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HOW TO ANALYZE ERRORS OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

December 5, 2009

By Dr. Gary S. Day

There are common rules in the interpretation of human communication, and these principles are also to be applied to the interpretation of the Bible.  When not done properly, unnecessary questions are raised against the Bible, and errors concerning the Bible and Christianity congeal.  Although human communication rules apply in the interpretation of the Bible, additional rules from other fields also apply, such as the fields of theology and hermeneutics, making misunderstanding the Bible more difficult.  But many are ignorant about hermeneutics and the base categories of interpretive error.  This ignorance leads to hundreds of types of errors in Biblical interpretation.  The base categories from which these errors spring can be summarized as: 1) Errors related to Prejudices and Biases; 2) Errors relating to Meaning and Perception; and 3) Errors relating to Collection and Integration.

Prejudice and Bias

Errors related to Prejudices and Biases grow from our limited background knowledge, because of our finite natures can’t comprehend everything, plus we have each developed our own set of prejudices and biases which color our viewpoints and understanding.  Biblical interpretation errors are also compounded by interpreters not being born again.   The result is that one or more of the fundamental doctrines of Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Sciptura (Bible Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) and  Solus Christus (Christ Alone) are compromised, by forcing the interpretation to conform to our biases.

Some of the ways biases show themselves is in the three basic human tendencies: 1) to distort the Word of God—whose only solution is to depend totally on the Holy Spirit and to follow sound hermeneutics; 2) to disbelieve the Word of God, because revelation is totally at variance with human thinking; and 3) to rebel against God because the unbeliever is dedicated to the ways of the flesh—and because many Christians follow the ways of the flesh, rebellion is in their lives also.  To this point James 4:4 says, “Adulteresses!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?  So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy” (HCSB).

Also, a certain level of Biblical, theological and cultural background understanding is needed for seeing Biblical truth as the Wisdom of God.  The unredeemed mind rejects and mocks what God’s Word says.  Besides this, spiritual and mental maturity need be acquired before the deeper things of God can be perceived by the believer.  If not, a distortion of doctrine occurs. 

In addition, many interpret the Bible through the lens of their favorite philosophy, such as Feminism, Pluralism or Rationalism.  Each view is capable only of seeing what its philosophical tenets purports (e.g., the Pluralist sees only a one-world religion in the Bible, and the Feminist observes a misogamist perspective to the Bible).  The bottom line is that all such philosophies are prejudicial and generates error in biblical interpretation.   “These prejudices and biases are created by their basic human tendencies to distort, disbelieve, rebellion, lack of biblical background, and lack of spiritual maturity.”   The apologist’s goal is to show them where they have erred, using the Word of God.

Finally, misplaced emphasis on causes of lesser importance and commitment to those causes, rather than the weightier causes, leads to errors in interpretation and theology.  For example, a person who places high priority on the externals might be more concerned with passages dealing with clothing, food and such like, while ignoring Biblical statements relating to the purity of heart and life, sanctification and grace.

Meaning and Perception

Errors relating to Meaning and Perception stem from a lack of accounting for the absolute and contextual meaning of Biblical statements.  This leads to many types of interpretational error, such as applying the wrong meaning to statements, e.g., generalizing specific statements to be inclusive of all. 

Keys to understanding a passage must be applied properly.  Keys to understanding are contextually related and not usually transferred to another context, e.g., passages relating to the Church do not normally relate to Israel also.  Using the wrong keys to understand a passage of Scripture is an error in interpretation.

Human limitation is another source of errors related to meaning and perception.  The breakdown between the finite-infinite communications is on the finite human side.  Everyone has their perceptual limitations.  Though some may perceive more than others, no one is able to understand and know everything, except God.  The attempt to do so, or perceive that you do so, will result in interpretational errors.

Another source of error develops from language itself.  Many times, only the context of its usage does a word with multiple meanings become clear.  Using predominant meanings can force a careless interpretation of a passage if context is not taken into consideration.  The Septuagint (LXX) often times translates a Hebrew word always with one particular Greek word, when other Greek words may be better used. 

Often people judge God unfairly when an uneven punishment is perceived for the same offence.  But what is overlooked is the human inability to perceive Divine action.  God sees the intent of the heart, as well as the past and future events.  Humans cannot.

Bible doctrines, in New Testament times were kept or were seen as mysteries during the ministry of Jesus.  After Pentecost these mysteries have been cleared up for the believers, but unbelievers often still see these doctrines as mysteries, for the things of God are spiritually discerned, and the unbeliever has not the Spirit of God.  When an unregenerate person tries to interpret the Bible, only error can occur.

The limitation of language is another source of interpretational error.  For instance, language is limited in expressing the person and work of God, making it difficult to comprehend or express the ideas behind the words in God’s Word, the Bible.  It is imperative that applicable word meaning be clearly distinguished.

Collection and Integration

Many interpreters are lazy, unwilling to do the proper Biblical research, which takes time, energy and sometimes financial investment.  Therefore, because information in the Bible on a subject is widely separated throughout the Bible text in differing contexts, literary genres, etc., errors relating to collection and interpretation are bound to occur.

A related error in the collection and interpretation of information are found in the uneven emphasis on some portions of Scripture.  Some portions are ignored while others are emphasized.  This lopsided understanding is fueled by bias and pet theories.  For instance, the Calvinistic teaching on Limited Atonement states that Christ died only for the Church and not the whole world, though many Biblical texts support the universal aspect of Christ’s atonement.  When confronted with these texts, supporters of this view will insist that these texts should be interpreted according to their philosophy.  The bottom line here is that errors in interpretation are introduced, “when a person insists that statements in the Bible should be interpreted in the light of certain extra-biblical philosophies.”  All philosophies, including those espoused by Christians, should be evaluated through the lens of comparative biblical deductions, not visa versa.

Also, Biblical revelation is progressive in nature.  Of necessity, a give doctrinal passage should be interpreted by the light of the revelation had at the time of the passage’s context.  If not, errors of integration will occur.

Old Testament revelation was progressive and fulfilled in the New Testament.  And a look at the history of Christian doctrine shows that doctrinal understanding has been progressive also (Historical Theology).  Therefore, there may always be some errors in interpretation since human perception is also progressive, yet finite.  This is another reason the interpreter should make the Bible the central factor in understanding, not the supporting one in deference to other fields of study.  This is an error many Higher Criticism proponents ascribe to.

Details about periphery subjects, like infant baptism, baptismal salvation and guardian angels, should not exceed given information in the Bible, or error will arise.  For the Bible gives us “sufficient” information about important matters for humans to respond to, but it doesn’t provide “total” information on all subjects mentioned in the Bible. The Bible would be too voluminous if it did, and questions would still be raise anyway.

Lastly, unfortunately, denominational loyalties and hyper-emotionalism often introduce serious skewed Bible interpretations.  Again this bias leads to prejudicial handling of the Word of God, emphasizing information that may seem to support their particular brand of interpretation, while ignoring other passages which do not support their positions.  Pentecostal tongues, the Episcopalian hierarchical church system and ornamental dress are all emotional issues which give rise to problems in Biblical interpretation.

Erroneous interpretations manifest themselves in many ways in the above three categories, but understanding these three basic categories where faulty Biblical interpretation arise helps you to spot them when they do.

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