It is both the privilege and responsibility of every Christian to interpret the Bible for himself/herself. This principle of private interpretation, based on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, was articulated by Martin Luther in the 16th century. The response of the Roman Catholic Church was as follows:

“To check unbridled spirits it [the Council of Trent] decrees that no one, relying on his own judgment shall in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation has held or holds or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published.”

According to the RCC, it is neither the right nor the responsibility of any individual Christian to interpret the Bible and declare its meaning. That right ultimately rests with the teaching office (the Magisterium) of the RCC.

The above quotation, however, reflects several misconceptions concerning the Protestant principle of private interpretation:

  1. Private interpretation does not mean that we should rely solely on our own judgments, ignoring the insights and research of others;
  2. Private interpretation does not mean that we have the right to “distort” the Bible in accordance with our own conceptions;
  3. Private interpretation does not mean that we can ignore the history of interpretation in the church.

At the same time as we exercise our God-given responsibility to interpret the Scriptures, we must be aware of the element of subjectivity that influences all interpretation. Interpreting the Bible is not to be compared to a man looking into a fishbowl, but to a fish in his own fishbowl looking at another fish in his! Some of the factors that affect our objectivity in studying the Bible are:

a. personal prejudice

b. hidden agendas (personal and theological)

c. cultural conditioning

d. historical circumstances

e. socio-economic factors

f. unconscious expectations

g. educational background (the “wet cement” syndrome)

h. personality distinctives

i. occupational pressures

j. pride

k. interpersonal relational background

As we seek to interpret the Scriptures, we must also keep in mind the contributions of the past. Fee and Stuart remind us that,

“Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness, can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to ‘out clever’ the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deep truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task.”

Our approach to interpretation is called the Grammatical-Historical method. According to the G-H method, the student seeks to ascertain the meaning of a text by an analysis of the simple, direct, ordinary sense of grammatical constructions, with special attention paid to the facts of history, cultural milieu, and literary context.

There are three theological assumptions to keep in mind from the outset:

a. divine revelation is inerrant

b. divine revelation is accommodated

(N.B. It is the form of divine revelation, not its content, that is accommodated.)

c. divine revelation is progressive

Cf. Mt. 5:17; Heb. 1:1-2. PT: temporally subsequent revelation never contradicts earlier revelation; it may embellish and illuminate, but never alters the truth, of antecedent revelation.

We are now ready to examine the fundamental principles of the grammatical-historical method.

1. The Bible is to be interpreted by the same rules and principles that govern the interpretation of all other literature.

2. The principles of interpretation are native to all people, regardless of their spiritual condition. In other words, unbelievers can apply the basic principles to interpret the Bible, but will always be morally opposed and resistant to the truth they discover.

3. It is essential that the interpreter distinguish between meaning and significance. Meaning is what the original author intended by his words. Significance, on the other hand, points to the relationship between that meaning and a person or a concept or a situation. Thus, we must distinguish between, what the text then meant, to the original author (and audience), and what the text now means, to us and others. Determining what a text meant is always a precondition for ascertaining what it means. In other words, we must never bypass exegesis on our way to application.

4. Thus the goal of the interpreter is to reproduce the sense or meaning which the biblical author intended for his original audience.

a. therefore, authorial will = the meaning of a text

b. a text of Scripture, consequently, can mean but one thing in the connection/context in which it is found, namely, what the author intended (however, this should not be taken as a denial of the validity of the sensus plenior, or fuller sense of Scripture)

c. however, whereas a text can have only one meaning, it may have numerous applications (cf. 2 Cor. 12 and Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”).

5. Each text is to be interpreted according to its literal sense.

a. the meaning of a text is to be determined by the normal or accepted standards and rules of grammar, speech, syntax, and context

b. the literal sense is not necessarily the literalistic sense (i.e., literal interpretation does not exclude figures of speech, symbolism, typology, etc.).

6. Each text is to be interpreted according to the Analogy of Faith

a. Definition

1) No part of Scripture should be interpreted in such a way as to place it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture.

2) No single statement or obscure passage in one book of Scripture should be allowed to set aside a doctrine which is clearly established by many passages in several books (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:29; Acts 2:38; 1 John 3:6).

b. Basis

1) The inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible

2) Unity of thought in the midst of diversity of expression

3) The coherency, rationality, and general clarity of Scripture

(Observe the difference between paradox, mystery, and contradiction)

c. Degrees

1) positive and explicit

2) general and implicit

d. Limitations

1) The analogy of faith does not mean that a statement in Scripture lacks authority unless it has support in other statements (cf. 1 Tim. 5:3ff.; 1 Cor. 11 and the Lord’s Supper).

