What’s the True Cost of Bad Biblical Interpretation?

Prooftexting. Eisegesis. Missing the cultural setting. Taking passages out of context.

Common hermeneutical missteps can have big effects on your faith and your church. Just ask Hymenaeus or Philetus, whose teaching Paul rails against in 2 Timothy 2:17.

In this excerpt taken from Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology by Andreas Köstenberger and Richard Patterson, we see the importance of rightly handling God’s Word.

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Not only are there great rewards for faithful biblical interpretation, there is also a considerable cost if we fail in this effort. This cost, too, is mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:15. It is shrinking back in shame at God’s judgment by the one who is unwilling to acquire the skills needed to interpret Scripture accurately. The equivalent of improper biblical interpretation is shoddy workmanship, due either to the lack of skill or carelessness. In the area of hermeneutics, this translates into fallacies arising from neglect of the context, prooftexting, eisegesis (reading one’s preferred meaning into the text rather than deriving it by careful study from the text), improper use of background information, and other similar shortcomings.1

Scripture is replete with examples of those who failed in the task of biblical interpretation and were severely chastised, because their failure did not merely bring ruin on these individuals themselves but also on those they taught and influenced. In the verses immediately following 2 Timothy 2:15, the apostle makes reference to two such individuals by the name of Hymenaeus and Philetus. According to Paul, these men “have wandered away from the truth,”2 “say[ing] that the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Tim 2:17–18). As Paul pointed out, these false teachers were “destroy[ing] the faith of some” (2 Tim 2:18). Interestingly, Hymenaeus is already mentioned in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, where the apostle wrote that he had handed this man over to Satan so that he might learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim 1:20). Yet, sadly, Hymenaeus persisted in twisting and distorting the word of truth.

From this we learn, among other things, that biblical interpretation is not an individualistic enterprise. Rather, it takes place in the community of believers, and the failure or success of the interpretative task affects not merely the interpreter but other believers as well. Note also that, as is often the case with cults—ultimately inspired by Satan, the master distorter and twister of Scripture (see Gen 3:1–5)—there is a kernel of truth in the assertion that “the resurrection has already taken place.” Christ did in fact rise from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), and all believers can expect to be raised in the future (1 Cor 15:51–53; 1 Thess 4:14–18).

But Scripture makes clear that this resurrection is still future, and to say that “the resurrection has already taken place” suggests that rising from the dead is spiritualized and transferred completely into the present. Yet this resembles more closely the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul than the biblical teaching of the resurrection of the body. The problem of Hymenaeus and Philetus, therefore, seems to have been that they improperly imposed their Hellenistic philosophical and cultural conceptions onto Scripture, resulting in an “over-realized eschatology” that failed to acknowledge the future reality of believers’ bodily resurrection according to the pattern of Christ.3

This brief example shows that biblical interpreters are charged with a sacred task: handling Scripture with accuracy. They are entrusted with a sacred object, God’s Word of truth, and their faithfulness or lack thereof will result in God’s approval or in personal shame. God’s Word commands our very best because, in the ultimate analysis, it is not a human word, but the Word of God. This means that our interpretive enterprise must rest on a robust doctrine of biblical revelation and a high view of Scripture—as Jesus taught, Scripture is “the word of God” and thus “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Though conveyed through human means, using human language and thought forms, Scripture is ultimately the product of divine inspiration and therefore completely trustworthy.4

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Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology is part of the Invitation to Theological Studies Series (5 vols.), now available for pre-order for under $100. Get it now, before the series ships and the price goes up.

 

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  1. See the discussion of exegetical fallacies in chapter 13.
  2. Compare the reference to “the word of truth” in 2 Timothy 2:15.
  3. The presentation above is admittedly rather basic. For detailed discussions of the rather complex issues involved in the interpretation of 2 Timothy 2:17–18 and the heresy in view, see especially George W. Knight, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 413–14; William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC 46 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 527–28; and I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 750–54 (with further bibliographic references).
  4. Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Richard Duane. Patterson. Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011.

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