Christian Apologetics Free Course 11, Lesson 01
Analyzing Errors of Interpretation 01
Interpretation is a normal part of human life. Without a sufficiently accurate interpretation of what our family, friends, teachers, or the media say, no one can survive for long. But the very fact that we communicate well with all these people, and they with us, shows that we are following common rules of interpretation in our lives.
The same principles apply to the Bible also, but many times people overlook these principles. This might be accidental or deliberate, but the result is that a great many questions are unnecessarily and unfairly raised against the Bible.
In the case of the Bible, the common rules of interpretation are supplemented with additional rules derived from the Bible and from theology. This makes misinterpretation of the Bible even more difficult, yet errors continue to plague Bible interpretation. This surprises many. On the other hand, some are not even aware that errors of interpretation exist. All this is because many are ignorant, not only of Hermeneutics, but also of the probable causes of interpretive errors.
In this chapter we will look at common causes that give rise to errors of interpretation. Though there are hundreds of types of errors of interpretation, they can be grouped into a few general categories. These are:
Errors Related To Prejudices And Biases
Errors Related To Meaning And Perception
Errors Related To Collection And Integration
We will discuss each one of them in detail, and will illustrate some of the varieties of errors in each group.
Errors Related To Prejudices And Biases
No human is all-knowing. In fact, humankind’s knowledge is very limited. Therefore, humans cannot interpret accurately in areas in which they do not have sufficient background information. Further, almost every person has some prejudices and biases. When all these work together, the result is errors resulting from prejudices and biases.
Errors of prejudices and biases are compounded by a number of reasons. First, many who interpret the Bible are not born-again. This is because more and more unsaved people are occupying positions as pastors, teachers, and even Seminary professors. Recently I read the story of a person who had been employed with the American Bible Society for almost three decades. He was a translation consultant, a job involving transmission of the Bible into numerous languages. What was shocking that this man was a “freethinker”, which is another name for an atheist!
When people of that type occupy positions of authority in the spiritual world, distortion of interpretation is inevitable. Further, even among believers, the number of superficial people has been increasing. Instead of holding on to the fundamentals of the Christian faith like Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), and Solus Christus (Christ Alone), they are people who have compromised one or more of these doctrines. Consequently, their interpretations now correspond to their biases. All these biases show in many ways and some of them are:
The Basic Human Tendency Is To Distort: The basic human tendency is to distort the word of God and that is true even among believers. This is due to the ever-present influence of the world, the flesh, and the devil. When God revealed His future plans to Joseph even his parents found it difficult to believe. Furious with the message, his brethren went one step further and even tried to nullify what God had predicted. The same is our tendency today, especially in matters that we do not like. We prefer to distort and oppose God’s message if it does not suit our biases, prejudices, and tastes. When the Sadducees approached Jesus with a seemingly difficult problem, Jesus replied in Matthew 22:29 “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God”.
The Sadducees were the rationalists of their time, and thus they were biased against God and Revelation. Consequently they misinterpreted the Bible, due to their bias. Peter says the same thing when in 2 Peter 3:16 he remarks about the Pauline Epistles, “As also in all [his] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as [they do] also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction”. It must be noticed that though some things in the Scriptures are hard to understand, the distortion is not because of this difficulty, but rather because these people are unstable and away from divine wisdom. The only solution is to go back to sound hermeneutics, with full dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and without even an iota of a human idea.
The Basic Human Tendency Is To Disbelieve The Divine: Divine Revelation is totally at variance with human thinking. This is one reason why the invitation for receiving Salvation through the simple act of belief is rejected by many. Like Namaan, they would be happy to cross seven seas to get a reward, but when the same thing is offered as a gift they are not ready to believe it. Most of them are not even willing to give it a try. When God told Abraham and Sarai that they would have a child of their own, they disbelieved God — even after hearing Him face to face. When an angel of the Lord spoke to Zachariah, he did not believe though what he witnessed was a miracle. When the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his brethren so that this resurrection might convict them, Abraham replied that if they do not believe the word of God, they will not believe anything. In other words, the basic disbelief in the heart of people forces them to ignore the message of God. The result, when they express their views about this message is only distortion.
