By: Mark McGee / GraceLife Ministries

This study quotes heavily from the college textbook titled "Methodical Bible Study: A New Approach to Hermeneutics" by Dr. Robert Traina.

Interpretive Questions

Interpretive questions
"Interpretive questions are those questions arising from and based on the observations of terms, structure, general literary forms, and atmosphere whose answers will result in the discovery of their full meaning. In fact, they frame in question form the various phases of interpretation, namely, definition, reasons, and implications."

The interpretive question is the intermediate step between observation and interpretation. It's how you get from what you see to what you understand it to mean. It can be part of our observation while at the same time moving us naturally towards interpretation. When we "observe" someone's writing, we often ask ourselves questions about why they wrote it. Those questions are part of the interpretive process. If we never question what we see, our understanding is limited, even shallow and incomplete.

Here's a method I've used to make observations and ask questions for interpretation. Feel free to come up with your own way to observe. The key is having some way to record what you see and what you ask. I chose Eph.1:1 as an example of how to observe and ask questions for interpretation.

This is not complete nor exhaustive; it's just an example. The first time I wrote the questions, it took too many pages. I cut the questions back because it's an example. Let your curiosity go when you observe and ask questions about a verse of Scripture. You want to find everything possible. Don't leave any thought unasked or unanswered. Those final questions could be the key to unearthing great truths!


V. 1 -- The Apostle Paul is the writer of this letter. He starts the letter off with his name. He says he is an "apostle" of Jesus Christ by the will of God." He is writing the letter to "the saints in Ephesus." He calls them "the faithful in Christ Jesus."

Interpretive Questions

V. 1 -- Why does Paul begin the letter with his name? Was that a standard way of beginning letters during that time? What does the name "Paul" mean? Was that always Paul's name. What's his background? Where was he born? How did he become an important figure in the New Testament? When did Paul write the letter? Where was he when he wrote the letter? What's an "apostle?" Why did Paul start off this letter by telling people what he was? Is there some significance to that? Does he start all his letters by telling people he's an apostle? If not, why not? What does it mean to be an apostle "of" Jesus Christ? What did Christ's apostles do? What was their purpose in the early church? Why did Paul emphasize that he was an apostle of Jesus Christ "by the will of God?" What's the significance of that? Was he trying to prove something to someone? If so, why? Was this a standard thing for him to say to churches? If not, where did he use and where did he not use it in other letters? What's the significance of that? Where is Ephesus? Had Paul been there before? How did he know these people? What's the meaning of the word "saints?" Is that what Paul usually called Christians in different cities? Is a "saint" a particular kind of Christian or is it any Christian? Why did he call them faithful? How were they faithful? Are some Christians faithful and others not?

This process of observing and asking questions takes time, but it's the only way to be sure you've seen everything. If you are not careful in the early stages of Bible study, you could reach the wrong conclusions and develop a flawed theology. That's what our world is having to deal with now: flawed ideas about God, His will and the way He works with people. God is often blamed for things that are really the fault of someone's poor Bible study.


Interpretive questions may be classified as term-al, structural, form-al, or atmospheric. Here are examples of each:

Term-al --- In John 17:1 Jesus asks the Father to glorify His Son. What is meant by the term glorify in this context? What is involved in Jesus' being glorified? "Every non-routine term should be similarly subjected to explanatory questions; for unless this is done, terms will become ends in themselves instead of means to an end, symbols through which to grasp realities."

Structural --- Verses 8-9 of Isaiah 55 employ the structural relations of ideological contrast and comparison. "What is meant by contrasting God's ways and thoughts to man's? Wherein are God's ways and thoughts actually different from man's? Wherein do the heavens and earth differ, and how is this difference similar to that between God's thoughts and ways and man's?" The answers will depend on noting the structural relation between verses 8-9, and those that precede, verses 6-7, and asking the proper structural questions based on your observation.

Form-al --- This is an investigation of the definitive question as it relates to the observation of general literary forms. Our questions are about the precise definition of literary forms. If something is written in the poetic form, our questions include: "What is meant by the poetic form? What are its characteristics? What distinguishes it from other forms? Wherein does this portion consist of poetry?"

Atmospheric --- The purpose is to "find the meaning of the terms used to describe the underlying tone of passages and to discover wherein the passages reveal the mood described to them."

We have three primary phases: the definitive or explanatory questions--what does this mean?, the rational questions--why is this said and why is it said here?, and implicational questions--what does this imply?

