*Editor’s Note: Misinterpreting the Bible can lead to serious, even eternal, damage. So, it’s vital to learn the skill of biblical interpretation. I got to catch up with Michael DeFazio, Professor of New Testament and Hermeneutics at Ozark Christian College, and ask him some questions about biblical interpretation. In this section of our conversation, I asked him to describe common mistakes which derail our interpretation of Scripture. He gave four answers.
Mistake #1 – Not Actually Reading the Text
I think the first mistake I’ll mention is not actually reading it. And when it comes to people who do read the Bible, I would say the mistake would be not actually reading it repeatedly—reading it over and over. It has been said that the first rule of Bible interpretation is read it. The second rule is to read it again. And the third rule is to read it a third time.
I know that’s cheesy, but I really do believe that it’s critical to keep coming back to the texts and really soak ourselves in them. Historically and biblically, that’s the meaning of Bible meditation—that you read it and you think about it. So, I think that that’s a big piece of it for sure.
Mistake #2 – Not Being Aware of Our Assumptions
Another not-so-obvious mistake—although it shouldn’t come as a shock—is to assume things about the text without being aware of what we’re assuming. Unconsciously assuming that we understand the meaning can cause us to misunderstand what we’re reading. I don’t think that assumptions are necessarily always bad. They can be helpful, but they can also be hindrances. The assumption that God is real, for example, is a good assumption to bring to the biblical text. Our assumptions are most dangerous, however, when we assume things but aren’t conscious of it.
It’s easy to make unknowing assumptions when it comes to the meaning of words. Maybe I think I already know what the word salvation means, and so, when I read the word in the Bible, I draw a conclusion based on my previous understanding.
Or take the word love. In 1 John 4:8, we are told that “God is love,” and we all know people who would define that word in very different ways than John meant to convey. I imagine you and I could come up with quite a list of people who have written books and preached sermons and have gotten quite a hearing over defining that word in ways that we think could be wrong.
There are also some big-picture assumptions that can get us into trouble.
For example, you can be unaware of which doctrinal frameworks might be influencing how you read the text. For example, let’s say one person comes to a verse like Ephesians 1:5 from a Calvinist framework, and another person approaches the same verse from an anti-Calvinist framework. In both cases, both people might be making the same assumption: the word predestination means God’s choosing of some individuals to be saved and not others.
The Calvinist sees Ephesians 1:15 as describing God’s unconditional election of the saved, while the anti-Calvinist explains that God’s choice of who is and isn’t saved is based, not on God’s choice, but on our own. All the while, however, it might be that Paul has in mind a different meaning altogether of the word predestination—a meaning that neither the Calvinist nor anti-Calvinist have in view. Assuming a particular framework can get us into trouble, especially if we’re not aware of the framework guiding us.
Beyond doctrinal frameworks, we can be unconsciously guided by a framework at the worldview-level.
Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self does an excellent job at showing how worldview commitments explain our modern beliefs. It is a brilliant book which traces cultural beliefs regarding sexuality and gender back to their philosophical, worldview roots. Take the statement, “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body.” Trueman asks how Western society went so quickly from seeing such a statement as an obvious sign of mental illness to where, now, if you do not affirm the statement’s truthfulness, you are considered, not only wrong and dumb, but a bad person.
Trueman describes the historical process by which Western society’s worldview has shifted to embrace the view that to be genuinely human means to align my identity with my internal desires. If that’s your understanding of what it means to be fully human, then you’re going to read a lot of biblical passages that buck up against that. If that’s your worldview, you will have to reject or reinterpret a ton of what you read in the Bible.
If you’re not aware of the assumptions you’re bringing to the text, then you could very well force the text into a box it was never intended to fit in.
Mistake #3 – Not Reading a Passage in Context
When I explain “context,” I like to have people picture concentric circles. We need to be able to read a passage in its immediate context (the verses that come before and after), and moving out, we need to read it in light of the entire biblical book it is in. Even further out, we need to read a text in the light of Scripture as a whole.
When you isolate a particular statement or story from the biblical book that it’s found in—and from the flow of thought present in the document—you’re setting yourself up to misunderstand the statement or story.
It’s also easy to isolate a particular Scripture from the rest of Scripture. I’ve been in conversation with people who disagree with me and they’ll throw 2-3 Bible passages at me. Yes, those texts are important and true. But it’s as if, to the other person, there are a lot of passages that don’t even exist. When we’re reading Scripture, we really need to make it a habit to back up and ask what else the Bible says that can help give me a bigger picture and sharper view of this topic.
“Inerrancy in Practice”
For a moment, let’s return to the debate on whether God is completely and solely responsible for our salvation (i.e., Calvinism) or whether we have a choice in the matter (i.e., Arminianism). There are passages which emphasize the supremacy of God’s action in our salvation (e.g., John 10:28; Romans 8:29-30). Yet there are also passages which emphasize the human response (e.g., “the obedience that comes from faith,” Romans 1:5, and many accounts in Acts). Then there are passages like Ephesians 2 that back up and look at the whole picture (“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith,” Eph. 2:8).
It is important to acknowledge that there are multiple passages that have to work together in order to give us the whole picture. As people who have a high view of Scripture, to me this is inerrancy in practice. I believe that the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God. The Bible in its entirety tells us the truth. But I think you only arrive at that truth if you pay attention to all of these statements in relationship to each other.
Mistake #4 – Not Understanding the Relationship between the Bible and the Voice of God
One of the things that the Lord has been impressing upon me recently is that anytime we read the Bible, we are actually hearing God speak to us. I could be wrong, but I don’t really see this assumption prevalent in our churches, or as much as I would want to anyway. What I mean is that I have a lot of students and friends who will say, “I just want to hear from God.” And I’m thinking, Weren’t you there whenever we read the Bible the other day? You heard from him. What didn’t you like?
At Ozark Christian College, one of the things our founding Academic Dean Seth Wilson used to say was that, when you read a Bible passage, you are hearing the voice of Jesus speaking to you about himself and you and the world. We need to stop treating the words of Scripture and the voice of God as if they were separate realities.
When you read a Bible passage, you are hearing the voice of Jesus speaking to you about himself and you and the world.