Invitation to Biblical Interpretation

Learn to Study the Historical Setting, the Literary Context, and the Theological Message of the Bible

Curated by Andreas Köstenberger
In partnership with Biblical Foundations

Course Introduction

About the Course

This course teaches a simple method for interpreting the Bible. It aims to cover preparation, interpretation, and application. The method of this course is centered around the “hermeneutical triad,” consisting of literature, history, and theology: “In essence, our core proposal is this: for any passage of Scripture, you will want to study the historical setting, the literary context, and the theological message” (23). This method moves from the parts to the whole; it starts with the words of the text and then moves to a consideration of canon and genre. It also moves from the history of the text all the way to contemporary application. Interpretation “is not complete until we apply our interpretive insights to our own lives and those of our congregations” (25).

Many components of this course are similar to that in a traditional hermeneutics course. Yet one unique aspect of this method deserves special mention: “Based on the premise that as a piece of human communication, the Bible should be interpreted like any other piece of writing” (25), conventional approaches typically start with general hermeneutics (studying words, syntax, historical setting, etc.) and then move to special hermeneutics (studying the unique aspects of Scripture). This course turns the conventional approach on its head by moving from special to general hermeneutics. In order to interpret the parts in light of the whole, the course starts with the narrative storyline of the Bible as a whole.

Whether you are a new Christian who wants to learn how to read and interpret the Bible, or a pastor who needs help with the task of interpretation and sermon preparation (or anywhere in between!), we hope that this course offers the help you need in your life and ministry.

About Dr. Andreas Köstenberger

Andreas J. Köstenberger (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a prolific author, distinguished evangelical scholar, and editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is the founder of Biblical Foundations, a ministry devoted to restoring the biblical foundations of the home and the church. Köstenberger and his wife have four children.

Interview with Dr. Köstenberger

The subtitle of the book is “Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature and Theology.” Can you tell us why you and your co-author, Richard Patterson, took this particular “Hermeneutical Triad” approach?

When we come to any particular passage in Scripture and want to interpret it in keeping with its original author’s intention, we always should (1) study the historical setting; (2) discern the literary flow and argument; and (3) probe the theology of the passage. That’s true no matter what kind of literature we’re dealing with—historical narrative, wisdom, poetry, apocalyptic, Gospel, and so on. So, after introducing our “Hermeneutical triad” approach, we flesh it out with individual chapters on each of the major biblical genres. We also have a very thorough chapter on preaching biblical messages on passages from each type of literature, written at my request by my good friend and colleague Scott Kellum, plus recommendations of major study tools.

Thinking about the three aspects of history, literature and theology, is there any one of these that is typically underappreciated or underdeveloped among students working on biblical interpretation?

That’s a great question, because we believe balance is key here. What you often find is that people will focus primarily on the aspect they think is most important while neglecting the others. But that’s like only eating your favorite food, say, pizza or steak, while neglecting some of the other vital food groups. Today, historical study has often been given a bad name, because many who practice a historical approach are highly critical, even skeptical, that any of the biblical events, such as the exodus or even Jesus’ resurrection, actually happened. So many avoid historical study because they think that it will necessarily result in skepticism. Theology is often neglected as well. It seems quite common today for people to read the Bible primarily as literature or story without adequate attention to its historical and theological dimensions.

I note that the volume is aimed particularly at seminary and Bible college students. How well do you think this book would serve pastors and the general public?

Having been in churches for decades and having listened to hundreds of sermons, let me tell you, most pastors could use a healthy dose of hermeneutics! You may have seen the cartoon where somebody asked the pastor who that was weeping in the back row of the congregation, and his answer was, “That was my hermeneutics professor!” Anyway, we’ve written our book in such a way that all serious students of Scripture will benefit. I think most will find the “hermeneutical triad” approach (history, literature, theology) very intuitive, and the book is clearly laid out and follows a logical sequence essentially from Genesis to Revelation. In every chapter, we have a list of key words; there is a glossary at the end; there are interpretations of sample passages, and many other practical features in the book (such as a list of our favorite Old and New Testament commentaries and study tools).

In your experience, how well equipped are current generations of Bible exegetes compared with the past? Or to put it another way, do you think there is appropriate focus upon hermeneutics in the education of students and pastors today?

Good question. I think we’ve made some strides in that more and more people are realizing the importance of sound hermeneutics, but at the same time we’ve still got a long way to go. What I’m hoping is to make a small contribution and to be strategic, training a small group of students who can then disseminate the information to faithful members of their congregations, who will pass the word on to still others. Sound familiar? That’s essentially Jesus’ practice, and Paul’s as well (2 Tim. 2:2). In my experience of teaching hermeneutics at every level (college, seminary, doctoral) for a quarter century, I’ve found that hermeneutics is not an easy subject to teach, but a very important and rewarding one. That’s ultimately why I wrote the book with my friend Dick Patterson, because most books on hermeneutics are either too simplistic or too advanced. We’re trying to bridge the gap and serve serious Bible students who want to go deeper in their study of God’s Word.

These days, there are many high-quality, in-depth, technical commentaries in volumes such as BECNT, NICNT, NIGTC; Pillar, WBC, etc. For examples, Ephesians has outstanding commentaries by Hoehner, Thielman, and others, but there must be a danger that students and pastors might become over-reliant given that few can match the competency of these scholars. At a practical level, how do you encourage students to balance their own interpretive work against the views of leading scholars in such large-scale technical commentaries?

