Stop That! 5 Ways You May Be Misinterpreting Scripture

The Bible contains many precious promises of God to the believer. They are and should be a great source of comfort to us. Promises of God’s presence with His people, His enduring strength in our weaknesses, and mostly, His covenant with His people through the perfect work of His Son, Jesus, are causes of rejoicing and celebration, and rightly so.

Problems arise, however, when we begin to misinterpret or misapply these promises. Do not fret. We all do it. We are all guilty of making these promises more than they were intended to be. The important thing is to recognize what we are doing wrong and readjusting so that we interpret and apply Scripture correctly. Here are five ways we may be misinterpreting Scripture.

it’s me! (allegorizing yourself into scripture)

Allegory is a useful way to teach theological truths. What else are Jesus’ parables but allegorical stories that demonstrate their spiritual meanings? The parable of the soils teaches us the condition of the human heart in response to the gospel. The prodigal son shows us God’s acceptance of a repentant sinner and a self-righteous person’s indignant attitude of the repentant person. And one of my favorite allegorical stories in the Bible is found in Judges 9:7-21. After Gideon’s death, his son, Abimeliech became the self-appointed king and murdered all of his brothers, save one. This youngest son, Jotham, confronted him and told him an allegorical tale that would be Abimilech’s downfall.

Allegory is not a problem in and of itself. Problems arise when we attempt to take a passage of Scripture, usually historical or narrative, and place ourselves as one of the main characters in the story. Perhaps the most famous type of this fallacy is that of David and Goliath. The common Evangelical pastor interprets this to mean that God will help you defeat your “giants” and that with His help you can overcome anything. Marshmallowy mush like this has caused many a Christian to wrongly interpret the story of David and Goliath and claim a promise of God not found in the narrative. How do we avoid such fallacies? Here are three simple rules on how not to misinterpret allegory.

  1. True allegory will be presented as such. Therefore, you will not find allegory in historical and narrative passages unless it is stated as allegory. Parables, hyperboles, Apocalyptic literature, and the like are introduced by specific phrases and keywords such as, “there was a man…”, “he told them a parable…”, “it was like…”, etc.
  2. Allegory is full of imagery. The passage in Judges, for example, depicts the enemies of Jotham as certain types of trees while the main character, Abimilech, is depicted as an olive tree. Since olive trees were viewed as good and safe, the imagery is useful and appropriate for the occasion. If the passage you are reading does not contain these types of elements, it is not an allegory. Don’t interpret them as such or place yourself as one of the characters. Narrative is written to inform us of something past and usually contains an over-bearing theme for the benefit of the reader. Hence, the entire book of Judges warns us of apostasy and the continual wavering between serving the Living God or dead idols.
  3. Allegory will always be tied to the lesson that the author is presenting. In other words, the author has a point to make and launches into a story that represents this. Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants in Luke 20:9-18 exemplifies this type of allegory where the Pharisees represent the tenants, the prophets of old represent the king’s messengers, and Jesus represents the heir. The point of this allegory is that God has a vineyard, Israel, and expects fruit. He has placed the religious leaders over the people to care for them. They failed and so He sent prophets they ignored. The final person is the heir, Jesus. They will also reject Him and therefore be kicked out of the Kingdom of God. If your allegory is not indicative of the lesson the author is trying to make then it is not an allegory.

stone skipping in the pond (skipping straight to the application)

One of the greatest temptations of Scripture reading is not understanding the full context. This tends to happen when we see a verse that stands out to us or affects us emotionally one way or another. Instead of examining the surrounding verses, we tear up and go with that “feeling.” We never consider whether the application that we think is correct is valid because it makes us feel good. Just as interpretation is dependent upon the context, so too our application must reflect the context. It is doubtful that a first-century audience would have understood Zepheniah 3:17 as God giving believers the feel-good assurance of His love. That is a purely modern application and stems from lazy Bible reading/study. It is a total disregard for the text and ignores the entirety of God’s judgment upon the leaders of Israel, of which the context of Zepheniah 3:17 speaks. Before jumping to an application ask these questions:

  1. What is the full context of this passage?
  2. What message is the author trying to convey?
  3. How would the original audience have understood it?
  4. What was the response the author was seeking?

verbs, tenses, & roots (word study fallacies)

“The Greek word for power is dunamis. It’s where we get our word ‘dynamite.’ This passage is saying that God’s power is dynamite!”

