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HERMENEUTICS: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures


Dr. David L. Cooper

Study earnestly to present yourself approved to God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing (Strong's: dissecting correctly) the Word of Truth.
- 2 Timothy 2:15 -

Editor's note - In many places in the Scriptures, the believer is encouraged to study the written Word as the foundation for a holy, godly and fruitful life before God and man. But how are we to study this unified, but daunting, compilation of sixty-six books written by over forty authors between nineteen hundred and thirty-five hundred years ago in languages and cultures that may be totally foreign to us? Enter the science of hermeneutics.

To understand hermeneutical principles is to be equipped for an intelligent study of the Word of God, tending greatly to our approval before God as workmen that do not need to be ashamed.

"Some Basic Rules of Interpretation" by Dr. David L. Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, contains key principles that are essential to a healthy hermeneutic.

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Dr. David L. Cooper


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SINCE the Scriptures are God-breathed and are very specific, there is only one way for us to arrive at the purpose which the Holy Spirit had in mind in giving His message. God said what He meant and meant exactly what He said. In order to understand the Scriptures, we must know the use of language: the grammar, the specific meaning of words, and the fundamental laws of speech - especially the principles which are characteristic of the Scriptures. Since the space is limited for this discussion, let us look only at the most important and fundamental rules of hermeneutics, the most basic--and indeed the all-inclusive one - of which is the Golden Rule of Interpretation.

Jesus gave the Golden Rule of conduct which is "All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12). This is a basic criterion in one's relation to his fellow-men. The Golden Rule of Interpretation is just as fundamental in the field of the interpretation of language as our Lord's precept is in the realm of ethics and conduct.

Origen, a great Christian scholar who lived during the latter part of the second and the first part of the third century of the Christian Era, came under the influence of Greek philosophy in the form of Neoplatonism. He adopted some of the so-called principles of this philosophic system and evolved what has become known as the allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures. According to this theory there is a spiritual meaning of the Bible in addition to that which is plain and obvious. Origen accepted the literal interpretation of the Word but claimed that in addition to it there was this hidden, spiritual meaning. Everything to him was therefore allegorical. He read into the Scriptures this so-called spiritual meaning and built up a mystical system of theology. This method of interpreting the Word wrought havoc in the early church and started what is known as "spiritualizing the Scriptures." Its baneful effects have been felt throughout the centuries. The Christian world has never entirely freed itself from the tentacles of this heathen, subjective approach to God's holy, infallible Word.

The only antidote to this vicious method of handling the Bible is the principle called the Golden Rule of Interpretation:

When the plain, obvious sense of Scripture makes common sense we are to seek no other sense.

We are to stop there and are not to read subjectively into the record something that is foreign to the context. The Word of God is spiritual and does not need our "doctoring" it in order to make it more so. If one man can read into a given context his own ideas and claim that such is the significance of the passage, another can do the same thing and can read into the record his conception of its meaning. Whenever we adopt the spiritualizing method, we open the floodgates to every type of speculation, suggestion, and theorizing. We must not therefore go beyond the plain, literal meaning of the Scriptures unless the facts of the context indicate a deeper, hidden, or symbolic meaning. When therefore such evidence is lacking, one must positively accept the literal meaning of the text. On the other hand, if there is absolute proof that the language is, for instance, symbolic, then we are to interpret the given passage in the light of all the evidence, not only of the immediate connection, but in the light of that which is found in parallel cases - if there be such.

But suppose the plain, literal meaning does not make common sense. In that event we may be assured that, since the Scriptures do not make nonsense, a figurative or metaphorical sense is intended. Then we are to interpret such a passage in the light of the usage found in parallel cases.

Almost every word in all languages has not only a literal, primary, original meaning but has derived connotations. For instance, in English there are listed as high as twenty-six meanings for a single word. This fact may be seen by a glance at an unabridged dictionary. Whenever the literal sense of a given word does not fit in with the facts of the connection, we are to select that definition which is in perfect accord and agreement with them. But in every instance, let me emphasize, we are to take the primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning if possible.

