Since the very beginning, there have always been a lot of very bad interpretations of what God’s Word is saying. Sometimes, different Bible commentators or denominations will read a slightly different meaning into a verse of Scripture, resulting in a distinction that is rather unimportant in the big picture. No Christian doctrine is really altered by these differences, often they are just a reflection of a divergence in background, culture, or experience. Like two persons from separate parts of the world viewing the “Mona Lisa” or the “Sistine Chapel”, they are seeing something minutely different in what they read in God’s Word, perhaps for no other reason than the Spirit of God is saying something through the particular passage unique to their own need.
Other times, however, the variances in interpretation are not so benign. In fact, some interpretations are so atrocious that they can make us wonder if the person giving the interpretation is reading the same Bible that we are! There is usually a reason as to why such a non-traditional, unorthodox viewpoint is being expounded. Often, the person is simply trying to be controversial and make a name for themselves (and maybe make a few bucks from their idea along the way). Other times, a person may genuinely believe what they are saying, sometimes feeling as if they are one of the only people in the history of mankind clever enough to see this new “true” interpretation that has so successfully eluded the detection of a host of other Bible students throughout the ages.
So, how can we really know what the correct interpretation is for any passage of the Bible? Some parts of the Bible, the Book of Revelation for instance, have been interpreted in literally hundreds of different ways. Is it possible at all to know whether or not one interpretation is more valid than another? How can we tell if one viewpoint is closer to what God intended the passage to mean than some other? Fortunately, there are some very good fundamentals to approaching Scriptural interpretation that can help us to proceed with certainty that we are accepting a reasonable explanation for whatever interpretations we are subscribing to. The Theological discipline known as Hermeneutics is actually entirely devoted to promulgating these principles. But even with such principles having been laid out, there are many who totally ignore them and go about “interpreting” Scripture with reckless abandon. Very often, they are violating one or more of the following basic guidelines:
Context, Context, Context
A lot of Bible students are familiar with the old axiom: “A text taken out of context is a pretext.” When you rip a single verse out of the context in the Bible wherein it appears, you usually end up with a mess! There is nothing wrong with quoting a single verse of Scripture to illustrate a point, but we must be certain that the meaning we are applying to it is the meaning that the surrounding text naturally suggests. One notorious example of taking a verse out of context and interpreting it to mean something which it does not is the use of Philippians 4:13 by the “Prosperity” teachers:
“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Phil. 4:13)
A lot of “Prosperity” teachers throw this verse around like it is an indubitable badge of authority given to the Christian in order that he may do whatever he wants to. But if they took the verse in context, they would see that the preceding verse says:
“I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” (Phil. 4:12)
Philippians 4:13, when read in context, means that the Christian is strengthened to endure anything that comes their way, good or bad, by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, we learn how to handle times when we are “hungry” and times when we are “well fed.” Since the Lord Jesus is sufficient for us, we can overcome any bad situation! But to present this verse in its natural context would contradict the “every day’s a rose garden”, non-stop health and wealth orgy of hedonism that these false teachers promote.
The Bible was originally written as 66 separate books, with each book being one continuous text. In other words, there were no “chapter” and “verse” divisions, but these books flowed like any other book would. Therefore, it is no more prudent to rip a single verse out of Scripture than it would be to take a single sentence from the middle of any other book and make it stand alone. But many poor Biblical interpretations do just that, which brings us to our next guideline:
No Doctrine Should Be Built On A Single Verse
Whenever an entire doctrine, especially an unconventional “new” one, is backed up by one or maybe two ambiguous, obscure verses of Scripture, look out! Pseudo-Christian cults are notorious for doing this. Before we can arrive with certainty at a particular interpretation for any verse or passage, we must compare this interpretation with what the rest of the Bible says. Here is an example used by the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”:
“I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” (Psalm 82:6)
You aren’t going to find anything else in the entire Bible that would even remotely suggest that man is a “god”, but this single verse (and the Lord Jesus’ quotation of it in John 10:34) are used to support the Mormon doctrine that man has the capacity to become divine. Although there are abundant verses that demonstrate that this is in no way true (e.g., Deut. 4:35;1 Sam. 2:2; 2 Sam. 7:22; Is. 44:6-8, 45:5, 21), and although the word translated as “gods” is also translated as “judges” elsewhere (e.g., Ex. 21:6, 22:8 — which is the obvious meaning here in Psalm 82: that these are “judges”, men of authority and power), these two single verses are used to prop up a heresy that has no real Biblical support. By keeping in mind the principle that the whole of Scripture must be in agreement with any doctrine drawn from a single passage, errors such as this could easily be avoided. But the reason that such a bizarre interpretation is drawn from passages like this has a lot to do with our next guideline:
Read The Meaning Out Of The Passage, Not Into It
Solid Biblical interpretation starts with practicing exegesis (reading the meaning “out” of the text), not eisegesis (reading a meaning “into” the text). The reason that the Mormons teach that Psalm 82 teaches that man is a god and the reason that the Prosperity teachers teach that Philippians 4 tells us that we can have and do whatever we want is not because that is the most straightforward interpretation of the text, but because they have already arrived at those doctrines beforehand.
A good crime scene investigator will objectively evaluate all the evidence that they find in order to determine the truth of what has happened. A poor or biased investigator will attempt to interpret the evidence to fit their own preconceived notions. Often, they will ignore, alter, or suppress any evidence that is contrary to what they have already decided to believe. So it is with many who misinterpret the Bible. They attempt to “cherry-pick” verses, ripping them from their context and then twisting them in order for them to fit their own predetermined Theologies. They don’t approach the Bible with the idea of letting it speak God’s Words to them, but rather they approach the Bible and attempt to make it say what they have alreadydecided. We must let the Bible change our beliefs to fit what it says, not change what it says to fit our beliefs.
Consider The Setting
The Bible was not written by 21st Century, English speaking Americans. In order to accurately understand the Bible, we must take into consideration the original setting in which it was written. For those of us living in the United States, we must realize that we are standing more than 2,000 years removed and half a world away from where the Word of God was first written down. To say that the culture is different is an extreme understatement! A lot of skeptics like to bring up issues such as slavery in order to accuse God of doing evil (“why didn’t He condemn slavery in the Bible?”, they ask), and a lot of Christian men like to take the few verses where the Apostle Paul said that “women ought to be silent” and extrapolate them to be universally applicable. I don’t want to take the time in this article to expound on either of these two topics, but suffice it to say that the people living in Biblical times were definitely living in another cultural setting and they did things a little differently than we do today. A good Bible Handbook or volume such as Freeman’s Manners And Customs Of The Bible can help us to bridge the cultural gap and better understand the Word of God.
Consider The Original Audience
There are applications for us from every part of the Bible, but we must realize that not everything in the Bible is written to us. If the passage is addressed to another group, then we should understand that much of it will not directly relate to us. Many promises are made in the Old Testament, for instance, that are specific to the ancient nation of Israel and are not transferable to the Christian living in the age of the Church. Before we claim any portion of Scripture for ourselves, we better make sure it is addressed to us!
Consider The Original Language
As we mentioned, the Bible was not originally written in English (no, the King James Version was not the original version of the Bible :) ). Luckily, we don’t all have to be Greek and Hebrew scholars in order to understand what the original text was literally saying. There are very good literal translations of the Bible and Interlinear Bibles which put the English and the original text side-by-side. Additionally, we have concordances that provide a great deal of linguistic insight into all the words that appear in Scripture. Most serious students of the Bible are aware of these resources and use at least some of them often. Amazingly, many errors in interpretation are made because the original meaning of the word being translated was not considered before a doctrine was concluded (the example above concerning Psalm 82, for instance: the word translated “gods” was the Hebrew Elohim, which can mean “gods”, but can also mean “judges”, “mighty ones”, or even “rulers”).
Finally, a very good rule of thumb for avoiding misinterpretation is humility. Despite what many cult leaders and quasi-Christian groups would have us believe, it is not likely that anyone is going to come on the scene with an accurate “new” revelation from God. Yes, people will preach the Word of God in fresh and contemporary ways, but the basic Message has remained unchanged for 2,000 years, and will continue to be. Hebrews 1:1-2 makes it clear that the age of prophets is over; Jesus Christ is God’s final Revelation to mankind. What He has intended to say has been said. Therefore, any new, unconventional, or unorthodox doctrine or teaching should raise immediate suspicion. It is mind-boggling how many sects have arisen in the past 150 years that all teach that God allowed the Body of Christ to live in darkness for nearly two millenia and now they have the monopoly on truth.
If a doctrine is worth believing, chances are there have been a lot of Theologians, Preachers, and Bible teachers who have already taught it in times past. There are, of course, some very few exceptions. Some of the specific details of the Book of Revelation are only relevant to a single generation, and God has decided to conceal them until the time for that generation to live is at hand. But as far as there being a “new” way to receive Salvation, or a “new” way to approach God, or a “new” way to receive God’s Grace,well, there is nothing new under the sun.
By adhering to these simple guidelines, many of the misinterpretations being promoted today could be easily refuted. Before we accept or advance any doctrine, we should consider them in light of these principles.