How We Interpret Texts Really Matters

The consequences of mis-handling of Scripture can be very serious:

A small group meets and reads a passage of Scripture. They then go around the room and ask each person, “What does this passage mean to you?” The sincere Christians who are there to learn and grow have no formal training and not much knowledge of the Scriptures, so their response of “Well, to me, this means . . .” is very likely to be different from what Paul or Peter or Matthew or John intended when they wrote the text. But, who cares, right?

 

I was reading On Christian Doctrine by Augustine this morning and I came to this in Book 1:

“For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author who he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one; and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him.” – Ch. 37, Book 1

Augustine is so insightful, and here he quickly and briefly describes the very serious consequences which can come from unique, personal and erroneous interpretations of passages of Scripture. I would add that this is one of the real dangers of the hyper-individualized and personalized method of Bible interpretation popular in much of the church today.

Here’s what I mean:

A small group meets and reads a passage of Scripture. They then go around the room and ask each person, “What does this passage mean to you?” The sincere Christians who are there to learn and grow have no formal training and not much knowledge of the Scriptures, so their response of “Well, to me, this means . . .” is very likely to be different from what Paul or Peter or Matthew or John intended when they wrote the text.

But, who cares, right? If John Doe comes up with an interpretation that’s different from what Paul intended, does it really matter? Yes, it does, even if his interpretation seems harmless enough. For he may run into other passages in the Bible which clearly contradict what he thought the passage meant to him.

So, what does he do? Hopefully, he will go back and change his understanding in light of the new passage. But more commonly, I’m afraid that he will try to twist the new passage to match the other, and if he cannot, he might begin to think that the Bible contradicts itself. He might begin to think that he likes this part of the Bible (which he has misunderstood) and not this other part of the Bible.

The consequences of such mis-handling of Scripture can be very serious: The man may end up losing confidence in the authority of Scripture, making up his own unique version of the Christian faith, and losing so much in the process.

This is not just hypothetical, and it doesn’t just take place within the small group format. Unfortunately, we’ve also seem seminaries train people in bizarre and untrue interpretations of Scripture, which lead them to lose confidence in the Bible and even in the truthfulness of God, who gave us the Bible.

How can we avoid this?

1. We have to be sure to check our interpretation of any text of Scripture against other Scripture. (Allow Scripture to interpret Scripture)
2. We need to check our interpretation against sound, orthodox interpretations from scholars and commentators.
3. We need to hold all of our views with sufficient humility that we’re willing to change them in submission to Scripture.
4. We need to be in the community of a solid God-honoring, Bible-believing, Gospel-proclaiming church where others can help check our interpretations.

Some resources to help:
1. Use the free commentaries from Matthew Henry, John Gill and John Calvin.
2. Learn some basic principles of Bible interpretation here.

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.