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Some Possible Interpretive Pitfalls

I. Need for both a Logical Process and a Textual Focus in Interpretation

It is obvious that these principles of interpretation can be abused, for hermeneutics is not a pure science. It is crucial that we state some of the obvious pitfalls involved in the inappropriate use or non-use of the contextually/textually-focused principles previously presented in this Textbook. This Contextual/Textual method is somewhat like the scientific method. Its results are meant to be corroborated and repeated by others. There needs to be a clear trail in our procedural method, points of interpretation and logic. These pieces of evidence will come from several contextual and textually-focused areas.

A. The literary context of the passage

1. immediate (paragraph)

2. several related paragraphs

3. larger literary unit (thought block)

4. entire biblical book (purpose of the author)

B. The historical context of the passage

1. background and setting of the author

2. background and setting of the hearer or reader

3. background and setting of their culture

4. background and setting of any problems addressed in the passage

C. The literary genre (type of literature)

D. The grammar/syntax (relationship of the parts of the sentence to each other and surrounding sentences)

E. The original word meanings and connotations (definitions of significant terms)

1. semantic field

2. author’s usage

3. other authors of the same period

4. other biblical authors

F. Appropriate use of parallel passages (concentric circles of significance)

1. same literary unit

2. same book

3. same author

4. same period

5. same Testament

6. the Bible as a whole

One can analyze another’s interpretation based on how they utilize these component parts. There will still be disagreement, but at least it will be from the text itself. We hear and read so many different interpretations of God’s Word that it becomes crucial that we critically evaluate them, based on the possibility of verification and proper procedures, not just whether we personally agree with them.

As in all human language communication (verbal and written), there is the potential for misunderstanding. Because hermeneutics are the principles for interpreting ancient literature, it is obvious that their abuse is also possible. For every basic principle of interpretation there is the possibility of intentional or unintentional abuse. If we could isolate the potential areas of our own presuppositions, it would help us to be aware of them when we come to our personal interpretations.

II. Examples of Abuses of the First Five Interpretative Questions

A. Our presuppositions — often our personality, our experience, our denomination, or our culture causes us to interpret the Bible through glasses or filters. We only allow it to say what we want it to say. This existential bias affects all of us, but if we are aware of it we can compensate for it by attempting to allow the Bible and its day to speak before we attempt to apply the message to ourselves and our culture. Some examples of this pitfall can be seen in

1. William Barclay’s interpretation of Matt. 15:37-39, where the miraculous multiplication of food by Jesus becomes simply the multitude sharing with one another what they brought. Barclay’s philosophical filter of logical positivism radically alters the obvious intent of Matthew. Remember that there were seven baskets full of pieces of bread left over (Matt. 16:37).

2. Accounts of women in ministry can be seen in Exod. 15:20; Jdgs. 4:4ff; II Kgs. 22:14; II Chr. 2:22; Isa. 8:3; Luke 2:36; Acts 21:9; Rom. 16:1; II Cor. 11:5; and I Tim. 3:11. Modern evangelicals who are uneasy about this, either because of preconceived views or the strong statements of I Cor. 14:34 and I Tim. 2:11-15, should not alter the proper and obvious interpretation of these other passages.

Following is a Special Topic from my commentaries on this subject.


I. The Old Testament

Culturally women were considered property

1. included in list of property (Exodus 20:17)

2. treatment of slave women (Exodus 21:7-11)

3. women’s vows annullable by socially responsible male (Numbers 30)

4. women as spoils of war (Deut. 20:10-14; 21:10-14)

B. Practically there was a mutuality

1. male and female made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27)

2. honor father and mother (Exod. 20:12 [Deut. 5:16])

3. reverence mother and father (Lev. 19:3; 20:9)

4. men and women could be Nazarites (Num. 6:1-2)

5. daughters have right of inheritance (Num. 27:1-11)

6. part of covenant people (Deut. 29:10-12)

7. observe teaching of father and mother (Prov. 1:8; 6:20)

8. sons and daughters of Heman (Levite family) led music in Temple (I Chronicles 25:5-6)

9. son and daughter will prophesy in new age (Joel 2:28-29)

