A Primer for Reading, Interpreting, and Applying Scripture

Note: This post is intended for the lay person. Yes, I’m fully aware that a doctrine of scripture as well as our hermeneutics are a bit more complicated. Please save the hipster pseudo-intellectual comments for another post. 


Suggestion: If possible, use a bible that has a thorough index and cross-references for verses. In addition, make use of commentaries (single volume or multi-volume) and a study bible (recommendations below)

 Principles to affirm concerning Scripture

  1. With the communion of saints of all times and places, we insist that Holy Scripture is the Word of God, and that no prophecy of scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation but by men carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).
  2. God’s authority is exercised primarily through Holy Scripture.
  3. Scripture is infallible – it will never lead us astray.

Principles to affirm concerning interpretation

  1. Humility, prayer, and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit are necessary conditions of reading and interpreting Scripture.
  2. Scripture stands over us; we do not stand over Scripture.
  3. We must avoid narrow, subjective, individualistic interpretations. Scripture should be interpreted in community so that our brothers and sisters and Christ can affirm, encourage, rebuke, and correct accordingly.
  4. We should expect Scripture to convict us of sin and make us uncomfortable.
  5. The Word of God is a stepping stone as well as a stumbling block. We should not be surprised when the Word of God offends us or contradicts our experiences.

Questions to ask while reading Scripture

Bible reading lenses – Zoom in, zoom out, and zoom in again:  Passage –> Book –> Canon –> Book –> Passage

  1. The Individual Passage
    1. What are the key themes of the passage?
    2. Are there any words or ideas that are clearly emphasized?
    3. Does the passage explicitly or implicitly refer to another passage of scripture? (use your verse cross references and Bible index)
  1. Book
    1. What was the original historical context of the book?
    2. Do we know anything about the meaning of the passage in its context?

i.      What is the situation of the original recipients of the book/letter/gospel?

ii.      Do we (or can we) know anything about the author’s intent?

  1. Canon
    1. Does the Bible as a whole address the themes of the passage in question?
    2. If the author has written another book/letter, does the other books/letters provide clues?
    3. Old Covenant / New Covenant – Is the passage speaking to a topic, theme, or instruction that has fundamentally changed throughout the course of biblical history due to God’s explicit instruction? (e.g. – removal of circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws in the New Covenant)

Boundaries of Orthodoxy

  1. Is our interpretation concerned with an essential or nonessential issue? Are we questioning the Incarnation of Christ (essential) or are we questioning whether or not candles should be used in worship (nonessential)?
  2. Can the creeds and/or our confessional tradition assist us in our interpretation?
  3. Are we pursuing catholicity in our interpretations? Are we considering whether the global church has offered a majority interpretation of the passage, theme, or issue at hand?
  4. Based on Christian orthodoxy, does the burden of proof lie with our interpretation or with another interpretation?


  1. Scripture is not primarily about us. While Scripture does speak to us and instruct is in the ways of righteousness, Scripture is not a “self-help manual.” Rather, it is the narrative by which we understand who God is and who we are in relationship to him.
  2. Scripture is not merely pragmatic or utilitarian. Usually, the “application” of a passage is not concerned with how we’re to feel or what we’re to do, but simply that God is worthy of our praise in every circumstance.
  3. If we are always comforted by scripture, we are probably not reading scripture honestly

Helpful Commentaries

Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book

N.T Wright’s For Everyone series (for individual books of the NT)

John Goldingay For Everyone series (for individual books of the OT)

Barton and Muddiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary

Wenham, Motyer, Carson, and France, eds., New Bible Commentary

Dunn and Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible

Carsonand Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament

Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament

Recommended Study Bibles

The Archaeological Study Bible

The ESV Study Bible

Harper Collins Study Bible


  1. #1 by Jim Truesdell on March 13, 2012 - 1:45 am

    Very helpful. Thank you, as always.

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