Wrong ways of reading the Bible

Wrong ways of reading the Bible

© AZP Worldwide #16661650

I’m a big fan of Graeme Goldsworthy’s writings.  In his book Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics[1] he has a chapter on the wrong ways that we Evangelicals sometimes read the Bible.  It might be a bit hard to hear this, but it’s great food for thought.  We all make these mistakes.  Please don’t read it as finger-pointing (unless the finger is pointed back at me/ us).

#1  The “me-centred” approach.  The text of the Bible ‘speaks to me’.  Not in the sense that I read what it means and apply it to myself.  That is absolutely right and good.  This sort of reading plucks words or phrases right out of their context so that they “speak” to my situation.  The historical background and context are ignored.  Exegesis is a dirty word.  I open the Bible wherever, read a text, and let it mean whatever I want it to mean in an inspirational way for me today.

#2  Literalism.  Not in the sense of reading the Bible according to its literature – there is a right literal reading of the Bible.  This means reading Old Testament prophecy in a literalistic way.  Such a reading doesn’t read it in light of the New Testament and Jesus, but jumps in application straight to us today.  Such a reading would take the book of Joshua and have us declaring jihad, like the Crusades.  Fulfilment in Jesus is ignored in the cause of what is wrongly called a literal reading of the Bible.  But the New Testament reads the Old Testament Christologically (Luke 24:25-27; Luke 24:44-45): OT prophecy is about Jesus.

#3  Legalism.  A selective reading of laws in the Bible so that some apply rigidly today, and others are ignored.  We rail about keeping the Sabbath, but eat prawns.  The relationship of law and grace, gospel and works is misunderstood.

#4  Subjectivism.  My reading of a passage is right because I felt a peace from God, or just felt that it was right.  Or I declare my wrong reading to be a leading from the Holy Spirit.  It may be that I assign Greek and Hebrew words a meaning that they do not actually have.  We may read into the text what is not there, rather than working out what it is actually saying.  For example, the “peace of God which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) is wrongly thought to be about an inner feeling.

#5  Pluralism.  This is an assertion that the Bible has many interpretations.  While it is true that there may be many applications of a passage, this is not what is meant.  Different highly acclaimed Evangelicals read a passage in different ways: therefore there must be many different possible interpretations.  The authority of Scripture is undermined.

#6  Pragmatism.  It feels good, so it must be right.  There are more people at church, so what we are doing must be right.  We interpret events, or what we do at church, not according to the Bible, but according to “what works”.

Can you add to the list?

Graeme Goldsworthy’s solution?  Keep asking questions of the Bible passage we are reading, every time, even if it seems tiresome.  What does this passage actually say?  How does the gospel shape our understanding of this passage or church practice?  Are we reading the Bible correctly?

[1] G. Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2006), chapter 12.  Read the whole chapter for a proper explanation of these points, so briefly outlined here.

Related blog article: Most Christians can’t read the Bible




  1. Mike Bull

    Hi Martin

    I can certainly add to the list. It’s a good list, but simply dividing the Bible into pre-gospel and gospel leads to a misinterpretation of much biblical prophecy.

    It’s crucial that we add a Covenantal understanding to our reading of Scripture, and not just Old and New. In fact, it would be very helpful to drop that major distinction until we get our heads around the very gradual process we can observe throughout what we call the Old Testament.

    Mr Goldsworthy is a scholar and I am not, but he doesn’t seem to get the significance of the “Restoration era,” the time between the exile and Christ. Its institution was predicted in Daniel and its decommission was predicted in Revelation. So Goldsworthy’s take on Revelation is not so much historical as idealistic. He interprets it in the light of the gospel rather than in the light of the Torah, which means what he presents as interpretation is merely application. What we Christians need is a good dose of “The Torah in Revelation,” to get our interpretation right. Then a more focussed application will follow.