C. Women were in leadership roles

1. Moses’ sister, Miriam, called a prophetess (Exod. 15:20-21 also note Micah 6:4)

2. women gifted by God to weave material for the Tabernacle (Exod. 35:25-26)

3. a woman, Deborah, also a prophetess (cf. Jdgs. 4:4), led all the tribes (Jdgs. 4:4-5; 5:7)

4. Huldah was a prophetess whom King Josiah asked to read and interpret the newly-found “Book of the Law” (II Kings 22:14; II Chr. 34:22-27)

5. Queen Esther, a godly woman, saved Jews in Persia

II. The New Testament

A. Culturally women in both Judaism and the Greco-Roman world were second class citizens with few rights or privileges (the exception was Macedonia)

B. Women in leadership roles

1. Elizabeth and Mary, godly women available to God (Luke 1-2)

2. Anna, godly woman serving at the Temple (Luke 2:36)

3. Lydia, believer and leader of a house church (Acts 16:14,40)

4. Philip’s four virgin daughters were prophetesses (Acts 21:8-9)

5. Phoebe, deaconess of church at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1)

6. Prisca (Priscilla), Paul’s fellow-worker and teacher of Apollos (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3)

7. Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, Nereus’ sister, several women co-workers of Paul (Rom. 16:6-16)

8. Junia (KJV), possibly a woman apostle (Rom. 16:7)

Euodia and Syntyche, co-workers with Paul (Phil. 4:2-3)

III. How does a modern believer balance the divergent biblical examples?

A. How does one determine historical or cultural truths, which only apply to the original context, from eternal truths valid for all churches, all believers of all ages?

1. We must take the intent of the original inspired author very seriously. The Bible is the Word of God and the only source for faith and practice.

2. We must deal with the obviously historically-conditioned inspired texts.

a. the cultus (i.e., ritual and liturgy) of Israel (cf. Acts 15; Gal. 3)

b. first century Judaism

c. Paul’s obviously historically-conditioned statements in I Corinthians

(1) the legal system of pagan Rome (I Corinthians 6)

(2) remaining a slave (I Cor. 7:20-24)

(3) celibacy (I Cor. 7:1-35)

(4) virgins (I Cor. 7:36-38)

(5) food sacrificed to an idol (I Cor. 8; 10:23-33)

(6) unworthy actions at Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11)

3. God fully and clearly revealed Himself to a particular culture, a particular day. We must take seriously the revelation, but not every aspect of its historical accommodation. The Word of God was written in human words, addressed to a particular culture at a particular time.

B. Biblical interpretation must seek the original author’s intent. What was he saying to his day? This is foundational and crucial for proper interpretation. But then we must apply this to our own day. Now, here is the problem with women in leadership (the real interpretive problem may be defining the term. Were there more ministries than pastors who were seen as leadership? Were deaconesses or prophetesses seen as leaders?) It is quite clear that Paul, in I Cor. 14:34-35 and I Tim. 2:9-15, is asserting that women should not take the lead in public worship! But how do I apply that today? I do not want Paul’s culture or my culture to silence God’s Word and will. Possibly Paul’s day was too limiting, but also my day may be too open. I feel so uncomfortable saying that Paul’s words and teachings are conditional, first century, local situational truths. Who am I that I should let my mind or my culture negate an inspired author?!

However, what do I do when there are biblical examples of women leaders (even in Paul’s writings, cf. Romans 16)? A good example of this is Paul’s discussion of public worship in I Cor. 11-14. In 11:5 he seems to allow women’s preaching and praying in public worship with their heads covered, yet in 14:34-35 he demands they remain silent! There were deaconesses (cf. Rom. 16:1) and prophetesses (cf. Acts 21:9). It is this diversity that allows me freedom to identify Paul’s comments (as relates to restrictions on women) as limited to first century Corinth and Ephesus. In both churches there were problems with women exercising their newly-found freedom (cf. Bruce Winter, Corinth After Paul Left), which could have caused difficulty for the church in reaching their society for Christ. Their freedom had to be limited so that the gospel could be more effective.