An abridged statement of this most important rule is:

When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinairy, usual literal meaning, unless the facts of the context indicate clearly otherwise.

This rule assumes that all truth harmonizes and that there are no discrepancies between accurate statements of facts. But for those who wish the maxim stated in its unabridged form, I give it in the following words:

When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.

If anyone follows this criterion, in the spirit and letter of the principle, he can never go wrong. On the other hand, if he fails to follow it, he can never be right. (May I suggest that the reader memorize and master this rule in order that he may be governed thereby in all his study of the Word?) This principle is true, not only as it applies to the Bible, but also to any written document or oral conversation regarding any subject.


"The law of first mention" is another most important principle involved in the Scriptures. What is meant by it is that

the first mention of any fundamental word or institution usually presents the general conception of the subject and its use throughout Scriptures.

As an illustration of this law, I need only to call attention to the sacrifices that were required by the Lord from Cain and Abel. The very fundamental teaching concerning atonement for sin, with all its implications, is found in these sacrifices, as recorded in Genesis 4. Once more, the promise and the covenant which God made with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) constitute the bold outline of all that is involved in the divine plan which runs through the Scriptures. It becomes therefore of paramount importance that one study words, doctrines, and institutions in their original, initial mention.


As we have just seen in our study of the Golden Rule of Interpretation, we must seek diligently, by the application of this standard, to ascertain the exact thought of the speaker or writer whose message is studied. When this is learned, we can determine whether or not there is involved in the discussion some fundamental principle. If there is such set forth in the given case, we are at liberty to apply it to a similar situation; but, before we do, we must be certain that there is an analogy justifying such an application. It is at this crucial point that many mistakes are made. All too often efforts are made to see a spiritual lesson in a given scripture and, without due consideration, to apply it to another case which only apparently is analogous.

If we are certain that we have discovered the fundamental, underlying principle in a given case, we are warranted in applying it to a like situation under similar circumstances;

for one of the basic tenets of true science is that "like causes under like conditions produce like results." My caution to everyone is that he be certain to discover the exact thought of the writer and that he be absolutely sure in making an application of the principle discovered to a similar situation. Such a procedure is legitimate and proper.


There is what is known among Bible students as "the law of double reference or manifold fulfillment of prophecy." We find many applications of this principle.

The prophets constantly spoke of a local or current event, and, without giving any intimation of a change of scenery, began to describe a more remote and a greater one, which by far transcended the situation which gave rise to the prediction.

This principle might be illustrated by a stereopticon which gives the dissolving effect. One picture is thrown upon the screen. Presently it begins to fade and at the same time the dim outline of another begins to appear. By the time the first has faded, the second is in full view. The prophets often blended a prediction relating to the first coming of Christ with one foretelling the second advent. In such presentations the entire Christian Dispensation is passed over.

One must master this rule if one is to understand the messages of the prophets.


A principle which obtains throughout the prophetic word is that which is known by Bible students as "the law of recurrence." According to the meaning of this phrase,

after the prophets made a statement relative to something in the future, they often gave a fuller discussion covering the same ground but laying the emphasis in a different place.

The second presentation is but supplemental to the first. It therefore clarifies the picture.

As an illustration of this principle, may I note Genesis 1 and 2? In chapter 1 we have a synopsis of the work of the six days of reconstruction. In chapter 2, however, the Holy Spirit gives a second discussion, especially regarding the creation of man. The first account relative to this miracle is found in 1: 26-31. In 2: 7-25 is a second and a fuller description together with a record of his residence in the Garden of Eden. These two accounts are not to be explained upon the basis advanced by the destructive critics--that they came from two sources and are therefore contradictory -- but upon the sound, fundamental principle of the law of recurrence.

Another illustration of this important law is found in the prophecy of Ezekiel 38 and 39, which foretells the invasion of Palestine by the nations constituting the great northeastern confederacy. (For the full discussion of this most important and timely theme, see the volume When Gog's Armies Meet the Almighty.) In chapter 38 the prophet gives the full description of this stupendous world-changing event. In it he presents the general outline of the incidents that will at that time take place. In chapter 39 he simply covers the same ground speaking of the identical affairs but laying emphasis on different things. One must recognize that this duplicate account, given according to the principle of the law of recurrence, is but a second view of the one prediction.