Along with that are four subordinate questions: the identifying question--who or what is involved?, the modal question--how is this accomplished?, the temporal question--when is this accomplished?, and the local question--where is this accomplished?

You should have several questions for interpretation for every verse of Scripture you study. It's a lengthy, time-consuming process, but it's the only way to be sure your interpretations are correct. If you hurry through the basic stages of Bible Study, you could come to wrong conclusions and improper applications.

Interpretive Answers

Now, let's move on to Interpretive Answers. I will list the main subjective and objective elements necessary to understand this process.

  1. Subjective Determinants
    1. Spiritual Sense --- "There is a moral and spiritual factor residing in the individual which inevitably enters into the process of interpretation. And, although it is intangible, it is just as real and probably more important than those elements which are objective and tangible ... In view of this, Biblical exposition should never be conceived as purely mechanical or intellectual.

      "Spiritual sense is made possible by the presence of certain characteristics. Among them are teachableness, sincerity, and an intimate knowledge of God. The more one possesses these, the more profound will be one's insight into Biblical truth. For they make possible receptivity to God's Spirit, who, having motivated and guided the experience of Scriptural authors, is also their best interpreter."

      Common Sense --- "Its significance lies in the fact that due to their attitude toward the Scriptures, many are overcome by a peculiar outlook which causes them to leave their common sense outside the door when they enter the sanctuary of Biblical interpretation. As a result they look for trick or magical explanations. They are not content to accept the obvious meaning of the text; they must find something sensational in it. Imagery is taken literally, and literal statements are construed figuratively." What we need throughout the study of Scripture is common sense.

    2. Experience --- "...the peculiarities of one's own experience are invariably reflected in the interpretive process ... Each person, then, comes to the Scriptures with a unique experience, and that experience cannot but influence his exposition of Biblical statements ... It may be assumed that if Biblical statements are true, they will correspond with the facts of human existence and experience. If, then, certain interpretations contradict the observable data of life, then one ought at least to question them, if not discard them. One finds that such a comparison of Biblical interpretations with experience often serves as a helpful corrective to erroneous exegesis."
  2. Objective Determinants
    1. Etymology, Usage, Synonyms, Comparative Philology, and Kind of Terms ---

      Etymology of terms includes two factors: their root meaning and their derivative significance. Because of the importance of this item, I use many language aids in my study of the Bible. They will help you also in the areas of usage, synonyms, comparative philology, and kind of terms. Here are some of the language aids I find helpful and recommend to you:

      Old Testament Word Studies, William Wilson Commentary on the Old Testament, C.F. Keil & F. Delitzsch The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Edward Goodrick & John Kohlenberger III The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, Samuel Bagster A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament , Joseph Thayer Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Kenneth Wuest Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin Vincent Word Pictures in the New Testament, A.T. Robertson An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, C.F.D. Moule Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, Barclay Newman Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers New Testament Greek, J. Greham Machen A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, H.E. Dana & Julius Mantey The Greek New Testament, Guy Woods The Text of the New Testament, Bruce Metzger Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr

