The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures

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 -

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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.

In our previous nine Shofars, we've been treated to sound instruction by Dr. David L. Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, in interpreting Scripture, a critical skill to master, particularly in an age in which the Babel of interpretations is legion. With "Rules of Interpretation," a study that will span perhaps seventeen Shofars, we are engaging what will be our most extensive and detailed study thus far on the topic and continuing to hone our skills in rightly dividing the Word of Truth that we might be clear and accurate voices for the Lord. Let us apply ourselves. - Editor

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Dr. David L. Cooper

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In our last Shofar, the section of "Rules of Interpretation" that was presented was entitled, "Part Three: Rules of Interpretation Proper - Rule 1: Discover the Author, the People Addressed, and the Life and Times of the People Involved in a Given Case." what is presented herein is Dr. Cooper's "Explanation" of Rule 1. To review Rule 1, please go to Rule 1.

Part Three: Rules of Interpretation Proper

"The knowledge of certain rules of interpretation and the observance of these rules when studying the Scriptures is very important and helpful in arriving at a clear understanding of God's Word."

Rule 1: Discover the Author, the People Addressed,
and the Life and Times of the People Involved in a Given Case


"Very few people ever observe this rule in their Bible-reading."


The First Step in Interpretation

In Our First Study

In our first study of the laws of interpretation we have seen the importance of this subject. Most of our troubles and ills are due to misunderstandings of what others have said. These misunderstandings are always the occasion of hard feelings and often trouble. Much, therefore, of our troubles and difficulties would be avoided if we only understood accurately and clearly what the other person says, promises, and the like. The same thing is true with reference to his understanding us and our intentions and promises.

As stated in the initial study of this subject, the first principle to be discussed in this series is what might be designated as "the first rule of interpretation." This rule may be stated as follows:

The first step in interpreting the Scriptures is to discover the author, the people addressed, and the life and times of the people involved in a given case.

At first glance one may say that this is such a simple rule that it needs little or no discussion. Such a view is indeed superficial. Very few people ever observe this rule in their Bible-reading. In my making this statement I am speaking from observation and my contacts with people. In tens of thousands of instances, I see how the Scriptures are generally treated.

To bring the points before us immediately I wish to call attention to a letter. At the office of the Biblical Research Society we receive thousands of letters from all parts of the world. When I attempt to read one, if the name and address of the writer are not given on the envelope, I immediately look at the beginning of the communication to see the place from which the letter was written. Then I look at the end to find the writer's name. I also notice the date. If I am acquainted with the author and know something about his home, his life, his labors, and his general outlook, I can enter very sympathetically into whatever he has to say. On the other hand, if I receive a letter from a stranger, of whom I have not even heard, and he begins his letter by talking about the special business which he has in mind or the thing he wishes to bring before me, I cannot enter sympathetically into what he says so much as I can if he tells me who he is, his outlook, his intentions in writing, and other data that will make me better acquainted, with him. Let me say that I receive letters of both types. Sometimes there develops quite an extended correspondence concerning some matter and a number of letters are exchanged between us on the one hand and the original writer on the other. We always keep carbon copies of every letter written, which are put on file. As the correspondence develops, frequently we have an occasion to refer to a letter of a given date in order to make a point which we have in mind. It often is necessary to state that a given letter is the second, third, or fourth one of the correspondence. Very frequently it becomes necessary for one, in order to understand one letter of a series, to read the entire correspondence from both sides just as it developed. In so doing a person gets the picture clearly before his mind.

Whenever the correspondence is about some business or legal matter, the date and the place become of vital importance as well as the writer and the one addressed. It is of the greatest importance to know the author of a letter or a document and the one addressed. This is clearly seen by such a case as this: One person writes to another and promises to give him ten thousand dollars. Should that letter fall into my hands, I would have no right in claiming the ten thousand dollars; because the letter was not addressed to me. The same thing is true with reference to the Scriptures. The sacred writers wrote to different individuals and groups of people. They made various promises in behalf of the Lord to certain ones. Before I can claim such a promise, I must know that that document was written to me directly or to someone or ones occupying a position in relation to God such as I likewise sustain to Him. If therefore I have the same standing before God that the one to whom a special promise has been made, I can claim the same promise upon the principle that the Lord is no respecter of persons and that what He would do for a certain one in my exact position He would do for me.

