The Problem with Biblical Interpretation (Part 1)

Paul exhorted Timothy to study and "rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). The word of God is not that easy to understand without the Holy Spirit's illumination. But it is expected that believers have the Holy Spirit and enjoy more understanding than unbelievers. However, there are so many different interpretations of common scripture texts that the Church is constantly contending with contradictory doctrines, which is a real problem. Competing, contradictory doctrines cannot all be correct.

There are those who say that the bible has many different legitimate interpretations depending on people's different circumstances. That is not true. The Bible has one main message and many non-contradicting precepts that complement each other. So when we come across competing doctrines an assessment has to be made by objective standards. It is not good enough to say that this is an in-house debate and leave it at that. There is a more fundamental problem that if left alone will fester and lead to the spiritual destruction of some. The problem lies in our approach to biblical interpretation.

Peter said that some of the things Paul writes are hard to understand and are subject to distortion (2 Pet. 3:16).

This problem lies at the feet of those who purport to be teachers of the word of God. Most have good, godly intentions but have allowed pride and philosophy instead of the Holy Spirit to guide their interpretation. In his first letter to the Corinthians church Paul says:

"When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power... This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words" (1 Cor. 2:1-5, 13).

It was a problem in the first century, and it is more of a problem now. Many of the problematic doctrines require the reader to take a philosophical approach to get to the "real" meaning of a text. There are three things wrong about that. The first thing that is wrong is the reliance on man's wisdom. This is where Isaiah's caution about the difference between God's and man's wisdom is applicable. The second thing that is wrong is not taking the most obvious meaning of the text. Here we try to persuade ourselves that there is more to what is written; that there must be a hidden meaning. That is a recipe for self-deception.

In Eden the serpent asked Eve, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Gen. 3:1). God's word was simple, and his command was straightforward. But when Eve began to philosophize she trusted her own wisdom more than God's. She speculated that there must be more. So she considered the serpent's twist on God's word. God said, "...but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die" (Gen. 2:17). But the serpent said, "You will not certainly die...For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (gen. 3:4-5).

There was nothing in what God told her that suggested she would "know" good and evil, or that she would become like Him. All it suggested was that the moment she ate from the tree she would die. Why, then, would she be receptive to the suggestion that she would not certainly die? She proposed to know more than what was in God's word. That is how many contradictory doctrines are formed; they are nothing more than philosophical speculations posturing as prophetic pronouncements that read unwarranted meanings into biblical texts.

The third thing wrong with that is we all have different philosophical approaches and so the "real" meaning of a text will inevitably be as varied as there are philosophizers. Additionally, and unfortunately, we cannot rely on the "spirit" in every person who claims to speak for the Lord. So what do we do? We use a standard formula for interpreting scripture. That standard is a set of hermeneutical rules. Some resist this approach saying that the Spirit will lead them into all truth. But the truth does not confuse.
In part two I will deal with the basic principles of hermeneutics and show why many of the contradictory doctrines are possibly the result of faulty interpretations.