Interpreting the Bible: Additional Common Mistakes

bible.jpgIn the last post, we considered some false approaches to hermeneutics. Let’s consider a few more common errors.

* Proof texts are not an entirely wrong approach. However, there use is a very, very dangerous practice. Indeed, the proof text style of argument is one reason so many people say “You can prove anything by the Bible.” You can! But only if you consider a single passage satisfactory proof. It’s not.

It’s really easy to find a passage that “proves” whatever you want to prove. A friend of mine in junior high cited this verse as proving that it’s a sin to go to the movies–

(Ezek. 8:10) So I went in and saw; and behold every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed upon the wall round about.

I’ll not waste your time explaining why a verse written more then 2,500 years before the movie industry came into existence doesn’t say that!

The problem with proof text argumentation is that such arguments often ignore the overall theme and purposes of God. We sometimes wrestle over a few words and ignore the thousands of surrounding words. Individual verses matter and prove a lot–but only if interpreted in light of the entirety of scripture.

* The famous command, example, necessary inference approach is not so much wrong as very incomplete. For example, there a five commands in the New Testament to greet one another with the Holy Kiss, and we in the Churches of Christ do not feel bound by this command. Obviously, there are principles involved other than discerning that there’s a command.

It’s easy enough to determine that a sentence is grammatically a command. It’s much harder to decide whether it is a command binding on us today. The serious work of hermeneutics is in making that distinction, and yet we pretend we have a valuable insight into hermeneutics by knowing these four words. They, in fact, don’t get us very far at all.

Just so, there are countless examples we don’t follow. Others that we do. How do we decide? And just which inferences are “necessary”? How do we decide?

The fact that a preacher with a printing press or computer terminal points out that such-and-such is a command or an example or an inference hardly proves that it’s in any way binding. Hermeneutics requires much more than merely asserting that a passage is a binding command or binding example. You have to be prepared to prove your case from deeper principles.

* The most common modern approach to hermeneutics is the historical-critical method. This term encompasses a wide range of approaches, some better than others.

“Historical” refers to taking the texts in historical context. Obviously, we should read 1 Corinthians as a First Century letter, not a modern work of systematic theology or as a code of laws.

Moreover, we have to be aware of some of the problems Paul faced in gaining Gentile and Jewish acceptance of the gospel. And it helps to know something of the Corinthian culture. The prudent expositor learns what he can about the culture of that community as well the Roman Empire at large to understand the words and the arguments.

No educated person disputes the necessity of considering historical context in interpreting a passage. However many educated people often forget to do so.
“Critical” means the text itself must be tested to determine whether the translators are working with the best, most accurate Greek or Hebrew text available. This is called “lower” criticism,” and is obviously critically important.

Advances in lower criticism and the discovery of many very old manuscripts have helped produce much more accurate Greek texts than were available to the King James translators, for example. It’s obviously a mistake to make doctrinal assertions based on texts known to be defective.

“Higher criticism” questions how the texts came to written. Did Luke use a common source with the other synoptic Gospels? There are many common passages, some of which are word for word the same. Maybe.

While some higher criticism is legitimate, much is so speculative as to be of no real value. Indeed, some higher criticism seems to relish finding ways to question the authenticity of the scriptures–even though the Bible is by far the best authenticated ancient text in existence.

Therefore, it’s certainly appropriate and necessary to start with the best Hebrew or Greek text you can and to then consider the historical context. This should be obvious. Lower criticism is a work for the faithful, for those who honor the text and so wish to avoid human adulterations. Higher criticism is largely a waste of time.

But many expositors have taken the view that the historical-critical method of interpretation is all that we need. And they’re wrong. It’s a step forward, but it really just sets the table. It’s not the meal.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Additional Common Mistakes

  1. Gary Cummings says:

    Good article. Proof-texting is very dangerous as people can find a text or two to justify anything. The Historical-Critical School is better, but deficient in that it brings in much in it’s “critical” approach that is anti-God: no miracles, no resurrection, no divine revelation, etc.. CENI is the method of the COC, and it is screwed from the very start. People differ on what “commands” are binding, what examples are binding, and what is really a necessary inference.

    Gerhard Meier, a German theologian, has a great book on Hermeneutics, and he reject all three of the above approaches for a Grammatical-historical approach: get into the text in the context of its historical setting. This leads to a better Biblical Theology which roots itself in the Word of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Proof-texting, CENI, and the historical critical school have only limited value.

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