  2. Martin Pakula

    Hi Mike. Thanks for your comment. It’s hard communicating like this sometimes! I’m not sure I entirely understood your comment. However, if I have understood it, I think I disagree with you, and agree with Goldsworthy. Let me say though that there can be legitimate disagreement. The areas highlighted should be taken in a fairly ‘gross’ way, although I didn’t want to say that in the article so that we think it through for ourselves too! I guess we’d have to see more specific examples to nail down whether there is a misinterpretation of a passage on either side. That’s the nature of short blogs I guess. Let me give one example. I preached once through 1 Samuel. I highlighted the fulfilment of its themes in Jesus’ life and death for us. Two folk who were premillenial dispensationalists left because I didn’t show the fulfilment in the modern state of Israel instead. This is what I would call a fundamental disagreement, and certainly one of us was grossly misinterpreting the Bible. Obviously you know which side I would come down on! Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Mike Bull

    Martin – thanks for the reply. Firstly, I would come down on the same side!

    I guess I’m saying that Mr Goldsworthy is also guilty of a “me-centred” approach because he doesn’t see the significance of AD70 as an act of Covenant redemption/vengeance (blessing/cursing). That’s what Revelation is about: the full inauguration of the Gospel breaking out of Judaism like a chicken out of an egg — destructive but entirely necessary.

    Instead, he believes that armageddon is instead a mere ideal. “Armageddon is every conquest of the gospel as it shines into this darkened world.” This divorces the book from history, and makes nonsense of the warnings of Jesus and His apostles. It puts a veil between the New Testament and modern readers, who get application mislabeled as interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with Goldsworthy’s applications, but it means he is unable to make any sense of the details of the text. He understands that these events are not future to us (ch. 1-19 at least), but can’t provide much insight as to how they applied to the lifetimes of their first audience.

    The Reformers weren’t much better. They believed the corrupted Roman church was the harlot. She wasn’t. She was most definitely “a” harlot by application, but that’s not what Revelation is about. That’s not the correct interpretation.

    Failing to understand the Bible’s own Covenant language and its (usually quite imminent) historical fulfilment leaves us with either the Reformers’ direct me-centred interpretation or Goldsworthy’s “frosted-glass” applies-to-the-entire-age unsatisfactory application.

    If we use the Torah to crack open the prophets, and then the Torah and the prophets to crack open the New Testament, the entire book comes alive — I can testify to this. The answers are historical, typological and structural — the last of which is one right way of reading the Bible that we moderns have little idea of. Revelation is the final warning in a Covenant lawsuit, the sheriff knocking on the door through His prophets to serve papers on the contract-breakers, the system of Herodian worship.

    I don’t mean to come across as grumpy and persnicketty. It just irritates me when such a wonderful book gets so misrepresented! Simply reading the Old Testament through the tunnel vision lens of “the gospel” is actually a big cop out.

    I’ve written some books on this. Happy to send you copies for evaluation. I’d love your thoughts. They were written to introduce laypeople to the “processes” of God, or the way the Bible and its history are built.

    Thanks for the engagement. If this blog is more pastoral in nature, perhaps this is not the place for it. But the Bible really is a lot more exciting than modern conservatives are willing to see. There really is not a single idle word.

    • Simon (Author)

      Hi Mike. Good to see you over here at HBC! I hope you enjoy your visit. I would like to add my own opinion in here, which probably lands between yourself and Pastor Martin.

      I’ve recently come over to the postmil/preterist camp, and so I broadly agree with your take on Revelation, the significance of AD70, the covenant lawsuit imagery. I’ve not found other interpretations satisfactory, and I’ve found the preterist reading highly coherent, and brings some unity to the biblical text which is, I think, missing in other views. I suppose my main point is that I’m with you as far as “it” goes – there is a lot more in the word of God than we are sometimes willing to see. There is a level of interpretation we probably miss some of the time. A simple pre- and post-gospel interpretation is not wrong; I would say it’s incomplete.

      However, I’m also a little nervous about “new” interpretations. Of course, you would argue that there’s nothing new about your structural/typological reading, because the Bible is structural and typological! (Jonathan Edwards is a good example of someone who loved a bit of typology, and when typology pointed out me in the scriptures I get very excited!)
      But, due to my conservative stance, and nervousness, I’m not going to follow you much of the way at this stage. I agree with Martin (below) that I would want to see a number of other reformed/evangelical scholars get on board with a seemingly new reading, as I’m not a biblical scholar, and we have to trust the experts . . . sometimes. I’m open to learning about the Bible from lots of godly people, but wary. I know this comparison is fraught with confusion, but I would put the New Perspective on Paul in the same camp. There’s some really helpful insights from the NPP. But there’s plenty of mistakes. I suppose that everyone is liable to have truth and error in their work, including people of eminence. Speaking of the NPP, N. T. Wright is a classic evangelical example of this.

