False Principles of Interpretation



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In order to illustrate the kinds of misunderstanding that can occur when we use flawed principles of interpretation, we will examine some of the false principles which are used today. Any principle of interpretation which allows us to conclude that scripture means something which is contrary to God's intended meaning is clearly false and to be rejected.

A classic and exaggerated example of false interpretation is to take the following sequence of verses as an exhortation to action:

He [Judas] went away and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:5).

Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:37b)

What you are about to do, do quickly. (John 13:27b)

This example is not seriously considered as a valid interpretation by anyone, but the same principle — that of bringing together unrelated passages — is used today by many well-known teachers of the Bible to build false doctrine.


Bringing Together Unrelated Passages

The following are more serious examples of bringing together unrelated passages:

With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. (2 Peter 3:8)

and,

On the seventh day he [God] rested from all his work. (Genesis 2:2b)

Some have interpreted the seven days of creation as symbolic days or days of one thousand years each by applying 2 Peter 3:8.

We can see the danger of indiscriminately allowing a day to be a thousand years by considering the following verse:

On the third day he will be raised to life. (Matthew 17:23)

If we allow that Jesus would be dead for three thousand years before being raised, we would have to conclude that Jesus will not be resurrected until the year 3000 A.D. Paul, however, clearly contradicts this:

Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:20a)

There are many who have adopted a view that there will be 6,000 yearsfrom the time of creation until the time of Christ's second coming. Based on the idea that the creation occurred in 4,004 B.C. (the most recent date ever suggested) we should expect Christ's second coming to have happened in 1997 A.D. or before. However, the scripture warns us against date setting:

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matthew 24:36)

The other problem with this is that evidence from science demonstrates that the universe was not created in 4,004 B.C. However, many people still cling to viewpoints that are founded upon the linkage of a day with a thousand years.


Altering the Translation

Another common method that teachers use to misinterpret scripture is to add extra words in the translation in order to coax the scripture into meaning what they wish it to mean. A good example of this is a translation done by the Jehovah's Witnesses which is based on the following passage:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

These translators have added the article 'a' so the last phrase reads "the Word was a god." They have done this in order to prove that Jesus is not deity.

But we simply cannot adopt this practice in our study of the Bible without affecting God's ability to communicate with us, therefore, the adding of words in a text without justification is clearly a false principle of interpretation. In the example given here that Jesus is merely "a god," millions of people today are being deceived into believing that Jesus is not God and have thereby forfeited their opportunity for salvation.


Improper Use of Language

Another false principle of interpretation involves using language in a manner in which it was not intended to be used. For example, to translate the word "atonement" as "at-one-ment" by inserting a dash between certain letters in the English word and interpreting the result as the definition of the word is not only false, but inane. This particular use of scripture is common with the Christian Scientists and many new age teachers. Yet millions are also being deceived by this blatant misuse of scripture.


False Meaning of Words

Another way of interfering with God's communication with us is to use meanings of words which are different than the meaning God had in mind when he used that word in scripture. An example of this is the word "death," which in scripture means separation of soul from body. In the Bible, the word death does not mean annihilation, or cessation of consciousness.

To illustrate this, let us briefly examine the usage of the word "die" in scripture. God first used the word "die" in the book of Genesis:

You [Adam] are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (Genesis 2:16,17)

We can see what happened when Adam and Eve disobeyed God:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked. (Genesis 3:7)

Notice that they did not die in the sense of being annihilated, for how can you realize something if you are annihilated?

Eve was not annihilated, but separated from God:

Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16b)

Adam did not die physically at the instant he was disobedient, and in fact, still had the opportunity to live forever:

The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)

Clearly, then, God's decree that "when you eat of it you will surely die" did not refer to annihilation or cessation of consciousness.

In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus talked about two people who had died but whose consciousness had clearly not ceased to exist (cf. Luke 16:19-31). Yet there are those who wish to deny the existence of an eternal conscious torment outside of God's presence for those who reject the saving grace of Jesus. They ignore the Biblical meaning of the word "die" as separation and substitute their own definition for this word — annihilation of consciousness. In this way they believe they can be disobedient to God's Word and not have to concern themselves with receiving the wrath of God's judgment upon them. But their security is misplaced, for as Jesus has said:

If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:6)


Ignoring Related Passages

Some denominations use the following passage to support their belief that we must be baptized in order to be saved:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38a)

They claim that it is only by baptism that our sins are forgiven and in so doing, they substitute works for grace.

It is true that scripture clearly teaches that we are not saved by our human works, but by faith in God's grace:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)

But it is also true that we do not have faith if we have no works:

Faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:26)

There are two errors that can be made here:

  1. Ignoring the passages which state that we are saved by faith.Thus, we would depend on works (such as baptism) for salvation.
  2. Ignoring the passages which state that we must perform good works to be saved.Thus, we would be less concerned with our behavior since it is not considered a salvation issue.

We must consider all passages on any given topic in order to come to a balanced view. Thus, baptism does play an important role in our salvation as Acts 2:38a indicates. But, baptismwithout faith, cannot save.


