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Seven Common Fallacies of Biblical Interpretation

1. Preunderstanding fallacy: Believing you can interpret with complete objectivity, not recognizing that you have preunderstandings that influence your interpretation.

There is no such thing as a “white-coat” interpreter. In other words, there is no one who comes to the text as a scientist who objectively interprets the data. We all are influenced by many things including our upbringing, culture, personality, and others preunderstandings. Once we recognize this, we are better equipped to interpret the text honesty. Otherwise, our preunderstanding will always rule over our interpretation.

2. Incidental fallacy: Reading incidental historical texts as prescriptive rather than descriptive.

While the Bible teaches us truths, not every incidental detail is meant to teach these truths. Much of the Bible is made up of information that is important to the overall story, but is not important in isolation to the rest. We must understand the difference between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” material.  Prescriptive: information that provides the reader with principles that they are to apply to their lives. Descriptive: incidental material that describes the way something was done but is not necessarily meant to encourage the reader in the same action. A good example of this is the Apostles casting lots to elect a new Apostle to replace Judas in Acts 1. This is not meant to teach us how to elect church leaders, it is just the way it was done at that time.

3. Obscurity fallacy: Building theology from obscure material.

Much of the Bible is very clear and understandable. Some of it is very difficult to understand. Do not build theology and doctrine from passages of Scripture that are not clear. For example, it is very difficult to understand what Christ was talking about in John 3:5 where He mentions being “born of water.” “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” Because of its obscurity, one should not build a theology that places too much weight on what being “born of water” means. The Bible speaks clearly on many issues concerning salvation in other places. It is best to take the obscure passages and interpret them in light of the clear passages. In doing so, the interpreter can create an interpretive framework upon what these obscure passages cannot mean, even if discovery cannot be made with certianty about what they, in fact, do mean.

Obscure passages can be the most dangerous teachings in Scripture. Sadly, it is often the case that many people and traditions take obscure passages and pack their theology into them since there is no definitive way to say that they are wrong in their interpretation. This is a common fallacy committed among “Christian” cults. In other words, there simply is no more fertile ground for cults and false teaching than obscure passages of the Bible. 

4. Etymological root fallacy: Looking to the root etymology of a word to discover its meaning.

The problem with this is that etymology can often be deceiving, such as in the English word “butterfly” taken from “butter” and “fly.” An etymological study of this word only confuses the current usage. The same can be said of the word “good-bye,” which is taken from the Anglo-Saxon, “God be with you.” When someone says “good-bye,” it does not necessarily (if ever) mean that they are calling a blessing of God’s presence to be with you.

From D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies:

“One of the most enduring fallacies, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is by the roots of a word.  How many times have we been told that because the verbal cognate of apostolos (apostle) is apostello (I send), the root meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent.”?  In the preface of the New King James Bible, we are told that the literal meaning of monogenes is “only begotten.”  Is that true?  How often do preachers refer to the verb agapao (to love), contrast it with phileo (to love) and deduce that the text is saying something about a special kind of loving, for no other reason than that agapao is used?

All of this is linguistic nonsense.  We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words. Anthony C. Thistleton offers by way of example our word ‘nice’, which comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant.”  Our “good-by” is a contraction for Anglo-Saxon “God be with you.” It is certainly easy to imagine how “God be with you” came to be “good-by.”  But I know of no one today who in saying that such and such a person is “nice”  believes that he or she has in some measure labeled that person ignorant because the “root meaning” or “hidden meaning” or “literal meaning” of “nice” is ‘ignorant’.”

5. Illegitimate totality transfer: Bringing the full meaning of a word with all its nuances to the present usage.

Take the Greek verb phileo. The UBS dictionary of the Greek New Testament lists these possible meanings: have deep feeling for; love; like (to do or be something); kiss. Some interpreters would commit an ITT by using all of the nuances that the word phileo has when, in fact, it usually only carries one meaning that is determined by the context.

