I purposed to read this book because it has been sitting on my shelf for a few years now and I’ve never read it all the way through! It’s only 125 pages and Dr. Sproul has a way of communicating so easily, you feel like you’re having a conversation face to face. I realized today that I have his first edition published in 1977, but he has since released a revised 2009 version which I would recommend as a better choice simply because it contains updated reference materials.
It is a “booklet” and not a series of volumes because his purpose is to “offer basic, common-sense guidelines to help serious readers study scripture profitably” (p. 12). And he does just that.
The book can basically be split into two parts: why you should study the Bible and practical ways to do so. In the first half he debunks myths about the difficulty and irrelevance of scripture, discusses reasons why private Bible study is so important, and introduces the terms “exegesis” and “eisogesis.” He uses these terms throughout the rest of the book to illustrate “good” interpretation of scripture versus “bad.” The term “exegesis” means to explain what scripture says (“to get out of the words the meaning that is there, no more no less.”) The term “eisogesis” means reading into the text subjectively. This is what we must not do.
Chapter 4 is where the rubber really meets the road and in it Dr. Sproul lists ten practical rules for Biblical interpretation. I’ll briefly outline them:
1. The Bible is to be read like any other book – in the sense that it is literature and we must pay attention to what literary genre we are reading at any point in the book (he further explains this principle of sensus literalis in Chapter 3). The exception here is in spritual application. He says:
For the spiritual benefit of applying the words of Scripture to our lives, prayer is enormously helpful. To illuminate the spiritural significance of a text the Holy Ghost is quite important. But to discern the difference between historical narrative and metaphor, prayer is not a great help… (p. 64)
2. Read the Bible Existentially – put yourself in the shoes of the characters you read about in scripture. Try to empathize with them so that you better understand what you’re reading.
3. Historical narratives are to be interpreted by the didactic – “didactic” means to teach or to instruct. What he is saying is scripture that clearly teaches a principle should “interpret” a historical record and not the other way around. One reason for this is to warn against drawing too many inferences from records of what people do (for example some men argue that it is the Christian’s duty to make “visitations of mercy” on the Sabbath because Jesus did. But Jesus never commands us to do this. His example showed that it was permissible but not necessary.) Also the Bible records both the virtues and the vices of its characters. We should be careful to take teaching as teaching and narrative as narrative.
4. The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit – basically, read what the text actually says (explicitly) before you try to infer something (implicitly).
5. Determine carefully the meaning of words – get a Bible dictionary and use it. Don’t just look up the meaning of the English words (although that’s a helpful first step if you don’t know what they mean) but look up the Hebrew or Greek word in a lexicon. Also words can have multiple meanings, so figure out what it means in context.
6. Note the presence of parallelisms in the Bible – there are three basic types: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic. Synonymous says basically the same thing twice, but slightly differently. Antithetic parallelism sets two parts in contrast to each other. They may say the same thing by way of negation. Synthetic parallelism is more of a progressive “staircase” movement of two lines leading to a third line of conclusion. Noting and understanding parallelism can help us understand what we’re reading and also safeguard against misinterpretations.
7. Note the difference between Proverb and Law – I loved Dr. Sproul’s definition: “Proverbs are catchy little couplets designed to express practical truisms.” They are not hard and fast laws or promises of God. How many times have I heard parents quote “Train up a child in the way he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6) as if God were duty-bound to keep children from falling away if we parent well enough? Hopefully we understand this is a principle and not a law.
8. Observe the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law – “God is concerned with the heart as well as with the act” (p. 93).
9. Be careful with parables – they aren’t always allegorical (as with the Parable of the Sower. It clearly is because Jesus explains it fully). The rule of thumb is that there is “one central meaning” to parables, but even that can’t be rigidly applied. Consult several commentaries.
10. Be careful with predictive prophecy – especially apocalyptic prophecy in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. Again, consult several commentaries.
I would recommend this book to a new(er) Christian interested in learning how to study scripture. I would also recommend it as a refresher for Christians starting a new Bible reading plan. It contains solid principles and practical advice about how to get the most out of your private study. As Dr. Sproul says, no one can offer a “magic formula for perfect success in understanding each text of the Bible,” but he offers great help in recognizing and solving many common problems. This booklet will make you want to dive into scripture with enthusiasm!
Pick it up on Amazon here