This book has been growing slowly for thirty-five years. I have not been writing it
that long-just contemplating it. The desire for this book was born in undergraduate days when I sensed
the crucial place of Bible interpretation in knowing God and His ways. The longing intensified in
seminary, where I discovered a great vacuum, only slightly filled after Hebrew and Greek studies. Then,
as I began teaching seminarians, college students, and lay people how to understand and apply the Bible,
I became increasingly frustrated.
For several years I used a battery of texts simultaneously. But that proved to be a
load too heavy to bear and, in the end, only confused the beginning student. Encouraged by students and
colleagues, I finally concluded that one solution to the problem would be to produce a basic hermeneutics
textbook that would combine the essential elements in one volume. To what extent that purpose has been
accomplished, others will judge. My aim has been to include the following characteristics:
Completeness. Many books deal with certain principles or guidelines for interpreting
Scripture but omit others that are equally important. I felt the need for a textbook that would be
comprehensive in scope, introducing as many as possible of the tools necessary for understanding the
Bible and applying it authentically.
Balance. Some textbooks are thorough-even exhaustive-on a few aspects of biblical
interpretation, but quite weak on others. For example, one book might leave the impression that studying
how past scholars have interpreted the Bible is what students need to handle Scripture properly today.
Other books concentrate only on analysis of the language structure. Understanding and applying the Bible
deals with the various aspects of interpretation in proportion to their usefulness in understanding the Bible.
Simplicity. The purpose of this textbook is to introduce serious Bible students
to the basic principles of interpretation.
Scholarship. A book with simplicity should nevertheless not shortchange the student
who desires to master the Word of God. Beginning students want to move beyond simple Bible study methods.
Even an introductory textbook on hermeneutics ought to be so thoroughly grounded in solid scholarship
that no student who masters the principles and guidelines would need to revise or discard any of them
after moving on to a study of the original languages or theology. In fact, a comprehensive, introductory
study of hermeneutics is probably the best foundation for effectively using the original languages and
building a theology.
Biblical authority. Students always seem to ask the questions that scholars
bypass. For years I have been asked, "Where did you get that principle of hermeneutics?"
"How do I know that is the correct approach?" "Did you get that from the Bible?" The
basis for an authentic hermeneutic should be in Scripture itself, since the Bible is one's final authority.
For that reason I have distinguished between principles and guidelines. I have sought to demonstrate
principles from Scripture. In contrast, guidelines deal with approaches and skills that are usually
called "principles of hermeneutics," and I do not claim the same authority for those. I simply
recommend them as reasonable ways to implement the principles that are clearly Bible-based. I have attempted
to build an approach directly on the way Bible authors viewed Scripture.
Application. Throughout church history there has been a grave omission in scholarly
biblical hermeneutics-the development of guidelines for applying Scripture authentically. The effort
given to understanding the meaning of Scripture has been immense, but few evangelicals have given
themselves to developing principles for establishing the significance of Bible teaching for faith and
obedience today. This textbook is one effort in that direction.
Biblical illustrations. Some textbooks illustrate principles and guidelines with
easily understood examples that are not drawn from Scripture. The reader must make the leap to actual
Bible texts. I have endeavored to use the Bible itself to illustrate each guideline.
Although throughout the book I have used biblical illustrations, I have not tried
to find the solutions to all the problems contained in the texts used. Though that might be frustrating
to those who would like firm conclusions, this book is not designed to be a commentary on selected
passages of Scripture. It is designed to be a guidebook for creating one's own commentary. Therefore,
the purpose of this book is to teach ways to interpret, not to do the interpretation.
Significant illustrations. Although many biblical examples might be noted to
illustrate a guideline, I have endeavored to use only illustrations that make a difference. That is, I
have chosen illustrations on the basis of whether the interpretation of that passage depends on the
correct use of the guideline under study.
That approach can be dangerous, for it is possible to offend almost everyone. But to
illustrate principles for interpreting Scripture from only noncontroversial passages would be an
intolerable offense to the purpose of this book. So I trust each person will find enough interpretations
with which he agrees to compensate for those he finds troublesome!
Because the eight characteristics just listed are important for the beginning student,
I have worked at combining them all in this book. I have not done it as well as I had hoped. But I have
done it better that I would have without the help of many people. Second only to the dozens of specialists
who have written in the field of biblical interpretation, I owe a debt to hundreds of students who would
not allow me to get by with invalid or unclear answers to their questions about understanding and applying
the Bible. In the final stages, I was greatly helped by my colleagues at Columbia Bible College in several
daylong sessions of interaction on those themes. Many went the extra mile and critiqued the entire work.
Among those, a special word of appreciation is due William Larkin, professor of New Testament in the
Columbia Biblical Seminary and Graduate School of Missions, and my wife, Muriel, my most helpful critic.
Credit for this revised edition goes primarily to Brad Mullen, professor of theology and
hermeneutics at the Columbia Biblical Seminary and Graduate School of Missions. For example, he provided
the very helpful addition of chapter 4, "Existentialism," and the updated bibliographies.
I commend this effort to God for whatever benefit He may see fit to bring from it in
helping some of His people to better understand and apply His Book.