Avoiding Common Mistakes
It’s nice on a road trip if one of your party has some general familiarity with where you’re going. An adventure on the open road is great fun, but missing a major turn or hitting a pothole that results in a flat tire is not. When reading Scripture, we want to learn how to avoid some common interpretive mistakes. The point of this skill is not to rob us of the joy of the journey but rather to protect us from wrong turns and unnecessary repairs that will slow us down.
Because we care about hearing God’s voice from the Bible (not making it mean whatever we want it to), we should take care to practice interpretation in the best way. Good informational reading is careful, giving focused attention and our best intellectual capacities to the task of understanding. There are common mistakes in interpretation that are easy to make and easy to correct. These mistakes can be organized under two headings: language errors and reasoning errors.1
God is a speaking God, and the Bible is a book of words. While there are other ways and experiences by which we may get glimpses of God—such as emotions, beauty in art and nature, mysterious and spiritual experiences—no form of revelation is more central than the words of Scripture.
But because we are limited and sinful creatures living in a fallen world, we will regularly encounter misunderstandings in communication. Sometimes we can easily misunderstand a good friend. If talking face to face to someone with whom we have much in common can result in misunderstanding, how much more challenging is it to read and understand a text written by someone from a different language, culture, place, and time? This may be especially true when we study the Bible because we try so hard to derive deeper meaning from it. Ironically, this expectation and respect for the Bible can lead us to treat its words in a magical way that results in more confusion than clarity, more error than truth.
For example, when studying Scripture we sometimes put too much emphasis on what a particular word really means by focusing on its origin and history—that is, its etymology—or on how we use the word in more technical contexts. Take the word butterfly, for example. Any speaker of English knows that, despite its constituent parts, this noun does not refer to a stick of churned milk soaring through the sky. Butterfly is an agreed upon set of sounds that points to a commonly known family of insects. We don’t determine the meaning of the word through a dissection of its parts—butter and fly. Yet this kind of mistake is often foisted on words in the Bible. For example, the common Greek word ekballō comes from the preposition ek (“out of”) and the verb ballō (often meaning “to throw”). Sometimes this word is used to mean to “cast or throw [something] out,” like a group of demons in Matthew 8:31. But the same word can also be used with a less etymologically derived meaning of “bring out” such as in Matthew 12:35 where the good man and the bad man both “bring out” treasures good and bad—not “throw them out.”
Similarly, we should always be careful to let the meaning of a word be determined by its use in its own context rather than assuming that the same word means the same thing everywhere. For example, the important biblical words for “righteous/righteousness” (Hebrew: tsedaqah; Greek: dikaiosunē) are rich and varied in meaning and usage. “Righteousness” in the Old Testament means primarily doing what is right according to God’s commands, and this is its usage in the Gospel of Matthew as well. In Paul’s writings it has slightly different but related senses of being declared in a right standing and of God’s bringing justice or righteousness to the world. Matthew’s use of “righteous” focuses more on the virtuous way of living that accords with God’s coming kingdom than on a sense of things being put right in the world and with us. Matthew’s and Paul’s meanings are not contradictory, but neither are they the same. We will create a lot of confusion for ourselves and for others if we assume that dikaiosunē necessarily means exactly the same thing when different authors use it.
Many other examples of language errors could be identified, but we can sum up the point by emphasizing our need to pay close attention to what is communicated in Scripture and to use good common sense. We can avoid many language errors when we take care not to be overly technical in our arguments while at the same time not making too many assumptions about what an author is saying.
Not only can we easily make mistakes with language but we also commonly commit errors in our logical reasoning. The effect of sin on our minds (see Rom. 1) means that logical arguments or patterns of reasoning can often appear sound when they are, in fact, not. For example, consider the following argument:
All cats are hairy.
Rover the dog is hairy.
Therefore, Rover the dog is a cat.
While the absurd conclusion makes us realize that the argument is false, it may not be immediately clear to us why the argument is not only untrue but also poorly argued. This argument is invalid because although the first two statements are true, the relationship between them is not logically binding. That is, the assertion of the universal hairiness of cats does not mean that other animals, such as dogs, cannot also be hairy. Therefore, since the first statement does not necessarily relate to the second statement, the conclusion is invalid. We often do the same thing when we are trying to understand a theological truth in a biblical passage.
We should be humble and thoughtful in the task of interpreting the Bible.
We often don’t realize that our argument is following the same kind of illogical reasoning. In the case above we have a classic logical fallacy of association, whereby the combination of the first and second premises create a false sense of necessity in the conclusion. We can make the same error when interpreting the Bible. For example, consider the following reasoning:
The disciples in the Bible cast out demons.
We are also disciples.
Therefore, we cast out demons.
This argument may seem sound, but it fails in the same way as the argument above. I’m not saying that later Christians have not cast out demons (I am sure they have); nevertheless, the conclusion does not derive from the premises. Just because disciples in the Bible cast out demons and Christians today are also disciples, it does not logically follow that every disciple today casts out demons. This could happen, but it is not logically necessary because other factors may be at play—such as the unique status of Jesus’s original disciples, special times when the gospel is advancing and is accompanied by miracles (as in Acts), and the fact that different people have different spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor. 12:4–11, 27–31).
In our study of the Bible we often commit these kinds of reasoning errors, especially when we want to assert something that we think is true and good. Such ways of arguing may win the day but will always prove to be foolish and damaging in the long run.
This warning to avoid common interpretive mistakes is an invitation to be careful in our arguments about what Holy Scripture is saying. As a result of our human limitations and the effects of sin, we do often make language and reasoning mistakes, so we should be humble and thoughtful in the task of interpreting the Bible.
- For a standard, helpful book exploring this topic, see D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996).
This article is adapted from Come and See: The Journey of Knowing God through Scripture by Jonathan Pennington.
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