Category Archives: Lesson 3: How to Interpret the Bible

God’s Plan for Man – Figurative Language of the Bible

This morning we considered what Finis Jennings Dake says about the figurative language of the Bible in his God’s Plan for Man (Lawrence, Georgia: Dake Publishing, 1949), which we’re studying in our after breakfast Bible reading time. This report consists of a brief summary of section IX of Lesson 3 of God’s Plan for Man. Biblical quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

“A figure of speech consists in the use of words in a different sense from that which is ordinarily given them” (Dake, page 46). The Bible uses figurative language to give emphasis and to add attraction and variety to human expression but never to do away with literal truth. If we fail to get the literal truth, then the figure of speech has failed its purpose.

How can we tell whether the language is literal or figurative? “The one fundamental rule to determine whether the language is literal or figurative is this: take every statement in the Bible as literal when it is at all possible and where it is clear that it is literal; otherwise, it is figurative. In other words, what cannot be literal must be figurative” (Dake, page 47; italics his).

One must be sure the language is figurative before giving it a figurative meaning. If a figurative statement is found in the Bible on a subject, explain the statement with literal statements in the Bible on the subject. With the abundance of literal passages on any doctrine, the few figurative passages on a doctrine can be understood.

Figures of speech are of two main kinds. Some involve only a word, as in Galatians 2:9 where Peter, James, and John are called “pillars” of the Church. Others involve a thought expressed in several words or sentences, as a parable, allegory, symbol, type, riddle, fable, enigma, etc.

Readers of other books don’t make such expressions mean whatever they want them to mean, but when it comes to the Bible they do. The Bible should mean the same to everyone, and it would if they would interpret it in the plain, literal sense as they do other books. “Men will not be held guiltless for this attitude, so while there is yet time let us all grasp a sane view of the Bible and understand it just as it is written” (Dake, page 47).

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God’s Plan for Man – General Rules of Biblical Interpretation

This morning my family and me finished reading and discussing the general rules of biblical interpretation given by Finis Jennings Dake in his God’s Plan for Man (Lawrence, Georgia: Dake Publishing, 1949), which we are studying in our after breakfast Bible reading time. This report consists of a brief summary of section IX of Lesson 3 of God’s Plan for Man supplemented in square brackets by comments from our discussion or by me personally. Biblical quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

