Bible interpretation, prayer

Five Common Bible Interpretation Errors

This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of Western Magazine.

Interpreting the Bible correctly and faithfully is not difficult.

Why would I say such a thing? It is not because I have any confidence in human ingenuity or intelligence, nor do I believe that the subject material of Scripture is simplistic and weightless. I am certainly not under the illusion that people never misinterpret the Bible. Far from it; ridiculous Bible study errors are commonplace. So despite all the evidence to the contrary, why do I believe that Bible interpretation is easy?
For this very simple reason: The Lord, the divine author of Scripture, is an effective, accommodating, and kind communicator.  He knows what we need to know and how best to communicate it. In an act of wonderful mercy, the Lord worked in and through human authors to reveal Himself and His redemptive plan. Because of this, the Lord’s good communication comes to us in human language, written according to the sensibilities of normal human communication, couched in the forms of typical human literary genres.

I think there are so many egregious Bible interpretation mistakes because people often open the Bible and treat is like it is something other than what it actually is: the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, written by human prophets, wherein God reveals Himself and His redemptive plan to His people. What does it look like when we forget what the Bible is? Here are five mistakes that commonly arise.

1. Forgetting the Bible is not a magic book: Ignoring immediate context

I have never met anyone who likes to be taken out of context—not even one person. Have you ever noticed how many politicians, movie stars, or professional athletes, when they are trying to get off the hook for saying something foolish, will claim, “I was taken out of context.” That is how obviously important context is when it comes to determining meaning. We all know this. It is basic to human communication. But how many times have you seen someone read or claim a verse without any regard for its context? One of the most common examples is reciting Matthew 18:20, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” to invoke the Lord’s presence during a prayer meeting. The context tells us that this statement of Jesus is a promise of His authoritative presence in the midst of the Church discipline process. When we rip words out of context and claim them as though God must be beholden to them simply because He said them, we are treating the Bible like a magic book.

2. Forgetting who and when we are: Ignoring historical-cultural context

Sometimes, we forget that the Bible was originally written to an audience very different than ourselves. For example, the New Testament was written to a first century Greco-Roman audience in the Greek language. We are separated from those folk by geographical, cultural, technological, and chronological distance. Those are significant hurdles to overcome. And yet, some people read the Bible as if it were originally addressed directly to them. Paul’s admonition to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” should not be woodenly read as cookbook instructions to twenty-first century Pacific Northwest local church greeters. The principle of offering a warm greeting no doubt applies, but the holy kiss command was written to a people used to greeting one another in that way.

3. Forgetting the story: Ignoring biblical-theological context

The Scriptures are not a collection of divine sayings that can be randomly chosen and applied. Rather, the Bible tells the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. The story progresses as God does different things with different people. Major categorical changes occurred when God introduced different covenants. Ignoring the biblical-theological context is akin to taking a US History book and looking for guidance from the colonial structure on how to obey traffic laws today. When God told His exiled Old Covenant people, “Seek the welfare of the city,” in Jeremiah 29:7, there was more going on than the giving of instructions to New Covenant churches on how to serve local municipalities.

4. Playing the dictionary game: Ignoring how words work

Words have meanings, not meaning. But a word has a singular meaning in context, when it is used in a sentence. Occasionally, if a person is clever, a speaker will intend multiple meanings by a singular word in a sentence. When that happens, we call it a pun. The biblical writers were very clever, and like the rest of us, when they used a word in a sentence, they intended one meaning for that word. I have been to Bible studies where a person will say, “I looked this word up in the dictionary and I found that it could also mean __ and ___. When I plugged those meanings into the sentence, I was really blessed.” And people will look at that individual like they did something deep and spiritual, when what they actually did was irresponsible and foolish. We would never want others to do such a thing with our words. Why is it okay to treat the biblical authors and biblical Author so disrespectfully?

5. Forgetting what literature is: Ignoring genre

Literary genre refers to the type of literature and the rules for interpreting it. There is no such thing as the “one biblical literary genre.” Instead, the Bible has a host of different literary genres, such as poetry, historical narrative, parable, prophecy, proverb, law, apocalyptic, etc. Each genre does different things and was specifically chosen by the biblical author to accomplish his intended task. As readers, we should be used to transitioning from literary genre to literary genre seamlessly and without difficulty, because we do it often in our day-to-day lives. Which of you have ever confused a baseball boxscore for an editorial in the newspaper? And yet, how often do people read proverbs like they are promises or Old Testament narratives as though they are New Testament letters?

About Todd Miles

Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).