Quoting Out of Context

When we quote only part of a text we may miss the significance of the context. A common example of this is the use of the following verse by the "word faith" teachers from the book of Joshua:

You will be prosperous and successful. (Joshua 1:8b)

This passage, when taken out of context, is used by the "word faith" teachers to prove that it is God's will for us to be prosperous and successful no matter what, as long as we can apply our faith to it. But taken in context, we see that the fulfillment of this statement is dependent on the conditions set forth in the first part of the verse:

Do not let the Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. (Joshua 1:8)

But the standards set forth here are simply too high for anyone to keep. The Bible demonstrates clearly that no one was able to keep the law:

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20)

For who among us except Jesus is capable of living a life this sinless? Yet even Jesus who was sinless...

was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. (Isaiah 53:3a)

Understanding the exact nature of the prosperity and success spoken of in Joshua 1:8b is not the simple matter that the "word faith" teachers make it out to be.


Who Said It?

We must consider who made a statement as we interpret a passage. If we ignore who it was that made this statement:

You [Job] sent widows away empty-handed. (Job 22:9a)

and merely accepted the statement as true, we would have to come to the conclusion that Job was an unrighteous man. Yet the Lord qualifies the integrity of this speaker:

He [the Lord] said to Eliphaz the Temanite, 'I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right'. (Job 42:7)

So we cannot take the word of Eliphaz as being necessarily true.

The fact is that God considered Job to be righteous, so, therefore, the statement by Eliphaz was simply not true. Scripture, in fact, confirms that the Lord considers Job to be righteous:

Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. (Job 1:8)

Therefore, the statement made by Eliphaz the Temanite does not necessarily represent Job's true character.


Limiting the Meaning of a Word

When a word in scripture is limited to a specific meaning, even though it is not God's intention to limit the meaning in such a manner, we will not properly understand what he is telling us. Consider the following verses:

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22,23)

If we take the phrase "riches of his glory" to refer only to material riches as the "word faith" teachers do, we would be unable to fully understand Paul's purpose in writing this passage. But let us analyze this passage a bit further to discover what the word "riches" actually means.

Paul is using a parallel sentence construction to connect the word "mercy" with the word "wrath" and to connect the phrase "riches of his glory" with the phrase "prepared for destruction." The intended meaning is that instead of receiving the wrath of God which leads to destruction, we have received the mercy of God. The result of this mercy is that we have received the "riches of his glory" instead of the destruction which we were prepared for.

But these riches are surely far beyond anything so worldly as material wealth. I would certainly not wish that God would limit the "riches of his glory" to mere material wealth, but yet the "word faith" teachers teach that the word "riches" when used in scripture always means material wealth and money. According to their teaching, it would be acceptable to cross out the word riches and replace it with the phrase "material wealth" or the word "money," but this is not a correct use of scripture.

In their desire to get God to give them material riches and money they have in fact limited God's "riches in glory" to mere material wealth and money when these "riches in glory" are, in fact, infinitely more glorious than this. God did not intend to limit His blessing to us to mere material wealth and money. Even Paul himself did not possess or value material wealth but yet considered himself as an heir to these "riches of his glory." (cf. Titus 3:5-7)


Literalizing a Figure of Speech

We can run into serious doctrinal errors when we insist on literalizing a figure of speech. The following verse is used by many "word faith"teachers such as Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin to support the doctrine that Jesus died spiritually:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

They interpret the phrase "to be sin" to mean that Christ literally became sin in the same sense that the "man of lawlessness [sin]" (2 Thessalonians 2:3) will become sin in the future (based on premillennialism). In other words, they teach that Satan actually possessed Christ in the same manner that he possessed Judas and in the same manner that he will possess the Antichrist(based on premillennialism). This is a shocking teaching which is actually being taught in "word faith" churches and meetings all over the world.

But the passage itself contradicts this interpretation. Jesus is spoken of as having "no sin." Therefore, his act of being sin for us is a figure of speech which is intended to illustrate that he became a substitute for the judgment which we all deserve because of our sinful nature. Christ, however, was a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:19b)

I should mention I have adopted a strictly literal method of interpretation.


Table of Contents

Hermeneutics — Overview

The Principles of Interpretation of Scripture

How to Interpret the Bible

Scripture Accessible to all Believers

The Role of Teachers

The Role of the Spirit

The Nature of Communication

Human Communication

Good Writing

Divine Communication

False Principles of Interpretation

Bringing Together Unrelated Passages

Altering the Translation

Improper Use of Language

False Meaning of Words

Ignoring Related Passages

Quoting Out of Context

Who Said It?

Limiting the Meaning of a Word

Literalizing a Figure of Speech

Good Principles of Interpretation

The Theme of the Bible

The Theme of the Old Testament

The Theme of the New Testament

The Themes of the Books of the Bible

Scripture Quoted in Scripture

Uses of Prophecy

Misuse by Satan

Spiritual Warfare

Prayer and Worship

Support of Gospel

Discussions on Truth

Uses by Holy Spirit

Symbolism

Typology

Allegory

Parables

Figures of Speech

Simile

Metaphor

Personification

Synecdoche

Hyperbole

Analogy

Irony

Literal Interpretation