You’re exactly right, there are a lot of excellent tools out there today. I once briefly considered writing a commentary on Ephesians but quickly decided that there was no need for another Ephesians commentary, because the ones already on the market are truly excellent! Also, there are some outstanding study Bibles, such as the ESV Study Bible or the CSB Study Bible. Still, there is no substitute for our own study of Scripture. There is great joy in discovering scriptural truth for ourselves, and no one else but you can make God’s truth personal in your own life. This is why it’s so important to study the Bible prayerfully, even reverently, and with a willingness to obey and to do what God tells us to do in Scripture. So, I encourage a balanced approach: benefit from the insights of others, but do you own work as well. Remember: even the best commentators don’t always agree on everything, so at least in those cases you’ll still need to determine what you think a passage means.

A related question to the above is whether the lack of biblical languages is a serious handicap to biblical interpretation. Can someone without Greek or Hebrew still be an effective exegete, given the widespread availability of tools?

Yes and no. Looking at available hermeneutics texts, I found there is often a great deal of ambivalence as to whether readers are supposed to know Greek and Hebrew or not. In our case, we chose to include a meaty section on the basic features of biblical Greek and Hebrew so as to equip those readers who have absolutely no background but hopefully are willing (even eager) to learn. On the one hand, it’s true that you don’t need to be a Greek scholar to understand the saving message of the gospel or even to understand most passages in the Bible. On the other hand, those of us who have taken the time and made the effort to learn the biblical languages know how beneficial it is to know the original languages first hand. One important reason for this is that it is often hard for English translations to preserve features of the text in the original language, such as figures of speech, emphases, sentence structure, and so forth.

Who do you particularly admire among past and contemporary scholars for their abilities in Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics?

Well, I have great admiration for my mentor Don Carson, also my good friend Robert Yarbrough. These men are great models of careful, judicious, reverent scholarship. They are humble, and they use their knowledge to serve others in the church and in the academy. They also live out the truth of the gospel in their own lives, especially in global missions, but also in their families and their personal lives. Thank you very much for these insightful questions and for giving me the opportunity to talk about our book. We pray that it will be used by God to equip a new generation of preachers and serious students of Scripture, for His glory.

Related Video

Preparation: The Who, Why, and How of Interpretation

  • Köstenberger – PreparationRuntime: 19 min
Reading Assignment
Reading Assignment Summary

Chapter 1

Welcome to the Hermeneutical Triad: History, Literature, and Theology

In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul tells Timothy to be a minister who “correctly handles the word of truth.” God’s word is truth, and this truth gives eternal life (John 6:68). Therefore the importance of correct biblical interpretation cannot be overstated. It is often a temptation to come to the Bible with our own preconceived ideas of what the Bible says or what it means. To some degree we can’t avoid it. Yet if we are not careful, we can often read our own experiences and ideas into the Bible (eisegesis) instead of carefully and faithfully drawing out the truth expressed in the Bible (exegesis).

So how do you rightly handle the word of truth? The starting place is actually different than what you might think: It starts with the shaping of your own posture before the text. By this we mean three things: First, the biblical interpreter must be characterized by humility. We must stand “under” the authority of the Word; we must humbly receive what the Lord gives us through his word. Second, the biblical interpreter must pay careful attention to the word and study it perceptively: “In a time when listening is largely a lost art, and many are approaching Scripture primarily for the purpose of validating their own predetermined conclusions, this is a much-needed reminder” (63). Finally, the biblical interpreter must be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led (1 Cor 2:10b–16).

The foundational message of this book is that the proper task of biblical interpretation is epitomized by the “hermeneutical triad” of literature, history, and theology. A proper study of any text needs to include an understanding of the historical setting, the literary dimension, and the theological message. First, “Since Christianity is a historical religion, and all texts are historically and culturally embedded, it is important that we ground our interpretation of Scripture in a careful study of the relevant historical setting” (66). Second, the tenets of Christianity are written down in literary form, and literary and linguistic analysis is necessary in order to retrieve the biblical material. Finally, “since Scripture is not merely a work of literature but inspired and authoritative revelation from God, the goal and end of interpretation is theology” (66).

Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger

Study Questions
  1. Why is it so important to interpret Scripture accurately? Cite Scripture to support your answer.
  2. What are some of the results if people fail to interpret Scripture responsibly? Again, support your answer with scriptural references.
  3. Name at least three characteristics required of the interpreter of Scripture and support your answer with Scripture.
  4. What are the three realities with which the interpreter finds himself confronted, and how do these realities form the “hermeneutical triad”?

The Context of Scripture: History

  • Köstenberger – HistoryRuntime: 15 min
Reading Assignment
Reading Assignment Summary

Chapter 2

Setting the Stage: Historical-Cultural Background

This chapter focuses on the first part of the hermeneutical triad: history. Every book of the Bible has historical elements to it. As written documents, each book was written in a historical setting and contain details about historical events. It is vital for competent interpretation of Old Testament writings to develop a solid grasp of the chronological framework of the various books of the Old Testament. A timeline can be sketched as follows (for specific dates, see the various charts in Invitation to Biblical Interpretation).

The Old Testament period begins with primeval history. Though we might not know specific dates for this time, we do believe that the events recorded in Genesis 1–11 represent not only a literary but also a historical reality: These were real people living in real places. The rest of Old Testament history moves from the patriarchal period to the exodus, the united monarchy, the divided monarchy, and the exile and return.

Students of the Bible should not ignore what happened next. Sometimes the 400 years that followed are called the “silent years” because no biblical texts were written during this time. But this epithet is misleading because many extrabiblical documents are available (the so-called “Second Temple literature”), and many noteworthy events took place during this time. The Second Temple period started with Babylonian domination. The Medes and the Persians soon eclipsed Babylon, followed by the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Eventually, the Jews revolted and enjoyed a brief period of self-rule known as the Maccabean period. Next came Roman rule, which brings us to the period of the New Testament.

The Bible’s history can also be undergirded by archaeological evidence: “In some cases, the Old Testament Scriptures are confirmed by archaeology. In others, our lack of information with regard to difficulties becomes illumined, while in still other cases the biblical data are supplemented by ongoing discoveries” (111). Extrabiblical literature can also provide helpful background information to the biblical text. For example, the Histories of the Greek historian Herodotus mentions historical characters such as Xerxes and Cyrus: “This illustrates that while the biblical documents must remain primary, extrabiblical information can be used in tandem and can helpfully illuminate aspects of the biblical story that may lie in the background and be assumed by the biblical writer” (118). Other helpful documents include the Old and New Testament Apocrypha, the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger

Study Questions
  1. What is the value of studying the historical-cultural background of a particular portion of Scripture?
  2. What are some OT dates that provide a general framework for the study of the OT?
  3. What are the major dates pertaining to the life of Jesus, the book of Acts, and the ministry of Paul and his letters?
  4. What are some of the most significant finds that are corroborating the truthfulness of the OT and NT records, and how does that increase our confidence in the reliability of Scripture?

Canon: Literature (Part 1)

  • Köstenberger – CanonRuntime: 16 min
Reading Assignment
Reading Assignment Summary

Chapter 3

The Old Testament Canon: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings

In an Old Testament context, the word “canon” is often used to refer to list of books that make up the Old Testament Scriptures. However, “the canon of the Old Testament is not an arbitrary list of books thrown together or decided upon in a haphazard manner. Rather, biblical writers were constantly informed and constrained by God’s Word during the process of constructing the full body of the Old Testament” (154). Take Deuteronomy 16:18–20, for example. This important passage outlines laws and regulations for rulers. This criterion is then used in Joshua–Kings as a way of evaluating rulers based on that standard. The canon is more than just a list of books that happens to be grouped together; these books have been put together by divine intent.

Since the books of the Old Testament are compiled intentionally, it follows that we should also read the Bible canonically. This kind of reading can be done by giving special attention to theological themes that appear throughout the canon. This chapter covers the themes of law, exodus, and covenant. Again, these themes are not independent of one another; all three come together at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:3–6).

We should begin our discussion of biblical law by defining our terms. The word “law” should not be seen as a rule given by a distant lawgiver, but rather as a more personal kind of instruction. Many have attempted to classify the various Old Testament laws; the most famous of these classifications is the tripartite classification of moral, ceremonial, and civil laws. But there is a better way forward: “Rather than reading Old Testament laws in order to decide to which category they belong or which of these laws are absolute and universally binding standards … the careful interpreter should see them as part of the broad narrative in which they are found” (164). By interpreting the law through this lens, we can understand that the law was originally given to and designed for Israel and has now been superseded by the new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 37:24–28; Gal 2:15–16). Yet the Old Testament still contains principles and lessons that Christians can apply to their specific lives in an enriching and encouraging way.

The exodus marks a significant turning point in the life of God’s people. It is one of the most remembered and repeated events in Old Testament history: “God’s faithful believers often remembered the Lord’s provision in the exodus in their praises (e.g., Pss. 66:3–6; 114; 135:8–9)” (170). The exodus was also recorded as a warning of coming judgment on those who do not remember God’s deliverance and goodness (e.g., Jer 2:5–9; 7:21–29; 11:14–17).

God’s redemption through the exodus is similar to our final theme: covenant. There are two main types of covenants: one is known as the suzerain treaty in which a superior party (the suzerain) makes a formal agreement with a lesser party (the vassal). There are many biblical covenants that resemble a suzerain treaty including the entire book of Deuteronomy. These treaties contain many conditional requirements.

The second type of covenant is called a royal grant. This kind of covenant contains unconditional promises given by a beneficent king. God’s promises to Noah (Gen 9:1–17) and David (2 Sam 7:8–16) closely resemble the royal grant type. All in all, there are five main biblical covenants: the Noahic, Abraham, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants. While there are other covenant structures and forms, these five covenants provide significant structure to the narrative of the Old Testament.

Chapter 4

The New Testament Canon: The Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse

How did Jesus interpret the Old Testament? Jesus interpreted “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). “Here,” then, “is the heart of the theology of the Old Testament—the message about the Christ—and here is the heart of New Testament theology: the fulfillment of the Old Testament message about Christ in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God” (210). In light of this foundational point, this chapter will outline a general framework of the New Testament canon in order to serve as a point of reference for further study.

Where does Jesus fit into the New Testament canon? Jesus did not physically write any of the books of the New Testament. All we have is books about Jesus. Yet we can be sure that there is no division between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith—the testimony of the Gospel writers is a true and reliable source for the historical Jesus. The four Gospel accounts provide the foundation for the book of Acts by showing how Jesus’ commission to his disciples then empowered them to bring the gospel to the nations. The book of Acts then provides the framework for the New Testament letters: “Peter, Paul, John, and James, all authors of New Testament epistles, are all featured in the book of Acts, which thus provides the life-setting (or perhaps better, ministry-setting) of the latter New Testament writings” (214).

Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger

Study Questions
  1. What prominent attribute of God is central in the narrative of the original exodus event and how is the exodus relevant for the biblical story of redemption?
  2. What is the role of the Messiah in each of the basic themes of the OT: law, exodus, and covenant?
  3. How do the Gospels, the book of Acts, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse each demonstrate the fulfillment of messianic OT prophecy?
  4. How would you describe the underlying theological unity in Scripture amidst the diversity of the biblical writers?

Genre: Literature (Part 2)

  • Köstenberger – GenreRuntime: 21 min
Reading Assignment
Reading Assignment Summary

Chapter 5

Enjoying a Good Story: Old Testament Historical Narrative

Now that we have covered the canon itself, it is time to look at the contents of the canon. We will start with an examination of the various characteristics of the different genres in Scripture. This chapter focuses on historical narrative: “Narrative is a literary genre that builds its sentences and paragraphs around discourses, episodes, or scenes…. Narrative texts can appear in three different modes: story, account, and report. The ability to recognize the various ways a narrative can be presented is a necessary first step to its understanding” (238).

The Old Testament gives much of its historical information in story form. The author also includes speeches, dialogues, descriptions, and commentary on the events in the story. Writers give historical information in the form of an account, which is similar to a story but often includes theological assessment alongside historical information. Finally, historical narrative employs reports such as battle reports, vision reports, and lists or rosters. While all of these types of narrative are historical, they are more than just historical—they are selective presentations of the facts that are designed to bring about a proper spiritual and ethical response by the readers (244).

Finally, we need to examine both the external and the internal elements of the narrative itself. The external elements include author, narrator, and reader. Often the author and narrator are one and the same, but sometimes there is a distinction. There are three internal elements: setting, plot, and characterization: “The setting may include matters of physical location, time, or cultural background of the narrative. Plot has to do with the arrangement of details in the narrative, while characterization considers the spiritual, moral, and psychological makeup of the characters of the narrative, as well as their role in the story” (247).

Chapter 6

A Word from the Wise: Poetry and Wisdom

This chapter covers both the genre of poetry and the category of wisdom literature in both the Old and New Testaments. There are four main characteristics of Hebrew poetry: parallelism, terseness, concreteness, and imagery. First, parallelism can be used in many different ways including similar parallelism (closeness of thought over parallel lines), antithetic parallelism (sharp contrast in parallel lines), and progressive parallelism (additional information given in parallel lines). Second, poets employ terseness as “a way of stating their thoughts so concisely that the result is a polished and succinct presentation free of unnecessary details” (271). Third, poetry expresses concreteness, which often uses the five senses to illustrate abstract concepts in a realistic manner. Finally, poetry often uses imagery, which is a “concise way of writing, because an image conveys not only information but also evokes an emotional response” (273). Poetry in the New Testament contains similar uses of parallelism (e.g. Matt 5:7; 7:7, 17) and also expresses beautiful imagery (e.g. John 1:1–5).

Most people identify the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job as wisdom books in the Bible, but wisdom literature is found in other places as well (e.g. Gen 49:1–27; Judg 5:29–30; Isa 5:1–7; Matt 5:21–48): “All wisdom literature is basically instructional in nature, with the author attempting to impart wise observations on the meaning of life and the proper conduct necessary to enjoy life to the fullest” (292). Wisdom literature also employs many different terms to refer to the concept of wisdom: “insight,” “prudence,” “understanding,” and “resourcefulness.”

Though wisdom literature is interspersed throughout the biblical canon, the three main sources of this genre are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. First, “Proverbs are short memorable statements of the true state of things as perceived and learned by human observations over extended periods of experience” (292). There are various kinds of proverbs such as descriptive (describing a way of life), prescriptive (motivational), comparative/contrastive (providing a comparison or contrast), conditional (dealing with consequences of actions), and declarative (making a statement). Ecclesiastes is a unique book and “is an autobiographical quest for the ultimate good and the real meaning of life” (297). It employs similar literary devices to those we have seen before such as parallelism, terseness, and figures of speech. Finally, Job presents a compelling picture of God’s sufficiency and sovereignty in the midst of extreme trials. Readers will quickly see that this book uses many disputation speeches to illustrate its overarching point. All in all, Job is “not only a rich source of biblical truth with strong advice for godly living but also a literary masterpiece that is thoroughly enjoyable reading” (300).

Chapter 7

Back to the Future: Prophecy

The genre of prophecy is one of the most challenging genres, in part because there is no exact modern equivalent. It is important to note at the outset that though the biblical prophecies were written down, they were primarily meant to be heard. Therefore we, too, should strive to “read with our ears” in order to understand these important words of Scripture. There are two prominent subgenres of biblical prophecy: prophecies of judgment and prophecies of salvation. Formal prophecies of judgment contain two main elements: accusation, which states the charges that have brought about the judgment, and the announcement of the specific judgment which is subsequently brought upon the people. Amos 2:6–16 serves as a prime example: Verses 6–12 serves as the accusation and verses 13–16 as the announcement. There are also other kinds of prophecies of judgment such as woe oracles, laments, and covenant lawsuits.

As we turn to prophecies of salvation, we should note that often oracles of judgment and salvation appear side by side. Much like a father who consoles his son after a time of discipline, God brings encouraging messages of salvation after a season of judgment. Ezekiel 11:14–21 illustrates this point by giving the promise of restoration of new land and the giving of a new heart following an oracle of judgment. It should be noted that prophetic utterances are often rich in literary and rhetorical devices and are rarely one-dimensional. Prophecies include elements of instruction such as disputation, warning speeches, satire, wisdom sayings, and prophetic narratives. As with wisdom literature, there are many examples of prophecy outside the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The Hebrew canon referred to Joshua­–Kings as the Former Prophets. We see additional examples of Old Testament prophecy in Jacob’s speech to his sons in Genesis 49 and in Balaam’s oracles in Numbers 23–24.

