Tactics and Tools

The What, Why, and How of Interpreting Any Bible Passage

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 07/11/2023

I love thinking of memorable ways to learn important principles. When it comes to biblical interpretation, it’s critical to remember how to properly interpret the Bible. After all, the Bible is the Word of God, and its words are the most important words ever penned. Therefore, it’s critical we read it and understand it the way God intended.

Whether you realize it or not, you have a system of interpreting any biblical text. The only question is whether your system helps or hinders your ability to understand what God is saying in his Word.

In the past, I’ve emphasized three key principles of biblical interpretation: context, history, and genre. Each of these has a corresponding question. For context, you’re supposed to ask what the author is talking about. For history, you’re supposed to ask what the historical occasion is for why the author is writing. For genre, you’re supposed to ask what literary style the author is using to communicate.

It occurred to me that these three principles (and their corresponding questions) can be remembered in a different way: what, why, and how. For some people, this might be an easier way to remember them.

  • The “what” question: What is the author talking about? This is the question about context.
  • The “why” question: Why is the author writing? This is the question about history.
  • The “how” question: How is the author communicating? This is the question about genre.

If you get in the habit of asking these questions, it will go a long way towards helping you avoid the most common interpretive mistakes. These mistakes, by the way, aren’t just minor missteps. When you misinterpret a biblical text, you are not only missing out on God’s intended meaning (and possibly his commands), but you are also probably putting words into God’s mouth. That’s not good.

You might want to know that I’ve produced a free course on how to interpret the Bible, and it’s available at Stand to Reason University.