When my wife attended seminary, one of the teachers had this saying for explaining why Biblical Interpretation was necessary and identifying areas of particular concern.
The Bible was written to another person who lived in a different time, place, culture and circumstance than you do and spoke a language you don't understand.
Good biblical interpretation takes these things into account. It seeks to understand what the passages meant to their original readers. After that, one can consider how circumstances today might be similar and how the teaching "back then" can apply to people today.
The Bible is not a set of verses that can be removed from their contexts and given meaning apart from their contexts. Any biblical interpretation that does not take the original context and intent into account is very likely to distort the meaning of the original passage and misapply it to people today. (Unfortunately, this is a very common practice.)
Even first-century readers of the Old Testament had to carefully consider the context of the Old Testament, even though they were far closer in time, place, culture and circumstance than we are today. How much more do we need to take these things into account!
So how are we going to be able to take into account all of these differences? We need to ask questions of the text and see what the text tells us. Here are some questions to ask of any biblical text.
A larger discussion of this is beyond the scope of this article. But the idea of good biblical interpretation is to get to the bottom of these and other questions to understand how the original hearers/readers understood what was being said. A good interpreter keeps asking questions. Why is this being said? How does it relate to what else is being said? Why did he say it this way?
As you keep asking questions and discovering answers to those questions, you will gain more and more understanding of what is being said (and just as importantly, what is not being said).
The Bible often uses figures of speech or references to things that would be easily understood by the original hearers, but might be fairly obscure to us. Here are some examples:
Often, we have little familiarity with those things today. Even if we are somewhat familiar with these things, technology and times have changed. The biblical authors generally felt no need to explain these things because they were clearly understood by the audience. Since we don't have that understanding, we have to investigate to learn how things were done in the times of the Bible so that we can understand how that relates to the story.
Let's take an example. When Jesus compares himself to a shepherd, we are missing a key ingredient of what Jesus was intending to communicate if we don't know how first century shepherds managed their flocks.
In the same way, knowing the geography of Bible lands can be of great importance in certain passages.
The point is that biblical authors assumed their readers would understand these things. Since we aren't the original readers and don't live in those places and times, we have to make special effort to understand these things. Even if we learn something about those things, we may not fully understand it like the original readers would have.
There are some good books on geography, Biblical cultures and customs. Archeologists and historians have discovered many things about Bible times. Check the references section for some good books on these matters.
Not every Christian will have the opportunity to study and become an expert on biblical languages, biblical geography, ancient religious traditions, ancient lifestyle customs and the like. But to the extent that Christians can learn about these things, their ability to interpret the Scriptures will be improved accordingly.
Studies about a particular topic seem to be especially important in churches. However, the Bible is not written as a catalog of teachings about doctrines and certain topics (as our Western culture tends to do-- consider our laws and constitution, for example). The Bible discusses faith and practice in the contexts of different peoples in different places, times and circumstances. Topical studies must attempt to understand a topic by considering the Biblical teaching about it in various contexts.
Word studies are often a simple sort of a topical study. Other times, we will want to understand how a certain term was used by Bible writers. With the advent of concordances and now computers, anybody can do "word studies" fairly easily. Many preachers use this as a basis for teaching. However, doing these studies well is another matter.
Topical and word studies have some pitfalls:
The point is that when doing a topical or word study, take special care to consider the context. Be careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions. Think in terms of ideas and concepts, not just simple words.
After making a good effort to understand the individual passages first, you can attempt to harmonize teachings of various passages into something resembling an outline or summary of what those passages teach.
One of the ways in which the Bible communicates to us is through actions of its characters in various places and times and circumstances. But what we do with those examples is important.
Usually, the context can help us out with these questions. We may speak of "approved" and "unapproved" examples. This is a good place to start.
But it is often difficult to discern between what we may do compared to what we must do, or perhaps the thing being done has little or no bearing upon us. Just because we do the same thing a Biblical character did, does not mean we are following the example as intended. For example, the early church met in temple courts. It later met mostly in homes. Do these examples mean we must meet in one of those places where the early church met, or do they mean we may meet in one of those places, or do they just mean that's what the early church did and there is no additional intended meaning by the author beyond that?
Similarly, just because we do what a Bible character did, it does not mean it has the same meaning or impact for us. As an analogy, consider a good musician who wears a tuxedo and performs in a large concert hall. But if somebody else wears a tuxedo, it does not make him a good musician. In logic, this is known as the question of coincidence or causality; we must make the same considerations in Biblical Interpretation.
In the end, examples are a good way for us to understand how Bible writers and readers understood things. For example, there is no evidence that the early church practiced severing limbs or gouging out eyeballs in response to certain sins (ref. Matthew 5:29-30). They early church understood and put these passages into practice as intended.
Sooner or later, you will get to the point of considering "how does this passage apply to my life? How does it apply to my family, my church, or other people I know? Or, in the case of a topical study, you may want to put together some organized statement of facts about that topic so you can put them into practice somehow.
The key to making good applications of Scripture is to realize that when you are in the same situation as a Bible character, God's message to that person is God's message to you.
However, rarely are you in the exact same circumstance as a Bible character. So you have to do the best you can, and consider how the differences might impact how the text applies to you. Let's consider some examples:
Confidence in a biblical teaching or application ought to be based upon the degrees of certainty of the understanding and the applicability of the teaching. To the extent that there is uncertainty or ambiguity about something, there should be reluctance to make such an item a cornerstone of belief or practice, or to rely upon it in one's faith. In my experience, there are usually a lot more questions than answers on just about any topic. So it is important to consider what the Bible teaches and what it does not address.
Learn to interpret well!
The basic rule of biblical interpretation is "understand the context." Scriptures taken out of context have no meaning, as they can be twisted to "say" whatever somebody wants to make them mean. Understanding context defines what something can and cannot mean.
When a particular understanding of a passage is rooted in the context, it builds a solid foundation of truth for what teachings or practices may follow from it.
Good biblical interpretation isn't always easy, nor is it always obvious. But it is a skill that can be learned and developed. In the end, it supports a faith that is solid and based upon the Scriptures as they were intended to be read.