John, in Revelation 17, 18, and 19, follows this same law. In chapter 16 he gives the outline of events as they occur during the second half of the Tribulation. When we reach the end of chapter 16, we are at the very close of that period; but in chapter 17 he goes back to the beginning of this second half of it and speaks of the overthrow of Babylon the harlot. The facts of this chapter show that this interpretation is correct. Chapter 18 speaks of the literal city of Babylon, which is destroyed at the end of the Tribulation. In chapter 19 we read of the marriage supper of the Lamb and Christ's coming all the way to earth at the conclusion of the Tribulation. Thus, when John pens these three chapters, after having given the outline of the second half of the Tribulation in chapter 16, he is simply following the law of recurrence.

This is a most important law, which finds many applications throughout the Scriptures. The Bible student should master this principle to the extent that he can recognize an application of it whenever he comes across it.


God gave His Word as He wanted us to have it, and as He wanted us to study and teach it. An investigation of the Scriptures shows that He only gave any portion of it as there was a demand for the enunciation of some new principle or the reiteration and the augmentation of one that He had already revealed. A study of the life of our Lord shows that He often repeated Himself. We are told that circumstances alter cases. After all, people's experiences are more or less of a certain definite type. These and other facts show why it was necessary for God to repeat certain doctrines in sending messages to various people or groups of individuals. The biblical writers, meeting a local and a similar situation, were forced to repeat many things.

For instance, almost all the books of the New Testament either discuss, refer to, or at least hint at, the great fundamental teaching of regeneration of the soul by the Spirit of God. It was necessary for each writer in meeting the situation before him to refer to this fundamental spiritual phenomenon. To one person or group it was necessary to discuss a certain phase of the doctrine; to another the same writer presented a different aspect of the same teaching. On one occasion, he stated it more fully than he did at another time. What is true of regeneration is also correct of the various teachings of the Word of God.

In view of these facts, we can see how it was that the inspired writers discussed the same subject.

If a person is wishing to understand thoroughly any one topic of the Scriptures, it becomes necessary for him to study what each writer has said on the subject.

He must, as far as it is possible, get all the facts which called forth the explanation. Moreover he must study it in the light of the facts of its context. When he has thus examined the various passages bearing upon a given question and has gleaned from each reference what is said, he can put all the information together and thus have a complete picture. It is therefore necessary for everyone to compare scripture with scripture. In following this principle he must be absolutely certain that he views each passage in its proper perspective. When he does so, he will see that one account usually supplements another.


In the New Testament we see many quotations taken from the Old. Whenever we find in the New such a quotation - if we are not familiar with the passage - we should immediately turn to the chapter from which it was taken.

Then we should study the entire connection and be certain that we get the drift of thought of the original writer. Speaking figuratively, we must see the quotation in the original setting. When we have done this, we are to study the context of the New Testament in which this quotation is found. Frequently the application will throw light upon the passage in its original connection and vice versa.

Often we observe that a passage is applied in a certain way to something in the New Testament; and, when we examine all the facts, we see that the thing to which it is referred by the New Testament writer does not fill out the complete picture set forth in the Old Testament connection. In this event we must conclude that the thing to which it is applied in the New Testament is but a partial and an incomplete fulfillment of the original prediction and that God in His own good time will fulfill the passage to the very letter.

As an illustration of this principle, I may call attention to such passages as Isaiah 13 and 14 and Jeremiah 50 and 51. These chapters give predictions concerning Babylon and its being destroyed. When we look at the history of that city, we see that it was never overthrown in the manner or to the extent as set forth in these prophecies. We do know from ancient history that it gradually declined in power and finally sank beneath the historical horizon. It was never destroyed as was foretold. We who believe the Word of God must conclude that Babylon will yet be rebuilt and demolished just as foretold by these men of God. This is confirmed by Revelation 18. I could give numerous examples of this principle, but these suffice. Let us therefore be careful in studying quotations that we examine both contexts and arrive at the definite, specific idea of the inspired writer.


