All the words of my mouth are with righteousness; Nothing crooked or perverse is in them. They are all plain to him who understands – Prov 8:9
Why Bible Interpretation is Important
The biggest reason there are so many different Christian denominations boils down to how people interpret the Bible. I believe its important for Christians, and unbelievers for that matter, have a solid interpretation framework in place when reading the Bible. With such a foundation there would be fewer disputes and more unity. The apostle Paul implored the early church to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3).
Ultimately the root problem why we interpret the Bible differently is human failing in the form of pride, personal bias, and/or lack of information (Hosea 4:6). By our nature we don’t like being corrected. We’ll resist a contrary viewpoint especially when its ingrained in our tradition. We also face the problem of complacency and laziness, not giving the Bible the time it deserves. Paul warned of “untaught and unstable people” who take what is hard to understand and twist it, then project this to all scripture, to “their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Paul said we can avoid this by being steadfast to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. This steadfastness becomes much easier after we remove obstacles like pride, lack of objectivity, and unwillingness to learn.
Bible Interpretation 101
I’d like to present just three simple rules I follow when interpreting the Bible (also called Bible hermeneutics by the big suits). I believe if these rules are followed, you will very likely get the true meaning God intended in the passage you are reading. The 1st two rules should work about 99% of the time, and rule 3 the remaining 1%.
- Use the plain meaning, unless its super obvious that its not in context, or its a literary technique such as a metaphor (“I am the door”), or hyperbole (“pluck out your eye”). God said His words are plain (Prov 8:9), and as a general rule, should be equally understood by the educated and uneducated. “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130).
(Note: This doesn’t mean we should avoid researching a word’s meaning, in fact a valuable tool I I highly recommend is BlueLetterBible.org).
- Must be biblically consistent. This follows the adage that the Bible interprets itself, and that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation”. (2 Peter 1:20). If you apply rule 1 and arrive at a meaning that is solidly contradicted by another passage, then your interpretation is very likely wrong. What of those times when a doctrine appears to have two diametrically opposed viewpoints, each based on a plain interpretation of different passages? The key to resolving this is that the correct view will be the one that best accommodates both passages. What I have found is that virtually always one viewpoint cannot accommodate the passage that contradicts it, whereas the correct viewpoint can reasonably accommodate the passage that on the surface appears to contradict it. The ‘Common Pitfalls’ section that follows provides some examples.
- Rightly divide the Word (II Timothy 2:15). There is a clear distinction between law and grace, the Old and New Testament, and between circumcision and uncircumcision (Peter’s ministry and Paul’s ministry). Most doctrinal disputes vanish when we rightly divide the word and recognize these distinctions.
Common Pitfalls of Bible Interpretation
Common pitfalls that lead people to misinterpret scripture can be broken down into three general categories: tradition, mentor bias, and bible clichés.
Tradition of Men
Many people believe a certain doctrine because it is part of the tradition of the church they attend, or the worldview they have been raised with. There are so many examples they are too numerous to count. One classic example is the belief held by Seventh Day Adventists that you must worship on Saturday and follow Sabbath principles. This belief stems from taking a handful of verses and applying rule 1, but then failing to recognize both rules 2 and 3 overwhelmingly refute it. Plenty of examples can also be found in Catholicism. I was raised Catholic and believed many of their doctrines, only to later discover that many had no basis at all in scripture (e.g. Pope infallibility, praying to saints, etc).
Many people have a mentor or favorite author that has been an important influence in their belief system. Generally speaking this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but can easily morph into a problem. The more you like the writing of a certain author, the more difficult it becomes to reject something they claim. I have encountered this bias many, many times in my discussions with other Christians. I had a former admin on my creation vs evolution forum insist that ALL Jews past, present, and future are saved. He got this idea from a mentor of his. Much of this belief stemmed from misapplying rule 1 to just one verse, Romans 11:26, then failing to apply rule 2. I presented many verses that refuted his position, but the mentor bias was so strong I don’t know to this day if he ever abandoned such a far-fetched belief.
I also find this problem very prevalent among Calvinists. Consider the popular John MacAuthor, or James White, both of whom are intellectually gifted speakers. Both however have serious interpretation problems with certain Bible passages. James White even went so far as to say the Son of God did not take on a human nature (video). An individual on my forum who was a fan of James White, instead of admitting to an obvious heresy, chose to adopt his view! It’s really unfortunate the number of times I’ve seen strong mentor bias trump the plain rendering of scripture.
The Apostle Paul was perhaps the foremost mentor ever when it comes to scripture. One group of Christians did not take him at his word, but instead “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” For this Paul called them “of more noble character”. (Acts 17:11)
Its not too far off the mark to say this resembles the adage “if you tell a lie long enough, loud enough, and often enough, people will start to believe it”. There are many examples I could cite, but I’ll just name a few. They will likely surprise, but hopefully also make the point.
