How to Study the Bible:
Avoiding Misinterpretation

Marrieds with a Ministry Sunday School Class
Two Rivers Baptist Church
Nashville, TN, USA

For Sunday, 30 September 2001

Handout: Resources for Bible Study


Red: question for class, logical error, or false assumption

Ink: answer, correction of error/assumption

Slate gray: added comments from class


Four Primary Causes of Misinterpretation

  1. Logical Errors
  2. False Assumptions
  3. Buffet Method - lack of context
  4. Isolation

Why we have these problems: the fall, the total depravity of man. Total depravity means, not that man is completely corrupt and incapable of doing anything that is good in any sense of the word, but that every part of man has been corrupted by the fall: mind, body, and soul (our spirits, of course, are not merely corrupted, but are dead until conversion). Regular hard work is required to maintain clear thinking practices, identify and eliminate false assumptions, and to view passages of Scripture in their full context. The moment we cease striving to learn to think more clearly and broadly, we begin deteriorating into muddy thinking practices, which in turn interfere with our interpretation of Scripture.

One problem today is that many people have never begun striving to learn to think clearly. This is the result of Romantic philosophy, which taught that we can never really know anything, and so are left with only our perceptions, experiences, and feelings. Thus logic, which used to be taught to all middle school and high school students, has been relegated to an esoteric college course, required for hardly any fields of study. Consequently, logical errors have become the most common cause of misunderstanding Scripture. This makes the false teacher's job much easier, since so few are equipped to identify their faulty reasoning.

The Remedies

  1. Logical Errors
    1. E.g. John 3:16 - "whosoever believeth in Him" ergo everyone is capable of receiving eternal life by choosing to believe in Jesus. That conclusion is allowed by the text but is not a necessary inference from it.
    2. Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies
    3. Book The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts (yes, the famous Puritan hymn writer). This book was the classic text for teaching logic until the late 1800s. available from Ligonier Online Store
    4. Tape series Introductory Logic by R.C. Sproul
    5. Games that require logic and strategy are not merely diversions. They train us how to think well.
      1. Computer games like Minesweeper
      2. Board games like Checkers
  2. False Assumptions
    1. Come from
      1. parents
      2. society/culture
      3. subcultures such as a denomination or movement within Christianity
      4. our limited knowledge and experience.
      5. [David Fike correctly pointed out that religious traditions are also a source of false assumptions.]
    2. E.g.
      1. The Bible is made up of a string of individual verses. Chapter and verse additions were added only about 500 years ago. While they aid in identifying specific sentences in Scripture, they have the negative effect of breaking up our view of the Bible into small segments, encouraging lack of appropriate context. The Bible was not given in verses, except, of course, in the case of poetry such as is found in Ps. and Prov.
      2. The English Bible is inspired. Only the original manuscripts are strictly inspired. Different languages convey ideas in different ways. Some ideas are conveyed easily in one language and not so easily or clearly in another. (The point of the following German examples is not that we should read the Bible in German, of course, but that English has similar problems dealing with certain passages in Biblical languages. These examples are fresh on my mind due to having listened a lot to the beautiful classic piece, Brahm's A German Requiem, recently, the text of which is all from Luther's translation of the Bible.)
        1. Ps 39:4 - German renders it better than English, more clearly and accurately.
          1. NKJV "what is the measure of my days"
          2. NIV "the number of my days"
          3. NAS "what is the extent of my days"
          4. German "mein Leben ein Ziel hat" - my life has a term - a specific, predetermined length.
          5. Hebrew - "middah yom" - width of days. "Middah" was used of measuring cloth to make a garment, or measuring a board to build something. The KJV, then, is more literal, but the German comes closer to the gist of the Hebrew idiom.
        2. Ps 39:6 - English renders it better than German, which implies something not in the Hebrew.
          1. NKJV, NAS "who will gather them"
          2. NIV "who will get it"
          3. German "wer es kriegen wird" - who gathers (by conquering)
          4. Hebrew "miy asaph" - who? receives, gets
        3. Acts 1:8 "You shall be my witnesses" - prophecy or command? The English grammar is unclear, but the Greek sentence structure makes it clear that it is a command, not a prediction.
      3. The Bible is a European book - not so much something we think consciously as much as we forget that it is a Jewish book - including the New Testament. The Bible came largely to and through Jews. It is largely about the Jewish people, their history, and their land. Causes misinterpretation of key terms, e.g.:
        1. The land - includes occasional mistranslation as "earth" and "world." "The land" is the promised land, Palestine. The concept of the land is central to the Old Testament, and thus also to the New Testament (to a lesser extent). [Angie asked whether "world" in Scripture always means only the land of Palestine. No. Greek has a different word for the whole world, which is sometimes used in the N.T. and accurately translated into English.]
        2. The Law - this term has different specific meanings depending on context. Often refers to the five books "of Moses," the Torah. Sometimes refers to only the moral law, sometimes only to the ceremonial law.
        3. The Day of the Lord - refers especially and specifically to the destruction of Jerusalem and the consequent end of the Jewish eon (era) in A. D. 70. (However, that event may foreshadow a later, still future, ultimate Day of the Lord.)
        And to miss the meaning and importance of events and activities, e.g.: Pentechost and later instances of speaking in tongues. The sign of tongues was prophecied in the O. T. as a sign that the Day of the LORD was at hand. It was given as a sign to the Jews that the Gospel was now being given also to the Gentiles, that their time was up. After the Day of the LORD (in the Jewish sense), the sign that predicted it was no longer needed.