Thought-rhyme was the fundamental idea of Hebrew poetry. No effort was made at meter, verse, and rhyme as we have in modern poetry. What is Hebrew parallelism? The answer is this:

Two statements are made relative to a given matter, one of which is made by the selection of certain words. This or a similar idea is repeated by the choice of different terms.

The second, therefore, is supplemental to the first and becomes a comment upon it. Sometimes one of the statements is in literal language, whereas the other is more pictorial and, graphic; but each supplements the other.

Upon this simple basis all Hebrew poetry was built. Contrasts were expressed as we see in the Book of Proverbs, which is pure poetry. Frequently three parallel statements, each supplementing the others, were employed. These fundamental conceptions were worked out by the poets and came to involve an entire composition such as one of the psalms. One must however understand this fundamental conception in order to comprehend the poetical books of the Scriptures.


All peoples, both ancient and modern, have symbols. The Hebrews had theirs. Those appearing in the Scriptures however are of divine origin. In fact, the Tabernacle and the Temple, with all of their ceremonial services, were typical or symbolic of the realities which we have in Christ. That they had such a significance is set forth clearly in the New Testament. The Book of Hebrews especially interprets the spiritual significance of the ritualism of the Old Testament.

As one examines the types and shadows of the Scriptures, one must be extremely careful not to read into the sacred text something that is not there. A person will do well if he takes as symbolic and typical only those things that are thus recognized by the inspired writers.

Untold damage has been done from time to time by overly zealous people in their attempts to see a typical or a symbolic meaning in certain persons or things in the Scriptures. The safest rule by which to be guided on this point may be stated thus:

Recognize only those things as typical or symbolic which are thus designated in the Scriptures, and never give to any passage a typical meaning unless the Scriptures so indicate.

To illustrate the point let us look at an example or two. Joseph, we are often told, is a type of Christ. Isaac's taking Rebekah as his bride is also a type of Christ's taking His bride, the church. What inspired writer gives any intimation to this effect? I have never seen anything in the Scriptures to warrant these positions. I admit that there are striking similarities in the cases; but analogies are not equivalent to a "thus saith the Lord." We do well, therefore, to have scriptural authority for whatever we say. One can, by allowing his imagination to run wild, see that a certain person or thing in the Old Testament is typical of something in the New. Another person, looking at the same thing, will see a different signification. Thus there are untold possibilities of speculation and error, which are dangerous whenever there is not a "thus saith the Lord" for a given position.

God has chosen certain things as symbols. For instance, beasts, as we learn from Daniel 7, are employed as emblems of world kingdoms. Whenever, therefore, a beast is thus used in the Scriptures and the facts of the context show that it has this metaphorical sense, one must understand that it signifies a civil government. God never mixes His symbols. Again, a pure, chaste virgin is used as a symbol of the true church. A harlot represents a false ecclesiasticism. God has interpreted these symbols. Man should not attach any signification to them other than that which was given by Him.

I might further illustrate this principle by calling attention to the Lord's supper. The loaf represents the body of Jesus, whereas the fruit of the vine is symbolic of His blood. Whenever we see these emblems, we know their significance and do not attempt to read into them any idea other than that which the Lord Jesus gave them. Whenever we come to a symbol, we must therefore seek the divine interpretation of the same and never deviate from that meaning.


The languages of all peoples seem to have begun largely with figures of speech--at least primitive writing indicates this position. It is by comparison that we appreciate and understand things. Thus figures have remained in our language and adorn it greatly. In fact, it is most difficult for us to speak without using some figures of speech. The Bible is no exception.

One must therefore know the common figures of speech and how they are used in order to understand what the biblical writers meant.

The fact that a figurative expression occurs in a given passage is no warrant for one's taking its meaning and forcing it upon another passage unless the facts of the given context show that the same figure was used in a like manner. To be more specific, let me call attention to the expression found in Ephesians regarding Christ's "having cleansed it [church] by the washing of water with the word" (Eph. 5:26). This statement is figurative language. We must not force this metaphorical sense upon another passage, which might in some way resemble this one passage, unless the facts of the latter context permit such an interpretation.

