Hardly a week goes by that I don’t come across an example of faulty bible interpretation. By this, I do not mean interpretation that differs from mine, but rather an interpretation produced by principles and practices generally regarded as being unsound.
Sometimes I encounter faulty interpretation when discussing theology or passages of the bible with a friend or fellow church leader. This confuses our discussion and it usually takes a while before either of us becomes aware that we are using different methods of interpreting the scriptures in question. Once we figure this out, the discussion usually deviates from the meaning of the subject in question, to a dialogue about the different ways we interpret the bible in general. This is often interesting, but it gets us off track.
The two categories of faulty bible interpretation that I come across most frequently are,
- Hyper-literalism, and
- Flawed semantics.
The second of these two types is common with folk who have some, but not enough, training in interpreting Hebrew and Greek words. I will briefly sketch out the main issues concerning this, but I want to focus on Hyper-literalism because I encounter this more than any other type of faulty bible interpretation.
Before defining the word, allow me a little light-hearted world-play to highlight the problem of flawed semantics.
The word ‘semantics’ comes from the Greek word ‘semainein’, which means ‘to show by sign, signify, or point out’ and derives from the root word ‘sema’, which includes in its meaning ‘sign, mark, omen, portent, or constellation’. The Greek word for sign used in the New Testament is ‘semeion’, which means ‘a token of divine authority and power’ as in Matthew 12:38 and John 2:11. Therefore the word ‘semantics’ is the study of miraculous signs. Eh!?
This is of course nonsense because the term semantics actually means, ‘determining the meaning of a word, phrase, or text’. My little make-believe exercise is flawed in at least two ways: (1) it goes to the root origin of the word and then selects just one of its several meanings – I could just as well have said that semantics is the study of the constellations of the Zodiac! (2) it seeks to authenticate this particular understanding by citing just two of several texts where the biblical equivalent of the word is used.
From this rather silly example, you can see how semantics in the hands of an insufficiently qualified person can lead to very faulty bible interpretation. This is why I have always recommended the following order of determining the meaning of a text:
- What is its context?
- What did Jesus say or demonstrate concerning it? (Christocentricity), and
- What does all of the bible reveal about its meaning? (exhaustive reference).
If the meaning is still unclear after these three steps then a word study is warranted.
However, hyper-literalism is far more prevalent among Christians and is a lot more problematic than flawed semantics. The simplest definition of this phenomenon is ‘misinterpreting metaphors and figurative rhetoric as being literal’. Now, instead of defining ‘metaphors’ and ‘figurative rhetoric’ let me rather give some examples.
The New King James Version of the bible translates Acts 7:54 as: ‘When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth’. Did they really try to bite Stephen? Of course not! This would be an example of hyper-literalism in action. Many of the folk who indulge in this practice insist that the King James Version is the only authoritative translation of the bible. However, the English Standard Version translates Acts 7:54 as: ‘Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him’. The Pharisees were so enraged that they clenched their teeth and ground them together (grrrrrrrrrrr). The obvious point is that they were very angry… full stop.
Similarly, in Acts 20:29, when Paul said that ‘savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock’, he did not mean that wild animals were going to attack the disciples’ sheep. He was writing about the false prophets and teachers who would enter and damage the congregations after his departure.
It seems so obvious to me, and to almost all reputable bible scholars, that a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. It is equally obvious to me that the King James Version is no longer the best translation of the bible because, among other things, it uses archaic words and phrases that are hard to understand and often no longer mean what they did when they were first used.
The Theological Consequences of Hyper-literalism
The examples I have given are contrived and are of no real consequence, but the extract from a book I recently read concerning the blood of Jesus reminded me that sometimes there are serious theological consequences to hyper-literalism. The author echoed the belief of many Pentecostals that blood, in some mystical way, constitutes the life of a creature. In the case of a human being, this would, by extension, mean that the blood ‘contains’ the person’s spirit. This idea comes from a hyper-literal interpretation of Leviticus 17:11, ‘For the life of a creature is in the blood’. Theologically speaking, taking this verse hyper-literally, would mean that when Paul wrote, ‘we have now been justified by his blood’ (Romans 5:9), he meant that Jesus’ actual lifeblood saved us. However, it is His death on the cross that justified us. Leon Morris (respected commentator and theologian) wrote that: ‘Only by a particular interpretation of a few passages can a case be made for thinking that blood means life’. Within this context, he sums up the consensus of theologians, from the Church Fathers onwards, that ‘references to blood are a vivid way of saying that we owe our salvation to the death of Christ’. The ‘life is in the blood’ of Leviticus is simply a Hebraic way of stating that total loss of blood signifies death. Just imagine the problems we would create for ourselves if we refused a blood transfusion for our dying daughter because her eternal spirit would be replaced by someone else’s. Oh yes, the Jehovah’s witness cult teaches something like this. Sigh!
Sometimes hyper-literalism just yields quaint, if irrelevant, interpretations of scripture that have few serious consequences. However, sometimes the consequences can be weighty, as in the case of the ‘blood of Jesus’ understanding. In either a direct or more subtle way, this has led to some pervasive beliefs and practices in parts of the church. For instance, some people pray to be ‘covered in the blood of Jesus’ as protection from evil, sickness, and misfortune. However, more serious than this rather cultic practice are the teachings that the Lord Jesus’s blood only issued from God the Father and that Mary’s sin-tainted chromosomes were absent. Follow this logic just a few steps and Jesus Christ appears to be less than fully human, and if this were true then He is an illegitimate representative of all humanity. In this case, Jesus did not die for us all. God have mercy on us!
To all folk with a leaning towards either hyper-literalism or flawed semantics, PLEASE reconsider the way you interpret scripture and rather adopt the following simple hermeneutical process:
Use a modern version of the bible,
Start by examining the historical, cultural, literary and biblical context of the text,
Ask and attempt to answer the question ‘what did Jesus teach, model or indicate concerning this text?’,
Then ask one other question: ‘Have I considered all the other major biblical evidence concerning this text?’
If you would like to read a good book on the subject I have been addressing in this article, then ‘Exegetical Fallacies’ by D.A Carson would serve you well. I also address these issues in my book Truth is The Word.