*Editor’s Note: The Bible has been subject to some wild misinterpretations. It’s important that the people of God learn to handle the Bible accurately so that they do not fall for dangerous misinterpretations or misinterpret it themselves. I recently caught up with Dr. Orpheus J. Heyward, a minister, scholar, and teacher of Bible interpretation (hermeneutics) to get his thoughts on ways we can interpret the Bible accurately and faithfully. In Part 1 of our conversation, we talk about why misinterpretation is dangerous.
Q: Alister McGrath wrote Christianity’s Dangerous Idea in which he explains that if you give everybody their own Bible in their own language, you will have tons of different interpretations. With everybody having their own Bible (and their own social media account, blog, podcasts, etc.), there’s a risk that people will invent and teach some very unbiblical interpretations. Can you give an example of when you heard somebody’s interpretation of a Bible passage and it made you say, What in the world?!
I can think of numerous cases and some of those cases may even be from my own early preaching experience where, after looking back retrospectively, you start to realize, Man, I really took some Scriptures out of context. In the name of theology and doctrine, sometimes our zeal gets ahead of our hermeneutical understanding. When we want to be orthodox or when we want to ensure that we’re theologically correct, sometimes we’re more loyal to a particular religious tradition as opposed to a proper interpretation of Scripture.
One example would be 1 Corinthians 14:40. This is a really common passage that I’ve heard within the context of even Churches of Christ, where it says,
“Let all things be done decently and in order.”
That passage has been used for a great variety of things from saying you shouldn’t clap in church to how women are dressed in church to what should be the order of worship to the idea that you can’t sing and do the Lord’s supper at the same time.
Protecting the Practice VS Interpreting the Scripture
So there have been numerous ways that that passage has been used to suggest various positions, and every position I’ve heard on that passage has been about trying to protect the practice as opposed to truly treating what the apostle Paul was treating in the context of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. In 1 Corinthians 14:40, when Paul says that all things be done decently and in order, contextually he was dealing with the management of spiritual gifts. And he was dealing with the fact that you had prophets and tongue speakers who were not doing things in a way that would be edifying in which the church could understand.
Yet we have taken that passage and used it for everything we want to use it for. And we just kind of use it as a double-edged sword. We just cut people coming and going without truly understanding what Paul was dealing with in that context.
Q: What’s another example of people teaching a Bible passage which they clearly hadn’t taken the time to interpret correctly?
Another would be in Acts 17 which says that God is not worshiped with human hands. That verse has been used to suggest that clapping is a sin. Yet, if you look at the context, you see that they were making idols. Paul addresses the practice of idol making by helping them to understand who God truly is—that he is not a God that needs you to make Him or create Him. In that context, he’s far from dealing with clapping.
Q: I think clapping is only a sin if it’s off-beat. Other than that, I think it should be okay. So, a lot of people see spirituality as a matter of opinion. They might say, “Well, this is how I read the Bible. And I find it to be an inspirational, inspiring way of reading it.” If I’ve got my own inspirational feelings from reading the Bible my own way, then does it really matter what the original authors meant to say? Isn’t it enough just to figure out what it means to me?
You know, that’s a common approach of reading literature called the “reader response method.” The reader response method took the position that in the absence of the author—since we do not have access to the author and we can’t ask the author what is meant—then we need to ascertain what it means to us. Therefore the method was called “reader response.”
The problem with that is that God places the meaning in Scripture. We need to be very careful that we don’t negate the methodology of God by which He wants us to be guided by His wisdom. And to that end, He gives us Scripture and Scripture is not to be privately interpreted from the perspective that I can come up with what it means to me.
I need to ask, “What is God trying to communicate to me? What is God trying to say to me? What is the instructive mechanism involved here?”
For instance, 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness that the man of God might be equipped for every good work. Well, if it’s left up to me to come up with what it means, where’s the rebuke? Where’s the correction? Where’s the instruction in righteousness? It then becomes subjective, which means I can then bend Scripture to my will as opposed to making my will bend to Scripture.
So it becomes a dangerous process when I lead with the notion that I can give Scripture meaning. That perspective negates the wisdom of God—that God is the revealer of Scripture by which He wants to communicate meaning to us. So, I think the reader response philosophy is very dangerous and gives birth to a plethora of different religious positions that are predicated on what people want and what people feel as opposed to what did God actually communicate.