Rebellion Is A Basic Human Tendency: Unbelievers live a life of continuous rebellion against God, because they are controlled by their flesh. But even after salvation, many people spend a greater amount of time under the flesh rather than under the control of the Spirit. Consequently, even such believers manifest the same basic rebellion that is seen in the lives of unbelievers. Since the flesh (sin nature) rebels against God, the reproof and instruction of the word of God are not very pleasing to them. Consequently these people try to distort the Scriptures. Jonah is a good example. As a Jew he was horrified when God asked him to preach the gospel to Assyrians who were, at that time, the most degenerate enemies of Jews. This rebellion forced him to question God’s will and commands repeatedly. The same thing can be seen when rebellious believers interpret the Bible.
A Good Number Of People Lack Theological And Biblical Background: The message of the Bible is vastly different from the best human wisdom. It is also at total variance from the greatest man-made religious treatises. Consequently, a certain minimum Biblical background is essential for perceiving the truth of the message of the Bible.
When people approach the Bible from their own human background, many divine pronouncements look like a laughing matter to them. In Genesis 19 we read the history of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Lot’s daughters were married to men of Sodom. These men had already seen the way in which the Lord blinded the wicked men of Sodom. After all this “And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the LORD will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law” (Verse 14). Obviously, to the depraved minds of the people of Sodom, the divine plan looked like a laughing matter, and they just laughed it off. The word of God was challenged, mocked, and rejected, due to their human background.
A Good Number Of People Lack Spiritual Maturity: Just as a certain amount of mental maturity is essential before a person can understand many of the human activities, a certain minimum amount of spiritual maturity is essential before a person can understand the Word of God. In the Bible there is a whole range of doctrines, ranging from the simple milk to the solid meat. Many of the more serious doctrines cannot be understood without a certain basic minimum amount of maturity. That is why Paul says in Hebrews 5:11 that “Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing”. Obviously, when believers dull of hearing try to understand (or try to teach) these tougher doctrines, they are bound to present them according to their simplistic understanding. The result will be a distortion of doctrine.
Many People Interpret The Scriptures Under The Influence Of Various Philosophies: Almost none of us likes to abandon our philosophical biases. When such philosophies become very strong, they distort Bible interpretations. Thus there are many who interpret the Bible in the light of Feminism, Syncretism, Pluralism, Radicalism, Evolutionism, Humanism, Rationalism, etc. Feminists are able to see only masculine bias and prejudice in the Bible. Syncretists and Pluralists see only a one-world religion in the Bible. Evolutionists are quick to see a “gap” in Genesis.
Alternately, they are able to see Genesis 1-10 only as poetry, though it is written in straight Hebrew prose. The end result of all kinds of philosophical prejudice is error. In essence, though, the Bible is often very clear about its statements and people misinterpret it because of their own prejudices and biases. These prejudices and biases are created by their basic human tendencies to distort, disbelieve, rebel, lack biblical background and lack spiritual maturity. The solution is not to heed to their distortions, but to show where they have erred. In addition, the whole counsel of the Word of God should be declared to them. The Bible itself is the best defense and offence against distortion, because, according to Hebrews 4:12 “the word of God [is] quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and [is] a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”.
Often People Show An Imbalance Between Cause/Commitment: the Bible mentions many causes and expects believers to demonstrate an appropriate commitment to it. For example, the cause of orphans, widows, and strangers is mentioned repeatedly in the Law. The Israelites were expected to manifest commitment appropriate to this cause. In the same way causes ranging from care of the helpless believer, to guarding one’s purity are commanded in the Bible. Obviously, not all causes are of equal priority, and consequently not all commitments are of the same priority.
Some causes, and commitment to them, are placed on the highest level, while others are ranked lower. Believer are expected to understand the relative importance of the cause and exhibit a commitment proportional to it. Depending upon a person’s perception, four different kinds of situations can arise, as shown below:
Low Cause, Low Commitment
High Cause, High Commitment
Low Cause, High Commitment
High Cause, Low Commitment
In the first two cases the level of the cause and commitment match, and that is how it ought to be. In the last two cases there is a mismatch between the level of the cause and that of the commitment. People with such a misplaced sense of value are bound to misinterpret the Bible to fit in with their preconceived views, and the result will be error. For example, a person who places high priority on the externals might be more concerned about passages dealing with clothing, facial expression, hairstyles, and food while he ignores Biblical statements related to purity of heart and life. The result will be an imbalanced interpretation and erroneous theology.