The New Testament also gives many examples of prophecy, both through individuals and in the church. Elizabeth (Luke 1:41–45), Zechariah (Luke 1:67–69), Simeon (Luke 2:25–35), and Agabus (Acts 11:27–28) provide examples of individual prophecy. John the Baptist was also recognized as a prophet (Matt 11:9), and Jesus is portrayed as the prophet par excellence (Matt 21:10–11). Paul often teaches about prophecy in his letters; for Paul prophecy is used primarily for the building up of fellow believers. While there is overlap between Old and New Testament prophecy, New Testament prophecy is more universal, less structured, and often harder to identify as prophecy.

Chapter 8

Hearing the Good News: New Testament Historical Narrative (Gospels & Acts)

Having covered the genres of the Old Testament; we now move to the New Testament. Many scholars have suggested that the genre of the canonical Gospels (and Acts) most closely resembles that of Greco-Roman biography. However, while there are some similarities to this genre, the Gospels and Acts more closely resemble a subgenre of historical narrative: “Like the Old Testament historical narratives, the Gospels and Acts do not merely report facts. The evangelists carefully selected and arranged material that most effectively conveyed God’s message” (372).

Many have wondered why the canon includes four Gospels. First, we should recognize that each Gospel had a specific target audience and displays unique theological emphases. Second, we rejoice to see the multifaceted picture of Jesus through the kaleidoscope of the fourfold gospel: “The cumulative effect resulting from reading all four Gospels is that readers attain a more comprehensive understanding of the story of Jesus as a whole that if they were only reading one of these Gospels” (375). Some, however, might look at the various details of the Gospel accounts and wonder if the diversity between the Gospels has a negative effect on their historical credibility. Yet we should not hold ancient historiography to the standard of our own modern historical conventions; we can have full confidence that the Gospels present accurate and reliable history.

A responsible interpretation of the Gospels includes four key components: historical context, literary context, chronology, and structure. The historical context looks at relevant background information that provides necessary context for interpretation. This context includes both the life setting in Jesus’ day and the life setting of the church when the particular Gospel was written. The literary context requires a similar investigation into the broader scope of the Gospel itself. This point is especially significant when the same event occurs in multiple Gospels. Yes, we want to compare the Gospels when they showcase the same event, but we must first pay attention to the literary context within each respective Gospel.

The chronology and arrangement of each Gospel also plays a significant role in interpretation: “In some situations, a Gospel may reflect a chronological as well as a topical arrangement. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In other instances, the same event may be narrated in the context of differing chronological presentations” (397). For example, Matthew appears to reflect a thematic ordering, Mark and Luke/Acts are organized around geographical locales, and John is chronological. This principle also applies to the structure of the Gospels: “The evangelists chose to organize their accounts differently, both at the macro- and the micro-level. An understanding of how the evangelists chose to structure their message is important because it provides the reader with clues about the ideological focus of the author” (399).

Chapter 9

Calling for Discernment: Parables

A parable is “a short narrative that demands a response from the hearer” (426). Parables are realistic in that they do not contain fanciful elements that would be found in myths or fairy tales, yet they are not true stories like historical narrative. The key to interpreting parables rightly comes from context. Jesus will often tell a parable to respond to a particular situation, and those who do not have ears to hear will interpret the parable negatively, but those who truly know Jesus will interpret it positively. Jesus tells parables to eliminate the possibility of a neutral listener.

Throughout church history, the parables have been treated as allegorical, often giving far too much free reign to interpretation. Origen of Alexandria (AD 185–254) developed a threefold sense of interpretation: literal, moral, and spiritual. Interpreters in the Middle Ages added a fourth kind of interpretation, anagogical or eschatological. While many church leaders in the period of the Reformation spoke out against an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, many interpreters continued to allegorize. Modern interpreters provided other approaches to the parables (such as social-scientific ones) that often obscured the relevant meaning.

So how should we approach the parables? First, we must keep in mind that parables are not historical narratives; they are realistic, but made-up stories designed to teach a spiritual lesson or truth, often about the nature of God’s kingdom. Second, “While not falling back on the pattern of extreme allegorization and subjectivity that dominated the interpretation of the church for so long, it is clear that the parables may be more allegorical in character than is generally acknowledged” (436). Finally, we can recognize some general patterns in the New Testament parables. For example, many of Jesus’ parables have a triadic structure. They have three characters or groups of characters: a master and two contrasting subordinates. “The implication of this is that the perspectives of the main characters reflect different parts of the overall meaning of the parable” (437).

Chapter 10

Going by the Letter: Epistles

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven New Testament books bear the superscript “Epistle.” These epistles, or letters, in the New Testament display a certain degree of similarity with the standard template of first-century Greco-Roman letters: “Typically, the ancient letters opened with an identification of the sender and the addressee, followed by a salutation or greeting … and adding the element of prayer, which could contain a health wish” (455). Readers who are familiar with the New Testament epistles will recognize the similarities. Yet it is also important to recognize where the New Testament epistles deviate from the standards of the day because these deviations often highlight emphases by a particular author.

The question of authorship is another key topic when studying the epistles. We know that the New Testament letter writers occasionally used secretaries (Rom 16:22; 1 Cor 16:21), but how can we be sure that Paul, for example, wrote all thirteen letters that bear his name? Many scholars today claim that the letters to Timothy and Titus, as well as 2 Peter, are pseudonymous, meaning that “a later follower [of Paul] attributes his own work to his revered teacher in order to perpetuate that person’s teachings and influence” (462). A similar position is that of allonymity, a mediating position, “which holds that a later author edited what Paul wrote but attributed the writing to Paul or another person without intent to deceive” (463). Neither of these positions, however, represents satisfactory answers to the question of authorship, since the early church decisively condemned all those who wrote using someone else’s name (i.e., Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12.3).