1. The entire Bible came from God and thus both Testaments are equally inspired.
2. It may be assumed that a speaker or writer will use words and forms of speech familiar to his hearers or readers and that if he uses a word or figure of speech in a difference sense from what is commonly understood he will make the fact known.
3. The Bible cannot contradict itself, and so any interpretation that makes the Bible inconsistent with itself must rest on false principles.
4. Passages on Christian experience cannot be understood beyond the letter of the word until we enter into the experimental aspect of them.
5. No meaning should be gotten from the Bible except that which honest grammatical and historical interpretation yields.
6. To understand the language of a speaker or writer, it is necessary to know the meaning of his words.
7. Often to fully understand a passage of Scripture, the scope or plan of the entire book must be known. Sometimes this is made known, and other times it must be gotten from the contents of the book as a whole. [Dake shows how observing this rule clears up the apparent contradiction between Paul and James on the relation between salvation and works.]
8. Sometimes the connection is obscured through the use of virtual dialogue between the writers and unseen persons, as in Romans 3.
9. One of the most fundamental rules of interpretation is to compare Scripture with Scripture. Before arriving at the whole truth, collect all Scriptures on a subject together and read them at one time.
10. The words used by different writers should be compared to see if they mean the same in one age as in another.
11. Always explain the seemingly difficult with the more simple Scriptures. Determine whether the language is literal or figurative, whether the right meaning of the words and terms used is understood, and whether or not they have only one meaning. Be sure to choose the meaning that will best harmonize with the subject in the passage itself and with all other passages on the same subject. Do not force a meaning into a passage that is not clearly expressed in the passage or in parallel passages on the same subject.
12. Recognize the progressive character of revelation. For example, the idea of blood sacrifices was developed from the time of Abel until it culminated in the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
13. The meaning of a word or phrase in the New Testament, such as baptism, must not be carried back into Old Testament doctrine unless such is warranted by both Testaments.
14. Passages obviously literal should not be spiritualized. One may get lessons and illustrations from historical passages and make applications in sermons, but in interpretation they should be taken literally and not spiritualized. Always get two or three plain Scriptures to prove a doctrine, or forget it.
15. The dispensational character of Scripture should be noted so that one can pigeonhole every passage in Scripture in some definite period in God’s plan.
16. The three classes of people (the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Church) dealt with in Scripture should be noted.
17. In all study of doctrine the practical aspect must be kept in view (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
18. The positive truths should be studied more than the negative ones.
19. Keep reading the Bible over and over until its contents as a whole become familiar.
20. We must let the Bible be its own interpreter and be satisfied to accept its own authority as to the meaning of any subject. [Dake also gives a few “We must not”s that we should keep in mind in our study of Scripture.]
21. No meaning should be given to a word that is not in agreement of the passages where found or out of harmony with any Scripture.
22. Careful attention should be paid to connecting words that connect events with each other.
23. Careful attention should be paid to prepositions, definite articles, names of different persons and places with the same name, same persons and places with different names, and the names of persons and places that are spelled differently in different books.
24. Ascertain the exact meaning of the words of Scripture. The way a word is used, the subject matter, and the context often determine the true meaning.
25. Hebrew and Greek idions should be noted. [Dake gives some used of people.]
26. Preference is sometimes expressed by the word “hate” (Luke 14:26; Romans 9:13).
27. Sometimes round numbers rather than the exact numbers are used. [Dake also gives an explanation of the large number in 1 Samuel 6\:19.]
28. Additions in English translations which are not in the original text should not be relied upon. [Dake lists several kinds of additions, such as division into chapters and verses.]
29. Seeming contradictions in Scripture should be considered in the light of all the above principles. (1) Sometimes statements made by rebels against God contradict statements made by God and good men under divine utterance. Only the latter can be relied upon as truth. (2) Sometimes God changes His promises to a group because it doesn’t meet the conditions for fulfillment of the promises. However, God’s original and eternal plan for creation has never been changed and never will be,
30. The seeming contradictions in the New Testament can also be explained. [Dake explains the lack of harmony between the temptations of Christ in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 and between the sermons of Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 as being because there were two sets of temptations and two sermons. We agreed with him on the latter but not on the former.] Dake concludes, “All seeming contradictions in the Bible are easily cleared up with a better knowledge of the text, by correct translation, by knowing the manners and customs of the age and the country in which the books were written, by a wider application of historical facts, and by a fair, sane application of the rules of interpretation given above” (Dake, page 46).

[While preparing for our family reading of this section of God’s Plan for Man, I reread parts of A, Berkeley Mickelsen’s Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963, which is still recognized as a good comprehensive textbook on hermeneutics.]

God’s Plan for Man – False and True Methods of Bible Interpretation

Yesterday morning our family considered the descriptions of false and true Bible interpretation given by Finis Jennings Dake in his God’s Plan for Man (Lawrence, Georgia: Dake Publishing, 1949), which we are studying in our after breakfast Bible reading time. This report consists of brief summaries of sections VI and VII of Lesson 3 of God’s Plan for Man supplemented in square brackets by comments from our discussion or by me personally. Biblical quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

VI. Summary of the False Methods of Interpretation

1. An undue reverence for the Scriptures manifesting itself in an effort to find hidden meanings for every letter and word.
2. A positive hostility to the text resulting in an attempt to eliminate the supernatural element and the means of redemption through Jesus Christ.

VII. The True Method of Bible Interpretation

The true method of Bible interpretation is to apply to the Bible the same principles, methods, and rules of interpretation that we apply to other books. It embraces the following ideas:

1. The primary meaning of words and their common use in a particular age in which they are used, and the importance of synonyms..
2. The grammatical construction and idiomatic peculiarities of the languages of the Bible, and the meaning of the context, both immediate and remote.
3. Comparison of parallel passages on the same subject.
4. The purpose or object of each writer in each particular book.
5. The historical background of each writer and the circumstances under which he wrote.
6. The general plan of the entire Bible, and its moral and spiritual teachings.
7. The agreement of Scripture in its several parts, and its prophecies and their fulfillment.
8. The manners and customs of the particular age and land of each writer.
9. Understanding how to interpret prophecy, poetry, allegories, symbols, parables, figures of speech, types, and all other forms of human expression.
10. The different classes of people and institutions dealt with in Scripture, and the application of the different principles and rules of interpretation [given in VIII. General Rules of Interpretation]. [I’ve copied the above directly from Dake, page 42.]