6. Selective use of meaning: Selecting the meaning you like best.

This is like the illegitimate totality transfer in reverse. Instead of the word carrying all the possible nuances, the interpreter will select which nuance he or she likes best. We must remember that the context determines the nuance, not the interpreter.

7. Maverick fallacy: Believing that you don’t need anyone but the Holy Spirit to interpret the text.

This is a common fallacy among Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who believe that the Holy Spirit works in isolation from the community of God, both living and dead. Here, people believe that the Holy Spirit reveals the meaning of text to the individual as he or she attempts to discern the voice of God coming through the Scriptures, irregardless of what the historic body of Christ has said. The basic problem with this fallacy is that God has always worked in community as the Body of Christ functions together. God most certainly expects the interpreter to draw from other people’s giftedness since we don’t possess all the gifts ourselves. Ultimately, this is a fallacy of arrogance. Use outside resources and you will be discovering the power of the Holy Spirit in the community of God. Work alone and you are probably working in your own power.

42 Responses to “Seven Common Fallacies of Biblical Interpretation”

  1. Well handled Michael. While I’ve seen most of these in action [in my life and others as well] I’ve never had anyone label them as such, which is helpful.

  2. Thanks Michael for this article but Nr. 4 it’s unclear because your examples is from outside not from Bible and somebody can’t undersatnd very well what this means! So TDNT it’t not longer avaiIable? :) I think that your point 2 answers very well to the logic of Nr.4 ;) anyway good points

  3. Thanks manu,

    I updated it with some examples from D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.

  4. I’m 7/7. Do I win anything?

  5. Very helpful points. You’ve helped isolate a few practices I’ve found troublesome, but not been able to put my finger on.

    Number 5 spells names the reason I’ve always been uncomfortable with the Amplified Bible. It makes people feel like they’re getting “deeper” meaning when what it often does is muddle the meaning. I always want to stop and ask, “Well, which one of those words IS it? It can’t mean all of them!”

  6. Whenever these sorts of points are brought up, my experience shows that someone from a “mystical” tradition (e.g. a charismatic) disregards/qualifies one or more of your points by implying that strict hermeneutic constraints limit God. “The Bible is that than which nothing greater can be conceived; ergo, whatever it should mean, it will mean, your rules and ‘fallacies’ notwithstanding.”

    Good post.

  7. Hi Michael,

    Good post. One little quibble, with the ‘descriptive not prescriptive’ issue. While I agree that the way the successor to Judas was appointed was not prescriptive, I think there is a trap we can fall into here. You wrote ‘This is not mean to teach us how to elect church leaders, it is just the way it was done at that time (my emphasis).

    The problem is, in my experience, that ‘descriptive not prescriptive’ often turns into ‘just descriptive, not prescriptive, nor having anything to say to us today’. In this case, some people would probably argue that we may just dismiss the apostles as hopelessly out of their depth in the way they tried to run a new organisation.

    However, notice several points that undermine the silly apostles thesis: they had invested several days of serious prayer in their new responsibilities, they show keen (Christ-taught?) insight into the OT scriptures bearing upon the issue of Judas’ successor, they use wisdom in selecting the most appropriate candidates for the job, they refuse to choose an apostle themselves (realising this is not their prerogative), the actual casting of lots has got plenty of OT precedent, but lastly and (imo) most importantly, Peter’s speech is full of talk of ‘lots’ (as in the Real Estate variety), suggesting a link between Peter’s speech and the solution to the problem they eventually employ.

    In any case, I would probably argue that the reason this passage is not prescriptive is not because of the lots, but because we do not have to appoint successors to Judas’ ‘lot’, nor do we have the responsibility of appointing apostles at all. It was a unique situation.

    My issue is that the use of slogans like this one can have unintended (bad) consequences: people can simply quote a slogan at any passage and, with the wave of a hand, dismiss without consideration any passage that seems a little difficult (or even bizarre, as here) and so fail to learn lessons. But, even descriptive passages teach lessons: there are lessons to be learned from David’s adultery or Moses’ murder, even if imitation is not one of them. So, even descriptive passages can be prescriptive (if ‘learn lessons from them’ is what ‘prescriptive’ entails).