There are several issues that pertain to specific New Testament letter writers that deserve special mention. Readers of Paul will benefit by studying his use of the Old Testament. Specifically, readers should analyze the broader context of the Old Testament passage that is quoted and then ask how the passage is used in its current New Testament context. More advanced readers should also determine whether Paul quotes from Masoretic text (Hebrew) or the Septuagint (Greek) and discover theological implications from this analysis.

One major distinctive of Hebrews is that it combines oral and written features. The author mentions that he has previously written to his readers (Heb 13:22), yet many of the rhetorical devices in the book indicate that the document originated as a sermon or series of oral messages.

The strong Jewish influence is unique in James. James prioritizes Old Testament examples such as Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. He also demonstrates familiarity with Jewish concepts that other New Testament authors do not discuss. Though James mentions Jesus by name only twice (1:1; 2:1), evidence strongly indicates that James draws significant themes from Jesus’ teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

Careful readers will notice the similarity between Jude and 2 Peter. Most likely, Jude was written first and was subsequently used as a source for 2 Peter. Many scholars, as mentioned, have called the authorship of 2 Peter into question. They claim that the language and style is so different between the two Petrine letters that Peter cannot possibly have written 2 Peter: “The linguistic argument, however, is an argument from silence; we cannot know what Peter could or could not have written” (487). Peter could have written in two different styles that were fitting for different situations. In addition, Peter could have used a different amanuensis for 2 Peter than he did for his first letter.

Finally, it is important to understand how to interpret the epistles as a genre. In this regard, we should note that the epistles are occasional or situational in nature. None of the letters in the New Testament was written as an abstract compendium of Christian doctrine. Take the Corinthian letters, for example. Paul uses the phrase “now concerning” as a way to introduce topics that were particular to the situation at Corinth: “Faced with such specific situations that are time- and culture-bound, the interpreter has the responsibility to reconstruct as precisely as he can the original situation that gave rise to the problem which Paul addressed by looking into the social, historical, and cultural contexts of Corinthian Christianity” (492). Yet it is also true that the epistles are not only occasional but also normative. Even for contemporary Christians, “it is inevitable to conclude that the teachings offered to the churches facing certain circumstances are applicable to any church or individual facing similar situations throughout the ages” (494).

Chapter 11

Visions of the End: Apocalyptic (Revelation)

When approaching apocalyptic literature, we must first define our terms:

  • Apocalypse: “a particular genre of literature written between approximately 200 B.C. and A.D. 200”;
  • Apocalyptic: an adjective “describing either the literary genre or the worldview”;
  • Apocalypticism: “a worldview, ideology, or theology merging the eschatological aims of particular groups into a cosmic and political arena” (519).

A deeper look reveals three main functions of apocalyptic literature. First, it includes visionary or revelatory communication. Second, it contains a heavy use of symbols, metaphors, and figurative speech. Finally, it includes a dualism between earthy and heavenly realities (521).

There are four main approaches to the interpretation of Revelation. The preterist position “approaches the relationship of history and the Apocalypse from the vantage point that the events prophesied were fulfilled in the first century” (522). The historicist position is mainly obsolete now but was popular during the Middle Ages and the Reformation era. This position looked to its contemporary culture for the meaning of Revelation: the Pope was the antichrist and the wars in Western Europe at the time corresponded with the wars in Revelation. The idealist position “sets aside the historical question altogether by positing that Revelation is not about events in the space-time continuum but rather symbolically portrays the spiritual and timeless nature of the battle between good and evil” (523). Finally, the futurist position holds that Revelation 4–22 refers to future events. This position is the most common in evangelicalism today and is often expressed in modified versions such as historical premillennialism.

One of the greatest challenges in interpreting Revelation has to do with the interpretation of the various apocalyptic symbols. Here are seven steps that can serve as a guide to interpretation:

  1. Recognize the symbolic imagery associated with the description of people and beings, colors, numbers, institutions, places, and events.
  2. Look for interpretations of these symbols within the vision.
  3. Determine if the symbol stems from an allusion to the Old Testament.
  4. Compare the symbol with other apocalyptic writings to see if it is a common symbol with a relatively standard meaning.
  5. Look for any possible connections between the symbol and the cultural-historical context.
  6. Consult treatments of the symbol in scholarly commentaries and other works.
  7. Remain humble in your conclusions (552–57)

Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger

Study Questions

Interpreting the OT

  1. What are key characteristics of biblical narrative?
  2. What is the essence of Hebrew parallelism, and what are the three major kinds of parallelism found in OT poetic portions?
  3. What was the essential task of the OT prophets, what are the two major types of prophetic subgenres in Scripture?
  4. What is the definition of apocalyptic and what are its major elements?

Interpreting the NT

  1. What is the genre of the Gospels and why are there four Gospels in our canon?
  2. How would you define “parable” and how do parables differ from historical narratives?
  3. What are the three major divisions of an epistle and important components of each?
  4. How does the apocalyptic genre differ from historical narrative and how should one interpret the symbolism in the book of Revelation?

