Errors to Avoid When Interpreting the Bible
by Mike Vlach, Assistant Pastor
Indian Hills Community Church
Christians must be committed to knowing and obeying God's Word.
It is essential, then, that we know how to interpret the Bible correctly and
avoid those errors that would lead us to incorrect conclusions. The
following are some principles that will help you interpret the Bible for
what it really says and some examples of what has happened when these
principles have been violated.
Do not spiritualize the text
To spiritualize (or allegorize) is to go
beyond the plain meaning of the passage in search of a deeper or
hidden meaning. The danger with this method is that there are no
checks for fanciful interpretation. The only standard becomes the
mind of the interpreter. Stick to the intended meaning of the text.
Isaiah and Football?
Vineyard Pastor and Promise Keepers
board member, James Ryle, makes connections between the
Colorado Buffaloes football team and the book of Isaiah. He
says the Holy Spirit told him to turn to Isaiah 21:6 after his
team, Colorado, lost the national championship when they
were beaten by Notre Dame 21-6 in the 1990 Orange Bowl.
After Colorado's tough loss, the Holy Spirit also revealed to
him that God would "reach out His hand a second time"
according to Isaiah 11:11. This supposedly was fulfilled when
Colorado, the next season, beat Notre Dame and won the
national championship. According to Ryle, Isaiah 11:11 also
was related to Colorado's 11-1-1 win, loss and tie record (see
James Ryle, Hippo in the Garden (Orlando, FL: Creation
House, 1993), pp. 77, 182-83).
Joel 2:23 Early and Latter Rains
Joel 2:23 and its
reference to "early" and "latter" rains has been used as a basis
for the Latter Rain Movement. Supposedly, the "early rain" in
this verse refers to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at
Pentecost and the "latter rain" refers to the outpouring of the
Spirit in the twentieth century. However, Joel 2:23 is
addressed to the nation Israel not the Church. This passage
addresses Israel's future in the millennial kingdom. Plus, the
early and latter rains mentioned are referring to literal,
seasonal rains and not the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
What is the real point of Joel 2:23? When Israel is restored to
their land in the millennium, God will send the proper
autumn and spring rainfall for their crops.
- Ex. Song of Solomon
Many have taken the Song of
Solomon to refer to Christ's love for His church. This is an
unwarranted interpretation. The Song of Solomon is about
the greatness of marital love. There is nothing in this song
that speaks of Christ or the Church, nor is there any NT
evidence that indicates this song should be taken in any other
way than about marital love.
- Ex. Rose of Sharon and lily of the valley (SOS 2:1)
These have nothing to do with Christ. Instead, this
passage refers to the young Shulamith comparing
herself with tender flowers.
- Ex. His banner over me is love (2:4)
This often used
phrase of children's songs and banquet halls does not
refer to Christ but to Solomon's protective care of his
Do not prooftext
Prooftexting is stringing together an
inappropriate or inadequate series of Bible verses to prove our
theology. "Put another way--it is enticing, but wrong, to form one's
theology apart from a complete inductive study of Scripture. It is
wrong, having done this, to start looking for biblical texts that seem
to support our conclusions, all without carefully interpreting the
text to which we appeal." (Richard Mayhue, How to Interpret the
Bible for Yourself, BMH Books, p. 75)
- Ex. "Name it and claim it "
Some leaders in the Prosperity
movement love to quote John 14:14, "If you ask Me anything
in My name, I will do it." They interpret this verse to mean
that we can claim by faith whatever we want (ex. car, riches,
etc. . .) as long as we tack on "in Jesus' name" at the end of
our request. They do not stress that to pray "in Jesus' name"
means to pray according to what Jesus desires not what we
selfishly crave. Plus other texts reveal that answered prayer is
based on praying according to God's will (1 John 5:14-15);
praying with an obedient heart (1 John 3:22); and praying
with right reasons and not selfish motives (James 4:1-3).
- Ex. Homosexuality
"The gay community's prooftexting
their sinful (not alternative) life-style from the Bible marks
another major error. They misinterpret selected texts to make
their point [i.e. David and Jonathan's friendship in 1 Samuel
19:1; 20:41]. Then they ignore clear Scriptures that
unquestionably prohibit homosexuality, such as Leviticus
20:13; Romans 1:24-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; and 1 Timothy
1:9-10" (Mayhue, p. 78)
Do not isolate texts from their context
Interpreting a text out of its
context can lead to error. The Scripture cannot be divorced from its
- Ex. Matt. 18:19-20
"How many times have you heard
someone claim an answer to prayer by quoting Matthew
18:19-20? 'Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth
about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them
by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are
have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.'