    Now, I’m not saying that a preacher having to deal with a passage is going to treat it with the slap-happy shortcut of simply quoting a slogan at it (although I have heard some preachers treat passages with nearly this sort of dismissive attitude). My experience is that it is more commonly people striving to be theologically sophisticated who fall into the trap.

    Every word of God is pure, all scripture is profitable, etc.

    Here is another case of the misuse of the slogan:
    http://www.participatorychurchgatherings.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=75&Itemid=84

  8. Nos. 4-6 seem to be subject ot some objective analysis. On the other hand, what is obscure and what is incidental seem to be so subject to one’s preunderstanding as to be much less than helpful.

  9. Thanks for the post. Here is one “fallacy,” if you will, that bothers me:

    Scripture interprets Scripture.

    People interpret scripture.

    Comparing scripture to Scripture is important, which is a legitimate implication of the above, but so is understanding the historical and cultural context of the passage, ones own cultural and personal context, and historical interpretations passed down in the Church.

    The problem is that this “slogan” is too simplistic and can be misleading. It may result in an uncritical acceptance of interpretations that are supposedly “just the Bible,” but are in reality dangerous amalgams of Scripture, prejudice and ignorance.

    What do you think? Do you ever use this phrase?

  10. Another comment. Funny you should use scientists as an example of people who come to a subject objectively. Not that I disagree. In principle that should be true. But considering the skepticism of many Evangelical Christians regarding the objectivity of scientists, it just seems ironic.

  11. Well, I was not implying that anyone could come to a subject with complete objectivity, including scientist. I would hope that I scientist would write the same fallacy for their industry! :)

  12. Kent,

    Oh, yes. When somebody tells you that he is just going to let scripture interpret scripture, the next words out of his mouth (whatever they sound like) really mean: I am a Nigerian prince whose fortune has been stolen and I need your help.

    ________

    CMP,

    Well argued. I especially like #7: we realy aren’t free to take scripture in whatever direction we would like.

  13. Michael,
    I always appreciate your posts. I have my own little group of rules, stated positively rather than as error, which I try to insist on whenever I’m entering discussion on a possibly controversial topic. They might serve as adjuncts or corollaries of yours here:

    1) All scripture is equally inspired. You cannot negate the truth of one passage by appealling to another passage.

    2) All scriptures agrees – – no passage of scripture properly understood will disagree with or contradict any other passage of scripture properly understood. If they seem to, then you do not properly understand at least one of them.

    3) No one passage tells everything about any larger subject. You have to account for “the whole counsel of God” when determining what a particular passage means.

    Useful?

  14. No problems with the theology here.
    However, your use of the non-word ‘irregardless’ sets my teeth on edge.
    “regardless” is “without regard”, and what you were trying to convey.
    “irregardless”, were it an actual word, would mean “without a lack of regard” – quite the opposite
    (I’m a little tickled at this being found in a post concerning, among other things, word usage and etymology and hermeneutics).
    Good stuff, otherwise. Thanks for the post.

  15. Sam-

    “1) All scripture is equally inspired. You cannot negate the truth of one passage by appealling to another passage….
    3) No one passage tells everything about any larger subject. You have to account for “the whole counsel of God” when determining what a particular passage means.”

    But what if one holds to the position of a “fallible” canon?

  16. Rick, I wouldn’t know what to do with that problem. I don’t mean to be flippant when I say that I have difficulty imagining that God would leave the final compilation of His revelation entirely to men, without His influence to make sure they get it right.

    I would think that if the final determination and compilation of the canon is fallible — beyond the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us into – – , then all bets are off, and there is no standard by which to judge what is proper doctrine and what is heresy.

    It would take some powerful argumentation to get me to go down that road.