Language: Literature (Part 3)

  • Köstenberger – LanguageRuntime: 27 min
Reading Assignment
Reading Assignment Summary

Chapter 12

The Importance of Context: Grammar, Syntax, and Discourse

This chapter marks the beginning of the third and final unit in the section on literature. Unit 1 covered canon, Unit 2 covered genre, and now Unit 3 covers language. This chapter discusses three vital aspects of language: grammar, syntax, and discourse. Grammar refers to certain features of the way words work together, such as a kind of genitive or a form of a participle. In terms of Greek grammar, there are four key points that will especially aid in interpretation. First, Greek is an inflected language, meaning that word order is more flexible in Greek than it is in English. Readers should take care to discern the original word order in order to understand points of emphasis from the author. Second, the Greek article is often misunderstood: “The important implication for this less-than-perfect equivalence between the uses of the article in Greek and English is that the absence of the article does not necessarily mean a word is indefinite; nor does the presence of the article invariably mark a noun as definite” (585). Third, the genitive case also requires context for proper interpretation. For example, 2 Corinthians 5:14 could indicate that believers are constrained by their love for Christ or by the love of Christ. Based on context, the latter is probably the case. Finally, the Greek participle can either be used as a noun, adjective, or adverb. The adverb is especially important because, among other uses, it can indicate the manner or means in which something is accomplished.

Syntax “refers more broadly to relationships between words in the larger scheme of discourse and sentence structures” (576). Readers should be aware of the following syntactical terms:

  • Aposiopesis: the breaking off of a speech or statement due to strong emotion, modesty, or other reasons;
  • Hendiadys: an arrangement of two or more expressions that essentially convey the same idea;
  • Pleonasm: a form of redundancy by which a previously expressed idea is repeated as a way of speaking (591).

Discourse refers to “any coherent sequence of phrases or sentences, whether a narrative, logical argument, or poetic portion of text” (576–77). When conducting a discourse analysis, readers should first look for boundary features, or the beginning and end of a unit of text. Next, they should look for cohesion, features that connect the text to make it a unified whole. Relations and prominence are also important: “Relations deal with the logic of the thought flow of a given passage, be it by indicating cause, purpose, result, or another coordinating or subordinating relation” (595). Prominence looks for emphasis, either on the micro- or macro-level. Finally, readers should look for the situation, or the specific cultural context of the author.

Chapter 13

The Meaning of Words: Linguistics, Semantics, and Exegetical Fallacies

If you want to know what a word means, what do you do? Even a young child probably knows where to start: Look it up in a dictionary, of course! Yet responsible hermeneutics beckons us to dig deeper. Most dictionaries give multiple definitions for a single word—How do you know which one is correct? In addition, where do dictionaries get their information? To answer these questions, we must first look to linguistics, or the study of language. Language is a beautiful and complicated phenomenon, and we must first study language itself before we can ascertain the specific meaning of words: “Language is a human convention, and as such is subject to change or modification. Words have a history and can take on new meanings over time or acquire additional connotations” (624). Furthermore, evidence from linguistics tells us that if we want to understand the meaning of words, we must factor in evidence from both the semantic field and the context of the word.

Semantics is a related field to linguistics, referring to “the science of determining word meanings” (624). Semantics gives us the following guidelines for determining word meaning: “(1) Semantic field (i.e. terminology) and context are both important for the study of a biblical concept; (2) context has priority over semantic field; (3) if the second point is kept in mind, semantic field seems to be a very appropriate starting point…” (627). While it may be easier to engage in a simple word study, a semantic field study will ultimately prove more helpful in producing a full-orbed understanding of meaning in the biblical text.

This overview of linguistics and semantics now leads to practical guidelines and cautions to interpretation. Here are two common exegetical fallacies that we must be careful to avoid: (1) The Root Fallacy: We often hear people appeal to the “original” or “root” meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word, and we subsequently make a theological claim on the basis of that root word. Occasionally this approach works, but most of the time it doesn’t. For example, take the English word “butterfly.” Yes, the word is made up of two separate words “butter” and “fly,” but they hardly communicate any additional meaning! (2) Appeal to Unknown or Unlikely Meanings or Background Material: While cultural backgrounds provide crucial context for interpretation, background material can easily be abused. As always, readers should let context be their guide.

Chapter 14

A Way of Speaking: Interpreting Figurative Language

The Bible is full of figures of speech. A figure of speech is “a use of language in which there is a comparison, either stated or implied, between two terms” (664). Psalm 23 uses a famous figure of speech: “The LORD is my shepherd.” Even though there is no logical connection between “the LORD” and “shepherd,” the psalmist uses this figure of similarity to help drive his point home in a colorful and illustrative way. Another kind of figure of speech is a figure of contiguity, which is based on a logical association. For example, Psalms will often use the word “throne” to refer to God’s authority. This figure of speech substitutes one word to represent another (metonymy), and it is similar to the substitution of a part for the whole (synecdoche).

But how can we be responsible interpreters of figures of speech? How do we know what the figure of speech means? Context is key: “Simply because a word has figurative meanings in one context does not mean that it is figurative in all contexts. The same word can be literal in one context and figurative in another” (672). Take the word “day,” for example. “Days” in both Daniel and Revelation refer to years, whereas “day” often means a 24-hour day in the context of the travel narratives in the gospels.

Here are some different kinds of figures of speech in the Bible:

  • Anthropomorphism: using human characteristics to describe God;
  • Euphemism: substituting a less offensive term for a more offensive term;
  • Hypocatastasis: comparing two objects or ideas where only one is named;
  • Image: employing a word picture in order to make an abstract idea concrete.

Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger

Study Questions
  1. Why is knowledge of the basics of Greek and Hebrew important for biblical interpretation?
  2. What is the relationship between word meaning and context?
  3. What are three major exegetical fallacies? Provide a definition and give at least one example of each.
  4. What is a sound step-by-step method of studying individual words of Scripture?
  5. How should one interpret figurative language in Scripture and what interpretive danger is there if one is ill-equipped in discerning between literal and figurative meaning?

