Lately I've been digging into the nuts and bolts of Bible interpretation. This was triggered by a journal article I had read which examined different views among conservative Christians on a particular subject. These differing views stemmed from different interpretations of a single New Testament (NT) word which in turn led to different applications. On one side, the meaning was derived with emphasis on the root definition. On the other side, the context was given more weight.
As a result, I've been consulting D.A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies, Invitation To Biblical Interpretation by Drs. Kostenberger and Patterson, and this Tabletalk article. These resources shed quite a bit of light on the pitfalls of interpreting Scripture and the fallacies we inadvertently commit. It's also been highly mortifying. I've committed many if not all of these word fallacies and made assumptions about biblical words that were just plain wrong. After cringing inside at my mistakes, I couldn't help but think of this:
So with Inigo Montoya's admonition, here a few things I've gleaned about how not to interpret that Bible:
- The Bible was written in a real language by real people for real people in a real historical period. It is not a mystical book where every noun is symbolic and every word has hidden meaning. There is no code to crack. There is no special "Holy Spirit" Greek.1
- A little Greek (or Hebrew) can be a dangerous thing. Looking up a Strong's number does not a scholar make.
- One can't assume meaning is always derived from the root word (etymological fallacy). If I say, "Mrs. Smith is a nice person," I'm not implying she is ignorant. The Latin root for "nice" is the word for ignorant, but the usage has changed over time. Since Greek is a real language, it too can change over the centuries. Etymology derived from Homer's day (8th century B.C.) will not be helpful for understanding a NT word. As an example, "missing the mark" is probably not the best definition for sin as that meaning was probably obsolete by NT times, not to mention downplaying the seriousness of sin. 2
- Conversely, don't impose our modern understanding of a word on the Bible (semantic anachronism). The root word for "power" is "dynamos" from which Alfred Nobel coined the name of his explosive. But his discovery took place in the 1860's. The NT writers, therefore, could not have had dynamite in mind when they wrote about the power of the Holy Spirit, and neither should we. 3
- The meaning of a word is not necessarily derived from the sum of its parts. Our understanding of "butterfly" is not enhanced by knowing the definition of "butter" and "fly." Likewise, we can't assume this about the Greek language either. 4
- The authors of the NT used synonyms like any writer to vary the language. Therefore, one can't assume theological meaning behind every word choice. The prime example is assuming that "agapao" and "phileo" always refer to two different types of love. (Raise your hand if you've done this too.) But this isn't so! Both words are used interchangeably for divine and human love in the Gospel of John. 5
- A definition is a one piece of information to take into consideration. Don't miss the tree or even the entire forest by focusing on a single twig.
- Context, context, context!
After this foray into fallacies, I'm probably a bit more cautious about how I interpret the Bible. There are many factors including etymology, usage at the time written, context, culture, and authorship, to name a few, that all need to be taken into account and given their appropriate weight for the given text. There is no single, one-size-fits-all, rigid formula because language is not static.
I also needn't be afraid of making an attempt to interpret Scripture, but this doesn't give me a license to be careless either. This is God's Holy Word we're talking about. All the more reason to approach the Bible with humility, treat it with respect, think carefully, use resources wisely, and pray for the Holy Spirit to illumine the text and keep me from error.
For more information:
Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson, Baker Book House, 1996, 2nd. edition.
Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, Andreas J. Kostenberger, Richard D. Patterson, Kregel, 2011.
Word-Study Fallacies: Words of Caution, Robert J. Cara, Tabletalk, Vol. 38. No. 1, January 2014, pp. 13-15.
1. Kostenberger and Patterson, pp. 579-580.
2. Cara pg. 13, Carson pp. 28-29.
3. Cara, pg. 14, Carson, pp. 34-35
4. Carson, pg. 30.
5. Kostenberger and Patterson, pp. 643-644.
Some additional resources since I wrote the original post:
Doin' the Wonky with Words: 4 Word Study Missteps, George Guthrie - Part 1 and Part 2
Grasping God's Word, J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays, Zondervan, 2012.
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Thomas Nelson, 2004.