If you look carefully at the verses, you will note that they are
inseparably linked to Matthew 18:15- 18. The two or three
gathered have not assembled to pray but rather to enact
church discipline." (Mayhue, p. 80)
- Ex. James 1:5 and Divine Revelation
reach back to 1820 when Joseph Smith, the founder of
Mormonism, supposedly received direct revelation after
reading James 1:5, "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him
ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without
reproach, and it will be given to him." Smith allegedly was
visited by God and told not to join any existing church "for
they were all wrong" (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith,
2:15-19). From Joseph Smith and the church he founded
would come such beliefs as a denial of the Trinity, God having
a human body, Jesus being the spirit brother of Satan,
salvation by works and other heretical doctrines. James 1:5,
though, does not validate receiving subjective experiences and
revelations that contradict other portions of the Bible. James
1:5 is about asking God to help us live godly while facing
- Ex. Does 2 Cor. 3:6 condemn literal interpretation?
letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Does this verse warn
against taking the Bible too literally or seriously? No. Paul is
not even addressing the issue of literal versus spiritual
interpretation. Context reveals that the "letter" is the Old
Covenantthe Mosaic Law (i.e. "letters engraved on stones"
(v.7)). Thus the contrast is between the Old Covenant, which
reveals man's sin and thus kills, and the New Covenant which
- Ex. 2 Peter 2:20 and losing salvation
Some people use this
verse to teach that a believer can lose their salvation: "For if
after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the
knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again
entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has
become worse for them than the first." The "they" in this
passage, though, is referring to false prophets as mentioned in
2:1. This passage is referring to false prophets and not true
Do not apply specific promises made to Israel to other nations Avoid
taking specific promises to Israel and applying them to other
countries such as the United States.
- Ex. 2 Chronicles 7:14 and the United States
Christians like to claim this passage for the United States:
"and My people who are called by My name humble themselves
and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways,
then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will
heal their land." This verse though has nothing to do with
the United States. As Mayhue says, "Don't miss this! God's
promise to Solomon and Israel has nothing to do with
America or any other country where Christians live today. No
matter how spiritual or unspiritual America becomes, the
outcome of our national history will not rest on the condition
of 2 Chronicles 7:14 but rather on the sovereignty of God."
(Mayhue, pp. 91-92)
Do not substitute Israel with the Church...(Replacement Theology)
Bible never confuses Israel with the Church. Though there are
similarities between the nation Israel and the Church,
unconditional, eternal promises to the nation Israel should not be
spiritualized and transferred to the Church.
- Ex. Genesis 13:14-17 ("for all the land which you see, I will
give it to you and to your descendants forever")
promised a literal land (Canaan) to a literal people
(Abraham's descendantsthe Jews). The land cannot be
spiritualized to mean salvation or heaven. Nor does the
church inherit these promises at the expense of national
- Ex. Romans 11:25-26 ("thus all Israel will be saved")
Amillennialists, including John Calvin, have taken "Israel" in
verse 26 to be a reference to the Church composed of both
Jews and Gentiles. The special context of Romans 9-11,
though, shows that of the eleven times "Israel" is used in this
section it always refers to biological Jews and never refers to
Do not pour current thinking into the biblical text Modern or current
philosophies should not be used as a basis for reinterpreting the
- Ex. Six-day Creation (Genesis 1-2)
A normal, literal
interpretation of Genesis 1-2 shows that God created the
world in six, twenty-four hour days. The Hebrew word for
"day" (yom) when accompanied by a numerical adjective (i.e.
fifth day), is never used figuratively. It is always understood
normally. However, with the increasing belief in evolution
and an old earth, some have tried to reinterpret the days of
creation not as literal twenty-four hour days but as long
periods of time. Thus "six days" is just figurative for a long
period of time, which can include millions of years.
- Ex. Do we need to love ourselves first to love others? (Matt.
Many in Christian psychology have twisted this
passage to mean that we must learn to love ourselves in order
to love others. Yet in this passage, self love is not encouraged
but assumed ("for no one ever hated his own flesh. . ." (Eph.
5:29)) The point is that we need to show the same concern for
others that we naturally show ourselves. As Mayhue says,
"In Matthew 22 Jesus speaks of two commands--loving God
and loving our neighbor. There is no third command to love
ourselves. As a matter of biblical record, there is no command
in Scripture to love ourselves. At times, it appears that the
basis for self love comes more from Abraham Maslow's
hierarchy of needs than from the Bible." (Mayhue, pp. 100-01)
- Ex. Psychology and redefining of terms
influence in the Church has often led to a twisting of biblical
terms and their meanings.
