a basic hermeneutics class and I think what they were getting at here is that the scriptures exhort us to “forsake not the assembly”, and “as iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another”, that we need each other, and the Holy Spirit working through each of us to have a clearer understanding of the scripture. It is also worth noting that if you were on a dessert island with nothing but a Bible, you would miss much of the historical context in which various passages of scripture were written, the example of the Letter to the Church of Laodicea in revelation 3 being a good one.
  • Apathy – 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 . . . that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. This passage exhorts us to actively receive the truth “so as to be saved”. This one is very common among non-believers. They will quote scripture when it suits them, but they have no interest in understanding that which they quote, let alone the rest of scripture. It is also fairly common in the Church, which is why we have people in Churches who are, “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14 KJV). They leave it to their Church leadership to learn the scriptures, but have no motivation to learn it themselves.
  • Cemented Word Meanings – This error is assuming that words always carry the same meaning. Words carry multiple meanings outside of scripture, and it is unreasonable to expect them to always have the same meaning within scripture. I think these examples speak for themselves:
    • Luke 12:1 Under these circumstances, after so many thousands of people had gathered together that they were stepping on one another, He began saying to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.
    • Luke 13:21 “[The Kingdom of Heaven] is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.”
    • Romans 1:3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,
  • Failure to Consider the Historical Context – This historical context matter has been mentioned several times already. It is an important consideration that is often and easily overlooked. An example of failing to consider the historical context that is easy to understand is Romans 14:1-3 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. This passage is talking about the meats sold in the marketplace that were sacrificed to idols. The Christian was not to concern himself with this fact, and was exhorted to eat, as an idol is nothing and has no power over anyone – let alone the Christian. However, without the historical context, it would appear that Paul was talking about the first century equivalent of modern vegetarians.
  • Failure to Consider the Macro Context – Sometimes we can read a passage in its immediate context and apply it wrongly because the way we interpret the passage is in contradiction to the greater context of the entire Bible. An easy way to see this is to consider Old Testament vs. New Testament. Genesis 17:11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. This passage alone would lead Christian men to get circumcised for religious reasons, which Paul and the author of Hebrews addressed in the New Testament. (Circumcision being not forbidden for personal reasons though.) Circumcision was a done as a sign of the Old Covenant, and not given as a command to all believers for all times.


Those of us who were saved in adulthood remember the passion we had for the Word of God when we were first came to Faith. I remember putting aside various obligations I had at the time (like homework – I was in College) to make time to read and devour the scriptures. While that passion should never go away for a true believer, it does tend diminish as we grow in Christ. It is important to stop at some point and consider how to read the scriptures more deeply. The Bible is very rich with treasures that we can miss if we continue to read in the superficial manner that we did as new believers. I read through the New Testament in about six weeks the first time through, and read most of the Old Testament in just a few months. No one could possibly understand the scriptures to the fullest in such a quick reading. I am amazed at the depth and wonder to the scriptures as I understand how to better interpret it and compare scripture to scripture. I see well-known pastors who preach verse-by-verse through the scriptures spending years, sometimes a decade or more, going through a single book, and getting frustrated that they have to skip over points that they would like to share because there is just so much to explore. It renews my own passion to dive into the depths of what the scriptures have for me to learn.


The contents of this article are a summary of Pastor Ryan Habbena's class on Biblical Hermeneutics available in ten 90-minute lessons via mp3 download at

Posted at 5:54 pm in: Christianity,Writings

    8 Responses to “Echo Zoe’s Systematic Method of Biblical Interpretation”

  1. By Timm on Jul 18, 2007

    Wow. Good read. I did listen to the entire heremeutics class that you linked me too. I know you are learning under a great pastor and thankful for it. We need more people putting stuff like this out there.

  2. By έχω ζωη on Jul 19, 2007

    I’m glad you like it enough to listen to the whole class, that’s a lot: 15 hours!

    Yes, I am very thankful that God has provided me with faithful shepherds (pastor and associate pastor) who rever His word and teach it faithfully. I definitely agree that we need more of them in the Church.