The Goal: Theology

  • Köstenberger – TheologyRuntime: 10 min
Reading Assignment
Reading Assignment Summary

Chapter 15

Making the Connection: Getting Our Theology from the Bible

We have now moved to the third element of the hermeneutical triad, the peak of the mountain: theology. This chapter focuses specifically on biblical theology. Biblical theology seeks to discern meaning from the biblical authors themselves. This task is often called the “historical task” because the meaning given by the biblical author is thoroughly embedded in a history. In addition, biblical theology seeks “to study Scripture on its own terms, that is, pay special attention, not merely to the concepts addressed in Scripture, but to the very words, vocabulary, and terminology used by the biblical writers themselves” (698).

The modern expression of biblical theology began with J. P. Gabler’s inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, Germany, in 1787. It was called “An Oration on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.” Gabler’s key contribution to the field was the strong distinction between biblical and systematic (or “dogmatic”) theology. Years later, F. C. Baur and the Tübingen School advanced the historical-critical method to such a degree that the study of Scripture became almost entirely historical and much less theological. Scholars such as Brevard Childs and Hans Frei swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, focusing on the literary features of the canon to the detriment of history. Currently, we cannot say that biblical theology is a unified movement, but there are certain schools of biblical theology that are flourishing to this day. Biblical theology represents a vibrant part of evangelical biblical scholarship today and provides tremendous resources for the church.

There are four various schools of New Testament theology that deserve further comment. The first is the systematic/biblical approach. This approach takes topical headings such as “The Christian Life” or “The Future” and examines these topics from a biblical-theological lens. Donald Guthrie’s work serves as an example to this method. George Eldon Ladd and Leon Morris represent the second approach, which studies the New Testament from a book-by-book approach. Third, the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series edited by D. A. Carson seeks to “take up a given theme and explore its development throughout Scripture in chronological order and on its own terms” (702). Finally, G. B. Caird represents an integrative or “symphonic” approach that showcases how the various New Testament authors provide diverse voices that make up a unified canon.

There is one more aspect of biblical theology that deserves special mention: the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Readers should seek to discern if an Old Testament quotation or string of quotations serves as the structure or foundation for an entire argument (i.e. Galatians 2–3). There are also many other ways in which the Old Testament is used in the New Testament: prediction-fulfillment, typology, allegory, analogy, and illustration. Finally, New Testament authors will interact with the Old Testament in various ways: direct quotation, allusion, or echo. While interpretation in this important field of biblical theology is not an exact science, readers will benefit greatly from thinking through each of these interpretive issues.

Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger

Study Questions
  1. What is biblical theology?
  2. What are some key ingredients in a proper method for biblical theology?
  3. What are some major approaches to biblical theology?
  4. What are some important questions to ask when studying the use of the OT in the NT?

Adaptation & Proclamation: God’s Word Coming to Life

  • Köstenberger – Adaptation & ProclamationRuntime: 9 min
Reading Assignment
Reading Assignment Summary

Chapter 16

Getting Down to Earth: Using the Tools, Preaching and Applying the Word

This course has covered a vast array of topics regarding the interpretation of the Scriptures. This chapter aims at driving it all home by giving practical application of the paradigms that have been given. This process begins with preparation. Perhaps this seems like a daunting task to pastors. It often feels as if the job is never done; visitations, crisis management, weddings, funerals, and births all require significant time investments. Nevertheless, the pastor must be diligent to devote sufficient time to sermon preparation. He should also consult the vast supply of resources available to assist in study. Pastors should be familiar with language tools such as grammars, lexicons, and exegetical dictionaries; they should also utilize reference works such as Bible dictionaries, Bible atlases, Old and New Testament introductions, and commentaries. The pastor may be alone in his study, but he can be surrounded by many counselors in the form of books!

Of course the most important object of study is the Bible itself. As the pastor engages with the text of Scripture, his job is to move from study to sermon. The first task is to create a sermon outline that mirrors the outline of the text. The organization of texts is often genre-specific, so pastors should pay careful attention to genre while in the outlining process. Consider this example from the genre of Old Testament narrative. First, there are five initial cautions:

  1. Be careful not to preach or teach a text while being ignorant of its literary context.
  2. Be careful not to impose alien structural divisions on the text.
  3. Be careful not to allegorize Old Testament narratives.
  4. Be careful not to impose unstated elements onto the narrative.
  5. Be ready to address familiar characters from a fresh perspective (743).

Next, there are four major steps:

  1. Identify and interpret the scenes of the narrative cycle.
  2. Analyze the scenes to determine the span of text for the sermon.
  3. Determine the structure of the textual unit.
  4. Design the sermon around the structure of the textual unit (743, 750–51).

Each genre will require a slightly different process, but the main point remains the same: the rhetorical structure of your sermon should mirror the literary structure of your passage (743).

Finally, the sermon is not complete until it is applied to the lives of the hearers: “We glorify Christ when we live out what we know” (784). We know that the Bible is the Word of God and is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). The Bible gives us propositional truths that are to be obeyed (Matt 7:24), and it is just as relevant to us as it was to its original readers. It is true that contemporary readers face challenges that are not explicitly addressed in the Bible. We can’t just point to a given chapter and verse in the Bible to address contemporary issues such as recreational marijuana, stem-cell research, or euthanasia. Yet we can rest assured that the Bible gives us concrete universal principles “that are expressed in the text in such a way that they are valid for the people of God in all cultures” (789).

Summary by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger

Study Questions
  1. What are some of the tools every interpreter should have?
  2. What is the proper procedure for moving from text to sermon?
  3. What are the major steps in preaching OT and NT narratives, poetic and wisdom literature, prophecy and apocalyptic, and hortatory and expository literature?
  4. What are some of the major challenges in applying the biblical text to life, and what are the basic steps of application?