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The Pitfalls of Biblical Misinterpretation, Part 2

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

by John MacArthur

If you had to give a presentation on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, how would you prepare? Would you study the work of scholars to absorb as much pertinent information and insight as you could? Or would you simply mull the few facts and details you already know, hoping for the shreds of disparate information to coalesce into a useful outline?

Obviously the second method is a path to embarrassment, misinformation, and failure. But why then do we tolerate similar patterns when it comes to studying and teaching God’s Word?

We’ve been identifying some key pitfalls in the area of Bible interpretation, and the next one is simple: avoid superficial study. Good, accurate Bible study is hard work. As we have seen already, discerning what God is saying to us through His Word cannot be done by flipping through quickly and looking for messages wherever our eyes happen to settle. Nor is understanding the Bible a matter of personal opinion (“To me it means...”).

Careful and accurate handling of God’s Word requires diligence. If we are diligent, we can arrive at a correct interpretation of the major truths of Scripture and the general thrust of particular passages. God has not hid His truth from us.

But neither is the meaning of His Word always instantly clear. Sometimes the real meaning of a passage is revealed in an understanding of the culture to which it was addressed. Sometimes it is made clear by a simple nuance in the original language. That’s why we cannot get by with the haphazard ad-libbing and flippant freewheeling that is so popular in some churches today. Some differences of interpretation may never be resolved in this life, but that does not negate our responsibility to study carefully and diligently.

In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul describes the “double honor” to be given to those in the church “who labor in the word and doc­trine.” The reason God has given teachers to the church is that understanding His Word and correctly instructing people in the Scriptures requires people who are committed to persistent, conscientious labor in response to the divine calling.

Bernard Ramm wrote,

It is often asserted by devout people that they can know the Bible completely without helps. They preface their interpretations with a remark like this: “Dear friends, I have read no man’s book. I have consulted no man-made commen­taries. I have gone right to the Bible to see what it had to say for itself.” This sounds very spiritual, and usually is seconded with amens from the audience.

But is this the pathway of wisdom? Does any man have either the right or the learning to by-pass all the godly learning of the church? We think not.

First, although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual it is a veiled egotism. It is a subtle affirmation that a man can adequately know the Bible apart from the untiring, godly, consecrated scholarship of men like Calvin, Bengel, Alford, Lange, Ellicott, or Moule....

Secondly, such a claim is the old confusion of the inspiration of the Spirit with the illumination of the Spirit. The function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture. Suppose we select a list of words from Isaiah and ask a man who claims he can by-pass the godly learning of Christian scholar­ship if he can out of his own soul or prayer give their meaning or significance: Tyre, Zidon, Chittim, Sihor, Moab, Mahershalahashbas, Calno, Carchemish, Hamath, Aiath, Migron, Michmash, Geba, Anathoth, Laish, Nob, and Gallim. He will find the only light he can get on these words is from a commentary or a Bible dictionary.1Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 17-18 (emphasis in original).

What Ramm was describing—that lack of respect for the work of gifted theologians and expositors who have spent years studying and interpreting Scripture—is on display in many churches, ministries, and in particular, on Christian college campuses today.

I won’t pretend to understand all the reasons that mentality appeals to people, and especially young people. It could flow out of a deep dissatisfaction with the church models and practices of their youth. Or it could simply be evidence of a heart bent to outright rebellion. No matter the reason, the impact is still the same: it cuts the individual, the congregation, or even the whole community off from the collected teaching and wisdom of the church and the guidance and instruction of church history.

In terms of your own spiritual growth, along with that of anyone who might follow your example, the spiritual stakes are far too high to rely solely on your own understanding, or to wait for special, unique instruction from the Lord.

I once heard a radio interview in which a woman pastor was asked how she “got her sermons up.” She replied, “I don't get them up; I get them down. God delivers them to me.” Her words reflect an attitude all too familiar in the church today. Many believe it’s unspiritual to study. “After all,” some say (taking a verse completely out of context), “didn’t Jesus say, ‘For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say’?” (Luke 12:12).

That kind of shallow, superficial approach to Scripture is a sure way to miss its true meaning. You can’t ad-lib your way to biblical understanding and spiritual maturity—not in the pulpit and not in your personal study. Don’t attempt to speak for God when you have no idea what you’re talking about—and don’t follow anyone who does.

Tomorrow we’ll look at one more interpretation pitfall—unnecessary allegory.

(Adapted from Charismatic Chaos.)


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#1  Posted by Andy Belk  |  Wednesday, September 19, 2012at 9:49 AM

Your statement about the woman pastor should be ignored anyway.

Doesn't 1st Timothy 2:11 state that a woman should not teach or rule over a man. So it is my understanding then that she is not a pastor according to God's Word. Maybe according to man, in a world where we like to change everything to suit our own needs and egos.

#2  Posted by James Fuller  |  Wednesday, September 19, 2012at 2:44 PM

There is no substitute for preparation and study. To honor God, I passionately pursue excellence. What else will do? Many hours of thought, study, and prayer produce the fruit of a righteous harvest.

#3  Posted by Jeremiah Johnson  |  Wednesday, September 19, 2012at 3:39 PM

Andy,

We can tackle the issue of women pastors another time. For now, the point John is making is that her approach to Scripture--and that of others in ministry capacities who share her beliefs--is superficial and dangerous. It cuts their congregations off from the truth, and teaches believers to sidestep the meaning of God's Word rather than study it.

#4  Posted by Mark Tanner  |  Wednesday, September 19, 2012at 4:03 PM

TBN and Daystar come to mind and almost every church in my area came to mind as I read this. I love God's word and can never get enough of it and even reading and or studying the same section(s) God will unveil a truth that was always there, but never understood till I dug deeper with helps from my MacArthur Study Bible or a Greek lexicon.

Here is something I would like to share with all that helps give understanding and provokes meditation on passages. Whenever you see a passage(s) begin with the word "For" - stop/pause and ask the question "why?" and watch what happens. Here is an example: Philippians 2:19-20.... Philippians 2:20 starts with "For" and answers the question of "why?" from Paul's statement of Philippians 2:19 and the next verse, which is Philippians 2:21 also begins with "For", which further explains Paul explanation for sending Timothy.

In the OT, this works well and sometimes the word "because" could be substituted in the same manner. Genesis 7:1-4 demonstrates both of how "because" can answer "why?" and also is followed by "For" as answering "why?".

When we read and study scripture in our home, our boys (ages 7 & 12) now pause and ask the question "why" when they see the word "For" and it has helped open everyone's understanding as the Holy Spirit illuminates the meaning.

Without the helps of godly men used of God, such as Phil Johnson, John MacArthur, Jonathan Edwards, Paul Washer, Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle and Whitefield among many other helps; I would have taken far fewer steps in my walk with Christ, which is never satisfied and won't be until I am with Him and may that be soon for all Christians - do we not all have a great longing to be with the Lord all the more given the current state of affairs at home and around the world. Anyone notice a great "falling away"?

Prayers and love in Christ our great Lord and Savior to GTY, Grace Community church and all people everywhere!