NOT!

How many times have you heard this or something similar? Enter, the word study fallacy. Word studies yield vital information when done properly. However, the saying, A little Greek is a dangerous thing, should always be minded carefully. Understanding syntax, not just basic definitions, goes a long way in proper interpretation. Most fallacies of the word study type occur in two areas:

  1. Tenses – verbs are packed with tenses which indicate time and Greek is no different. Most unskilled interpreters look at a specific tense, ascertain a basic definition, and conclude that this tense bears the same nuance every time it occurs. One of the most famous examples is John 1:1. The ‘to be’ verb in that passage is an imperfect tense. Imperfect, as given in many grammars is described as a past event that is not yet completed or an action that is yet ongoing. For this reason, I have heard pastors attempt to translate John 1:1 as, In the beginning, was being the word, and the word was being with God, and the word was being God. This kind of fallacy stems from a misunderstanding of how tenses work. Though the imperfect may bear this kind of action in some way, it is not always the case and should not always be assumed. Careful consultation of Greek scholars and grammarians will go a long way to aiding you in the syntax of word studies. One of the primary sources used is Dan Wallaces Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. It is an excellent resource that will help with understanding verbal aspects and how they work together.
  2. Root words – also called the Etymological Fallacy, it assumes the root meaning of the word must continue to mean the same thing throughout time. A wise person once said that language is dynamic rather than static. In other words, words change their meanings over time and it should not be assumed that the word you are now studying carries the same meaning as it once did. The Greek word διαθήκη, for instance, is translated as covenant in the New Testament. However, the original use of the word according to the LSJ Greek Lexicon is that of a will of property. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament further indicates that it was often used as coming to an agreement or a distribution of property. It would be improper to assume that it means this in every context simply because the root word initially indicated this usage. But one of the vilest misuses of this fallacy I have ever encountered came at the attempt to equate the same usage of the Greek preposition ἐν (in) in all contexts. The sermon was on Ephesians 2:2, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience. The pastor came to the conclusion that because the basic definition of ἐν is a place of location, and the text stated that lost people had the spirit of disobedience working ἐν them, then all lost people must be demon-possessed! This kind of reasoning is destructive and always leads to bad theology. Beware of the Root Fallacy.

For more information on these types of bad hermeneutical practices, D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is an excellent resource.

unintended promises (is it for me or another group of people?)

Scripture is replete with promises. God’s word is written to assure us of His faithfulness and goodness towards us. But one thing that we need to reckon with is that not every promise in Scripture is individualistic. That is, many of the promises are corporate, or for a specific people group. When we take a corporate promise and make it individual, it often results in disappointment. Jeremiah 29:11 is perhaps the most misapplied promise in all of Scripture.

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

This verse has been hung on thousands of walls in homes, venerated in countless Bible studies, and passed around social media like wildfire. The promise is not a promise for God to fulfill a plan for your life, or even to bring you to a place where He can begin to shape your “destiny,” as has been so wrongly taught. God’s promise here is a corporate promise to the nation of Israel to restore them as His inheritance and to bring them back to the land of Israel after their time of punishment has ended. It is His assurance that even in the midst of their chastisement, He has not forgotten His promise to be their God and for them to be His people.

Therefore, the only feasible way to apply a modern application of this passage is the realization that when God now punishes His people, the Church, it is out of love. The Church should cling to the promise that despite their discipline, it is through the covenant of His Son that He will not forsake them. He does this because He knows the plans He has for [them] declares the LORD

It is truly sad when a person becomes depressed and begins to think that God is unfaithful. Knowing a little context goes a long way. When claiming promises from Scripture, be extra diligent that you understand the full extent and context of that promise.

hello, my name is context. You ripped me from my pages. prepare to die! (context–the over-arching theme)

You may have guessed by now that the main thing stressed throughout this post has been the importance of context. Context ripping is all too often a reality in the pulpit as well as in our personal studies. Misinformation, misinterpretation, and misapplication are all a result of destroying the context. Do not fret, Christian for we are all guilty of this at one time or another. The important thing is to recognize and correct our mistakes. There are guidelines that can help us avoid this pitfall and though we will not always be one hundred percent correct, we can be confident that we did not butcher God’s word to such a degree that it is irreparable. Here are some things to consider when interpreting and applying Scripture.

