Understanding the Bible

by Charles C. Ryrie

Ryrie Study Bible

A proper understanding of the Bible depends on two things: (1) the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, and (2) the interpreting work of the reader.


Although the word illumination has been applied to several aspects of doctrine (like the general enlightenment that the coming of Christ brought to all men, John 1:9, and the illumination theory of inspiration), it is generally thought of in connection with the ministry of the Holy Spirit that makes clear the truth of the written revelation in the Bible. In reference to the Bible, revelation relates to its content or material, inspiration to the method of recording that material, and illumination to the meaning of the record. The unsaved man cannot experience the illumination ministry of the Spirit since he is blinded to the truth of God (1 Cor. 2:14). This does not mean that he cannot learn anything of the facts of the Bible, but he considers what he knows as foolishness.

On the other hand, the Christian has been promised this illumination of the text (John 16:12-15; 1 Cor. 2:9-3:2). Taking these two passages together, several facts emerge:

1. The most obvious is that the Spirit Himself is the teacher, and His presence in the life of the believer is the guarantee of the effectiveness of this ministry.

2. The content of His teaching encompasses "all the truth’’ (the definite article is present in John 16:13). It specifically includes an understanding of prophecy ("things to come’’).

3. The purpose of the Spirit’s illumination is to glorify Christ, not Himself.

4. Carnality in the believer can hinder and even nullify this ministry of the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:1-2).


Illumination, though assured, does not always guarantee automatic understanding. As indicated above, the believer must be in fellowship with the Lord in order to experience this ministry. But also he must study, using the teachers God has given to the church (Rom. 12:7) and the abilities and means at his own disposal.

The basic principle of interpretation is to interpret plainly. The word literal is avoided here because it creates connotations that have to be corrected. Plain, straightforward interpretation includes at least the following concepts:

1. To interpret plainly one must first of all understand what each word means in its normal grammatical-historical sense.

2. Plain interpretation does not exclude the use of figures of speech. Indeed, a figure of speech may communicate more clearly, but what it communicates is plain. In other words, behind every figure of speech is a plain meaning, and that is what the interpreter seeks.

3. Always read with understanding the context in which a verse or passage appears, for this will throw light on its meaning. Beware, for instance, of the speaker who says, "Now you don’t need to turn to this verse.’’ He may be taking it out of its context and giving it another meaning. It is not only always safe but prudent to read what precedes and what follows.

4. Recognize the progress of revelation. Remember that the Bible was not handed down all at once as a complete book but that it came from God through many different writers over a period of about 1,600 years. This meant that in the progress of revealing His message to man, God may add or even change in one era what He had given in another. The New Testament adds much that was not revealed in the Old. Furthermore, what God revealed as binding in one period may be rescinded in another (as the prohibition of eating pork, once binding on God’s people, has been lifted today, 1 Tim. 4:3). This is most important; otherwise, the Bible would contain apparently unresolvable contradictions (as Matt. 10:5-7 compared with 28:18-20).

5. Expect the Bible to use what is technically called phenomenal language. This simply means that it often describes things as they appear to be rather than in precise scientific terms. Speaking of the sun rising or setting (neither of which it does) is an example of this (Matt. 5:45; Mark 1:32), but this is a plain and normal way to communicate.

6. Recognize the important divisions of the Bible when interpreting it. The most basic is the difference between the Old and New Testaments. But there are also different kinds of writings—historical, poetic, prophetic—that must be recognized as different if they are to be interpreted correctly. Other landmarks in the Bible that affect proper interpretation are things like the great covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) and the one with David (2 Sam. 7), the mystery of the church as the Body of Christ (Eph. 3:6), and the difference between law and grace (John 1:17; Rom. 6:14).

These suggestions are simply facets of the basic concept of plain interpretation. And that is the way God intended His inspired Bible to be understood.

From A Survey of Bible Doctrine. Copyright 1972 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.

Taken from: Ryrie Study Bible NASB 1986, 1995 by the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago