Thursday, November 07, 2013

Interpreting the Bible is not a free-for-all mystical experience


I am sure you have been in a discussion on the Bible, whether in a Bible study, or some other setting, and someone raised a comment concerning a verse saying something like, “To me, this verse means [enter personal meaning here].”

Over the last 2000 years, the Bible has been abused, misused and misinterpreted horribly by all kinds of people. Some very well meaning, but others simply just charlatans and heretics.

The responsibility of interpreting the Bible correctly is no small issue, as D.A. Carson writes,

“Make a mistake in the interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, falsely scan a piece of Spenserian verse, and there is unlikely to be an entailment of eternal consequence; but we cannot lightly accept a similar laxity in the interpretation of Scripture. We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly.” (D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Second Edition, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, Third Printing 1998, p15)

Eric J. Bargerhuff writes,

“[W]ell-intentioned Christians have misquoted the Bible and misunderstood its meaning, leaving behind a trail of confusion and faulty decisions pertaining to God’s will for one’s life. Many a theological heresy has resulted from the misuse or misinterpretation of Scripture, and this can happen no matter how noble the intentions of its interpreters.” (Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God’s Word is Misunderstood, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN, 2012, p15)

In another post I wrote some time ago,

“Our aim in interpreting the Bible is not to be unique and different to everybody else. In fact, chances are good that the unique interpretation is wrong. The aim of the interpreter is to get to the plain meaning of the text. In the end, the litmus test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text at hand.

“Whether we like it or not, each one of us is an interpreter. Everything we read or hear is interpreted by us. When we approach any text—Biblical or not—we bring a whole lot of baggage to the text; and it is that baggage—not necessarily all bad—that influences us when we interpret the text. Since we already interpret what we hear, see and read, we may as well make sure that we become good interpreters of the Word while we are at it. Learning to be actively involved in proper hermeneutics will safeguard us against ‘every wind of doctrine.’

“The Bible is at the same time human and divine. The Bible was given to us in the words of the people of history. The Bible is not written outside the scope of history or the context of that history. This alone suggests to us that some interpretation will be needed to understand the Bible.” (William Dicks, Hermeneutics—Part 1: Need, tools and principles, 2012)

Interpreting the Bible is no small task and to think it is easy, or learnt easily, is to be very naive. Yet, on the other hand, by following a few principles, it is not an unattainable task. In fact, armed with the correct “tools” for interpreting the Bible, it can become a very enriching endeavour!

I long for the days that we had Bible studies one night during the week. The study involved thoughtful discussion on the passage at hand and not just sound bites of my favourite meaning for the passage or verse. The person that led the evening was well prepared and had studied the passage before hand to make sure that he did not introduce some weird idea into the study. It was during discussions like this that I learnt that the face value of a verse may not what that verse actually means. The verses that we read have contexts: paragraph, chapter, book, genre, history, etc. If we read verses as if they have no context, then we will end up applying passages to ourselves that were not meant for us. Some meanings of certain Bible passages have come to take on their lives and have inherited meanings that do not really apply. Yet, those meanings have been repeated so many times that whenever those verses are mentioned, these meanings come to mind.


For instance, many Christians, especially the charismatics, when they hear someone speak of our weapons that are not carnal, but mighty through God to pull down strong holds, immediately think of a hierarchy of demons situated over a geopolitical area or community, and that we need to rebuke these demons, bind the strong man, and cast them out of the area. Did you know, that the passage where this comes from, 1 Cor 10:1-7, does not mean this at all.

I wrote in October 2005 on this subject:

“The concept of spiritual warfare has been so abused, misused and hyped by various segments of the church, thereby leaving it bereft of the real Biblical meaning of the phrase. Most of the time 'spiritual warfare' is turned into 'spiritual fanfare!' What with marches, prayer walks, shouting and thinking that walking over a piece of real estate they have now claimed the land for the Lord! Nothing is claimed for the Lord like that! Didn't that real estate already belong to the Lord? He is already the Lord of the universe. He doesn't need us walking over soil to claim it for Him!

“'(4) For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (5) We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ' (2Co 10:4-5 ESV)

“It is very clear that spiritual warfare has nothing to do with the physical world we live in! Verse 4 ends with destroying strongholds and verse 5 starts with explaining what those strongholds are: arguments and lofty opinions against the knowledge of God and taking thoughts captive. Ok, so now we know what those strongholds are. Note that Paul does NOT say that these strongholds are demons!

“How will we destroy those strongholds then? It has to be through the preaching of the unadulterated Word of God and the bold proclamation of the gospel! It is the truth of God that will destroy the arguments and opinions that stand against God!

“Let's stop all this 'charismaniacal' fanfare and get down to the nitty-gritty of true Biblical spiritual warfare!” (William Dicks, Spiritual Warfare, Oct 2005)

For many, a whole slew of incorrect meanings to certain passages will have to be unlearnt. Further, many will have to learn that to interpret the Bible literally, does not mean that we take each word and see what its literal meaning is! No, to interpret the Bible literally means to interpret each book or passage in the Bible according to how it was written. That means that we have to take into consideration the genre of the book or passage. It is no use trying to interpret apocalyptic literature as if it is history in the future. That is why we have the “Left Behind” series of novels!