2) Neither can we set aside a legitimate inference from a statement of Scripture on the ground that the inference is unsupported by other parallel statements.

3) Therefore, unless a statement in Scripture is clearly excluded by several other equally explicit statements, one positive declaration of God’s Word is sufficient to establish either a fact or a doctrine.

e. The authority and value of texts in the analogy of faith vary.

1) The analogy of faith is stronger (but not necessarily more authoritative) when the doctrine is found in ten rather than in two texts.

2) The value of the analogy will be in proportion to the agreement of the passages on which it is based (be sure that parallel passages are truly parallel).

3) An analogy that depends largely upon obscure passages is of dubious value (don’t interpret one obscure text on the basis of another obscure text).

4) The distribution of passages is also important. If the analogy is based upon texts derived from a single book, it will not be as strong as one based on texts found in both the OT and NT, dating from various times and coming from different authors.

f. The analogy of faith and Biblical Theology

g. Other principles related to the analogy of faith

1) The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit (cf. Rev. 2-3 [the “angel” of the church] and the issue of church government).

2) The unclear is to be interpreted by the clear.

3) Historical narratives are to be read and interpreted in the light of didactic literature (cf. the relation of Acts to the Epistles; however, this is not to say that doctrine cannot be gleaned from narrative literature).

4) Be sensitive to the nature of progressive or cumulative revelation:

a) the analogy of antecedent Scripture (the meaning of a word or passage is to be determined in the light of that Scripture which has preceded it in the sequence of revelation)

b) the analogy of subsequent Scripture (the more complete interprets the less complete; i.e., the NT interprets the OT).

All Scripture is organically interrelated:

seed — sprout — root — stem — bud — flower — fruit

The fruit will tell you far more about the seed than the seed will tell you about the fruit.

7. The crucial role of Context

a. The nature and function of context

1) immediate context

a) what precedes (antecedent)

b) what follows (subsequent)

Examples: Mt. 7:1-5 and 7:6; Mt. 18:15-20; Rom. 12:17-21 and Rom. 13:1-6; Rom. 14:23; 1 Cor. 11 (“unworthily”); 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 4:13; 1 Thess. 5:19-22; 2 John 10.

2) remote context

a) in the same book

b) in other writings of the same author

3) historical context (time when written)

4) literary context (type of literature)

5) absence of context (Proverbs)

b. Contextual connections

1) types of contextual connections

a) purely historical (Mt. 3:13-17 and 4:1-11)

b) historical/dogmatic (when doctrinal discourse or teaching is connected with a historical fact; cf. Jn. 6:1-14, 26-65).

c) logical (1 Cor. 15:2 and 15:12-19)

d) ethical (Eph. 1:1-3:21 and Eph. 4:1ff.)

e) psychological (something in the preceding context triggers a related idea; results in parenthesis, etc.)

2) determining contextual connections

a) pay close attention to conjunctions (but, since, therefore, because, now, however, etc.)

b) seek the nearest possible connection

c) watch for recurring words, phrases, themes

d) watch for

1 – parentheses (Eph. 3:1 / 3:14)

2 – digressions (Heb. 5:10-7:1)

3 – anacolutha (Rom. 5:12 / 5:18)

e) identify the natural divisions of the text (not necessarily those in your English version; cf. 1 Thess. 2:17-3:10; Rom. 8-9)


“It is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in scriptural language, and your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord, so that your blood is ‘bibline’ and the very essence of the Bible flows from you” (Charles Spurgeon).

    28 replies to "Basic Hermeneutical Principles"

    • Irene

      “According to the RCC, it is neither the right nor the responsibility of any individual Christian to interpret the Bible and declare its meaning. That right ultimately rests with the teaching office (the Magisterium) of the RCC.”

      That’s not exactly right. According to the CC, it is not the right of the individual to interpret the Bible and declare its meaning in a way that contradicts the teaching of the Church. The Catholic Church does not have an interpretation assigned to each individual verse. Catholics are encouraged to study and explore Scripture, and there are different and/or conflicting opinions about many things in Scripture among them. The important thing is that we do not contradict what the Church teaches is truth.

    • Irene

      4.b. says,
      “b. a text of Scripture, consequently, can mean but one thing in the connection/context in which it is found, namely, what the author intended (however, this should not be taken as a denial of the validity of the sensus plenior, or fuller sense of Scripture)”

      Can you please elaborate on what you mean by the fuller sense of Scripture? Is this similar to the “4 senses of Scripture” that I am familiar with as a Catholic (literal, allegorical, moral, analogical)? Thanks.