My day is just the opposite of Paul’s. In my day the gospel might be limited if articulate, trained women are not allowed to share the gospel, not allowed to lead! What is the ultimate goal of public worship? Is it not evangelism and discipleship? Can God be honored and pleased with women leaders? The Bible as a whole seems to say “yes”!

I want to yield to Paul; my theology is primarily Pauline. I do not want to be overly influenced or manipulated by modern feminism! However, I feel the church has been slow to respond to obvious biblical truths, like the inappropriateness of slavery, racism, bigotry, and sexism. It has also been slow to respond appropriately to the abuse of women in the modern world. God in Christ set free the slave and the woman. I dare not let a culture-bound text reshackle them.

One more point: as an interpreter I know that Corinth was a very disrupted church. The charismatic gifts were prized and flaunted. Women may have been caught up in this. I also believe that Ephesus was being affected by false teachers who were taking advantage of women and using them as surrogate speakers in the house churches of Ephesus.

Suggestions for further reading

  • How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart (pp. 61-77)
  • Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics by Gordon Fee
  • Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser, Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Branch (pp. 613-616; 665-667)


3. Roman Catholicism, in the desire to support an episcopal system of polity, uses the text of John 21:15-17. From the text itself it is inappropriate to use the terms “lamb” and “sheep” in relation to bishops and priests and their assigned task of ministry.

B. Our abuse of context — this refers both to the historical context and the literary context of a passage. This may be the most common abuse of Scripture in our day. By removing a passage from the author’s day and the author’s intended purpose, one can make the Bible say anything. If it were not so common and deadly, the examples of this pitfall would be ludicrous.

1. A preacher of days past preached against the selling of dogs based on Deut. 23:18. The historical and literary settings were ignored. The term “dog” was transferred from male, cultic prostitution (Deuteronomy) to an animal (today).

2. When the modern legalist uses Col. 2:21 to outlaw certain activities without even realizing that this verse is Paul’s quote of the false teachers’ message, the problem becomes evident.

3. The modern use by soul winners of Rev. 3:20 as the closing appeal of “the plan of salvation,” not even realizing that it is in the context of Christian churches (Revelation 2-3). This text is not addressing initial salvation, but the recommitment of a church, beginning with the individuals of that congregation.

4. The modern cult of Mormonism quotes I Cor. 15:29 as a proof for “baptism for the dead.” There are no parallel passages for this verse. The immediate context is the validity of the resurrection and this verse is one of several examples used to confirm this truth.

5. C. I. Scofield’s quote of II Tim. 2:15, “rightly dividing the Word of truth,” is used as Scriptural support for dividing the Bible into seven distinct covenants.

6. Use of John 6:52ff by Roman Catholicism to support the doctrine of transubstantiation (that the elements of the Eucharist actually become the body and blood of Christ) is another example of this pitfall. John does not record the Lord’s Supper itself, but only the dialogue of the upper room experience (John 13-17). This passage is in the context of the feeding of the five thousand, not the Eucharist.

7. Preaching on sanctification from Gal. 2:20, not realizing that the focus of the context is on the complete effectiveness of justification.

C. Our abuse of the literary genre — this involves the misunderstanding of the original author’s message because of our failure to identify the literary form in which he spoke. Each literary form has some unique elements of interpretation. Some examples of this abuse follow.

1. Some literalists attempt to turn the poetry of Ps. 114:3-6 into historical narrative—often judging others by their literalistic interpretation.

2. Some try to interpret the apocalyptic sections of Revelation 12 and 13 as literal persons and animals.

3. Some try to describe “hell” from the parable of Luke 16:19-31. This is the fifth in a series of five parables, which are related to one central intent of Jesus in addressing the religious leaders (Pharisees) in Luke 15:1-2. Also, the term used is Hades and not Gehenna.

D. Our abuse of figures of speech or cultural idioms is another pitfall. We all speak in symbolic language. Yet, because those who hear us live in the same culture, they understand our idiomatic phrases. How unusual our idioms and figures of speech must be to those from other cultures. I recall an Indian pastor who told me that he was so sorry that “I was tickled to death.” It is good for us to reflect on our own colorful phrases, such as “that was awfully good”; “I am all ears”; “that just kills me”; or “cross my heart and hope to die.”

