How does language influence our ability to understand and interpret Scripture?
Biblical interpretation is all about language. Correctly handling the language of the Bible is just one of several key aspects of rightly dividing the Word of God. The following are some brief examples of fundamental principles of biblical interpretation related to the use of language. Since most who read this will not be fluent in biblical Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, these principle will apply especially to the use of the native language you use for Bible reading and study.
—Correctly Interpreting words.
In John 20:17, Mary encounters the resurrected Jesus outside the tomb and is filled with joy. Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father” (NIV). The KJV translates this verse: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father…” Is Jesus telling her not to cling to Him because He has places to go and things to do, or is he suggesting, as some have unfortunately interpreted, that she shouldn’t be touching Him because His resurrected body was not yet glorified? A little Bible study will quickly reveal that Jesus allowed others—even encouraged others— to “touch” Him before His ascension (Jn. 20:27, etc).
—Correctly Interpreting words within their context.
A standard rule of interpretation is that a text without a context is a pretext. What that means is that, without the context being taken into consideration, the meaning of a Bible verse or verses can be badly distorted.
For example, some have erroneously taught that Jeremiah 1:5 refers to the pre-existence of the human soul before a person is born. The only way one can arrive at that conclusion is to completely ignore the context, which has to do with God’s foreknowledge and plan for Jeremiah’s role as a prophet of Israel.
Context also includes the historical, archeological and cultural contexts, especially when dealing with issues that are unfamiliar to us today. All of these play a very important role in understanding Scripture properly.
—Correctly Interpreting Language Style.
The Bible contains a rich variety of styles, each with its own rules of interpretation. Here is a sampling
Poetry (Psalms; Son of Solomon)
Symbolism (John 1: 8-9)
Narrative (John 1:6-7)
Allegory (Hagar, Galatians 4)
History (Kings; Chronicles)
Parables (Matthew 13)
You can imagine the chaos if Poetry were interpreted as apocalyptic or allegory as history. Yet, this is often what happens when a verse of Scripture is read and interpreted without an understanding of the language style being used.
God’s wants His Word to be understood by everyday people. And so God Himself exhorts us: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).