Remember to take the Bible literally whenever it is possible. When the language cannot be taken literally, then we know it is figurative and should get the literal truth conveyed by the figurative language as if it were expressed in literal language without the use of figures.

God’s Plan for Man – History of Biblical Hermeneutics

Yesterday morning our family considered the historical sketch of Biblical hermeneutics given by Finis Jennings Dake in his God’s Plan for Man (Lawrence, Georgia: Dake Publishing, 1949), which we are studying in our after breakfast Bible reading time. This report consists of brief summaries of sections IV and V of Lesson 3 of God’s Plan for Man supplemented in square brackets by comments from our discussion or by me personally. Biblical quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

IV. Two Seemingly Contradictory Ways to Read the Bible

“1. It is to read like any other book from the beginning to the end, getting the thought of each writer, the meaning of the words and peculiar expressions he used, the manners and customs of Bible lands and times, the purpose God had in mind in each particular message, and the particular people to whom he wrote.
“2. It is to be differently from any other book because it is an inspired books. Much of it is a revelation from God (2 Tim. 3:15-17). It should be read slowly, prayerfully, frequently, reverently, meditatively, searchingly, perseveringly, believingly, and obediently.”
(Dake, page 40)

V. Historical Sketch of Hermeneutics

A brief knowledge of the history of Biblical interpretation helps the Bible student avoid making the same errors others have made. The belief that the Bible was a divine book almost completely closed the eyes of ancient interpreters to its human elements, its literary and grammatical construction, its history, and its literal, original, and intended meaning. Both Jews and Christians sought hidden meanings in the most minute jot and tittle of its text. It came to be looked upon as a mysterious book beyond the understanding of the common people and that should left to priests and preachers to interpret.

1. The Jewish Method of Interpretation. Jewish interpreters in the period from Ezra to Jesus set a numerical value to each letter and imposed fantastic meanings on plain historical statements. [Dake gives two examples.] The scribes guarded against errors and interpolations in the text, but they set up an oral law or tradition which came to be looked upon as equal in authority to the Scriptures. Jesus rejected these traditions and accepted the plain literal Word of God as the only truth (Mark 7:1-13).

2. The Allegorical Method of Interpretation. The early Church Fathers, instead of following the plain literal meaning of Scripture as did Jesus and the apostles, overlaid it with allegorical, moral, and spiritual interpretations. This method on interpretation continued to the Reformation. Since then men have studied the Bible in a more literal sense. Unfortunately many ministers today [when Dake was writing God’s Plan for Man] have gone back to the unintelligent methods of the past which force into Scripture any meaning their fancy chooses.

3. The Rationalistic Method of Interpretation. There are several methods of modern interpretation that substitute reason for faith and human speculation for divine revelation. Explaining away the supernatural elements in the Bible, they nullify the Word of God.

[While preparing for our family reading of this section of God’s Plan for Man, I reread Bernard Ramm’s Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, third revised edition, 1970), which is still praised for its coverage of the history of hermeneutics. Particularly relevant in it to the section is Chapter II, Historical Schools (pages 23-93), which is divided into these sections: A. Allegorical Schools; B. Literal Schools; C. Devotional Schools; D. Liberal Interpretation; E. Neo-Orthodoxy; F. The Heilsgeschichtliche School. Dake’s “1. The Jewish Method in Interpretation” is considered in a subsection of Ramm’s “B. Literal Schools” with the title “Jewish Literalism.” (The other main subsection of B is on the Reformers.) Dake’s “2. The Allegorical Method of Interpretation” is considered in Ramm’s “A. Allegorical Schools.” Dake’s “3. The Rationalist Method of Interpretation” is considered in Ramm’s D, E, and F.]

