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.