Rules for Interpreting Parables

There are four basic principles applicable in interpreting the parables of the New Testament.

a. The Perspective Principle

1. There is a Christological nature in the parables, as Christ is teaching about his kingdom; in some measure he is reflectively teaching truth about himself.

2. There is a kingdom principle. Christ came preaching a gospel of the kingdom and announcing that
a kingdom was at hand.

The Kingdom in some sense was a present reality. The kingdom as reflected in the parables was described in terms of fortunes through the centuries. The kingdom was also eschatological in character. “In summary, the interpreter must keep in mind that the kingdom in some sense has come, it is continuing, and it will come.” B. Ramm

b. The Cultural Principle

We must see the parable in light of its cultural background. It is necessary to recover as much as
possible the local colour of Biblical times.

c. The Exegetical Principle

Determine how much of the parable is interpreted by the Lord himself. Determine whether there are any clues in the context which make the meaning of the parable plain. The context may include what follows as well as what precedes. Compare the parable with any recited in one or more of the other Gospels. One must note concurrences, divergences, parallels and synonyms.

d. The Doctrinal Principle

Any use of a parable for doctrinal purposes must observe the historical sense. What did the immediate listeners understand from the parable?
Parables do not teach doctrine, but they are used to illustrate doctrine.

Summary Principles

  1. Look for the primary intent of the parable.
  2. Interpret any subordinate detail of the parable in light of its main intent.
  3. The context of a parable is its best interpreter.
    • What occasion brought on the parable?
    • To whom was the parable addressed?
    • How did Jesus interpret the parable if he did?
  4. The cultural background of the parable must be recognized.
  5. Parables sometimes illustrate doctrines, but they do not establish doctrines.
  6. All parables must be Christocentric.
  7. The introduction and application of the parable must be carefully considered. These help in discovering the interpretation of the parable.
  8. The interpretation must be easy to discover without forcing an interpretation. When it is discovered it leaves none of the main circumstances unexplained.


Rules for Interpreting Parables — 5 Comments

  1. A friend and I have been discussing the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Because it is only recorded in Luke it is unique. However, there is disagreement as to whether the story w/ it’s description of a peculiar place where the dead are talking to one another is based on reality (teaching something) or not? I happen to believe the story itself contradicts Jesus’ later teachings, and Paul’s, on the resurrection and about the dead and their state as being sleep. Any reply w/ keys to understanding this parable would be helpful. My view is that Jesus’ focus is not on the details of the story but rather the last statement in the parable, that even if the dead were to come to life and warn others of a place of torment, the living would not listen because they already have the words and warnings of the prophets, recorded for all to read, and of which the living during that time were fully aware.

    • Money is the most common theme in the Bible, followed closely by how we care for the “poor and the widow”. Jesus Himself speaks more about the topic of money than any other in the scriptures. The same can be said about the Old Testaments.
      This whole paragrah (Luke 16: 1-31) is about instruction concerning wealth.
      God has promised that He would bless His people if they obeyed Him (Deut. 29:1-14). The Pharisees taught that material possessions were a sure sign of God’s favour. This perversion of the principle is unfortunately repeated today from the pulpit with the prosperity gospel messages making this parable very relevant to us in the 21st Century.
      On the other hand, this parable is not about the “evil of money” as there is no such warning in the bible, it is about those who have and do not share with those who have not. I Timothee 6:10 warns about those who have wandered from the faith because of their love of money being greater than their love of their neighbour or thier lvoe of God Himself.
      This verse and this parable are not about the posession of wealth but how we use it…
      read more…

  2. Pingback: Context and Audience are everything | Alain L. Gauthier

  3. could you explain the rational behind the statement “Parables do not teach doctrine, but they are used to illustrate doctrine”. I have always heard not to build doctrine on parables but I want to know the ‘why’

    • I do not agree with this completely. Whatever Jesus said can be used to build doctrine, however the parables themselves were stories to support teaching of doctrinal statements. As an example, the parable of the good samaritan expands on the doctrine “Love Thy Neighbour”.
      Do you see the difference? Does is help or clarify?