God’s Plan for Man – Definition of and Reasons for Biblical Hermeneutics

Yesterday morning our family considered the definition of and reasons for Biblical hermeneutics given by Finis Jennings Dake in his God’s Plan for Man (Lawrence, Georgia: Dake Publishing, 1949), which we are studying in our after breakfast Bible reading time. This report consists of brief summaries of sections II and III of Lesson 3 of God’s Plan for Man. Biblical quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

II. Definition of Terms

1. Interpret. This word means to state the true sense of God’s message as He expresses it. The modern way of interpreting the Bible to change the meaning of what is written to suit one’s fancy and to harmonize the Bible with one’s own theory we call “How not to interpret the Bible” because it places man as the authority over God concerning the Bible.
2. Hermeneutics. This word comes from the Greek word ermeneuo, meaning “to interpret.” It is the science that establishes and classifies the principles, methods, and roles by which a piece of literature is interpreted. The interpretation of any piece of literature depends on its nature. Thus the rules that govern Biblical interpretation depend on the character of its different kinds of writing.
3. Biblical hermeneutics. This is the science that establishes and classifies the principles, methods, and roles by which the Bible is interpreted.
4. Exegesis. This is the application of the rules of biblical interpretation to the unfolding of the meaning of a Bible passage.

III. Reasons for Biblical Hermeneutics

1. Although the Bible is a heavenly message, it is conveyed in human language and the same principles of interpretation used with all human language must also apply to it.
2. The differences in grammatical structure and idiomatic usage between the languages of the Bible and English must be known in order to understand certain passages.
3. The Bible is a composite book of 66 books.
4. The Bible is a religious book for this life and the life to come.
5. The Bible is a varied book containing all kinds of literature.
6. The Bible is a product of many lands and peoples with habits and customs different from ours.
7. The English language’s unfaithfulness in literally translating every phase of thought of the Hebrew and Greek makes it necessary to follow certain rules in order to interpret a passage.

God’s Plan for Man – The Bible is the Simplest Book to Understand

This morning our family considered the reasons why the Bible is simple to understand given by Finis Jennings Dake in his God’s Plan for Man (Lawrence, Georgia: Dake Publishing, 1949), which we are studying in our after breakfast Bible reading time. This report consists of a brief summary of Lesson 3, section I, of God’s Plan for Man supplemented in square brackets by comments from our discussion or by me personally. Biblical quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

1. The Bible is simple to understand because it is a revelation. A revelation is an uncovering or unveiling so that all can see alike what was covered or hidden. Thus anything that is revealed is clear or the purpose of the revelation has failed.
2. The Bible is simple to understand because of its repeated truths. Over and over the Bible repeats truth so that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Corinthians 13:1, following Deuteronomy 19:15). If God did say anything about a particular subject, it will be found in several places so that we will not be left in doubt as to what God means.
3. The Bible is simple to understand because it is written in the simplest human language possible. Every time a group of people reads particular part of the Bible, they read the same thing. If they read it again, it would still be the same. If they were asked to tell what the passage says, they could all do it. If they can tell what it says and can read what it says, then they can believe what it says, and that is all that is necessary to understand the Bible. [We observed that people don’t always agree on what a passage teaches.]
4. The Bible is simple to understand because God is its author. If God is the author of the Bible, we have a right to expect it to be clear. If He could make a book as simple to understand as man can and did not do so, we would have to conclude that He didn’t want man to understand it. Since we can’t conceive of Gods in this light, we are forced to believe that the Bible is simple enough for all to understand.
5. The Bible is simple to understand because it was given by God to be understand by the simple. Jesus thanked God that the truths of the Bible were hidden from those who refuse to believe but “hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25). The simplest beginners can understand the Bible one line at a time, the way that it was given (Isaiah 28:9-13). If a man will do this, he will find the Bible truths opening up beyond his fondest dreams. [Dake lists several classes of people who find the Bible hard to understand, most with Scripture references.]
6. The Bible is simple because reading and believing with a simple heart is all God considers necessary to understand it. “God made both man and His Word, and they fit together as a lock and key” (Dake, page 38). [Dake refers to several passages to support his claim.] Some argue from 1 Corinthians 2:14 that the Bible is hard to understand and some from 2 Peter 3:16-18 that sinners cannot understand the Bible, but neither says that.
7. The Bible is simple to understand because most of it is history and simple instructions about how to live. About 80 percent of the Bible contain simple history, commands, warnings, promises, rebukes, and plain instructions. The other 20 percent is prophecy written in the same simple language that is used to record history. Neither history or prophecy is hard to understand. Thus “the Bible is a very simple book to comprehend if we will believe it as it is written and let it be our rule of faith and practice” (Dake, page 39).