Bible professors, local church pastors, and faithful church members all share a common desire to better understand Scripture. We want depth in our Bible studies and prefer sermon series that walk through the Bible verse-by-verse. We believe God’s Word is full of truth, and don’t want to miss out on any of it. We also know that understanding Scripture can be tricky, since it comes to us not as a list of bullet-point statements downloaded from heaven, but as a complex story of God’s interaction with his chosen people.
Naturally, we who treasure God’s Word and seek to live by its light are eager to dive into the pages of this difficult story, seeking wisdom and truth. This is good, but as we slow down and press into the text, our best intentions do not protect us from some all-too-common interpretive fallacies. In fact, in trying to “go deeper,” we can stray off course and miss what the text is trying to say.
Whether reading the Bible in your first language or in the original Greek and Hebrew, here are three key ideas that can keep you on the exegetical straight and narrow.
1. Words are flexible and contextual.
One of the most common word-study fallacies is called Illegitimate Totality Transfer. We commit this error when we apply all possible definitions of a given word to one particular usage of it. Why is this a fallacy? Because words are flexible and often have very different nuances in different places. Let’s say you come across the word “faith” in Romans 4 and think to yourself, I wonder what it means in Greek? You look up the broad definition of the Greek word in a dictionary and apply the totality of that definition to its usage in Romans 4. But the Greek word pistis can mean many things, and we can’t assume it means all those things in Romans 4.
Scripture is not a list of bullet-point statements downloaded from heaven, but a complex story of God’s interaction with his chosen people.
Consider the flexibility of the English word “trouble.” When we say, “He’s in trouble for skipping school,” and “I had some trouble installing the dishwasher,” we are using “trouble” in very different ways. Both usages would satisfy Webster’s generic dictionary definition, but imagine if I were to apply the student/teacher nuances of “trouble” in the first sentence to my dishwasher example. We would never do that because we know intuitively that words are flexible and contextual.
Resist the urge to treat words—even key words like faith or justification—as if they were variables in a math equation. Think of words in terms of their function and usage, and don’t pull a word out of its context in order to determine its meaning. Conversely, reflect on how that word is being used within its context.
Don’t get me wrong: word studies that adequately take into account the flexibility of a key Hebrew or Greek word can be extremely helpful. The Bible Project’s Word Study Videos provide good examples of Bible word studies that don’t fall into common exegetical fallacies. (For more on word study fallacies, check out this article or D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.)
2. Details can distract from the flow of a text.
It’s a common assumption in our post-Enlightenment, science-driven culture: to understand something well, we need to break it down into its smallest pieces and understand the individual parts. This is not a bad instinct, and there is certainly a place for it in biblical study. I do this when I diagram New Testament sentences with my Greek students. You can think of this kind of study as “zooming in” to the words to get a closer look at the details.
However, this “zooming in” can distract us from the main point of text. With a few notable exceptions (Proverbs and, perhaps, some of James), biblical books aren’t designed to be snipped up into little pieces of helpful information. They are meant to be heard in their entireties. Before zooming in to dissect individual words and phrases, we ought to zoom out and ask how what we’re reading fits into the argument of its book. Let’s return to our Romans 4 example. Before looking up “faith” in a theological dictionary, think about how what Paul is saying fits into the argument of the book of Romans. Consider Paul’s example of Abraham in light of the questions he raises about Jews and Gentiles in chapters 2 and 3, or how Paul will show Jesus to be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham in chapter 5.
Does the following scenario sound familiar? You sit down to read a portion of Scripture, but just a few verses in you run into a troubling saying or difficult word. You stop reading and turn to Google, a commentary, or even your friend across the room to get some answers. Once your curiosity is satisfied, you pick up your Bible and start where you left off—only to be derailed again a few verses later. Do you see how this rhythm takes you out of the flow of the text and makes it harder to follow its argument?
Make a habit of reading large portions of Sripture without stopping to look things up. Let the story wash over you. There will always be time later to go back and check on the details.
3. An individual text doesn’t need to carry the whole weight of Christian theology.
The Bible is remarkable in both its unity and its diversity. It tells one amazing story of God’s plan to redeem his broken creation and make all things new in Christ—but it does so through the writings of dozens of people, in many different literary styles, over the course of hundreds of years. Make no mistake: God in his sovereignty could have given us a simple list of timeless truths and commandments, but he hasn’t. He has instead given us this multifaceted collection of stories, letters, and poetry from 2,000 years ago. It is in and through that collection of documents that we meet Jesus by the work of the Holy Spirit.
What do we make of the diversity and complexity of the Bible’s many parts? First of all, don’t pretend it isn’t diverse and complex. We Westerners love simplicity and logical organization, and we seek resolution when faced with complexity. Again, this is not a bad thing, but it can get us into trouble when reading and studying Scripture. We must resist the urge to immediately smooth over difficult passages and “overharmonize” the diversity of Scripture.
Yes, we believe in the unity and God-givenness of all Scripture, but this must not prevent us from hearing its distinct voices. The difference in nuance between Paul and James are not problems to be solved, but blessings to be appreciated. The fact that the four Gospel writers tell the story differently should not trouble us. Again, we are blessed to have four unique (and true) interpretations of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. When we try to downplay these differences for the sake of Scripture’s unity, we risk missing out on what the Lord is saying through them.
Don’t force every verse to tell the whole story of Christian theology. When we expect every text to say everything at once, we often distort it, pulling it out of its literary context and ignoring the author’s intent. Let each portion of Scripture speak for itself. Let a text about God’s inclusive love be about God’s inclusive love; let a text about God’s wrath be about God’s wrath. The picture of his character comes from this mosaic of inspired perspectives. Sadly, we often try to replace that mosaic with a monochromatic slab, and then explain away parts of the story that don’t quite match. This is another reason not to stop reading each time you bump into something challenging; if you prayerfully and mindfully continue, you may see the broader picture as you go.
We must resist the urge to immediately smooth over difficult passages and ‘overharmonize’ the diversity of Scripture.
“Don’t miss the forest for the trees,” the old saying goes, but we Bible readers often do just that. Will our Bible study often take us to in-depth questions about individual words and phrases? Absolutely, but these questions must be answered within the context of the argument and flow of the text. The better we understand the literary context, the more helpful (and less prone to fallacy) those word/phrase studies will be. By all means, go deep. But don’t let your enthusiasm for depth and precision get you off course. Read in big chunks and don’t let your questions and frustrations keep you from catching the beauty of God’s story revealed in his Word.