    2. Signification of Inflections --- This is the study of inflections as used in the original language. You will understand this better when you study Greek and Hebrew.
    3. Implications of Contextual Relations and Interrelations --- This is the study of how terms, phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs relate to each other in the sense of context. The student must always be on guard unless "he forget to utilize some important structural connections in the process of exposition. For such an oversight will eventuate either in erroneous interpretation or at least incomplete interpretation. "
    4. Connotations of General Literary Forms --- Literary forms have a serious bearing on exegesis (interpretation ).
    5. Import of Atmosphere --- "At times the faithful application of the factor of atmosphere is significant in determining the correct answers to interpretive questions ... It should be noted that atmosphere is often closely related to an author's purpose and viewpoint."
    6. Author's Purpose and Viewpoint --- "The proper approach to any work of art in order to guarantee impartial and therefore accurate interpretation is to stand in the shoes of the author himself, to adopt his mentality and peculiar point of view."
    7. Historical Background --- "Because the books of the Bible were written in a specific historical setting, and because they were addressed to those who lived in a concrete historical situation, it is imperative that one utilize their historical background if one is to recreate the message of their authors." Historical background includes "the date, place, and occasion of writing; the identity of the author and the recipients; the characteristics and problems of the readers; contemporary literature, customs, and beliefs; the social, political, geographical, and spiritual environment of author, recipients, and characters, together with their background." You will find hundreds of good reference books on these subjects at Christian and some secular bookstores with an indepth religious book section.
    8. Psychological Factor --- Look for emotions, desires, hopes, motives, thoughts, and attitudes in your study. ..."see beyond the symbols to the reality, namely, the experience of which Scriptural literature is but the product and the means of conveyance."
    9. Ideological Implications --- "Scriptural literature contains many implications which are never explicitly stated. And what is even more significant, some of its implications are more basic and important than those ideas and facts which are overtly expressed. For example, the Scriptures assume at the very outset the self-conscious existence of God. Nowhere in Genesis 1 is there a statement to the effect that God is, and yet this fact is logically necessary for all else. Without it creation would be impossible. Thus when one examines the rational foundation of the term 'create' (bara'), one discovers that it presupposes much more than it outwardly asserts or than is explicitly stated elsewhere in the chapter. And if one were to overlook its implications in its interpretation, one would fail to see that which is even more fundamental than what it distinctly expresses."
    10. Progress of Revelation --- "In the exegesis of the Scriptures, it must be realized that the Divine self-disclosure which they embody partakes of the element of progression. Not only is this true in regard to the movement from the Old Testament to the New Testament, but also in regard to the revelation found within the two Testaments. The process of revelation found in the Scriptures is never static; rather it is is moving, and moving steadily from the lower to the higher, from the lesser to the greater, from the partial to the total, from the temporary to the final."
    11. Organic Unity --- "The essential harmony of the books of the Bible was one of the determinative principles in the formation of the canon. And the more one studies them, the more one becomes convinced of the reality of their fundamental oneness.
    12. Inductive View of Inspiration --- "Sound Biblical exegesis is not possible apart from proper allowance for the dual nature of the Scriptures. For they themselves attest the fact that they consist of Divine revelation realized through human instrumentation. It should be remembered, therefore, that the Divine inspiration which accounts for the experience which produced the Scriptures did not occur in a vacuum. God operated through human agents who had certain mental abilities and certain other talents, whose religious experience was of a certain quality, who lived in a certain environment which involved certain geographical, social, political, economic, and religious factors, and who had a certain heritage. And these specific historical factors inevitably had their influence on the writing of Biblical literature."
    13. Textual Criticism --- "Because we do not posses any of the original Scriptural documents, it sometimes becomes necessary to employ textual or lower criticism in order to ascertain the true reading of the text. Three basic steps are followed in this process. First, the manuscript evidence is collected, investigated, and evaluated. In its evaluation there is a tendency to assign the greatest weight to older manuscripts. Second, when the evidence from the manuscripts is not decisive, the reading which best fits into the context is chosen. And third, if neither manuscript evidence nor the contextual factor is decisive, then the unusual reading is favored. This is done because there would be little occasion to alter the text so as to make possible an unusual reading, whereas it is understandable how a copyist might change it for the purpose of clarification or to make it harmonize with the seeming demands of reason."
    14. Interpretations of Others --- "An investigation of the views of others serves two purposes: first, it confronts one with certain interpretive factors which may have been overlooked or misapplied; and second, it reveals the exegetical conclusions which others, many of whom are experts, have made when they have utilized the available data. Both of these functions are important, but it is the latter which is of primary interest at this point."

Interpretive Integration and Summarization

"After the important interpretive questions raised in connection with a particular unit are answered, there remains the problem of integrating the various answers so as to arrive at the main message of the passage. Sometimes this is at least partially accomplished in the replies to the questions of exposition, since some of them may be integrative in nature."

Here are some of the techniques you can use to integrate and summarize the exegesis of a passage:

  1. "It is sometimes helpful to list the main truths which have been found in a unit of Scripture. In so doing it may be well to attempt to distinguish between the outstanding truth or truths and those which are subordinate."
  2. "One may state the major theme of a passage by the use of a descriptive title or proposition."
  3. "If one is dealing with a segment, especially in narrative literature, it may be beneficial to utilize analytical or interpretive paragraph titles. "
  4. "The employment of an outline is frequently of assistance in integrating and summarizing a passage of Scripture. The outline used may be either topical or logical, depending on the nature of the passage."
  5. "The paraphrase may profitably be used in this capacity."
  6. "The chart is also a helpful means of integration and summarization."
  7. "One may use the essay form in this connection. One or several paragraphs may be written on a unit. There are certain basic integrative questions which may be used as guides. The following are two of them: "How does the structure of the passage reveal its main purpose and message? What are the major contributions of a passage to the larger structural unit of which it is a part?"