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 bride.

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 immediate surroundings.

  • 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
    Mormonism's roots 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 trials.

  • Ex. Does 2 Cor. 3:6 condemn literal interpretation?
    "The 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 Covenant‹the 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 gives life.

  • 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 believers.

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
    Many 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)
The 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")
    God promised a literal land (Canaan) to a literal people (Abraham's descendants‹the Jews). The land cannot be spiritualized to mean salvation or heaven. Nor does the church inherit these promises at the expense of national Israel.

  • Ex. Romans 11:25-26 ("thus all Israel will be saved")
    Many 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 Gentiles.

Do not pour current thinking into the biblical text Modern or current philosophies should not be used as a basis for reinterpreting the biblical text.

  • 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. 22:39)
    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
    Psychology's 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. 14).

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" (pp. 14-15).

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-image‹from inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust."

Avoid making all phenomena and experiences in the Bible normative for today
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
Martyn 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 unique men.

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)
    Modern 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).

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