  17. Seven good cautions, but I would guess that they do not ALWAYS produce faulty interpretations.

    Regarding Item 4, for example, the KJV reader should be aware of the etymological development of certain KJ English vocabulary. We readers need to know what meanings and connotations words had at the time of writing, and this would seem to be especially true when dealing with ancient writings. Etymology can be a part of that.
    On the opposite side, our use of ‘Wednesday,’ for example, doesn’t mean we are honoring a Scandinavian god. Or are we? Interestingly, Portuguese is the only Latin derived language that avoids the pagan names for weekdays.

    Item 7 (maverick fallacy) is something that Martin Luther was concerned about. Was it possible that he could be right and the whole majesty of the Church be wrong? As it turned out, however, he was not alone. Others, led by the Spirit and Scripture, had already been questioning and many more subsequently followed his lead.

  18. I have difficulty imagining that God would leave the final compilation of His revelation entirely to men, without His influence to make sure they get it right.
    […]
    if the final determination and compilation of the canon is fallible — beyond the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us into

    Sam,

    Michael can correct me on this, but I think you’re reading things into his use of the word “fallible” that he didn’t intend. He didn’t say anything about the Spirit not being involved.

    I think his main point about fallibility is that we lack an infallible proclamation about the canon, from an authoritative source. But that doesn’t contradict the idea that God worked providentially and through the Spirit in believers to ensure that we would end up recognizing the inspired revelation that he intended for us to have!

    Now, you probably think that “God guided his people in recognizing the canon” does mean that we have an “infallible” canon–even without a particular infallible proclamation. You could be right–that’s another point to argue. (Does the one imply the other?)

    But you’re reading the phrase “fallible canon” as though Michael’s proposing a hands-off, deistic God–and I’m pretty sure that’s not what he meant.

  19. Sam says:

    “I have difficulty imagining that God would leave the final compilation of His revelation entirely to men, without His influence to make sure they get it right.”

    Me too, Sam.

    Otherwise a good post on the nuances of interpretation, which I’m really glad to see. Just proves what I have said before that it’s not totally a matter of interpretation either, because there are so many different approaches. That’s why I think we have to have a good balance between the two extremes of strictly Holy Spirit, which we know is abused by some factions of the church, and the strictly it’s all about good theological exegesis. I think God meant for us to use our minds under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  20. Good post.

    One thing though: It should be made clear that the prescriptive/descriptive distinction does not break down between explicitly propositional statements vs. nuanced narrative. There is prescription in the larger description of a text. One ought not confuse the abuse of the purely descriptive of an individual text (which is really a subjective application made by the reader) and the overall argument of a passage or book that, although not explicitly carried in propositional or didactic language, still carries the weight of prescription with it. The danger, then, is taking descriptive information out of the context of the larger arguments of a particular pericope or book.

  21. Michael –

    Thanks for the post. With your distinguishing between descriptive and prescriptive material, I definitely agree that we need to be careful with overdoing it with ‘incidental’ details. But I also find that many people utilise this argument in disregarding Acts, as well as other historical parts of Scripture, as didactic-teaching material. I don’t believe that’s healthy, since so much of Scripture is historical (even the Gospels). Scripture is a story. Also, we read passages like these:

    Rom 15:4 – For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction…

    1 Cor 10:11 – Now these things [historical happenings spoken of in the previous verses] happened to them as an example, but they [historical happenings] were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.

    And, of course, the famous one: 2 Tim 3:16 – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

    Anyways, just some thoughts on how we can also move towards fallacy when we easily dismiss certain portions of Scripture as didactic because they are too ‘historical’. We need to guard against such as well.

    Thanks again.

  22. Thanks. I especially enjoyed the first point: that people approach with a perspective, if not a prejudice. My particular favorite is the old “grace vs law” argument. I have seen and participated in many of those.

    I people have been TOLD that the Messiah came to provide redemption because the Torah FAILED to do so. That is a false argument. There is no scripture that shows Moses or the Prophets believed that they were delivered by the Torah.

    However, having HEARD that we are “saved” FROM the Torah or that we are no longer “under the law”, the interpretation of many other scriptures are tainted.