Let us always bear in mind that figurative language, though ornate and beautiful, stands for definite realities. It is therefore necessary for one to understand the figure and see the reality signified in order to comprehend the message wherever such usage is employed.


Whenever anyone sees that a passage is capable of more than one interpretation - viewed in the light of all the facts of the connection - he must select that translation or explanation which accords with plain statements found in other portions of the Word when rightly interpreted.

As an illustration of this principle, I may call attention to Psalm 45: 6. "Thy throne, 0 God, is for ever and ever ..." In the original text of this statement there are only four words. Nevertheless, they can be rendered grammatically to make four or five translations. By supplying different words, the number of renderings can be multiplied. This thing has been done by certain ones who have been unwilling to accept the plain meaning. But our one concern is, What did the psalmist have in mind when he by the Spirit of God used these words? One must study the entire psalm in order to see the proper connection; then he must compare all the facts discovered with statements found in other places which are capable of only one interpretation.

It is of utmost importance that one observe this rule. The assumption lying underneath it is that all truth harmonizes. Whenever there are any seeming discrepancies, the trouble lies with our non-comprehension of the data, or lack of the facts.


In the English language there are eight parts of speech. These, taken together, constitute language. Each of them has a definite, specific use and relation to other parts of speech. It becomes absolutely necessary, if one is to arrive at the exact meaning of a word, that he know grammar, since each part of speech has a definite purpose and since words likewise have accurate definitions. One therefore must, if he is to arrive at the exact idea which the Holy Spirit had in mind, have an adequate knowledge of grammar and the meaning of words.

By conservative scholars, the grammatico-historical principle of interpretation is the only one upon which a person can afford to rely. What is meant by this term?

A person must acquire, if possible the historical data concerning any statement in order to see it in its proper perspective. He must, therefore, know the writer, the one to whom a document was sent, for what purpose it was written, and under what conditions in order to evaluate properly the message. He must also know the grammar thoroughly and the significance of language.

With such definite information in hand, one can, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, understand, as a rule, the message. I therefore accept the correctness of this method of exegesis.


The student should have a good English dictionary at hand when he studies the Scriptures--unless he has an adequate idea of the vocabulary that is used in the Bible. If a person will only look in an unabridged dictionary of the English language, he will see that some words have many meanings or shades of ideas. This statement being true, one must know these various definitions in order to comprehend rightly the exact meaning of a given passage.

Though I am speaking simply from the English point of view, all Greek and Hebrew students know that the same principles apply with reference to the original text.

Whenever a word does have a number of meanings, we must select that one which will accord with all the facts of a given context, and which will not clash with any other plain statement of truth.


Our English dictionaries give the current meaning of words as they are employed now by the best speakers and writers. They also give colloquial usages. The Bible employs a certain definite usage that was current when the Scriptures were given.

Words sometimes now have a meaning entirely different from what they had when our translation was made or when spoken originally.

For instance, a prophet was simply a spokesman from God who delivered a message to the people. Sometimes he discussed things past; on other occasions, matters regarding things present in his day; and often those things lying in the future. At the present time, the word, "prophetic," as we have already noticed, is largely used with reference to future things. There are many changes that have taken place in our language. This fact demands that we compare scripture with scripture in order to see the usage to which a term was applied then. We must not therefore read back into the Scriptures definitions of words as they are being used today; because, as stated, practices have been introduced and changes have been made which have definitely determined present-day usage.

We cannot therefore afford to read back into the Scriptures ideas and definitions of words as employed today unless we see from all the facts that the current meaning is in conformity with the biblical usage.

 The Revised Version puts the original meaning of the Word of God in our current vernacular. It is a most excellent translation and presents the message of the original text more nearly accurately than former official versions. For this reason I always insist on everyone's using the Revised Version.


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Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society, where other
outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper and Burl Haynie may be accessed.