Christians have always struggled with interpreting the Bible. Most of Jesus’ arguments with the religious leaders of his day were over how to interpret the Bible (Torah). The way we approach the Bible will inevitably impact our conclusions. Here are four general observations about some common mistakes people make when trying to understand the Bible.
Four Mistakes People Make With the Bible
1. Reading the Bible like it was just another Book.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …” (2 Tim. 3:16)
The Scripture is valuable no matter how you approach it or what you think about its true nature. However, most Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, perfect, true and unfailing. That belief will impact the power the Bible has in your life, and your ability to discern its truths.
There is, therefore, a supernatural element to reading the Bible. As difficult as it can be to understand everything about the Bible, Jesus has promised us that he would not leave us alone in the task. He promised us his Holy Spirit that would speak to us and guide us. A sincere heart, open to God is the most powerful tool for hearing his voice speaking through the Bible.
2. Trying to take a literal approach with every part of the Bible.
The Word of God is divinely inspired, perfect and true; but, it is God’s Word delivered through human agency. In other words, it is literature.
Unlike other faith systems we do not believe that the Bible was dropped from heaven pre-written and completed, nor was it written by a single human author. Rather, it is a compilation of numerous books written and edited by many authors, from varying cultural perspectives, over a period of more than a thousand years.
So, you should consider the specific literary genre of the Scripture text you are reading, including changing genre within any one book of the Bible. The Bible has history, poetry, letters, legal tracts, philosophy, songs, memoir, sermons, and proverbial sayings, just to name a few. They can’t all be interpreted the same.
Some might say, “I only believe in the plain, literal meaning of the Scripture.” There is no “plain” meaning of the Scripture text, as opposed to a “complicated” meaning. There is simply the meaning of the Scripture text. Sometimes the meaning is fairly clear. Often, it is not. The difficult and complicated interpretive process is a natural ramification of attempting to understand a two-thousand-year-old text, written in a foreign language, and produced by an alien culture.
3. Taking things out of context.
It’s very easy to clip a Scripture text out of the Bible and use it as a stand-alone truth. Very few verses of the Bible were meant to be read that way.
Years ago a well-meaning Christian told me that the Bible teaches against interracial marriages. The Scripture text he quoted was from 2 Corinthians 6:14 where the Apostle Paul says (in part): “Be ye not unequally yoked …” Apparently, my friend’s pastor interpreted this to mean that we should not get married to someone who is ethnically different from us.
However, he left off the rest of that verse which says: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”
Paul is not speaking against interracial marriage at all, rather he is advising against marrying someone who is not a Christian. The reference to light and darkens is not a reference to skin color, but to spiritual light and darkness. Big difference. This is the kind of dangerous misunderstanding that can happen when the Scripture is taken out of context.
Interpreting the Bible is an important process of considering historical, rhetorical, grammatical, and socio-cultural contexts, mining for the timeless principle, and making a contemporary application.
4. Reading my views into the Bible.
The technical term for this is “eisegesis,” Greek for “drawing into.” The goal is “exegesis,” Greek for “drawing out.” We want to draw truths out of the Scripture, not read our opinions into Scripture.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
I have a friend who told me he was going to join the Episcopal Church (he grew up Baptist). I thought that was interesting, so I asked him what led to the decision. He said that the Episcopalians were more in line with his political thinking.
Nothing against the Episcopalian church — there are many wonderful Christians in that historic tradition. However, making a decision on what I am going to believe about the Bible because it lines up with what I already think should be true, is the worst possible approach to the Scriptures.
In all fairness, it is hard to leave our baggage out of the interpretive process. At least my friend was being honest in his reasons. Our cultural perspective impacts everything. There is no getting around it. The best we can do is minimize it.
The interpreter’s task is to answer the question, “What was the original writer or storyteller attempting to say to the people he was speaking or writing to?” Within this original intent, there is a timeless principle that can be identified. It is that timeless principle that speaks powerfully to each of us today.
The thoughtful and committed Christian wants to know “What does God want to say to me through the Bible?” – Not, “what do I want the Bible to say?”
I will add one more mistake — perhaps the biggest one — not reading the Bible at all.
REMEMBER — If you just read it, God will be faithful in showing you what he wants you to learn.
Interpreting the Bible is BIG task — bigger than any one person – all the more reason to depend on God. Read the Scripture and ask God to speak to you. That’s the best way possible to “get it right!”