A Practical Guide to Hermeneutics

Principles & Techniques of Bible Interpretation

This online workbook guides you through a step-by-step process for understanding and interpreting four Biblical literary types (genres): Old Testament narratives, the prophets, the Gospels, and New Testament epistles. This systematic approach to the text is called the inductive method.

Each page will bring you to a worksheet with this step-by-step process outlined and explained. You'll also find examples from Scripture. In some cases you can listen to audio explaining the process. It is our prayer that as you explore the Bible in this systematic way, God will broaden your understanding of His word, deepen your faith, and equip you for a life of effective Scripture-based ministry. Please feel free to contact me with your feedback: LeffelJ@xenos.org.

God's Revelation through the Bible: He has spoken!

Christianity is a revealed faith—God has spoken directly to mankind, and has revealed His character, His purpose in history, and His plan for redeeming and restoring man to a relationship with Him. We don’t have to imagine or surmise what God is like or what He asks of us. Instead we can have confidence in the truth that God Himself has made known to us, because it comes directly from Him.

The Bible is one of God’s primary vehicles of revealing Himself. Through it He will show us statements of fact (See Luke 1:1-4), wisdom (See Heb. 5:14, 1 Cor. 2:14, Ps. 1, 119), and even personal insight—God speaking to us and our situation through the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:12; Deut. 8:3; 1 Pet. 2:2; Ps. 119:105, 169; 2 Tim. 3:16). Since the Bible represents God’s communication to us, we have a sacred responsibility to guard it as a precious treasure (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). We are to accurately interpret and teach it (2 Tim. 2:15), protect it against those who distort its meaning (1 Tim. 6:20- 21; 2 Tim. 1:13-14), and regularly use it to encourage other members of the Body of Christ (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).

Jim Leffel explains the inductive method, an approach to studying the Bible that aims to get at the Biblical author's original intended meaning (22 min. audio).

The purpose of Biblical interpretation—hermeneutics—is to discover the author’s intended meaning. This can be difficult because language can be ambiguous, but a student of Scripture is under obligation to work toward an accurate (though perhaps not exhaustive) understanding of the author’s original intent.

Biblical interpretation is a skill that you can develop with practice over time. Just as with learning a musical instrument or a new sport, you may feel clumsy or ill-equipped at first. But with sound technique and practice, you’ll become more proficient and capable. The reward of such effort is being able to see deeply into the mind of God, and fall more and more under His loving leadership.

The inductive method of Bible study offers a practical process for accurate interpretation. This method uses details of the text to arrive at the author’s intended meaning. It’s an approach used widely in both everyday problem solving and rigorous academic study, relying on common sense to give explanation for the observed data. The inductive method is in contrast with topical study—looking for answers to a particular doctrinal question—and with devotional study—looking at scripture for truth that speaks to current needs or interests.

The inductive method is rooted in two principles:

  • Scripture interprets scripture: The inductive approach looks to draw meaning from the text itself, rather than imposing meaning upon it. It relies on information gleaned from text. A careful student of the Bible will find a wealth of such information, with repeated themes, terms, and direct quotes of other scripture providing a commentary of sorts within the Bible itself. Such information includes:
    • Technical terms:  Words used by numerous biblical authors to convey the same idea or a growing theme in the scripture (e.g. “branch,” “Son,” “servant,” “Day of the Lord,” “Christ,” “kingdom,” “temple,” and “grace”).
    • Event repetition.  Reference to key events, especially in Israel’s history, that show a continuity and pattern of meaning over time (e.g. Exodus, creation, and wilderness wandering).  This is called motif—the meaning of the present or future is defined in terms of a past event.
    • Direct quotes or allusions.  Almost every biblical writer quotes or alludes to other biblical texts.  Careful analysis will show how a later author understood earlier texts, thus shedding light on both the scripture cited and the passage in which the citation occurs.
    • Promises and covenants.  No other point of repetition demonstrates the unity of the Bible more explicitly than promises and covenants.  Key promises God makes are cited or alluded to in every book of the Bible.
  • Your interpretation is held up to three standards of proof—sometimes called the “grammatical historical method”—which will either give you confidence or skepticism about your take on a passage.
    • Adequacy:  Is your interpretation complete? Does it explain all of the details of the text? Are all subordinate points meaningfully related to the main point?
    • Consistency.  Does your interpretation agree with external facts? Has the interpretation effectively considered current cultural customs?  Is the interpretation consistent with historical events to which the text refers?  What does the text state or imply about nature?
    • Coherence. Given the context and the rest of Scripture, does your interpretation make sense?  Does it harmonize with other related scriptures?  Does it include an appropriate understanding of literary context and genre, word meaning, and sentence structure?  What is the basic argument of the text?