By Eric J. Bargerhuff
The Word of God is precious. It is a gift to us from God that gives us God’s heart, God’s voice, God’s plan, and God’s will.
Understanding the cultural, historical, and grammatical issues that go into biblical interpretation can be challenging at times.
But we should never abandon the literal (plain sense) meaning of Scripture, following the rules of grammar with specific attention given to the style or genre of the literature we are seeking to interpret.
With the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts to illuminate the text, we can approach this task in faith that God’s Word is still speaking to us.
But it is often the case that these principles are ignored or set aside due to ignorance or modern-day tendencies to read or use the Bible for modern-day agendas.
We should be on our guard against the following list of errors that could steer us in the wrong direction.
1. Ignoring the context. This is perhaps the most common mistake when it comes to misused or misinterpreted verses or stories.
Taking anything out of context is almost always going to give us a false interpretation of the truths God intends for us to understand and apply to our lives.
2. Misunderstanding the main point. Many preachers, for the sake of seeking to connect emotionally or pragmatically with their audience, put the main emphasis of a Bible story in the wrong place, essentially eclipsing the main point of any given text.
True, there are interesting and applicable side notes that can be discerned from studying God’s Word, but let us never miss the main point God wants us to get, lest we make the Bible into a practical how-to guide instead of a book that highlights the glory and character of God and his saving plan for us.
3. Reading modern-day biases into the text. All of us are biased. We all come to the interpretive task with baggage and preconceived notions of reality.
The trick is to know what our biases actually are, and with the best of intentions seek to put our modern-day tendencies aside in an effort to enter into the biblical worldview of the time these documents were written.
4. Dismissing discovered truth that goes against what we already believe or think. Words like submission or subjects like homosexuality are controversial to modern-day minds.
But the Bible and what it teaches can serve as a corrective to our philosophical objections, such that we should be committed to pursuing the way God thinks about our world instead of what we want our world to be.
5. Allowing tradition to clouds the facts. Many people make the mistake of taking a human tradition and imposing that tradition back onto their own understanding of Scripture, without checking the factuality of that tradition with the text itself.
6. Reading into parables what is not really there. Parables were stories Jesus told that contained hidden spiritual truths about the kingdom—truths that can only be discerned through the eyes of faith and deeper study.
By design, their spiritual insights were hidden from the unbelieving heart. But for those with ears to hear and eyes to see, they shed a powerful light on the principles of the kingdom that God intends the believer to know and live by.
7. Ignoring what the Bible teaches elsewhere on any given topic. Sometimes more light is shed on a Bible story or idea when we look at what the Bible teaches about it in another section of Scripture.
We must consider the whole counsel of God when it comes to interpreting and applying principles derived from these stories. The Bible sheds more light on things than what we may initially grasp.
8. Giving new meaning to words and ideas that are not consistent with God’s Word. This is the tactic of many false teachers and cults, using Christian words without Christian definitions.
Word studies themselves are helpful, but can be limited because words may mean something different in a different context. Again, context is crucial, and knowing how a biblical author is using a term or phrase is essential to correct interpretation.
9. Missing the plain-sense meaning of a text or ignoring figurative language. We should always seek to interpret the Bible literally unless it is obvious that figurative or symbolic language is being used (which some genres, such as apocalyptic literature, may include or employ more often).
10. Taking a man-centered approach instead of seeing God and his glory as the central focus of Scripture. Remember that the Bible is primarily a book about God.
Each time we come to a text, we should ask ourselves, “What does this teach me about God?” Only after we have discovered what that is should we look at ourselves as individuals and as a church to know how we should live.
Much more could be said about interpreting Scripture correctly. These ten ideas are not meant to be exhaustive.
But my hope is that knowing these stumbling blocks and reading these stories in context will help you in your journey of discovering God, his heart, and his plan for your life.
Eric is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Bible and Theology at Trinity College of Florida. He has served in various pastoral roles for more than 20 years and is the author of several books.
This article was adapted from The Most Misused Stories in the Bible, Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, April 13, 2017, used by permission.