    • Indeed Irene is closer here, since Vatican II there has been somewhat more latitude, especially with Catholic scripture scholars towards some areas of Holy and Sacred Scripture, at least on some subjects. But the problem is the RCC has yet to quite define some of how this works in the Documents of Vatican II? And surely many of us Reformed and Reformational churches simply reject many of the pastoral statements there, like the NA or Nostra aetate on like non-Christian religions. Of course Judaism aside. The exclusivity of Christ, both incarnationally and redemptively must be maintained! (John 14: 6) And this does appear to be one of the great problems with Vatican II. Islam for example is just NOT a true religion of the Abrahamic covenant, even if they are monotheistic. Their rejection of Christ is just too overt and real!

    • […] from Credo House by Sam Storms – 3 Comments […]

    • John

      I have to agree with Irene here, you don’t understand Trent. Trent doesn’t say you can’t interpret scripture. It just says you must not do it contrary to the church.

      Now, there is much to say positively about the grammatical-historical method. BUT…. the authors of the bible frequently don’t use it!!! How many of those times the NT quotes the OT as a prophesy of something, like a prophesy of Christ does it use this method? Often it doesn’t!

      So now what? If we use sola scriptura to locate valid hermeneutics we don’t come up exclusively with grammatical historical.

      So then what do we have? Well, we have the body of believers. I’m sure that when the NT authors say an OT passage is a prophesy, even though grammatical historical wouldn’t say that, it is because that was common opinion in the church, not because they thought it up themselves.

      So what we are basically left with is something like Trent. i.e. the consensus of the fathers and the church. Not to say you can’t interpret using grammatical historical method. But that isn’t enough, because it wasn’t enough for the authors of the NT.

      If you want to say the authors of the NT are different… why? On what scriptural basis? Are we to believe they just made up these inferences on their lonesome? I hardly think so.

      Sola scriptura makes sola scripture impossible.

    • bethyada

      A couple of additions if you will. You hinted at them but perhaps it needs to be more explicit.

      Concerning the rule of faith, the specific overrides the general. Some interpretations may depend on the fact that a specific teaching does not apply to everyone and the general teaching can not be used to deny the specific teaching.

      Concerning context, note cultural context. High context societies may assume things that are not said or written. This means that assumptions may need to be brought in and the correct interpretation may be one with unwritten (but known and reasonable) assumptions rather than the interpretation which brings in nothing but which falsely assumes a low context culture.

    • david carlson

      If you want to develop a fuller understanding of the Reformation v. RC, I recomend Alister McGrath’s book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First

      A truly great book

    • david carlson

      CMP – How could you let this post go up without some charts? We want charts, we want charts, we want charts. Plus, you allready have done some great ones on this topic.

    • First, it is most important that we quite understand just what the true meaning of Sola Scriptura is. Sadly it is often misrepresented by both foe and Protestant alike! As I have shared Richard Muller’s definition of Sola Scriptura from his most fine book, the: Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, (Baker Books, 1985), often. I will not repeat the whole here, but make the point as Muller that this was and is even the position of Medieval and scholastic theology, that the ‘ “principium cognoscendi”, the principle of knowing or cognitive foundation of theology, and described doctrinally in terms of its authority, clarity, and sufficiency in all matters of faith and morals.’ And later we can see this in the so-called Quadrilateral of Anglicanism and the four Articles agreed upon, and in 1888 a slightly revised edition was approved:

      A. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation”, and being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.”
      B. The Apostles Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol, and Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
      C. The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself…
      D. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called by God into the Unity of the Church.

      See the full text of the ‘Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’, 1888. Here is the historical use of Scripture, tradition and reason of the classic Anglican Communion, which has always been really Protestant, as well as “catholic” itself! At least by Creed and general history. Noting the Thirty-Nine Anglican Articles themselves, as well as the Irish Articles 1615!

      Btw, surely an Amen to Alister McGrath’s fine book: Christainity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A History from the 16th Century to the 21st! A must read for those that care about this…

    • And yes indeed, bring on them “Charts”! Love em! 😉

    • Layman Bryant

      This talk of attempting to pin down the official position of the RCC with regards to individuals interpreting the bible is folly. It assumes that the RCC has a single official, intelligible position. Effectually, it allows most individuals to interpret themselves, as evidenced by the “Catholic Charismatics,” in Latin America. On paper though, it has almost conflicting decrees. Much of what was said at Trent (mostly about who’s anathema) was undone at Vatican II, without really revoking what was said at Trent. In fact, Trent is readily quoted by the Catholic Catechism.

    • EricW

      I’d be more inclined to accept the Grammatical-Historical method as the proper approach to interpretation if the New Testament authors had felt obligated to adopt and adhere to that method. But they didn’t.

      A hermeneutic which doesn’t allow for the church and Christians to interpret the Scriptures the way the NT authors did is, IMO, faulty and deficient.

