Interpreting Scripture By Whole Counsel
When teaching, we must always look broadly and specifically at Scripture. Broadly in terms of the context of the verse or verses—who wrote them, who was the audience originally and what was the intent? No passage of Scripture studied would fail to benefit from a well-rounded approach prior to teaching it. We instruct every Christ-follower to study their Bible daily because it takes daily study to understand it fully and accurately. When we approach the Bible haphazardly, we get haphazard results–inaccurate and incomplete views that lead to marginal obedience or confused lack thereof.
Let me suggest four fatal flaws that persist in teaching or studying approaches to Scripture, which may lead to misinterpretation or misapplication of the text. Each of these flaws deals with a specific way by which the core value of context when reading and interpreting Scripture can be skewed.
Fatal Flaw of the Dictionary Approach. In this approach the teacher or student chooses a topic before the text, and then seeks applicable verses from which to draw teaching content on the topic. The danger here is context skewed by application. An example of this flaw is the widespread modern teaching of the tithe. Most Christians are told that God expects us to give a tenth of our income, or a tithe, back to Him through the church. Genesis 14:20 shows us the first example of Abraham giving a tenth of all he had to Melchizdek. This practice was later codified in Leviticus 27:30. So many church leaders will teach on tithing (topic) instead of teaching on giving (precept).
In fact, beginning with the tithe as the goal misses much of the New Testament’s teaching on giving. Jesus talked about tithing in Matthew 23:23—the context is denouncing the spiritual legalists for merely practicing the letter of the law versus giving joyfully and generously to the Lord. The Bible actually seldom mentions giving in terms of amount, but rather talks about giving generously and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:6-7), giving to God first (Proverbs 3:9-10) and in remembrance of God as the ultimate provider of all (Deuteronomy 8:17). This approach could lead a believer to conclude that he should rise to give at least a tithe or that the other 90% of his income is to do with as he pleases—neither of which is an accurate interpretation of the Bible’s teaching. This is a clear example of where application (tithing) taught without the broader context of giving/stewardship could lead to a misinterpretation of the Word.
Fatal Flaw of the Single Verse Approach. Here the teacher or student will simply fix on a single verse and isolate it from the whole counsel of Scripture, or even its neighboring words. The danger here is context skewed by isolation. An example would be Psalm 67:1, where the psalmist issues a call for God’s blessing. On several occasions I’ve heard this verse used as an example of God’s desire to bless His people. “Let’s do as the psalmist says and ask God to bless us and be gracious to us.” But this ignores two very important words at the beginning of verse 2: “so that…”.
In fact, the psalmist is saying God’s blessing requested is in order that His name made be made known on the earth and salvation among the nations. So the purpose of the blessing being asked for is not for the sake of those asking, but rather to be used to serve those who do not know God. This thought is echoed again in Psalm 67:6-7, where we see almost the same progression of language from verse to verse. So to take a single verse out of context without studying the surrounding passage and the broader topic covered could lead to misinterpretation.
Fatal Flaw of the Ancient Times Approach. Here the teacher or student fails to account for the cultural values and circumstances present at the time of the writing. The danger here is context skewed by modern interpretation. An example would be a book like Leviticus, which contains chapter upon chapter of detailed and specific instruction on various temple practices and blood sacrifices to be offered to God by His people Israel. A teacher might say, “Those were Old Testament rules that no longer apply to us today.” In a sense, because of the New Covenant, that is true. But then why is it still in the Bible? Is it strictly historical?
Certainly we don’t sacrifice animals in the temple today, so why is a book like Leviticus important? The context here is that God was teaching His people how to approach Him in worship. Throughout the book we continually see God applying the word holy—set apart—to Himself. So if we skip over the books of the Bible that “just don’t apply anymore” we will undoubtedly miss some key teaching. In this case, all of those rules in Leviticus teach us something very important—we cannot approach God in any way that we want, because He is holy. So to divide Scripture into the modern (applicable) teaching and ancient (inapplicable) teaching will easily lead to misinterpretation.
Fatal Flaw of the Missing Mystery Approach. Here the teacher or student attempts to bring a definitive conclusion to a difficult teaching presented in Scripture. The danger here is context skewed by indetermination. The idea is that, because God is inherently mysterious, we cannot know a specific thing with certainty and so we must focus to understand it as fully as we possibly can. The prime example here is the doctrine of election—do we choose God, or does God choose us? There is New Testament language that supports both views. Specifically, that argument is for another time—and it is just that, an argument, among believers, created by our inability to nail God into one of two concrete boxes.
The reality of God is that He is, indeed, mysterious. It is so very tempting to focus in and try to pick apart those things about God which we do not fully know, which makes great fodder for small group discussion—what do you think? becomes the question that drives everything. We don’t want to teach that everything about God can be known, because that is not true. Further, we don’t want to focus on that about God which is not fully known at the expense of knowing those things about God that we can, and obeying Him in that context. Jesus was so clear about many important aspects of relating to and obeying God. He told us He was the only way to heaven (John 14:6), to care for the poor (Matthew 25:40), to go to nations and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16)—if we just caught hold of those clear nuggets of teaching we would profoundly impact our circles of influence.
Yet, our desire to dissect those intricate mysteries of God can lead us to focus on the wrong things, divide into camps of belief, argue endlessly with one another and never come to a firm and decisive answer. The result can be a group of well-studied apologists rich with opinion about what God meant when He said this or that in the Bible, and yet not a one of them is caring for the poor or has ever made a disciple in his life. Do you really think that God cares more about your views on how Christians come to Him than whether you are actually sharing your faith? While teaching on God’s mysteries is interesting and sometimes necessary, it can often lead to unhealthy division in the church and stagnation of the mission.
When we misinterpret or misapply Scripture, we may lead people to believe the Word says something that, in context, it does not. Perhaps the greatest disservice we can do with these teaching approaches is to deposit the thought that our interpretation must be the correct one, or that a Christ-follower is not capable of studying the Word and discerning the teaching for themselves. The Bible is complicated, but it is understandable to the believer. And it is most accurately understood when we focus on the whole counsel of the Word—from verse, to chapter to book to Testament to the broad story of creation, fall, redemption and future God has laid before us.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.