Example: Each State of the Union Has its Own Laws

Each state of the Union has its own laws. What is law in California may not necessarily be on the statute books of the state of New York and vice versa. Of course basically the laws of each state are practically the same, but local conditions of course make necessary changes in amendments or modifications that are not required in another state. The same thing is true with reference to the laws of the United States in relation to other nations. English law is one thing; German law is another. We must understand those things if we are to comply with the laws of the country in which we live or are residing temporarily. The same principle holds true in the Scriptures. God spoke certain things to the people in the Patriarchal Age. His revelations met the conditions then existing. It seemed that the Lord dealt with the individuals and tribes or clans during those primitive times. Finally, when Israel developed into a nation, He delivered her from Egyptian bondage and delivered unto her the Mosaic Code together with her sacrificial and ceremonial worship. Thus Moses and the prophets spoke directly to Israel and their outlook as a rule was from the legal standpoint.

Example: When the Fullness of the Time Came, God Brought His Son into the World

When the fullness of the time came, God brought His Son into the world who suffered and died in order that we might have redemption full and free through Him. He has thus opened up a new and living way by means of the veil of His flesh, which was rent on the cross. He has thus entered into a new covenant with all believers who will accept His invitation to come and find rest. Thus what was spoken to Israel nationally is not necessarily applicable to the church of God today and vice versa. A failure to recognize this plain distinction has led to untold confusion. Many of the older theologians made no distinction between the children of Israel and the church of God. Thus indiscriminately they applied what the prophets spoke to Israel nationally to the church of today. They were always, however, careful to see that the curses and the threats hurled at national Israel are not to be applied to the church.

Let us be a little more specific. What Moses and the prophets spoke to the nation of Israel as a people should not be applied to anyone else except Israel. If we see in a given passage a certain fundamental basic principle set forth, we may apply the principle to an analogous case. But we must be certain that the analogy exists before we make an application of the principle. When God, for instance, promised to enter into a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, which would be different from the one into which He entered when He brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, we are to understand that this is a very definite promise to the Jewish people. This prediction is found in Jeremiah 31:31ff. God entered into a specific covenant with Israel when He brought her out of the land of Egypt and led her to Sinai (Exodus 24). Now He says to the same nation that He will enter into a new covenant with her, but that it is to be different from the one which He made with her formerly. The language is specific. By no method of mental gymnastics can anyone twist this passage to mean anything else other than what it says.

In Hebrews, chapter 8, a part of this marvelous prediction from Jeremiah, chapter 31, is quoted. Some theologians have concluded that, since Paul in Hebrews quotes this passage, and since he is speaking about Christ in the realities that we now have in Him, the prediction of Jeremiah was completely fulfilled in the Christian Dispensation by the coming of Christ who enters into a covenant with every believer. This is incorrect reasoning.

The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to the nation of Israel, who at the time of the writing had been evangelized. The Jews everywhere had heard the word but had not accepted - only a few here and there received Jesus as Messiah and Saviour. The writer therefore called upon the Jewish nation to consider Jesus as the Apostle and High Priest of their confession (Hebrews 3:1). In the fourth chapter Paul said that the Jews of His day had been evangelized as the Hebrews of Moses' day had been, but that the word of hearing had not profited them because it was not mingled with faith. Thus it was with the Jews of Paul's day. The gospel had been given to the entire nation, but only a few had accepted it by faith.

One can continue to go through the Book of Hebrews and study it carefully. Such a one will find that this majestic Epistle was addressed to the entire nation--unbelievers as well as believers. It was God's final call to the Jewish nation of the First Century to accept Christ while it was called "To-day." Those who had heard, but who had not heeded, needed the exhortation to take the initial step of accepting Christ as Saviour and Messiah. Those who had accepted Christ, but who were still babes, needed the exhortation of the Epistle urging them to go forward in their Christian life and experience. But in his speaking to the nation, as a group, Paul urged his brethren to accept Christ, who is the Apostle and High Priest of their confession, in order that He might fulfill the promise which He made to Israel nationally through Jeremiah in chapter 31. Thus a New Testament application of this passage is in perfect accord with the original prediction in its proper setting. It constitutes a promise that God will yet enter into covenant relationship with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Whenever the messages of the prophets to Israel are thus analyzed and understood in their proper setting it is seen that the prophets meant exactly what they said and that they held out their promises to Israel nationally and likewise threatened them with punishment in the event of disobedience.

