Rightly Understanding God's Word: The Literal, Grammatical-Historical Method
You may have heard a preacher or read a Bible commentator talk about using the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. This descriptive title means that we interpret the Bible according to its normal, grammatical, historical significance. In other words, we understand the words and sentences according to the way they were normally used by the speakers of the language. It also means that we understand the words and sentences in their historical context. Using the grammatical-historical method means we interpret the Bible in light of:
1. The original languages of the Bible. The Bible was not originally written in English. We must understand the meaning of the words and sentences in the languages in which they were originally written.
2. The historical/cultural settings of the Bible. The various authors of the books of the Bible lived at a time in history and in a culture that was, in many respects, quite different from our modern techno-culture. Communication is highly influenced by one’s culture and place in history.
3. The literary genres of the Bible. The word genre means kind. Literary genre simply means different kinds of literature. Poetry, for example, is a different kind of literature than historical narrative, and there are different principles for understanding it. Since the Bible contains different kinds of literature, we must take into consideration how meaning is expressed differently in each kind.
4. The universal and particular principles of communication and understanding. There are certain principles that govern the way people communicate. Some of these principles are universal: they are the same for all people at all times regardless of their language, ethnic background, culture, or point of view. All people who want to communicate, for example, assume that the claim they are making cannot be both true and false in the same sense. This is called the principle of non-contradiction. Everyone who communicates does so on the basis of this principle. Some principles are peculiar to the fact that we are interpreting the Word of God. If the Bible is inspired (God-breathed) and inerrant then our interpretation must take this into consideration.
5. The preunderstanding and presuppositions of the interpreter. These words, preunderstanding and presuppositions, refer to the points of view, the perspectives, the background, and the assumptions of the reader. A person who assumes that God does not exist, for example, will interpret the Bible quite differently from a person who believes that God does exist. Our assumptions and perspectives play a significant role when we try to understand the meaning of the text.
These are some of the basic factors that are important in good Bible study.
Along with this, I would like to point out Article XV of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, with commentary by Norman L. Geisler:
WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.
WE DENY the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.
The literal sense of Scripture is strongly affirmed here. To be sure the English word literal carries some problematic connotations with it. Hence the words normal and grammatical-historical are used to explain what is meant. The literal sense is also designated by the more descriptive title grammatical-historical sense. This means the correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed.
The Denial warns against attributing to Scripture any meaning not based in a literal understanding, such as mythological or allegorical interpretations. This should not be understood as eliminating typology or designated allegory or other literary forms which include figures of speech (see Articles X, XIII, and XIV).
These principles, along with the Christ-centered understanding of Scripture previously mentioned, help ensure that the following words of the Apostle Peter are consistently practiced in Church life:
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (II Peter 1:20-21 NASB emphasis added)