What Are Nine Common Errors When Interpreting Biblical Narratives?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Our local church, Cornerstone, has embarked on a year-long study of the Book of Joshua.  Our pastor, Dr. Byrd, is going to prepare detailed sermon notes each week, which will then be translated by the other pastors into lessons for Sunday school classes.

As we kick off this series in Joshua, I have been drawn back to one of my favorite books on biblical interpretation, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.  In the past I shared ten principles for interpreting Old Testament narratives from their book, but this time I want to highlight nine errors that are commonly made when interpreting biblical narratives, also from their book.

Allegorizing.  “Instead of concentrating on the clear meaning of the narrative, people relegate the text to merely reflecting another meaning beyond the text.”

Decontextualizing.  “Ignoring the full historical and literary contexts, and often the individual narrative, people concentrate on small units only and thus miss interpretational clues.  If you take things out of context enough, you can make almost any part of Scripture say anything you want it to” (emphasis added).

Selectivity.  “It involves picking and choosing specific words and phrases to concentrate on while ignoring the others and ignoring the overall sweep of the narrative being studied.”

Moralizing.  “This is the assumption that principles for living can be derived from all passages.  The moralizing reader, in effect, asks the question , ‘What is the moral of this story?’ at the end of every individual narrative.  An example would be, ‘What can we learn about handling adversity from how the Israelites endured their years as slaves in Egypt?’  The fallacy in this approach is that the narratives were written to show the progress of God’s history of redemption, not to illustrate principles.”

Personalizing.  “Also known as individualizing, this refers to reading Scripture in the way suggested above, supposing that any or all parts apply to you or your group in a way that they do not apply to everyone else.  This is, in fact, a self-centered reading of the Bible.  Examples of personalizing would be, ‘The story of Balaam’s talking donkey reminds me that I talk too much.’  Or, ‘The story of the building of the temple is God’s way of telling us that we have to construct a new church building.'”

Misappropriation.  “It is to appropriate the text for purposes that are quite foreign to the biblical narrative.  This is what is happening when, on the basis of Judges 6:36-40, people ‘fleece’ God as a way of finding God’s will!  This, of course, is both misappropriation and decontextualizing, since the narrator is pointing out that God saved Israel through Gideon despite his lack of trust in God’s word.'”

False appropriation.  “It is to read into a biblical narrative suggestions or ideas that come from contemporary culture that are simultaneously foreign to the narrator’s purpose and contradictory to his point of view.”

False combination.  “This approach combines elements from here and there in a passage and makes a point out of their combination, even though the elements themselves are not directly connected in the passage itself.”

Redefinition.  “When the plain meaning of the text leaves people cold, producing no immediate spiritual delight or saying something other than what they wish it said, they are often tempted to redefine it to mean something else.”  Fee and Stuart use the example of 2 Chronicles 7:14-15: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.”  Christians today want to apply this promise to their own land, but as Fee and Stuart point out, this promise was only directed toward the ancient land of Israel.

As our church moves through the Book of Joshua, I hope we can avoid these common errors.  The most important step in interpreting any biblical text is to first work very hard to discover what the original author was trying to communicate to the original audience.  Only after we have done the hard work of finding the original meaning can we then apply the text to our contemporary world.

  • Peter

    I agree with most of these, but I was a little unsure of the “personalizing” error. I think I understand that when a group of people looks at certain scriptures and says “this is God’s way of tellling us and only us to do so-and-so”, then that’s definitely not right. But on the other hand, it can often be true that a certain individual will read a certain passage and it will strike into the core of their spirit, and in that situation I think God can use certain scripture passages to speak “personally” to some individual’s hearts.

    I just think that’s an important distinction to point out – and also that some scripture passages are indeed targeted to different groups of people… i.e. “though your sins are red as crimson, they shall be white as snow” – that passage obviously isn’t targeting the hearts of men who are cheating on their taxes…

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for the comment.

  • Matt Salmon

    In that passage from 2 Chronicles, why would that not apply to all times and places? It’s not a magic trick of course; people have to truly do all the things to satisfy the conditions of the statement. How, then, can it be limited to ancient Israel? Nineveh did all those things and was spared God’s destruction.
    I’m not sure I understand the categories. Into which would Gen. Patton sieging Rome with the Jericho battle plan fall?

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  • Robert widby

    Ah, truth. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is, of course the best single thing about Gods Word. But in ALL things in this greatest of all texts, our Holy Bible, the truth rings out to both make us feel loved and to also remind us there are repercussions for wrong choices without a hint of apology for cornering us. Thank God He doesn’t treat truth like we mortals do. One meaning one day, another meaning the next. We may interpret the passages of the Bible with differences, but one truth is indisputable: the victory is won. We’re just waiting for the Kingdom to gather. “And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” Matt. 24:14.

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  • Sharon Green

    Wow…just….wow

  • Sharon Green

    We KNOW the Bible is not 100% correct. There’s no mixed interpretations..there’s people who just accepted what they were told, and now we know that facts just don’t pan out. Not saying there is no God. Just have to accept maybe there’s more or maybe there’s nothimg