    I’m about half way through the 8th chapter of John MacArthur’s “The Truth War”, nad have just the rest of the chapter and the Appendix left. I plan to post about it once I finish, probably next week sometime. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

  3. By Timm on Jul 20, 2007

    I’ll add it to my ever growing “to be read” stack of books. I just finished his book, “Soundly saved.” That one was quite good as well.

  4. By Ogre on Jul 31, 2007

    Thank you for posting this — and helping keep me in line and focused.

  5. By Paul Primavera on Aug 9, 2008

    Andy, I think you run a great blogsite. I enjoin you to continue in this good work. However, the Doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is correct. Now as a devout Catholic, I don’t worship the Blessed Virgin Mary as some Protestants may suppose. I worship her Son, Jesus, just as she would want. But I do pray to her, the Hail Mary being my favorite prayer. I get a lot of comfort knowing that Jesus gave to the Apostle John His mother at the foot of the Cross, and by doing so gave her to all us in the Church. During my breakup from my ex-spouse, praying the Rosary often with tears was about the only thing I could do. I knew that the Blessed Virgin Mary carried my tears to her Son, and I know that Jesus stopped me from drinking or drugging again in the aftermath of this breakup. And I really think it’s because of the Blessed Virgin’s intercession. While I worship and love Jesus, I do adore (NOT worship) and love His mother. She isn’t God. She isn’t divine. But she is our mother – the new Eve through whom life came into the world.

    Now as to a few technical things, while the New Testament does speak of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, the words used in the original Aramaic (which we don’t have today) did not differentiate between blood brother / sister, half-brother / sister and cousin. Indeed, why when Mary and Joseph went back to the Templke to find the 12 year old boy Jesus does the Gospel of Luke never make reference to these other children of Mary? Furthermore, just as no one could touch the Ark of the Old Covenant in ancient Israel, so also could no one touch the Ark of the New Covenant – Mary. (I forgot – and no offense intended – you’re dispensationalist, not covenantal as Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church teach – but that’s a different e-mail).

    On every August 15 the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated as a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman rite churches of the West. The Dogma of the Assumption was defined by Pope Pius XII in his Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, the web link for which is provided below:

    Of course I shall be attending Mass on August 15th in celebration thereof.

    As for the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, her Assumption (the fourth Glorious Mystery of the Holy Rosary) and her Coronation (the fifth Glorious Mystery of the Holy Rosary), much more theologically definitive discussion can be read at the different web links at Dr. Scott Hahn’s web site, “The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology”. A web link to the specific educational section on the Blessed Virgin Mary is provided below:

    A good discussion on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Assumption into Heaven may be found here:

    Additional web links on the Blessed Virgin Mary may also be found at the Catholic Answers web site:

    I hope that this information helps clarify the Church’s teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have a saying: “Ad Iesum per Miriam” or “To Jesus through Mary”. This is precisely the story related in John Chapter 2:

  6. By έχω ζωη on Aug 9, 2008

    Thanks Paul, I am glad you like the site.

    I have a few questions for you though, in response to your post:

    1. In the passage noted above (under Parochialism), what did Matthew mean when he said until she gave birth to a Son?
    2. I’m not sure about the Aramaic, but let’s just say I give you the benefit of the doubt. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that the Scriptures were God-Breathed (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20), that the human authors were inspired as they wrote. In addition, Matthew was an eye-witness to the Ministry of Jesus Christ, and would have known His family relationships as well as anyone. Mark was a close companion of Peter, who also would have known Jesus’ family relationships. John was an apostle as well, and likewise would know the real relationships of those in Jesus’ family. Given that they wrote in Greek, and Greek is a precise language, why did they choose to use words that are unambiguous about the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters?
    3. Why in the world would the people around Jesus ask about his mother and his cousins? The clearest reading of this text, in any translation, as well as the original Greek, suggests that they were talking about siblings.
    4. You say you pray to Mary. Where in the Bible does anyone ever pray to anyone but God? The only story I am aware of is when Saul, through the witch of Endor, sought out Samuel. God put Saul to death for it!
    5. The number of Catholics around the world numbers in the hundreds of millions, if even 1% of them pray to Mary, that would be millions of prayers. If even 1% of them happened to be doing so at the same time, we’re talking tens of thousands of prayers to Mary simultaneously. Would Mary not have to be a god to hear them all?
    6. 1 Timothy 2:5 says: For there is one God, and onemediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. If Mary is the mediator between men and Jesus, doesn’t that make two mediators between men and God?
    7. Regardless of whether or not you agree (you probably don’t), do you at least understand the doctrine of sola scriptura?
    8. Given that I wrote above, especially the part about Parochialism, would it not make sense that I would reject denominational arguments for a given doctrine, and require scriptural support for any doctrinal claims? After all, you and I can agree on the inspiration of Scripture, and the best place to start discussing our differences is that which we agree upon.