    Go on… see if you can “prove” that the scriptures teach that the Torah was intended to redeem. It was intended for a BETTER way of life, not to GAIN eternal life.

    But if the Torah WAS intended to redeem, there should be some scripture, especially in the OT, that specifically says that it had the power to redeem. Considering the impact of that concept, there should be MANY such assertions.

    So yes, I agree that once we are tainted with false teachings or cultural influences, it is very hard to read objectively. In fact most people I know reject the very words of the Messiah in order to maintain this particular fallacy.

    People hear, “I came to FULFILL the law” as the intention to END the Torah, and they ignore the Messiah HIMSELF saying, “I did not come to abolish the Law”. So we don’t “abolish” it, but we are free from it, and we no longer observe it. Sounds pretty “abolished” to me.

    Those are some amazing mental gymnastics needed to maintain a false teaching. Objectivity? Out the window! Believe every word of scripture? Not in this instance!

    Thanks for you efforts.

  23. In line with several other commenters here, let me thank you for this post. Number two is a legitimate concern, although one that is often abused.

    Thanks again, Michael.

  24. so, for example, you’re saying that their is no linguistical difference between agapao and phileo? This is not the same as nuances between liking someone as a friend or liking someone as in wanting to date them. This is the same as saying their is no linguistical difference between like and love. They are two different words translated into the same word. The english here is what’s missing the nuance, not the original greek.

  25. Kristin, there are some semantic differences between agapao and phileo – languages eschew exact synonyms. But they’re not always sharply distinguished even by the biblical writers, since they do share a lot of semantic ground. The distinction has been run into the ground by preachers for years.

    This becomes evident when reading John 21’s “Restoration of Peter” in which the two verbs are mixed up without significant change in meaning (cf. agapao in Jn 3.19 and phileo in Jn 5.20, 16.27). See http://is.gd/9ck6B for a good explanation.

  26. Why is the New Testament silent on Infant Baptism?

    Baptist/evangelical response:

    The reason there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament is because this practice is a Catholic invention that developed two to three centuries after the Apostles. The Bible states that sinners must believe and repent before being baptized. Infants do not have the mental maturity to believe or to make a decision to repent. If God had wanted infants to be baptized he would have specifically mentioned it in Scripture. Infant baptism is NOT scriptural.

    Lutheran response:

    When God made his covenant with Abraham, God included everyone in Abraham’s household in the covenant:

    1. Abraham, the head of the household.
    2. His wife.
    3. His children: teens, toddlers, and infants
    4. His servants and their wives and children.
    5. His slaves and their wives and children.

    Genesis records that it was not just Abraham who God required to be circumcised. His son, his male servants, and his male slaves were all circumcised; more than 300 men and boys.

    Did the act of circumcision save all these people and give them an automatic ticket into heaven? No. Just as in the New Covenant, it is not the sign that saves, it is God’s declaration that saves, received in faith. If these men and boys grew in faith in God, they would be saved. If they later rejected God by living a life of willful sin, they would perish.

    This pattern of including the children of believers in God’s covenant continued for several thousand years until Christ’s resurrection. There is no mention in the OT that the children of the Hebrews were left out of the covenant until they reached an Age of Accountability, at which time they were required to make a decision: Do I want to be a member of the covenant or not? And only if they made an affirmative decision were they then included into God’s covenant. Hebrew/Jewish infants and toddlers have ALWAYS been included in the…

    • Two excellent demonstrations of people who believe they can supply the authority of God by human logic, where no rule exists in the Bible. Of the two, I have to opine that the Lutheran analogy is weaker, as it makes no sense whatsoever.

      The Baptist position is perhaps a variant of “post hoc ergo prompter hoc”. The Bible does say “repent and be baptized” but it does not say “you must be an adult and profess repentance prior to baptism”. It is doubly ludicrous, since according to Baptist doctrine, baptism is not sacramental. Why would they think being dunked in water is therefore more efficacious as a public demonstration of repentance and faith than Catholic/Lutheran confirmation?

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