For example, note Robert Schuller's redefining of
what sin is: "Sin is any act or thought that robs myself
or another human being of his or her self-esteem"
(Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, p.
Also notice Schuller's redefining of hell: "And
what is hell? It is the loss of pride that naturally
follows separation from God the ultimate and
unfailing source of our soul's sense of self-respect. . . .
A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem"
Being born again
What does being born again
mean to Schuller? "To be born again means that we
must be changed from a negative to a positive
self-imagefrom inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to
love, from doubt to trust."
Avoid making all phenomena and experiences in the Bible normative
Not every experience that happened in the Bible is
normative for today. "We must see if the principle in the passage is
taught elsewhere. If what happened to someone in Bible times is
considered normative for all believers, it must be in harmony with
what is taught elsewhere in Scripture." (Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible
Interpretation, Victor Books, p. 285)
Experiences of Moses, prophets and apostles
Lloyd-Jones in his book, Revival, says that God's revealing of
His glory to Moses in Exodus 33:18-23 is something all
believers should seek:
"Now Moses knew of the glory of God. He had not seen
it, but he believed God. He had accepted the revelation
and he had had odd manifestations here and there. And
on the strength of this he said, 'Now let me see thy
glory, let it be manifested.' And that should be our
position. . . . We know that God is there in all his glory,
and the necessity is that we should be moved, as Moses
was, to desire the manifestation of this glory. It is
almost inconceivable, is it not, that there should be any
Christian who does not offer this prayer of Moses?"
(Lloyd-Jones, Revival, pp. 216-18)
Lloyd-Jones also gives other examples of experiences in
the Bible that believers should be experiencing today:
Isaiah's vision of the Lord sitting on His throne (Isa.
6:1-7); John's vision of Christ on Patmos (Rev. 1);
Saul's encounter with Christ on the Damascus road
(Acts 9); and the apostles' seeing Christ transformed
before them on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17).
Concerning experiences like these Lloyd-Jones says "we
must never forget that all this is possible at any time to
the individual." HOWEVER, men like Moses (see Deut.
34:10-12), Isaiah and the apostles were unique men
with unique ministries. The Bible does not suggest that
their experiences are to be normative for today. Nowhere
does the Bible tell us to seek the experiences of these
Raising the dead
The fact that Elijah and Peter were able to raise people
from the dead (1 Kings 17 and Acts 9:36-43) does not mean that God
intends all believers to be raising people from the dead. The Bible never says
this activity is normative for believers today.
Casting out demons
Casting out of demons was done by Christ and the
Apostles to validate their proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom
(Matt. 10:5-8; 12:28). Nowhere in the instruction to the churches are
believers told to be casting out demons.
"Abraham, Jacob, David, and others had more than one wife.
Does this mean polygamy is acceptable, as some believe? No, this is not an
acceptable practice. Even though God did not specifically condemn them
individually for such a practice, as far as the scriptural record is concerned,
we know polygamy is wrong because God gave Adam one wife and He said,
'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his
wife, and they will become one flesh' (Gen. 2:24) and because numerous
passages in the New Testament speak of marital fidelity to one's wife (e.g.,
Matt. 5:27, 31-32; 1 Cor. 7:2-3; Eph. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Thes. 4:3-7)."
(Zuck, p. 286)
Do not dismiss a text as cultural simply because it does not seem to fit with the
ideas of modern society
- Ex. Husband leadership in the home (Ephesians 5:22-33)
society often rejects role distinctions between men and women. Thus, the
idea of the husband being the leader and the woman being subject to her
husband is often rejected as being cultural and limited to Paul's day. Yet
there is nothing in the context to limit these commands to the time of Paul's
day. In fact, the instruction to husbands is based on Christ's example of
loving the Church.
- Ex. Male Elders (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
Scripture makes clear that women
are not to hold authority positions over men in the church. Many Christian
churches, though, allow women to be elders and pastors. Passages such as 1
Timothy 2:11-15, which explicitly prohibit leadership positions for women,
are dismissed as the product of a male-dominated society. Nothing,
however, in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 indicates that its commands were limited to
that time and culture. In fact, male leadership is rooted in the creation order
(2:13) and the fall (2:14).
INDIAN HILLS COMMUNITY CHURCH
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