Christian Apologetics Free Course 11, Lesson 02
Analyzing Errors of Interpretation 02
Errors Related To Meaning And Perception
The meaning of a statement has two parts: the absolute (or semantic) meaning, and the contextual meaning. The absolute meaning is determined with the help of vocabulary and grammar, while the contextual meaning is obtained by considering the historical, sociological, cultural and textual context.
Without having both the meanings at hand it is often difficult to understand the precise message of the Bible. For example, in Songs of Solomon, the shepherd addresses his beloved as his “sister”. While a dictionary is sufficient to find out the meaning of this word, it does not make any sense to the modern reader. Once the contexts mentioned above are considered it becomes clear that the word “Sister” had many usages for the Hebrews. One of them was a term of endearment used for one’s wife. Thus if the meaning of the passage is not perceived properly, it can lead to many types of errors. Some of these are:
Ignorance About The Nature Of A Passage: The nature of a statement plays an important role in interpreting and applying its meaning. Statements may be of many types, such as Concrete/Abstract, General/Specific, Affirmative/Negative, etc. Thus, what is specific will create problems if interpreted as general, and what is negative will create problems if it is interpreted as affirmation. Many statements about Israel and the Church are specific to these groups. If they are generalised to include other groups also, the result will be catastrophic.
Right Or Wrong Keys: There are many keys to understand the message of a particular passage. Thus, God’s dealings with Israel can be explained only if several factors governing the choice of Israel are taken into consideration. Thus these factors are the right key to understand those passages, and any other factors would act only as wrong keys.
Similarly, when passages related only to the Church are applied to Israel, or passages related only to Israel are applied to the Church, errors are bound to arise. A study of dispensations also makes it clear that the correct key is essential to understand a given passage correctly. When that is not done, or when the wrong key is used, errors are bound to arise.
Human Limitations: The Bible is a communication from the infinite God to finite men and women. Consequently, some difficulties of perception and understanding are bound to occur on our side. This difficulty is compounded by many other factors that add to our limitations of perception. Depending upon our upbringing and training, each one of us has our blind spots: logical, perceptional, linguistic, comprehensional and doctrinal limitations. Consider the example of multiple reports of the same event, as often recorded in the four Gospels.
A person who is exposed to newspapers knows that faithful multiple reports of the same event can often not be reconciled with one another. This is not because of problems with reporting, but due to problems of integration. Similar limitations lead many people to misinterpret the Bible, though others find no serious problem with the same passages. Doctrines related to divine discipline, and the command to pray (even though God already knows all that we need), can often be understood only after one has been living as a loving and concerned father or mother for several years. A bachelor cannot, usually, gain the same depth of perception into these things. Further, many people attempt to explain or understand more than that which is actually possible for finite humans. Thus all such attempts by the finite intelligence are bound to face problems, and often the solution that is offered will be an erroneous interpretation.
Multiple Meanings: Many words have multiple meanings, and only the context makes the precise meaning clear.
Many people, unfortunately, are in the habit of interpreting a statement only in the light of the predominant meaning of a given word. Thus when they hear about Salvation, Justification, or Filling with the Spirit, they force an interpretation upon the passage. Salvation is used in several ways in the Bible. It might refer to salvation from the condemnation of sin, but it might also refer to experiential sanctification. Only the context makes the meaning clear, and unless this is done, careless interpretation of words with multiple meanings may give rise to errors.
Inability To Perceive Divine Actions: When finite humans look at the actions of the divine, they are perplexed by many things. For example, they feel that for similar actions God punishes different individuals differently. One individual speaks a lie, and he dies. Another one commits adultery and murder, yet is let off without any seeming punishment. On encountering these kinds of problems people are quick to judge that God is unfair. What most such people overlook is the fact that we are able to see only certain immediately visible actions, whereas God is able to see the past, present, and future. He is also cognizant of what has been, and will be, passing through the heart of the individuals involved. No finite human can understand such things. Thus in haste they come to conclusions and deductions that are erroneous.
The Mystery Characteristics Of Doctrines: Many Bible doctrines are totally different from everyday human thinking. This difference becomes pronounced in the New Testament period. For example, humans think of salvation through works whereas the Bible speaks of salvation as an unmerited gift. Many of the New Testament doctrines were kept as mysteries even at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. A clear revelation on these subjects only came after Pentecost. Further, only a believer filled with the spirit, having a transformed mind (Rom. 12:1-2) can understand many of these subjects. They are a mystery to outsiders, and even insiders need the right frame of mind to understand these things. Thus, if anyone (specially an unregenerate or uncommitted person) tries to understand these doctrines, the result will be only error.
Linguistic Limitations: Human languages are very powerful and flexible. Yet they are quite limited when describing the person and work of God. Thus when humans try to probe the inner details of certain information in the Bible, they might find it very difficult to comprehend or express those ideas. When the words “son”, “generation” and “proceeds” are used for Jesus Christ, and when the word “flesh” is used for the old sin nature, difficulties are bound to arise due to linguistic limitations. Further, many human words such as “repent” are used in connection with the divine. At the same time, these words might have connotations that are not applicable to the divine. The interpreter must clearly distinguish the meanings which are applicable, and which are not, when a certain term is used to describe the divine. No words are sufficient to describe God and His actions totally or accurately, and errors are bound to arise if this is not kept in mind.