“[T]he genre or type of literature in which a passage is found provides the ‘rules of the language game’ (Wittgenstein), that is, the hermeneutical principles by which one understands it. Obviously, we do not interpret fiction the same way as we understand poetry. Nor will a person look for the same scheme in Biblical wisdom as in the prophetic portions.” (Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL, 2nd Edition, 2006, p26)

You have probably seen the word hermeneutical in the quote above. Well, what does that mean?

Hermeneutics is the science and art of Biblical interpretation. It is a science because it is guided by rules within a system; and it is an art because the application of the rules is by skill, and not by mechanical imitation.” (Bernard Ramm, PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, 3rd Revised Edition, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1970, p1)

Eric Bargerhuff’s book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God’s Word is Misunderstood, is a little gem in that Bargerhuff took 17 verses that Christians generally misunderstand. They are Mt 7:1; Mt 18:20; Jn 14:13-14; Rom 8:28; 2 Chr 7:14; Col 1:15; 1 Tim 6:10; 1 Cor 10:13; Prov 22:6; Phil 4:13; Ex 21:23-25; Js 5:15; Ac 2:38; Prov 4:23; 29:18; Jn 12:32.

For those that are very observant, you would have noticed that I only mentioned 16 verses or passages. That is because I left one out: Jer 29:11-13. I am sure you have t least heard of this passage. It goes as follows:

“(11)  For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (12)  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. (13)  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (NIV)

As Bargerhuff wrote in his book, like many, he had taken this passage as his life’s verse after he had attended a Christian summer camp.

“What a great verse to pull out of the Bible and use as my own! It was  easy to memorize. Not too difficult to understand. A powerful message. A great promise. What’s not too like about? Prosperity. Protection. Hope for a great future. These are all things that any Christian would want so see become a reality in his or her life. It seemed to echo the American Dream, with God’s endorsement behind it. It … became … my subconscious expectation for how I thought God intended to bless my life right here and now, just as long as I did what he wanted…” (p34)

Of course, the question is whether this is an appropriate application of this passage. Of course, to find that out we need to look at the context of this passage. At the time Jeremiah wrote this, Israel lived a life of despair. Their leaders were corrupt, and the people had intermarried into the surrounding heathen tribes. As a result, the Israelites were worshipping foreign gods, and they had broken their covenant with God. God had enough and raised up the prophet Jeremiah as His chosen messenger. Jeremiah was charged with the difficult task of proclaiming judgement and wrath upon this obstinate people. They were going to be conquered by a godless people and would be exiled to that land. At this time, the false prophet Hananiah arose and started prophesying a soft prosperity message. However, Jeremiah warns him of his misdeeds and that year Hananiah died (last verse of Jer 28). Jeremiah’s 70 years exile-prophecy comes true and Israel were taken off. The reality of this awful event drives Jeremiah to write a letter to those that would survive the initial trek into exile. In this letter, a word from the Lord, he encourages the people to make the new country their home and get married, have children and generally to do what people do at home. They re also once again warned not to fall for the false prophecies of the false prophets. It is at this point that our passage finds itself:

“(10)  Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, (11)  and he said before all the people, ‘This is what the LORD says: “In the same way will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.”’ At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way. (12)  Shortly after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: (13)  ‘Go and tell Hananiah, “This is what the LORD says: You have broken a wooden yoke, but in its place you will get a yoke of iron. (14)  This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will put an iron yoke on the necks of all these nations to make them serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they will serve him. I will even give him control over the wild animals.”’ ” (NIV)

Bargerhuff makes two points here: (1) God was speaking to Judah here. This was his plan for Judah, a corporate word, and not for any single person. Therefore, taking this verse out of context and applying it erroneously to today’s believers should be a cautious step. (2) This promise by God was effectively to people that would live 70 years from the time Jeremiah wrote it. Most of the people who heard Jeremiah’s message never came to see the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. This message of hope was aimed at a future people. Bargerhuff had used this passage for himself to ensure that he would have a great life after college and that he would have a good life and good health.

“But in doing this, I was violating the context and completely missing the fact that God was talking to a nation (not an individual), a nation that had to go through seventy years of heartache and exile before there was any hope of freedom from captivity. And if it could not be used as a promise for the immediate future of those who first heard it, then it should not be used for my immediate future either.” (Bargerhuff, p39)

All of this to say that the Bible is not some mystical book which could have several meanings depending on the mood of the reader on the day. The Bible was written by men, and inspired by God. It is God’s word. It is God’s truth. Since it is God’s truth, it is only proper, and necessary, for us as Christians to treat the Bible with utmost respect, and when we make an utterance concerning it, that we ensure that we have paid it the attention it deserves. If we mess up on our thoughts concerning the Bible, we mess up on what God has spoken. It is indeed a serious business reading, interpreting and understanding the Bible.

“(16)  All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;  (17)  so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2Ti 3:16-17)

“(16)  For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.  (17)  For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, "This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased"--  (18)  and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.  (19)  So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.  (20)  But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,  (21)  for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2Pe 1:16-21)

In the video below, R.C. Sproul interviews D.A. Carson on interpreting the Bible.

Resources on learning to interpret the Bible:
Bernard Ramm, PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: A Textbook of Hermeneutics
Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation 
Gordon D. Fee, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth
D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies
Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God’s Word is Misunderstood
Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (for the very adventurous!)
William Dicks, Hermeneutics—Part 1: Need, tools and principles
William Dicks, Hermeneutics—Part 2: Different Genres
William Dicks, Blog posts tagged with Hermeneutics

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