Interpreting the Bible poorly is an error made by people in all walks of life, whether they be cult members, atheists or honest Christians who don’t know better. Here are ways not to interpret the Bible… (and a few tips on how you should…)
This article continues from last post, which looked at general strategies for interacting with “Christian” cult members. Though it’s written with cult members in mind, many of these strategies will assist anyone hoping to better understand the Bible.
- Read Part 1: How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults? What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?
- Read Part 2: Interacting with “Christian” Cult Members: Tips & Strategies
Use the following strategies when discussing Scripture with cult members (as well as anyone who uses Scripture incorrectly)…
- Look at verses they quote in context.
- Scripture interprets Scripture: Clear passages clarify ambiguous passages.
- Don’t fuse over minor doctrine; stick to major doctrines.
- Always bring it back to Scripture: especially the Gospel & salvation.
Let’s look at each one a little closer…
*Look at verses they quote in context.*
One of the biggest errors of nominal Christians or even dedicated Christians who have a poor understanding of the Bible is to grab random verses out of context to prove the opinions they’re promoting. In fact, in some circles, this is the norm; any opinion can be “proved” by citing a single verse. This is also a regular strategy with cults. Remember, the first rule of proper interpretation: context, context, context!
If anyone (whether it’s a trusted pastor, a cult member, or the Pope) quotes a Bible verse, and if what they’re proposing the verse means doesn’t sound quite right, all you need to do is open your Bible and read the verse in context. (The footnotes in a study Bible will help too.) This means reading the whole section, chapter, or even book in which the verse appears.
For example, if someone claims because of Psalm 148:10 that cattle should be welcomed to worship in churches with humans, you probably should open up to Psalm 148 and read the complete Psalm (and hopefully you have a common sense understanding of the difference between poetic and literal language too). If someone claims Christians shouldn’t eat figs because Jesus hates figs, as evident by his curse upon a fig tree, maybe you should take a moment to read the episode and figure out what Jesus was truly teaching in carrying out this action.
Yes, both examples above are absurd, but they illustrate how verses or passages can be made to mean silly things they don’t actually say. Context, context, context!
*Scripture interprets Scripture.*
Cults have the tendency to grab unclear, difficult, or obscure passages from the Bible and use them as a base for their mistaken theology and fantastical doctrines.
Remember this rule of thumb: Clear passages clarify ambiguous passages. If the one verse a cult member points to may be interpreted in a way to support their untraditional view, say, “Okay, maybe this unclear verse can be interpreted that way, but what about all these other perfectly clear passages that teach something totally different than what you’re saying…?” or “Yes, that’s a hard verse to understand, but this verse clarifies it…”
Or simply put the ball in their court: if they’re making the claim, the burden of proof is on them. Simply say, “That’s an interesting interpretation, but where else do you see that idea in the Bible?” For instance, if someone points to an unclear verse and claims it shows God has a wife, say, “That passage is hardly conclusive. Where else does the Bible teach God has a wife?” Chances are their theory will fizzle.
*Don’t fuse over minor doctrine; stick to major doctrines.*
Cults also have the tendency of making huge deals out of minor doctrines. Yes, Christian denominations disagree on the interpretation or practice of some minor doctrines, but often cults make their interpretation of these doctrines (often unusual takes on these doctrines as well) and obedience to them as a required means of salvation.
For example, a cult may state the only true way to be baptized is in natural flowing water with your head bowed. To be baptized in any other way than this, they claim, means one is not saved.
Now, I’m with the Baptists on the doctrine of baptism: the Bible clearly teaches baptism is done once someone accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; it’s an outward, symbolic act to bear witness to others that the one being baptized is declaring Christ as his Lord and Savior; and, finally, “baptism” means “immersion” so those being baptized should be dunked fully in water. Do I believe this is the correct interpretation of the biblical text and we should obey it? Yes! Does this mean those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior but who aren’t baptized in this exact way are unsaved? By no means! If someone lives all of her life in a dessert where there is not one pool of water big enough to be fully dunked in, does that mean she remains unsaved? By no means! Salvation comes through God’s grace and faith in Jesus Christ alone.
All that being said, don’t bother arguing with cult members over minor doctrines. They’re often just a distraction from the big issues and the big doctrines – the essential doctrines and beliefs – which salvation does depend on (as laid out in Part 1). Focus on the big doctrines, and if you make major progress on those or you win a cult member to Christ, then it’s time to discuss minor doctrines.
Likewise, sometimes cult members make odd claims, like saying Jesus was hung on a stake instead of a cross. Though many of these claims can be disproved, choose your battles wisely and stay focused on the essential issues for salvation.
*Always bring it back to Scripture, the Gospel & Salvation.*
Always bring it back to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and the salvation that can be received only through him. Always bring it back to the true word of God. The cult member may be dropping absurd claims on you like a dump truck, but stay calm. You have the truth, so what’s there to fear? Even if the cult member is a deft debater, just keep referring him back to Scripture, God’s true Word. As long as you’re speaking God’s truth in love and praying for the intervention of the Holy Spirit, you can’t go wrong.
*A Bit More About (Poor) Biblical Interpretation
Some other cult (and generally poor) strategies for biblical interpretation:
Imposing views on the text rather than letting the text speak for itself.
Honest biblical interpretation reads the text as it is and works to understand what the original author was trying to communicate to his original audience. Interpretation is not: “This is what I think. Now let me look through the Bible and find verses to support my view.”
Jumping from one part of the Bible to another with utter disregard of context to “prove” ideas, beliefs, or opinions.
We spoke about this already above in the section about reading Bible verses in context because people can make the Bible say almost anything they want if they isolate verses and take them out of context.
Inconsistent decisions on what should be taken literally or figuratively, often based on preconceived ideas.
The Bible is a work of literature. Even an atheist would agree with that. And this means both figurative (poetic) and literal language are used in it.
For example, psalms by nature are poetic. Thus, when we read them, we have to be aware that non-literal, poetic language is regularly used. Moreover, in the Gospel of John, Jesus calls himself a light, a vine, and a door. Should we take him literally? Like any work of literature, the reader needs to strive to understand what the author was communicating to his original audience. We understand what to take as literal or figurative language through (once again) context, context, context.
Sometimes, it’s not so clear how figuratively or literally a verse should be taken. When writing about things not found in our normal everyday experiences, writers often have to find creative ways to explain things. And the Bible is filled with subject matter not within the bounds of everyday experiences. Think about it: How do you explain with everyday language Jesus as being fully God yet fully human and one with God the Father yet different?
Yet, cults have the habit of taking verses usually taken as literal figuratively and verses usually taken as figurative literally. The decisions are often quite random and based on preconceived beliefs.
Selective “translation” and adherence to grammar rules.
Similar to the other erroneous or dishonest strategies above, some cults have their own “translation” of the Bible, where they change words and grammar to fit their beliefs. Because of this, be sure to refer to a legitimate Bible translation (ESV, NASB) when interacting with them.
A Few Words on the Book of Revelation:
The closing book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret. Even legitimate conservative New Testament scholars break up into 4 major camps on how to understand it. The main reason for this is that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, a style of ancient literature that is highly symbolic.
Cults almost universally seize on the ambiguity of Revelation to “prove” their views, interpreting symbols as they see fit. (Further, many cults have an unhealthy fascination with the End Times.)
Despite these difficulties, context is (as always) the key. There are things that can be known for certain in Revelation and certain interpretations that definitely can be eliminated. If nothing else, be wary of anyone going to Revelation to “prove” an unusual viewpoint.
(To learn more about Revelation, read Four Views of the Book of Revelation published by Zondervan, and/or see Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.)
(To watch a great video of 3 legitimate scholars discussing/debating 3 views of Revelation, End Times, & The Millennium with John Piper, click here.)
In Ephesians 4:14, Paul speaks of those “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” We need to be beacons of light to lead those upon the waves to shore.
**Two books I recommend for learning about biblical interpretation: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert H. Stein & 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer. Both books are readable to everyday Christians, not just seminary students.**
*See more recommendations below.
NEXT: Specific “Christian” cults.
- A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert H. Stein
- 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer.
- The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin (Ed. Ravi Zacharias)
- The Four Major Cults by Anthony A. Hoekema
Highly Recommended for all Christians:
- How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot
- ESV Study Bible
- Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
- Tactics by Greg Koukl
- What is Biblical Theology? James M. Hamilton Jr.
According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy
- I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek (Read my review here)
- Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig
- What Your Wolrdview? James N. Anderson
- Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint
- Apologetics 315 (website)
- What is Reformed Theology? R.C. Sproul
- The Forgotten Trinity James R. White
- Jesus, the Son of God by D.A. Carson
Podcasts (blogs, websites):
- Check out my article on recommended podcasts here. Most podcast hosts have great websites and blogs that are also useful tools. If I were to write an updated podcast article, I’d add:
- The Dividing Line (with James White)
- Apologia Radio
Of course, I hope this blog, God From the Machine, will be a resource for you as well… The following articles may be helpful in some topics that arise with cult members:
- Interacting with “Christian” Cult Members: Tips & Strategies
- How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults? What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?
- Is the Bible Any More Accurate than Other Religious Texts?
- 2-Minute Lesson on Biblical Theology — the Progressive Revelation of God in Human History
- 7(ish) Christian PODCASTS worth giving a listen
- How Do We Know About Jesus? (*Covers textual criticism — how the Bible was passed down to us)
- Why do Christians follow some Old Testament laws & not others?