Bible interpretation methods you should avoid

One must be very careful with word-studies, and should entirely avoid the usual sort of word-study sermons: These are equivalent to preaching from a dictionary rather than from the Bible!  Thus some ministers preach on the different “kinds” of love in different passages, agapao love versus phileo love.  But the distinction between these two “kinds” of love had virtually disappeared by the New Testament period, so they are often (probably even usually) used interchangeably!  Tracing all the uses of a particular word in the Bible is helpful for finding out the different ways that word can be used.  It should never form a sermon outline, however (the exception might be some passages in Proverbs), because that is preaching from a concordance rather than from a text studied in its context.

One should also avoid determining the meaning of words by their etymologies.  That is, you cannot break a word down into its component parts and always come up with its meaning, and you usually cannot determine the meaning a word has by looking at how it was used centuries earlier or how the word originated.  For a contemporary example, if one of my students called me a “nice professor,” they might intend it as a compliment.  But if I were committed to understanding words according to their origins, I could grow very angry.  In English, “nice” is a friendly term; but its Latin source means “ignorant” or “foolish.”  So I could misunderstand someone calling me “nice” as that person calling me “ignorant”!  We know that English does not work that way, and we should not expect ancient languages to work that way, either.

For example, some take the Greek word for “repent,” metanoieo, and divide it into two parts, of which the second, noieo, is related to thinking.  Therefore, they say, “repent” simply means a change of mind.  The problem with this interpretation is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage, not by their origins!  The New Testament generally uses “repent” not in the Greek sense of “changing one’s mind” but in the sense of “turn” in the Old Testament prophets: a radical turning of our lives from sin to God’s righteousness.

Another example of this problem occurs when interpreters speak of the Church as the “called-out ones” based on the Greek word for church, ekklesia.  We are, to be sure, “called-out,” but we know that for other reasons, not because we can determine that from ekklesia.  Some divide ekklesia into ek, meaning “out of,” and kaleo, which means “call.”  But ekklesia had already been used by Greeks for centuries to mean an “assembly” or “gathering”; Jewish people who knew Greek spoke of the congregation of Israel in the wilderness as God’s ekklesia.  So the New Testament does not make up a new word to call Christians the “called-out-ones”; rather, it uses a standard term for an assembly, and probably the first Christians thought especially of God’s own assembly in the Old Testament, his people.

People can twist Greek the way they can twist English, Hausa, or anything else.  When Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that John 1:1 calls Jesus “a God” because there is no definite article (“the”) in front of “God” there, they neglect several factors, of which I will briefly summarize two.  First, “God” does not always have a definite article in John’s Gospel; the God who sent John the Baptist does not have a definite article (Jn 1:6), but Jehovah’s Witnesses never say he was simply “a god.”  Second, grammatically “God” is a predicate nominative in “the Word was God,” and predicate nominatives usually omit definite articles.  Even without moving any further, we can see that the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation here is based on a lack of knowledge of Greek.

Some people speak of zoe as the “God-kind-of-life,” but zoe refers to human life just as easily.  Some misinterpret Greek grammar, claiming that “faith of God” must mean “the God-kind-of-faith”; it could mean that, but in context probably means “faith in God.”  Some claim that “now” in Hebrews 11:1 means present-tense “now”; but the Greek term there means “but” or “and.”  Someone once claimed to me that Christians would all become Christ, because he would come with “ten-thousands of himself” in Jude 14.  The person’s error was simple–”ten-thousands of him” is the appropriate way to say in Greek, “ten-thousands belonging to him”–but it led them into a serious doctrinal error.  More often than not (there may be some exceptions), when someone comes up with an interpretation based on Greek or Hebrew that contradicts what one would have thought from reading the rest of the Bible, they may be reading into the Greek or the Hebrew something that is not there.  It is helpful to learn Greek and Hebrew for yourself, but if you cannot, sticking with a couple good translations is usually safe.

The most common anticontext Bible interpretation method is practiced by cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses by also widespread in churches of most denominations.  We read into the text what we already expect to find there, because of our doctrine or because of how we have heard a story told!  How often have we read a Bible story only to realize that part of the story we always heard is not in that passage?  How often have we read our doctrine (maybe even a correct doctrine, supported by other texts) into a text or texts that did not really address the issue?  When this happens, Christians from different groups can no longer use the Bible as a common basis for seeking truth, because we are all “sure” of our own interpretations, which we sometimes cannot defend from context!  It is important enough to respect the Bible enough to let it speak for itself.  If our doctrine is not in a passage, we do not need to read it in; our doctrine is probably in some other passage–or else respect for the Bible’s authority may require us to fix our doctrine.  In this way we are open to fresh discoveries in the Bible each time we study it.  At the same time, this does not mean that we throw away everything we have already learned and start with nothing each day.  We build on what we have already learned, and go back and change particular interpretations only as we study the text as honestly as possible and find a need to change.  This way we can also dialogue with other honest Christians around the Scriptures.


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