Example 1: Love the sinner, hate the sin. This is a nice statement, but its nowhere to be found in the Bible. Its only generally true provided the sinner isn’t an unrepentant hater of God. Do you “love those who hate the Lord”? Well, king Jehoshaphat did, and he incurred God’s wrath (2 Chron 19:2). King David bragged to God about how he hated those who hated God (Psalm 139:21-22). Also consider that God does not send the sin to hell, he sends the unrepentant sinner there.
Example 2: All sins are equal. This cliche’ is the result from taking one true principle, that the consequence of sin is the same, and misapplying it to mean all sins are equal. There are plenty of verses to refute this, perhaps the most obvious is “the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11).
Example 3: God is Outside of Time. This belief also falls in the category of ‘tradition of men’. While it’s been around in one form or another since it originated from Greek pagan philosophy, it only became popular among Christians after Einstein’s theory or Relativity. It’s a view based on tradition that became ingrained in the church, despite there being numerous and powerful scriptural arguments against it. We’ll save this for a future blog! 🙂
Bible Interpretation Rescue Devices
The most common rescue devices I’ve encountered are:
- Dividing the Word improperly
Poetry & Allegory
A prime example of misuse of the poetry/allegory argument is the abuse done to the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1. Christians who value flawed science over the plain rendering of scripture will claim that Genesis 1 was written as either poetry (theistic evolutionist), or allegory (progressive, long-age creationists). The problem with either argument, whether applied to Genesis 1 or elsewhere, is that rules 1 and 2 always overwhelmingly refute their claim. In the Genesis 1 example, almost every Hebrew expert, many who are non-believers with no stake in the debate, make it abundantly clear that Genesis 1 was written as history and not poetry or allegory (link). That is, the plain rendering of Genesis 1 (rule 1) combined with repeated reference to its history (rule 2, e.g. Exodus 20:11, Mark 10:6), easily refute the claims of Christians who try to pile in millions of years into Genesis 1.
Wrongly Dividing the Word
This often happens by unbelievers and liberal Christians who try to shoehorn in their moral belief such as homosexuality into the Bible, in an attempt to get around the plain teaching against it. They’ll misapply rule 3 to do a run-around of rules 1 and 2, by claiming a divide between the New and Old Testament. They claim that in the New Testament Jesus no longer condemns whatever sin they are trying to justify. Such claims are almost always refuted by proving their premise is wrong by citing New Testament passages. For example, those who claim homosexuality is no longer a sin would have a very hard time getting around Romans 1:27 and 1 Cor 6:9-10.
This is the Calvinist’s favorite word when faced with a passage that refutes Calvinism. If you ever hear your Christian friend use this word in an attempt to explain a verse, you’ve likely already won the debate (though your opponent won’t realize or admit it). Your friend is sacrificing rule 1 in order to defend their “proof text” verses found elsewhere (rule 2). The Calvinist invokes anthropomorphism because their position cannot reasonably accommodate the plain meaning of verses that contradict it.
Now anthropomorphism, or personification, is indeed a literary device that is occasionally found in the Bible. However, its been abused by the Calvinists as their “god-of-the-gaps” rescue device. For example, when Calvinists claim that God ordained all things, they have to cry “anthropomorphism!” when you throw verses like Jeremiah 19:5 at them: “They have also built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or speak, nor did it come into My mind“. To the Calvinist, this means that God assigned a human characteristic here so that we could better understand it. What this really means is that it was in God’s mind all along. To someone who hasn’t been biased by Calvinism, this explanation would of course make no logical sense.
The 1 Percent
As mentioned earlier, 99% of problems are solved via Rule 1 and 2. Rule 3 is a little trickier and is usually needed when rules 1 and 2 don’t provide a reasonable answer. This is beyond the scope of this article and deserves its own separate blog, but I’ll give a little teaser. A classic example is James 2:17, “Faith without works is dead”, and James 2:24, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only”. This is difficult to reconcile with Ephesians 2:8-9 that says “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Most evangelical Christians think they solve this with Rule 2. But how? Neither the grace only view, or the grace + works view, reasonably accommodate the other passage! The solution is rule 3. The key is noticing who the book of James is written to! It is written to the Jews, who were still under the old covenant of grace+works. If we rightly divide the word then this makes perfect sense. Recall that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Those early Jewish believers were still part of a covenant that was not yet gone, but was “fading away” (Hebrews 8:13). For more on this with a ton of scriptural support, please consider Bob Enyart’s The Plot.
In summary, if we 1) trust God’s plain words, 2) take those words in the context of all of scripture, and 3) rightly divide the word, we’ll be on solid footing!
Please feel free to comment with feedback, positive or negative! I’d love to hear any thoughts you have!
It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. (Psalm 118:8)