Four Rules for Interpreting the Bible

Here are four rules for interpreting the Bible that I teach my students, along with the acronyms that help them remember them.

1.  Do No Harm (DNH).  This is the first rule of any profession, and the Bible itself warns against twisting its words in a way that causes harm.  Judaism taught this principle, based on the teaching of Moses,

[These words] are your life.  By them you will live long . . .

Judaism takes this to mean that the commandments can only be interpreted in a way that enhances life, never in a way that threatens it.  Jesus taught a similar principle: It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, to save life rather than destroy it.

Of course, the Bible has often been misused.  Krister Stendahl said,

There never has been an evil cause in the world that has not become more evil if it has been possible to argue it on biblical grounds.  (Cited here)

2.  Author’s Intended Meaning (AIM). Don’t use the words of the Bible to push your own agenda.  For example, when the Bible talks about oil–it is not referring to barrels of petroleum–it is talking about olive oil.  We have to take the historical setting and the understanding of the human authors seriously.

3.  Author’s Intended Purpose (AIP). The first writers and readers of the Bible lived in a world far different than ours, yet they are trying to reach goals that are relevant to us: reconciliation, love, compassion, justice, for example.  Most of us in North America don’t worry about food offered to idols–but the purpose for the teaching on the subject in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is to teach us to respect cultural and religious differences, to embrace diversity.

4.  Whole Context (WC). This basically means we have to get the big picture, to read every part in light of the whole.  It also means we have to have a concept of progress.  The story of the Bible is the story of God interacting with imperfect people and leading them a step at a time a little closer to where thy need to be.  If we forget this, we will stumble over details along the way, and we may even interpret Scripture in a way that does harm.

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