        Note: I didn't have time to get into examples iv and v in class.

      4. We are saved by asking Jesus into our hearts, or worse, simply by saying "Yes" to Jesus. We are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus, faith which comes by hearing, which in turn comes by the Word of God. God is the active party in salvation; He rescues us while we are helpless to do anything, dead in our trespasses and sins, like Lazarus in the tomb. He comes to us, raises our spirits from the dead by the power of His Word, plants faith in Him in our hearts, and brings us out of darkness into His glorious light. See Romans chs. 3-9, Eph. ch. 2, and the book of Galatians.

        Note: Those who put somewhat more emphasis on the role of man's free will in salvation are not heretics, provided they don't teach something flatly contrary to Scripture. The point is that the statement above is an example of a common false assumption that can result in misinterpretation of Scripture.

      5. Christianity is a "relationship" in the sense of an individual's experience of and perceptions of God. Soren Kierkegaard, Denmark 1813-55, founder of Existentialism -said that the individual is the supreme moral entity, therefore the relationship of the individual to God is the prime importance of religion. Christianity is a religion - a set of affirmations of faith - about God's redemption of a people He has chosen for Himself. It is chiefly about God's work, not our experience. It is about God's Life, not our lives.
    3. Solutions
      1. Use a concordance, Bible dictionary, commentaries, and multiple translations when studying. The resources have been combined in some Bible study software such as PC Study Bible and Quickverse.
      2. Cultivate an awareness of your own false assumptions. Be teachable, willing to change your mind about things you believe are true when presented with sufficient evidence that you were mistaken.
      3. Find out where common false assumptions come from [I had these books on hand for perusal after class]:
  3. Buffet Method - "Context with a K" [I was unable to get into any of these specific examples for lack of time.]
    1. Immediate Context
      1. John 3:16 in the context of the whole conversation with Nicodemus. A man has no spiritual eyes to see the Kingdom of God until he has been born again, born of the Spirit. The Spirit of God must raise us to spiritual life before we can believe, before we can exercise the gift of faith that God places in the heart at conversion. Cf. Eph. 2.
      2. Rev. 3:20 - "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" - Not about salvation, since it was written to the church at Laodecia, in the context of Christ's declaration that He was about to come and judge the church. The term "at the door" is an apocalyptic term (Cf. James 5:1-9 with Rev. 3:17-20). The sense is that the executioner has prepared himself for work, has traveled to your house, and is standing just outside your door, ready to carry out the sentence declared against you by the Judge. There is no question here whether or not Jesus is coming into the house of the church of Laodecia. The only question is, will He be welcomed in fellowship, or must He break down the door and come in with His sword drawn. In His grace, He gives His church one last warning knock: the book of Revelation. Note the reason for judgment both in James and Rev.: the Christians were concerned with acquiring material blessing rather than spiritual blessing. Sound familiar?
      3. Matt 7:1 - "Judge not that ye be not judged." - about hypocrisy vs. humility. Rf. 6:16-24, 7:2-5 It does not forbid confronting one who has sinned, rather it emphasizes that all people sin, all people need confronting, even in the kingdom of God (the Church).
      4. Matt 18:20 - "where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them." - not about prayer and worship but about church discipline. Rf. vs. 15-22.
    2. Book Context
      1. What kind of literature is it?
        1. Narrative/History - shows us God's character, man's character, moral principle.
        2. Parable - meaning is spiritually discerned.
        3. Instruction (Didactic) - the Law, the epistles, passages written to set forth doctrine.
        4. Poetry - uses metaphor, word pictures, hyperbole
        5. Prophecy - also often uses symbolic imagery and hyperbole in order to dramatize the message.
      2. Who wrote it? In a narrative, who is speaking and to whom?
        1. The gospels were written by four different men from four different perspectives for four different purposes.
        2. The Olivet Discourse: synoptic Gospels. Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21 - to whom is Jesus speaking when he says "Truly, I tell you, this generation shall not pass away until all these things are fulfilled"? If "generation" is taken to mean other than those alive at the time, what in the passage or elsewhere in Scripture makes that interpretation necessary, or at least legitimate? And if legitimate but not necessary, what makes that interpretation favorable over other legitimate interpretations?
      3. To whom was it written?
        1. James 5:14-15 cf. 1:1
        2. II Chron. 7:14 "If My people who are called by my Name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." - Who was speaking to whom, and about whom? What is the meaning of "their land"?
      4. Why was it written? What was the occasion of the writing? What were the circumstances of its writing? - e.g. I Cor. was written to address division and immorality.
    3. Whole Bible Context - the Analogy of Faith: Scripture is its own interpreter. No part of Scripture conflicts with any other. Where there appears to be conflict, it is because we don't understand one or both passages. It makes a joke of revelation to pick parts of the Bible to support what you believe, even when other parts contradict your stance. Whatever you believe, you must be able to reconcile it to all statements in Scripture that bear on it, and to all systematically derived Scriptural principle.
  4. Isolation: no one person can accurately interpret the Scriptures on his own. We need each other. We all need to listen to good Bible teaching and preaching. List of radio/TV programs of sound Bible teachers. [Cliff reminded us that we need to study together, too, like the men's Bible study that he holds.]

Recommended book: Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul -->

David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL