How Not to Interpret the Bible

Common Missteps by Well-Intentioned Preachers and Teachers

Among the hats I wear at The King’s University, one is teaching a required undergraduate course called “Biblical Background and Interpretation.” That course is designed teach students how to interpret the Bible and apply it in their lives, which is, without question, a very helpful skill to learn for living the Christian life.

Sometimes, though, after listening to a sermon or reading a certain article or book, I think we might need to offer a course—or at least a continuing education seminar—on “How Not to Interpret the Bible.” The sad reality behind that observation is that the majority of those who commit these interpretive missteps know better and, yet, in dealing with certain issues or types of passages, they seemingly forget what to do… and not do. (And, yes, I sheepishly admit that I find myself in this group from time to time.)

Although there are a number of these kinds of common mistakes, some particularly stand out in terms of how often they occur and the significance of the consequences that can come about when they happen. The first of these, which I will cover in the rest of this article, is what could be called “Stepping Out on an Implication that Won’t Support You.”

Stepping Out on an Implication that Won’t Support You

In case the term is not that familiar to you, a direct “implication” is something that is not stated in so many words in the biblical text, but seems completely clear from what the text says. In other words, there is a very low possibility that such a direct implication is going to take someone off track biblically or application-wise.

The problem emerges when people don’t stop with a direct implication, but just keep going further out on an “if this mean that, then this must mean that” skinny implication limb. Implications won’t bear that much truth “weight,” but sooner or later will come crashing down!

Think of it in connection with this illustration: say, you have a swimming pool in your back yard, which has a diving board. The diving board is rooted securely by iron rods in the concrete around the edge of the pool. Thus, if you walk out on the diving board, it will support your weight.

So far, so good. And, fortunately, virtually everybody with a swimming pool leaves it at the fact that they have a diving board that will bear their weight. Unfortunately, that is not always the case with people who draw implications. 

Think of “the proliferation of implications” like this. You have a shed on the other side of the yard from the swimming pool and in the shed are stored a number of pieces of lumber. So, you go to the shed and get some of those boards and begin to nail them onto the end of the diving board, one after another.

(You can see where this is going!) Then, you attempt to walk off the end of the diving board onto the pieces of lumber that have been extended out. They may actually look pretty safe initially, given how well the nails appear to have been secured.

How far do you think you will get before the law of gravity causes the boards to crash into the pool? Realistically, not very far at all. And if you can’t swim—or if you keep piranha fish in your swimming pool, you’re then in major trouble!

Sadly, over-implicationers (I made up that word!) just don’t see things that way.  They reason, “if the biblical text says this, and then I draw this implication—and it’s legitimate—then I should be able to logically extend out from that again… and again (and sometimes again).” The fact of the situation is, though, that, while the biblical text itself, and even the first implication to a large degree, are solidly rooted, anything beyond that is dangling in thin air, supported only by the flimsiest of logic. And, the problem with logic at that point is, while it can prove that one thought is consistent with another thought, it can’t prove that thought is true.

The Bible has two verses that help us when we are thinking about going too far out on the “implication limb”: 1) In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul warns his readers “Nothing beyond what is written.” In other words, stop with the biblical text and don’t seek to extend further into speculation, which, among other things, can cause pride and division.

2) In Deuteronomy 29:29, Moses states, “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God…,” which means that mankind is to be content with what God has revealed in His Written Word, not constantly trying to figure out all possible theological questions by going beyond what the relevant biblical passages actually say. If God had wanted us to know everything about how He does things, He would have told us.  Let’s face it: God has chosen to keep some things “hidden.” And it accomplishes nothing helpful for mankind to try to “unscrew the inscrutable” in hot pursuit of what God clearly said in Deuteronomy 29:29 is “off limits.”

Dr. Boyd Luter
Dr. Boyd Luter
Dr. Boyd Luter is the Director of Biblical and Theological Studies at The King's University.