The Paraphrase Principle

Article ID: DP450 | By: Gregory Koukl

This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 26, number 3 (2003). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:

I stumbled on a technique that can immediately tell me in some cases when a verse is being taken out of context, regardless to whom I’m talking. I call it “the paraphrase principle.” Here’s how you might encounter this principle in action.

One Saturday afternoon you hear a knock on your door. When you answer, two Jehovah’s Witnesses with bundles of literature smile at you pleasantly and ask, “Would you like to read about the coming paradise on earth?” You are already running late for an engagement and know you have very little time to make an impact. Still, you don’t want to send your visitors away empty-handed, so you speak with them. “I’m a Christian,” you begin. “It’s clear we have some differences, including the vital issue of the identity of Jesus.” You grab your Bible, open it to the gospel of John, chapter one, and note the opening statement: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1 nasb, emphasis added).

At this point you encounter a problem. The last part of that verse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation of the Bible reads, “…the Word was a god” (emphasis added). Solving this translation discrepancy requires some knowledge of Greek grammar, which is not your strong suit. What do you do now?

Saying the Same Thing. Just two verses down, there is the key to clearing up any ambiguity about the identity of the Word in verse 1: “All things came into being through Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (1:3 nasb). The New World Translation reads virtually the same: “All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.” In verse 3 John said the same thing in two different ways for emphasis and clarity: everything that ever came into being owes its existence to the Word.

If the Word caused all created things to come into existence, then the Word must have existed before all created things came into existence. The Word, therefore, could not have been created. The Word, who is Jesus, is the uncreated Creator. Jesus, therefore, is God.1 These verses, taken as a contextual unit, seem to give an irrefutable scriptural proof for the deity of Jesus Christ.

A Reasonable Rebuttal. Your Jehovah’s Witness visitors, who deny the deity of Jesus Christ, might offer this rebuttal: “Wait a minute. You didn’t read the verse carefully. Notice the phrase ‘apart from Him.’ John excludes Jesus from the count.”

They might explain their view this way: “If you said, ‘Apart from Bill, the whole family is going to Disneyland,’ it doesn’t follow that Bill wasn’t part of the family, just that he wasn’t included in the count. Every member of the family is going to Disneyland with the exception of Bill. In the same way, every created thing was created by Jesus with the exception of Jesus Himself. Jehovah created Jesus first, then Jesus created everything else. Jesus is not God.”

This rebuttal seems reasonable because it plays upon a sound principle: All biblical interpretations are meant to be synonymous renderings of the text. Sound interpretation hinges on the ability to sum up the meaning of a verse accurately with other words. We often introduce an interpretation with the phrase, “In other words,” and then substitute the biblical statement we are interpreting with a paraphrase we think accurately captures the author’s true meaning.

That is what’s happening in this case. The rebuttal is replacing “apart from Him” with the phrase “with the exception of Jesus.” The Witnesses at the door suppose they’re synonymous. The problem, however, is that the phrase “apart from Him” can also mean “apart from Jesus’ agency (or means).” Both interpretations seem plausible at this point. How do we decide which one is right and which one is wrong?

The Paraphrase Principle. The answer: employ the “paraphrase principle.” It’s an incredibly simple way to find out if any interpretation is even in the running.

Here’s how it works: good interpretations say essentially the same thing as the text, but in other words; so put that insight to work. First, sum up in your own words the biblical word or phrase in question based on your careful observation, research, and study. Next, replace the text in question with your paraphrase and see if the passage still makes sense in light of the larger context. Is it intelligible when inserted back into the sentence or paragraph? Does it dovetail naturally with the bigger picture? If it doesn’t, you immediately know you’re on the wrong track.

This works wonderfully with our disputed text, John 1:3. Let’s try the Jehovah’s Witness’s replacement phrase and see what happens. The second part of the verse looks like this: “…with the exception of Jesus, nothing came into being that has come into being.” Does this statement make sense to you?

If this paraphrase sounds confusing, don’t be surprised. The reconstructed statement is nearly nonsense. Strictly speaking, it means that Jesus is the only created thing that exists. Read it again and see for yourself. The phrase “apart from Jesus” obviously cannot mean “with the exception of Jesus.” These phrases are not synonymous in the context of John 1:3.

“Apart from Him” means something different. It means “apart from His agency.” It’s the same as saying, “Apart from Bill, no one in the family will get to Disneyland; he’s got the car.” The alternate paraphrase then looks like this: “Apart from Jesus’ agency nothing came into being that has come into being.” This makes perfect sense in the context. The Word is the Creator of all created things. He, however, was never created. The Word is an eternal Being. The Word is God — which is the precise point of that other disputed verse, John 1:1.

A “Spirit” of Fear. Second Timothy 1:7 is another excellent example of how the paraphrase principle can help us rule out an incorrect interpretation. Paul wrote, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (kjv). Some have taken this to mean that whenever a believer feels fear, it is the result of a demonic spirit that needs to be resisted, bound, or even cast out.

The word “spirit,” though, has more than one meaning depending on the context. It could refer to an immaterial person — a demon, an angel, the Holy Spirit, a human soul (e.g., Luke 4:33; Acts 16:16), which is the sense taken in the interpretation above. “Spirit,” however, could also mean a disposition, a mood, or a defining characteristic. Paul talked about dealing with the errant Corinthians either “with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor. 4:21 nasb; see also Gal. 6:1).

What sense of the word “spirit” did Paul have in mind when he wrote to Timothy? The paraphrase principle comes to our rescue.

Here’s the paraphrase using the first option: “For God hath not given us the demonic spirit of fear; but a demonic spirit [an angelic spirit?] of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” This seems odd. Does the Bible elsewhere teach that power, love, and a sound mind are spiritual beings, or does it teach, rather, that they are virtuous dispositions we develop and possess?

Let’s try the alternate paraphrase: “For God hath not given us a fearful disposition; but a disposition of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” This makes much more sense, especially considering the larger context, which includes Paul’s admonition that Timothy not be “ashamed of the testimony of our Lord” (2 Tim. 1:8 kjv). Paul was talking about dispositions, not spirit beings.

There is one limitation with the paraphrase test, however; it is not a positive test for accuracy. All potential interpretations must pass the paraphrase test, but passing the test is no guarantee that a given interpretation is correct. It is, rather, a negative test: it will immediately weed out some alternatives that

are obviously in error. Some faulty interpretations can still slip by, however, and must be disqualified on other grounds. The paraphrase test is only one of the tools in your toolbox, but it’s an important one.

Context Is King. These examples illustrate a deeper truth about properly understanding the Bible, or any other communication for that matter: Context is king. The paraphrase principle works so well because it plays on the fact that the meaning of any particular word or phrase is always governed by the context of larger units, such as the sentence and paragraph in which it appears. A correct paraphrase must make sense in its context.

Only when you are properly informed by God’s Word the way it was written — in its context — can you be transformed by it. Every part becomes powerful when it is working together with the whole as the Holy Spirit intended. If you carefully apply the paraphrase principle, you will begin to understand the Bible as God intended and Scripture will open up for you like never before.

— Gregory Koukl


1. Much is made of the Greek word dia in the first phrase; it is sometimes translated “by,” but it can also be translated “through” (as in the NWT). It makes no difference to this discussion, however, if all things were created “by” Jesus or “through” Jesus with Jehovah as the agent (as the Witnesses suggest). The point is that in either case the Word existed before any created things came into being. Jesus, therefore, is eternal.