  1. Read the entire context. The entire context includes the verses before and after the passage you are reading. Sometimes it may include entire paragraphs depending upon the genre. A lot of heart misinterpretation is suddenly taken care of when the full context is taken into consideration.
  2. Understand the background of the book. Part of knowing the context consists of knowing the who, what, why, when, where, and how–the 5WH method–of what you are studying. Understanding the background is a tremendous help in interpreting the passage. For example, the book of Galatians was written for the purpose of debunking Judaizers. These were men that were teaching the young church that adherence to the Mosaic Law was required alongside of faith in Christ. When we realize what is at stake, we begin to understand some of the harsh and condemnatory language Paul uses towards his audience. The book of 1John serves as another example. Some people are baffled at the opening of this treatise. What does John mean by all of this talk? Simply stated, he was combating a form of Gnosticism that taught that Jesus did not have a real physical body because the flesh was evil and the spirit was good. At the outset, John makes it very clear that he and the other disciples physically touched, talked, and heard Jesus.
  3. Keep the book’s context in mind while reading. If you know the context of the book it should always be front and center while attempting to interpret. The New Testament authors wrote for specific purposes and this purpose is what drove them to engage their audience. Jude, for example, states that his brief epistle was written for his audience to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. He wanted to write to them concerning their common salvation but changed gears as he felt the necessity to address false teachers. The Gospel of John was written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. When you know the why of the book, it must be kept at the forefront to understand a correct interpretation. Grasping for an interpretation or application outside of this context will usually be wrong. No doubt there will be many topics addressed in a book or an epistle but the important thing to remember is that the authors usually had a specific audience in mind with a specific reason for writing to that audience.
  4. Know your genre & literary devices. Genre and literary devices are important when it comes to interpreting Scripture. You don’t interpret poetry the same way you would interpret a didactic (teaching) passage, for instance. Or you would not interpret apocalyptic literature the same way as an historical or narrative passage. How are hyperboles to be interpreted? What about some of the stranger sayings in Scripture? Though context is the guiding factor in all interpretation, different genres must be interpreted according to their rules. Let’s take, for example, Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26: If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother… he cannot be My disciple. Are we to come to the conclusion that Jesus is commanding us to hate our parents or other family members? What of His own teaching on honoring your parents? This particular verse demonstrates hyperbole, a literary device used to exaggerate something in order to make a point. Here, Jesus is not advocating hate for family. He is using the extreme to make a point. Your love for family members should be of such degree that it pales in comparison to that of even your closest Jesus. And if those family members keep you from following Him, you are to forsake them instead of rejecting Him. I once knew a pastor who took this passage at face value and encouraged others who had family members that were unsaved to do the same. This is why great care should be taken when interpreting different genres and literary devices.
  5. Go with the plain meaning of the text. There is no reason to complicate things. Sometimes, it really is that simple. When the Bible states that we are all dead in sin (Eph 2:1) it really means that. When Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again of water and Spirit (John 3:5) that’s what it actually means. Sometimes there’s a deeper meaning like our example passage Luke 14:26 above, but most times it really is as simple as the text states. If the plain meaning of the text is the plain meaning of the text, then the plain meaning of the text is the plain meaning of the text. Let’s not complicate it.

It may be discouraging to realize that you have been guilty of any of these interpretive fallacies. When I began to understand how hermeneutics properly worked, I had many ooops moments of my own. Do not let it deter you from studying God’s word. We are all guilty of these methods and we must all learn how to correct our mistakes. Be sure to visit the Study Aids page for books and other tools that will be of help. Until then, God bless your study of His word!

Author: Steven Long

Just a guy that cares about how Scripture is being used and taught in today's mainstream Evangelical Church

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