Example: The Book of Psalms

The Book of Psalms is Israel's songbook. In it are expressed the national hopes as well as the longing of the individual soul for God and a closer walk with Him. To ignore the fact that the Psalms constitute Israel's songbook and to apply them indiscriminately to the believers today is to pervert the Scriptures. Most of these hymns are nationalistic in their outlook and are spoken either directly to Israel as a nation or concerning her. Most of them speak either of Israel's Messiah or the great Messianic Age when He, the King of Israel, comes to reign in glory and power. There are, however, certain psalms that are of an individual nature, such as Psalms 1, 23, and 25. Here are promises that are made to individual believers who are trusting in God.

The writers of these songs expressed, by inspiration, thoughts relative to the relationship that exists between God and the individual believer. One may see the principles in this portion of the Word and then apply them to cases that are analogous with that set forth in the Psalms. Such is a legitimate handling of the Word. For instance, David was a true son of God and trusted Him. He thus could claim the promises of protection and the like. The believer stands in a relation to God similar to that in which David did. He, however, is brought closer to God than was David, but in general the relationship is similar; therefore the believer today can take the principles set forth in these individualistic psalms and can apply them to his own case. In doing this he is legitimately using the Scriptures.

Example: The Book of Job

Again, let us look at the Book of Job. One must study the situation presented in this book in order to interpret it properly. After the introduction, which consists of chapters 1 and 2, we enter into the speeches that were made by Job and his would-be comforters; These are found in chapters 3-37. As one studies these carefully, one sees that all of these men made incorrect statements. Some of them, however, are absolutely contrary to fact. Job's friends did not understand the great fundamental principles of the truth as a rule. He, however, did understand them more nearly correctly than they, and yet he at times approached the point of blasphemy against God. That Job's friends did misunderstand and did misrepresent God is clear from the statement of the Almighty when He appeared upon the scene: "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2). The Lord's charging these men with darkening counsel without knowledge shows that they were not inspired in their utterances. Many of the things which they said were correct, but many were incorrect, and some positively wrong. Since Job, along with his friends, did make mistakes in their statements, we conclude that those chapters which thus present their speeches were not originally inspired. But let me hasten to emphasize the fact that the writer of the Book of Job was infallibly inspired and has given us a faithful account of what was said and done by these actors in this great drama. There is a difference between the inspiration of the sacred writer and the lack of inspiration on the part of the original speakers and actors. I might compare the infallibility of the Spirit by which the writer of the book was guided with this ediphone into which I am now speaking. As I talk, this machine records faithfully everything that I say. Thus it gives an exact record of what I speak. If I chose, I could make false statements and even contradictions. This machine would record the contradictions and the false statements that I make just as accurately as it will the correct ones. Thus we conclude that the entire Book of Job was infallibly inspired by the Spirit of God who told us exactly what was said and done on this occasion. But it is a mistake to quote any of the utterances of Job and his friends and present them as God's infallible revelation to man - because they are not. It is simply the inspired record of what men said and did, often in the heat of controversy. But the prologue, chapters 1 and 2, and the sequel to the story, chapters 38-42, are revelations that the sacred writer made to us as he spoke infallibly by the Spirit. A person may therefore quote anything in chapters 1, 2 and 38-42 as the inspired revelation of God. But he dare not lift the material found in chapters 3-37 to the level of a revelation from God.

Thus in our study of the Scriptures we must learn who is the speaker, to whom he speaks, under what conditions, at what time, and for what purpose. The Book of Job illustrates the importance of this rule.

Example: The Book of Ecclesiastes

What has been said about Job is correct also with reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes. Throughout the book the Wise Man tells us how he thought that he could find pleasure and amusement in this thing and that thing. In other words, he gives his spiritual biography. Some of the things that he said and thought were correct whereas others were not. Finally, the Holy Spirit guided him infallibly to write this spiritual biography, which he concluded with this divine revelation: "13. This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. 14. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14).

