I.B. Grubbs’ Six Rules of Biblical Hermeneutics

I.B. Grubbs, rejecting legalism

When it comes to studying the Bible, it is common for people to come away with their own understanding of the word of God. Many see nothing wrong with this, despite the varied and sometimes conflicting interpretations people have of the Scriptures. However, when Paul wrote to the brethren in Ephesus, he said, “By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). He did not expect each of them to have their interpretation of the epistle he wrote by inspiration. Instead, he expected them to have the same understanding as he did. The only way this could happen is for each one to follow a common set of principles as they try to determine the meaning of a particular passage under consideration.

Isaiah Boone Grubbs (1833-1912) was a preacher and also a professor at the College of the Bible in Lexington, KY at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early part of the twentieth century. In the introduction to his material on the epistles of First and Second Corinthians and Galatians,* he outlined six hermeneutical rules that would allow students of the Bible to properly interpret the text. (Hermeneutics simply means “the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible).”**) These principles are not unique to Bible study; rather, they are the same principles that can be used to correctly identify the meaning behind any body of instruction or teaching.

So let us briefly consider these six rules for Biblical hermeneutics.

Rule #1 – Consider the Context

Interpret every expression in the light of the context, or connection with contiguous statements.

Many verses in the Bible, when isolated from the verses around them, could be interpreted to mean any number of things. Yet the surrounding verses must be considered if we are to correctly understand the verse under consideration. As an example of this, Grubbs cited Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:48 – “Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (ASV). Does this mean we are to be sinlessly perfect as God is? This is a worthy aim, but it is not what Jesus was referring to in this verse. By using the word “therefore,” He connected it with the verses before it which emphasized love – even showing love to our enemies. We are to be like God in this regard and not limit our kindness and love to friends and family, but instead to show love to all.

Rule #2 – Consider Related Passages

Interpret in the light of all that is presented in other passages having any bearing on the matter in hand.

As the previous rule was about considering what is said in the immediate context, this rule is about consulting passages that address the same topic as the verse we are studying. For example, if we are wanting to learn about the purpose and practice of the Lord’s Supper, we would not only read the instructions Jesus gave in instituting this memorial (Matthew 26:26-29). Instead, we would consult other passages that discuss the Lord’s Supper to learn additional relevant information; such as Acts 20:7 to learn when to observe the Lord’s Supper (on the first day of the week) and 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 to learn where to partake of it (in the assembly of the church).

Rule #3 – Remember the Full Meaning

Through the suggestive power of words…a condensed form of expression of necessity implies all that is expressly stated in more elaborate representations of the same manner.

In other words, when the Bible speaks of something like faith, we are to understand it in light of its full meaning, not a partial meaning. In the New Testament, faith is described as a belief in God, a trust in Him to keep His promises, a conviction about the truthfulness of what is yet unseen, and an obedience to His word (Hebrews 11:6, 1; James 2:26). Therefore, when Paul wrote that we are “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), he did not mean we are justified by merely believing in the Lord; instead, as we believe, trust, and obey Him, we are justified in His sight.

Rule #4 – Understand the Author’s Purpose

No interpretation of a passage can be accepted that is manifestly inconsistent with the known purpose of the author.

We have to know why a particular passage or book of the Bible was written if we are to correctly apply it. Otherwise, if we take a verse in which an inspired writer was combatting some error and ignore the purpose of the passage, we could erroneously use the passage to combat some perceived error that is actually the truth. Grubbs referred to the example of Paul writing the book of Romans. The apostle’s “main object of the Epistle [is] the demonstration of the freeness and universality of God’s grace in the offer of mercy to mankind without respect of persons.” He explained that Paul was “combatting [the] radical error [of] a delusive reliance on supposed meritorious claims.” In other words, Paul was teaching that one cannot earn salvation. However, it is a misinterpretation of the epistle to argue that obedience is unnecessary or unimportant. As Grubbs concluded, “Thus to reject legalism as a ground of divine blessing is not to reject religious activity as a condition of such blessing.”

Rule #5 – Consider the Historical Context

Very often a passage cannot be understood apart from the historical circumstances connected with its composition.

Just as we must understand the immediate context (Rule #1) and the remote context (Rule #2), we must also understand the historical context of a particular passage. When Jesus gave the model prayer – often referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer” – He taught His disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10). Does this mean that Christians today are to make this same request in prayer? No, we need to understand when Jesus said this – before He went to the cross – and when the kingdom would come – at the establishment of His church on the day of Pentecost (Mark 9:1; Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). Paul told the brethren in Colossae that they were already in the kingdom (Colossians 1:13). Knowing when these events happened, we can understand that we are not waiting for the kingdom to come; instead, we are to be actively serving the Lord in His kingdom today.

Rule #6 – Note What Is Being Emphasized

When a writer indicates emphasis upon a word or thought, this emphasis must be recognized to obtain the true and full significance of the passage.

When an inspired writer used certain words and phrases, the Holy Spirit had a reason for those words and phrases being used. When a particular word, phrase, or thought is emphasized (often when it is repeated), we need to take note of that. As an example of this, Grubbs mentioned Paul’s words in his first letter to Corinth. These brethren had a problem with elevating certain men and following after them. Grubbs explained that Paul rebuked the exaltation of ministers when the apostle wrote, “God’s work-fellows we are: God’s husbandry you are, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Paul and Apollos were “ministers through whom” they believed (1 Corinthians 3:5), not lords in whom they believed. Emphasizing God in verse 9 reinforced this point. When a particular word, phrase, or thought is repeated, we need to take notice of it.

Conclusion

God has revealed His word to us so that we would believe in Him and follow His will. However, in order to do that, we need to understand what His word is teaching. These six rules of Biblical hermeneutics will help us to properly interpret the Scriptures so that we can know God’s will, believe what is true, and do what is pleasing to Him.

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* Exegetical Analysis of the Epistles: Notes on First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, and Hebrews by Isaiah Boone Grubbs (p. 8-13)
** Definition from Merriam-Webster


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