What Does That Mean?
Bill went to John's house where he had a ball.
Can you tell me what that sentence means? That's a rhetorical question, because the obvious answer is, "No." That sentence contains ambiguities that make it impossible to know what I mean by just reading that one sentence. To start with, the word "he" could refer to Bill or it could refer to John. Another ambiguity is in the word "ball." It could mean a spherical object of wood, metal, rubber, plastic, or something else. But "had a ball" could also be a slang expression meaning the person enjoyed himself.
If you wrote a sentence like the one above in a class on English composition, the teacher would probably just tell you to rewrite it to remove the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we can't do that with the Bible. We have to take what is there and uncover the meaning from the text as it is. Usually, the grammar of the sentence combined with vocabulary will give us the meaning. That's the first step in understanding a writing. In a case like my example, that is not enough. What we need is some context, like this:
Bill wanted to play basketball but couldn't find his ball. Bill went to John's house where he had a ball. Bill used John's ball to play basketball.
That middle sentence is still confusing, but we can understand it from the context. We can understand that "ball" means a basketball and "he" means "John." Context is very important in clearing up ambiguity. That's why you can't just take one word or sentence out of the context where it was used without being very careful. If your use of the text is different than the inherent meaning in the original context, you end up misinterpreting the text.
Sometimes local context alone is enough. Consider these verses from scripture.
Mark 10:21 One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor
Mark 10:29-30 There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time
In both cases, I have only used a fragment of the verse. As such, either of these verses taken alone would give very different interpretations.
Sell whatsoever thou hast - Christians should be poor
Receive an hundredfold - Christians should be rich.
So, which do you think is the correct interpretation? What you have to do is look at other things Jesus said and assume He is consistent. Like this:
Matthew 6:31-33 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek
for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Combining Mark 10 and Matthew 6 you can understand the overall principle that Jesus was teaching. It is simply that God provides for our physical needs when we put Him first. Although Mark 10 appears contradictory by itself, when seen in combination with other things Jesus said, it makes perfect sense.
When reading secular writings these three criteria are often enough for proper interpretation. However, sacred writings like the Bible often use symbolic language to describe a spiritual principle. If taken literally, the meaning is not properly understood. Here is an exaggerated example:
Deuteronomy 32:4 He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.
Deuteronomy 32:18 Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee.
Deuteronomy 32:37 And he shall say, Where are their gods, their rock in whom they trusted,
1 Samuel 2:2 There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.
1 Corinthians 10:4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ
Well, what do you think of that? Someone with no spiritual understanding at all could read these verses and conclude that the Israelites, and the Christians, worship "rocks." That's absurd, of course. In these verses, the word "rock" is not to be interpreted as some type of deity. A rock is simply used as a symbol for God that expresses the concept of God's reliability. Put another way, God is "rock solid." Thus, to understand the symbolism of sacred writings requires inspiration. Sometimes the words should be read literally and sometimes they should be read symbolically. We can't just read the text, study the grammar and vocabulary and then claim to understand. We need context, consistency and inspiration as well.
When we read text, whether the Bible or anything else, we should be trying to recover the original thoughts of the writer. Unfortunately, what so many people do is the exact opposite. There is a tendency for people to search the Bible for some proof to support what they already believe. They have a forgone conclusion and will only read for things that can be manipulated in support of their conclusion. Were they to find other verses that contradict their conclusion they would have to discard the idea altogether.
Often this type of misinterpretation is based on fear. If someone has an emotional attachment to a specific doctrine they are not likely to search for scripture that would contradict their cherished belief. They have put so much reliance on that doctrine that to have it removed would make them feel as if their whole world was crumbling. As a result, they only search for text that they can use to maintain their prior beliefs. That way they can continue to rely on those beliefs. It's really just a lack of faith.
Non-Christians will often misinterpret scripture to support and argue against Christianity. You will see a lot of this among people who follow the various occult and esoteric beliefs, as well as by people with a materialistic or secular world view. People who hold other spiritual beliefs will tend to interpret things in the Bible in a highly symbolic way. They say, for instance, that all the stories about Jesus are descriptions of mystery religion rituals. Secular readers will do the exact opposite. They will interpret everything in the Bible as having a natural cause and completely ignore the miracles.
When someone misinterprets scripture, they will usually fail to observe at least one of these criteria. They may use the wrong meaning of a word, ignore the grammar, take the verse or word out of context, ignore other statements that would contradict their interpretation, or take the words literally when they should be read symbolically. If someone does this unintentionally we can perhaps forgive their ignorance. But, if misinterpretation is done purposefully, then it is malicious or fraudulent.
Thus it is important to understand these criteria not only so that we don't make mistakes but to also protect ourselves against those who try to distort the meaning of scripture. If you don't understand how scripture should be interpreted, it is easy to be misled by someone who continuously quotes Bible verses in support of their argument. They appear to have a strong knowledge of the Bible when they really don't. They may in fact have some other agenda to pursue and only want to confuse you to the point they can control you or convince you to believe as they do.
The formal name for the study of interpretation of scripture is "hermeneutics." It forms the basis for good exegesis and is an important thing to know if you want to perform your own Bible study. Although hermeneutics can become very complex, it really isn't all that difficult to master enough of it for the level of Bible study that most of us will need to do.