Example: The New Testament

Let us now come to the New Testament. We see the four records of the one Gospel in the form of the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Tradition tells us that Matthew wrote his record of the Gospel for the Jews, that Mark wrote for the Romans, and that Luke wrote for the Greeks. The historical facts seem to support this tradition. John wrote to convince unbelievers and to combat certain heresies and false systems of philosophy that were disquieting to the early disciples.

Because Matthew was written primarily for the edification of the Jewish people, some excellent brethren conclude that that record of the Gospel is not for Christians today. Thus everything that is said in it is applied to the Jews.

The Sermon on the Mount is said to be for the Jews and not for Christians. Following the same course of logic, we would say that, since Mark was written primarily for the Romans, it has no message for us today. Following the same rule, we would come to a similar conclusion with reference to Luke. We could not avoid coming to a like decision with reference to John. Upon this principle, then, we are robbed entirely of the four records of the Gospel. The Acts of the Apostles was written to Theophilus and is historical. Some have concluded, therefore, that it is not for believers today. Some brethren see that the Epistle to the Romans was written to the church at Rome. If we follow this principle to its logical conclusion, then we would say that the Book of Romans has no message for us. What is said with reference to this Epistle might correctly be said with reference to all the New Testament Epistles to the churches. The pastoral Epistles were written to two young preachers, Timothy and Titus. Hebrews was written to the Jewish nation and constituted "God's final call to Israel of the first century to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah." If we follow this principle we shall say that it has no message for us today, since it was to the Jews of the first century. We can apply the same principle to the general Epistles and likewise to the Book of Revelation. By blindly following this principle and by ignoring many facts we can rob ourselves of the precious message of the New Testament.

There are certain ones who do follow out this principle to its logical conclusion, but they make an exception of the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians--even though these Epistles were written to specific churches. They claim these "prison Epistles" upon the basis that they speak of the body of believers as the body of Christ and declare that there was a change - a radical change - at the end of the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 28). The church from Pentecost until then was Jewish and is the bride of Christ. But believers from 63 A.D. and onward until the rapture (for Acts of the Apostles brings the history of the church to 63 A.D., to the end of Paul's second year of imprisonment in Rome) constitute the body of Christ and are separate from the bride. Those, however, who accept Christ after the rapture of the body of Christ and during the Tribulation, will complete the bride of Christ (generally speaking this is the position to which a number of excellent brethren have been led in their rigidly adopting the principle under discussion while ignoring other plain, evident facts).

Let us look at the facts more particularly. There is but one gospel. The New Testament knows of but one gospel. Paul pronounced an anathema upon anyone who preached any other gospel than that which he preached (Galatians 1:8,9). This one gospel is called "an eternal gospel" in Revelation 14:6 (margin, R.V.). When Paul was giving the plain simple truths concerning Christ's dying for our sins, being buried, being raised for our justification, and offering salvation to all who accept it, he was speaking a plain simple gospel message - "the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24). Paul, who preached the plain simple gospel and thus led men to a saving knowledge of the truth, likewise went about "preaching the kingdom" (Acts 20:25). In the last two verses of Acts Luke tells us that Paul remained in his own hired dwelling and received all that went in unto him, "preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him." Thus the Apostle Paul preached the good news concerning salvation through Christ and the good news concerning the kingdom of God. So does every true gospel preacher. This full gospel message is to be preached, according to Matthew 28:19,20, to the end of this Dispensation of Grace, by the church. After the church is gone and there arise a hundred and forty-four thousand Jewish servants of God (Revelation, chap. 7) they will go about preaching "the gospel of the kingdom" for a testimony unto all the nations and then the end of the age will come (Matthew 24:14). In their preaching this gospel of the kingdom they will be proclaiming the same message that the Apostle Paul did when he preached the good news concerning the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

If there is but one gospel, how, for instance, are we to understand the Book of Matthew? Matthew wrote by inspiration a record of the life and the sayings of the Lord Jesus. He was led by the Spirit to present the message of the gospel in such a way as to appeal to his Jewish brethren and in such a manner that they could understand it. His approach was logically from the standpoint of the Old Testament. He therefore emphasized the fact that the Old Testament predictions concerning the Messiah were fulfilled in Christ. Matthew's record of the one gospel is Jewish only in this one particular: the Apostle was led by the Spirit of God to put the message in such a way that the Jew could understand what Christ said and did.