    I know you didn’t intend to offend me by writing something you know I disagree with, and likewise I hope you understand that I don’t respond as I have intending to offend. I hope you’ll consider these questions seriously.

    Also, if you have read any of my recent posts besides the Federalist Papers posts, you will be aware that I am very concerned about deception in the Church (ie, among those claiming to be followers of Jesus Christ), surely you can understand why I would be skeptical of any claims that do not have Scriptural support, even if they are claims that go back centuries.

    In peace,

    “Echo Zoe”

  7. By Paul Primavera on Aug 10, 2008


    First of all, I don’t want to get into an argument about Mary or Holy Mother Church. My answer regarding the first is that if the Blessed Virgin Mary is good enough to be Jesus’ mother, then surely she is good enough for me (I stole that phrase from Fr. Corapi’s sermon last night on EWTN).

    Indeed, the answers to most of not all of your questions are contained in the web links that I provided in my first post. I have reprinted some of these below and encourage the interested reader to explore them for himself. I won’t pretend to be an expert in Aramaic – I can even understand its alphabet. I have studied a little bit of Koine Greek and a whole lot of Latin. There my knowledge of Biblical languages ends. I only wrote what I had read that was written by other people far more knowledgeable in Sacred Scripture than I, Dr. Scott Hahn, Father John Corapi and Pope Pius XII being three notable examples.

    Second, as Christians, we ought to emphasize what we do agree on: the Passion, Death and Ressurection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I often hesitate to discuss things of a pure Catholic nature with Protestants for fear of offending them. Rather, we are each and both brothers in Christ and I would prefer to leave it at that.

    Third, as for your concern about the deception in the Church, I could not agree with you more. I see Catholic politicians partaking of the Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ at Holy Eucharist while they openly pass laws to support infanticide (called “the right to choose”), gay marriage (called “diversity”), and murder of the terminally ill (called “death with dignity”). In the meantime, only a few Catholic Bishops (such as Raymond Burke) have the courage to speak out and say “NO, for thus sayeth the Lord God….” Atheistic humanism and liberalism pervades not just the Catholic Church, but most if not all Protestant Denominations. Fortunately, Baptists, Pentacostals and so on seem more immune than Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc. The devil is sadly alive and well, trying to infect the Body of Christ. Therefore, we need to stand together as Christians and NOT be divided on such issues as the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    Again, I encourage the interested reader to please explore these web links when contemplating the Church’s teachings on the Blessed Virgin Mary. You don’t have to agree, but do have an open mind and let the Holy Spirit speak to you (applicable parts of Sacred Scripture is referenced throughout these essays to demonstrate the Biblical inerrency of Chursh teaching):

    The Blessed Virgin Mary

    Mary, Mother of the new Evangelization

    Holy Queen: Mother of God in the Word of God
    A Biblical Introduction to Mary

    Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God
    Wedding at Cana, Garden in Eden

    Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God
    The Ark of the New Covenant
    (this is my favorite)

    Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God
    Mother Crowned in Glory

    Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God
    The All-Holy Mother of God

    Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God
    The Queen Assumed into Heaven

    Thanks for letting me comment.

    In Caritate Christi,

    Paul Primavera

  8. By Gerald on Sep 11, 2009

    Paul, I’ve read through a few of the links you provided and it’s hard to know what to say to you. I think the best thing I can do is remind you that correctly understanding scripture is unimaginably important. Your eternal destiny is at stake! I urge you to study the Bible yourself and let the plain sense of what you read (in context)speak to you. Don’t let someone else’s thinking convince you the Bible is saying what it is not. It’s your life that is in jeopardy, if your faith is misplaced.

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