1. The Bible has idioms also.

a. The word “hate” in Luke 14:26; John 12:25; Rom. 9:13, and Mal. 1:2-3 is a Hebrew idiom of comparison, as can be seen in Gen. 29:31,33 and Deut. 21:15, but if we do not know this it can cause much misunderstanding.

b. The phrases, “cut off your limbs” and “pluck out your eyes,” in Matt. 5:29-30 are Oriental overstatements, not literal commands.

c. The Holy Spirit is in the form of a dove in Mark 1:10; however, the Scriptures say, “like a dove” or “as a dove,” cf. Luke 3:22.

E. Our abuse by oversimplification. We say that the gospel is simple and by this we mean that it is easy to understand, however, many simple summaries of the gospel are faulty because they are not complete.

1. God is love, but this omits the concept of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18-2:16).

2. We are saved by grace alone, but this omits the concept that individuals must repent and believe (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21).

3. Salvation is free (Eph. 2:8-9), but this completely omits the idea that it demands a lifestyle change (Eph. 2:10).

4. Jesus is God, but this omits the concept that He is truly human (I John 4:2).

F. Our abuse by selectivity — this is similar to over simplification and proof-texting. We often select or combine only those Scriptures which support our theology.

1. An example is seen in John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23, in the phrase “whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive.” For the proper balance one must assert the other biblical criteria concerning this subject.

(a) “keep on asking, seeking, knocking,” Matt. 7:7-8

(b) “according to God’s will,” I John 5:14-15, which is really what “in Jesus’ name” implies

(c) “without doubt,” James 1:6

(d) “without selfish goals,” James 4:1-3

2. Using the text of I Cor. 11:6 to criticize men who wear long hair without noting Num. 6:5; Lev. 19:27, and the culture of Jesus’ day, is inappropriate.

3. Disallowing women to speak or teach in church based on I Cor. 14:34 without consideration of I Cor. 11:5, which is in the same literary unit, is an overstatement.

4. Disallowing or depreciating tongues, often based on I Cor. 13:8 (I Corinthians 13 asserts that everything but love will pass away), without noting the teaching of I Cor. 14:5,18,39, is inappropriate.

5. Emphasizing the food laws of Leviticus 11 without noting Matt. 15:11 and, in an oblique way, Acts 10:10-16, is inappropriate.

G. Our abuse of majoring on minors — often we miss the original author’s intent because we get involved in an interesting, but not central, issue. This can be seen in the following.

1. Whom did Cain marry? Gen. 4:17

2. Many are concerned about the recipients of Jesus preaching while He was in Hades. I Peter 3:19

3. Another question concerns how God is going to destroy the earth. II Peter 3:10

H. Our abuse of the Bible as history — the Bible often records what it does not advocate (Fee and Stuart 1982, 85). We must focus on clear teaching passages, not just historical accounts, for our theology and ethics.

I. Our abuse of the relationship between the Old and New Testament, Israel and the Church, Law and Grace. Presuppositionally, Christ is Lord of Scripture (Grant and Tracy 1984, 95). All Scripture must ultimately point to Him. He is the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity (Col. 1:15-23). This means that although the Old Testament must stand on its own feet, it points toward Christ (Sterrett 1973, 157-171). I think we must interpret the OT through the new revelation of the NT. Old Testament emphases have changed and been universalized. The New Covenant has superceded the Mosaic Covenant (cf. the book of Hebrews and Galatians 3)

The examples of each of these pitfalls are legion. However, just because some over-interpret and some under-interpret and some falsely-interpret, does not mean there should be no interpretation. If we stay with the original author’s major intent expressed in a context and if we come to the Bible prayerfully and humbly we can avoid the vast majority of these pitfalls.

“Why is it that people so often find things in the Bible narratives, that are not really there—read into the Bible their own notions rather than read out of the Bible what God wants them to know?

1. they are desperate, desperate for information that will apply to their own situation

2. they are impatient; they want their answers now, from this book, from this chapter

3. they wrongly expect that everything in the Bible applies directly as instruction for their own individual lives” (Fee and Stuart 1980, 84).