      When I brought this up to the associate pastor at a large Bible Church we used to attend, his response was that we could only allow a non-G-H interpretation or application of an OT passage for those passages for which the NT authors did this; all other OT texts should only be interpreted using the G-H method.

      My thought: Wrong answer. Besides everything else it does, the NT also shows us how to read and interpret the OT in the light of Christ.

    • […] Resource of the Week: You’ll want to bookmark (or share) Sam Storms’ eleven factors that can destroy objectivity in Bible hermeneutics, along with his basic rules for Bible interpretation. […]

    • Lora

      I grew up with the KJV….last year I realized the significance of pronouns in Genesis 3….in verse 21, Scripture is clear that God made coats of skins for Adam and for Eve.
      In verses 22-24, the pronouns are all singular male pronouns… now I am questioning what I have learned in church my entire life- that God sent Adam AND Eve from the garden. Scripture tells me that God only drove Adam from the garden.
      I suppose the Roman Catholic church would brand me as a heretic….so since I clearly believe in priesthood of the individual believer, yet I can’t help but wonder: how many other “Christians” would also brand me as a heretic?

    • Lora

      I believe Eve chose to follow Adam out of the garden….just like God told her she would do in Genesis 3:16.
      So God created women with a natural desire to follow the man that she loves….but when she follows the man rather than God, then the Scriptural solution can be found in Acts 5:29

    • Jared

      Lora, your posts are kind of strange. I’m not sure what you are getting at. First, i would point out that Roman Catholics do believe in the priesthood of the individual believer. They just make a distinction in the individual priesthood and the vocational priesthood as far as duties and responsibilities go. Second, I don’t know anyone who would brand you a heretic over such a minor point in Scripture.

    • EricW

      11. Lora:

      I wrote about your question some time ago when I noticed it, too:

    • All these so-called problems vanish when we see Adam as the Federal Head of the race! (Romans 5 / 1 Cor. 15: 22 ; 45, etc.)

    • Irene

      So, Fr Robert, are you using theology to interpret Scripture? (;

    • @Irene: Theology is surely the study of the doctrine and teaching of God Himself, through His revelation and word. And we can even call this “dogmatic” theology itself, as it includes the “Doctrine of God”. Christianity can really only be expressed by dogmatic theology! And here the Church is both subservient and subordinate, and yet too both “the pillar and support of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2: 15)

    • […] Basic Hermeneutical Principles Sam Storms packed a ton into this piece. […]

    • […] recent posting (which I recommend you check out) at the Parchment & Pen by Sam Storms gives us these three important facts to keep in mind when interpreting the […]

    • Lora

      Thank you EricW

      Likewise, Robert I believe Paul’s use of singular male pronouns in Romans 5 indicates that Paul realized this…..perhaps you could clarify something else for me…..where the Greek word head is used by Paul, he is refuting false teaching coming from pagan women that Eve was created first.
      So Paul says NO, Adam was created first, therefore Adam was the head (source) of Eve…..

    • Of course Christ’s Headship in both creation and redemption is used metaphorically, of the Lordship and Authority of Jesus Christ, to His Church as the Body of Believers, and as Christ to the wife in the person of her husband (1 Cor. 11:3). And of Christ in relation to the Church itself, (Eph. 5: 23, etc.) What paganism did, is really of no regard here. In 1 Tim. 2: 8-13, Paul gives the revelation of Creation, and Christian order in the church of God. Note also, (Gen. 3).

      Indeed Adam is the Federal Head of the race, both the First Adam, and the Last Adam, ‘In Christ’. (1 Cor. 15: 22)

    • William

      @ Fr. Robert
      Sorry to ask, but how many books have you read?
      I was just wondering since you seem to always have a quote to pull out when needed. Do you have a massive library or even something like eight kindles crammed with theology books?

    • @William: I have several thousand books actually (who knows the actual count?), I am an old bookman at 64! And I have many of my books implemented on my computer (thanks to my wife and sons). I have books in my home in greater London (where my oldest son lives), and too in our condo in the US! And yes, I have read my share of books in my life, with over 40 years as a “regenerate” Christian, thanks be to God!. I still read lots, and re-read even older books that are well OP now.

    • John

      I’m struggling to see how the priesthood of all believers has anything to do with private interpretation. Where is the proof of such?

      Whenever I hear Protestants waxing on about the priesthood I can’t help but think about how the English language has perverted the dialogue. Priest is of course a word that derives from the French Priester which comes from the Greek presbyter. Then the problem is that English bibles translate the Hebrew word for the Levite priesthood using the same word. So all these swirling concepts get all mixed up, and it’s impossible to have a rational dialogue.

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