Five Ways Not to Teach Biblical Interpretation (Part 2)

Five Ways Not to Teach Biblical Interpretation (Part 2) February 17, 2014

In a previous post, I list three ways not to interpret the Bible. Today, I’ll mention the final two in my list.

People commonly use these problematic methods of interpreting Scripture.

Fragmented_China_Why_We_Fight_no._64. Dogmatic

This is extremely common. This so-called way of interpretation is anything but genuine exegesis (i.e. discerning the meaning from the text). In short, readers assert, “This is what the Bible means.” Then, they proceed to find passages that confirm and correspond with their assumed interpretation.

One of the sure signs of this approach is that people quickly leave the immediate text being studied to look at all sorts of cross-references. Thus, we might be studying Matthew 5 but people spend most of their time in Romans, Galatians, and various other places to argue their point.

Granted, their doctrine may be correct. Yet, that correct doctrine may not be the meaning or the emphasis of a given passage. Consequently, they confuse the big idea with a possible implication. In effect, we filter out truth when we do this. We miss what the author is actually saying in this particular passage. People sometimes never think of the fact that writers may talk about the same topic in two passages, but have different points to make.

As a result, our ability to apply Scripture is limited by our selective reading. We will not grow because we will constantly assume we know what the author is getting at.

Using this approach can be compared to eating already chewed up food. The teacher chews on the Scripture, takes out a lot of nutrients in the process, and then feeds it to others. Sure, there may be some good nutrition left in it; however, it’s lost its original taste. I apologize to those who don’t like that imagery. It’s disgusting but it fits.

5) Fragmented

We can easily treat the Bible like a collection of loosely held together stories. In so doing, we sacrifice the unity of the Bible. We treat it like a merely human book rather than the revelation of the one true God. Therefore, we need to read every passage in view of the big picture. The grand, overarching narrative of the Bible helps us discern the significance of the smaller parts.

When we interpret the Bible in a fragmented way, we wind up setting us Scripture against itself. We pit one verse against another. When debating an idea, I use my verses. You use your verses. In the end, no one changes his or her mind. If we are not careful, the discussion becomes more about us that the text.

God’s word has authority. Proper interpretation is necessarily in order to guard us from misusing Scripture and thus usurping that authority. N. T. Wright is helpful on this point. Robert Stewart’s summarizes Wright’s idea. Notice the relationship between Biblical authority and the single unified story of Scripture:

“What of reading the Bible in a normative sense? Wright proposes a model for biblical authority in which the Bible is understood in similar fashion to an extant portion of a Shakespearean play lacking most of the final act. The play is entrusted to experienced and sensitive Shakespearean actors, who are charged with immersing themselves in the earlier stages of the play and acting out for themselves the final act. The completed portion of the play would be the authority for the ending. The ending could be challenged as inappropriate. All possible conclusions would have to demonstrate their consistency with the extant part of the story that the play told. But there could be no authorized, once-for-all ending. Shakespeareʼs words would never be confused with the words of the cast. But Shakespeareʼs words would exercise some authority over any cast, and every suggested ending would be judged by his words. In the same way, Scripture and theology are not to be confused. The authority of Scripture comes from God himself. The authority of theological statements is derived from Scripture in much the same way that harmonic overtones in music are derived from an original fundamental. In the same way, theological statements are only authoritative to the degree that they are derived from Scripture.” (Robert Stewart, Churchman, 164)


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  • Dave

    “…theological statements are only authoritative to the degree that they are derived from Scripture.” Great reminder!

    I’ve seen my Chinese friends most often commit errors #2 & 5. I’ve seen my foreign friends in China guilty of error #3.

    Is the quote from Dr. Stewart at NOBTS?

    • Thanks for leaving a comment. Yes, the same Dr. Stewart. He’s a sharp guy. Also, I agree that a lot of missionaries, desiring to keep things “simple,” tend towards #3. On your first comment––people miss the fact that emphasis is a part of the original meaning. This means clarity of a certain teaching matters. Otherwise, we make much of true things that aren’t the point. That is an abuse of authority.

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