Mark, we are told, wrote for the Romans. By the Spirit of God he understood the proper approach toward the Romans. He therefore was inspired to give an account of the life and teachings of our Lord and to present them in such a way as to appeal to the Roman mind. This Gospel is for the Romans only in one particular, namely that it was put in such a way as to appeal to them. But it is a record of the one gospel of God's grace and loving-kindness. The Gospel written by Luke was sent primarily for the Greeks who loved beauty and elegance of expression. Luke, the beloved physician, was inspired by the Spirit to put the record of the one gospel in such a way as to appeal to the Greek mind.

John, on the other hand, was led by the Spirit to select the proper material from the life of Christ and to put it in such a way as to appeal to the honest doubter. John presented in his record the one message of the gospel. His record therefore is for the doubters only in that it was presented in such a manner as to appeal to the honest skeptics.

I might illustrate the situation which is presented by the four records of the Gospel by calling attention to Sunday School literature. A certain section of scripture or a certain subject is selected for the study on a given Lord's Day. Writers who understand psychology and who especially understand the proper approach to children of different ages are selected by the Sunday School boards of the various churches to write the proper type of literature for those who are in the following departments: Beginners, Primary, Junior, Intermediate, and Senior. Some have other divisions, but these are the principal ones. The message that is in the literature for the Beginners is the same as that which is in the quarterlies for the Seniors, but of course it is put in the simplest manner in order that those in that department may get the message to the best of their ability. What is said of the Beginners is true also of those in the Primary, those in the Junior, those in the Intermediate, and those in the Senior departments. The way of giving the message and the approach to the subject are different in the case of each of the classes of the different departments, but the message is the same. In the Apostolic Age there were four types of people with their varying backgrounds and outlooks upon life. Matthew, led by the Spirit of God, presented the one Gospel--which is for the entire world--in such a way that the Jews could get it. But that which is in his record is not a special message for the Jews, and the Jews only.

What is in Mark is not simply God's particular message for the Romans, exclusive of all other people. The same is true with reference to Luke and John. As we read these four records of the one Gospel, we must be careful to see who is talking and to whom his speech is directed and under what conditions the statements presented were made. Frequently the time when a statement was made has bearing upon its proper interpretation; because some statements presuppose certain conditions. The Apostle Paul recognized that there was but one Gospel and that the words of the Lord Jesus Christ have been preserved for His people. Thus he said to Timothy, "If any man teacheth a different doctrine, and consented not to sound words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is puffed up ..." (I Timothy 6:3). The words of our Lord are found in all four records of the Gospel, and they have been preserved for us, for our edification and up building.

The Acts of the Apostles, though written at first to Theophilus, is for our edification and enlightenment. In it there are various speakers. The sermons that were preached are of inestimable value to us today.

Though the Roman Epistle was directed and sent to the church in the world metropolis at that time, it is a general treatise on the gospel. It sets forth the great fundamental doctrines of the gospel of Christ and is for everyone who sustains the same relationship to God that the Roman Christians did. The letters to the church at Corinth were sent primarily to the body of believers in that city. And yet in the first verse of the first Epistle Paul says that the letter is for everyone, regardless of where he is or where he lives, just so he believes in the Lord Jesus. Thus those letters are of universal application to those who sustain the same relationship to Christ and God as did those Corinthians. What is said of these letters and the Roman Epistle may be correctly said of all the other Epistles to churches found in the New Testament. Each of the twenty-seven books found in the New Testament is an integral part of a whole. Each part has its special function in revealing the mind and will of God to us today. What Paul said in regard to the Old Testament is correct with reference to the New also. "16. Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: 17. that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16,17).


The knowledge of certain rules of interpretation and the observance of these rules when studying the Scriptures is very important and helpful in arriving at a clear understanding of God's Word.

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Links to prior studies in the "Rules of Interpretation" series may found in our Library

Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society, where other outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper may be found.
Links to the entire "Rules of Interpretation" series may be found at
A brief biography of Dr. Cooper appears at http://www.hadavar.org/brsocietyfounder.html.

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