      Appreciate your contribution, Mike. Look forward to seeing you back here!

  4. Martin Pakula

    Hi Mike
    Thanks again for your comments. Again also, I’m not sure I understood all your nuances. I haven’t read your books. I admit I certainly see the wisdom myself of the Reformers’ approach, and others like Goldsworthy, Mounce, Beale, Barnett, Morris, etc. I am sure they thought quite carefully about their interpretation. It seems we are discussing Revelation now rather than the whole Bible, so we’re getting a bit way off my original point now, which was a broad one about the whole Bible.

    I think the overall message of Revelation is quite clear for all who read it. I’m always nervous when anyone suggests that they have a new approach that the church hasn’t seen before or discovered and that people have been reading their Bibles incorrectly up to that point. That’s always possible but would certainly have to be proved in such a way that Evangelical scholars can clearly see that it is the case. I would also hope that the normal pew sitter at church could clearly understand their Bible without an expert opinion, etc. So, it might be best to leave the discussion on Revelation here. But clearly you have plenty to contribute to that discussion, and I thank you for your comments.

  5. SDG

    I am not going to disagree with this article as far as it goes, but there is a PERSONAL application that we can’t avoid.
    J I Packer in dealing with the fact that God does not change makes this very good application of the doctrine (and it is a comfort and a challenge):
    ‘Where is the sense of distance and difference then between believers in Bible times and ourselves? It is excluded. On what grounds? On the grounds that God does not change. Fellowship with Him, trust in His word, living by faith, ‘standing on the promises of God’, are essentially the same realities for us today as they were for Old and New Testament believers. This thought brings comfort as we enter into the perplexities of each day: Amid all the changes and uncertainties of life in a nuclear age, God and His Christ remain the same – almighty to save. But the thought brings a searching challenge too. If our God is the same as the God of New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with Him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?
    If God is the same, this is not an issue that any one of us can evade.

  6. Mike Bull

    SDG – that is very true, but the point is that we often don’t get the interpretation right before we launch into personal application. God is our Father, and He doesn’t change. But the Bible records a process of maturity, a growth in wisdom. Consequently, we must understand that the Bible was not written to us, but for us.
    We should be seeking to live like the apostles, in communion with Christ by obeying their writings. But the apostolic church was a different animal to the Church post AD70. Those 40 years were the final witness to Israel before the end of Judaism. There is no longer any Temple or false teachers (Judaizers) to contend with. There is no longer a Jew/Gentile division. But we can certainly learn from how they dealt with counterfeit religion and false doctrine.

    • SDG

      Thanks Mike,
      I think Jim Packer has picked up on exactly the right application of ‘God does not change’, here. And regardless of local conditions into which the original writers spoke, this truth is for all time. It is not a matter of obeying this command or that (depending on whether their issue is the same as ours or not) but what does this major doctrine that we all agee on mean for me today. The context here is to be mine and yours. We cant avoid it.

  7. Mike Bull

    Thanks Simon – yes, I agree we need to be cautious of new readings. However, I’ve found this one actually plays out as I do further study. All of a sudden many texts that were hitherto mysterious or odd suddenly make sense, especially in the epistles.

    BTW, when I get an email notification of a new comment, none of the links work (except the one that takes me to the main blog URL). Just so you know.

    • Simon (Author)

      I’ve had the same experience before, when passages are opened up and you see it afresh. It’s very exciting!

      Also, appreciate the heads up regarding the links. I’ll let the administrator know.

  8. Alex

    Hi Martin,
    Since I’ve been a Christian I think I’ve spent a bit of time in every one of those catagories when it comes to reading the bible. When I first got saved it was the ‘me-centred’ and ‘subjective’ approach because I didn’t know any better. I have also spent time reading the OT waiting for a verse to ‘jump out’ at me, only to end up trying to apply something totally inappropriate.

    Even though I am still in the pre-millienial camp, I do believe along with you that all the scriptures are fullfilled in Jesus and this always clears up a lot of confusion for me. I love typology and prophecy but find it hard to work out. I can see clearly in the NT that the law, prophets and psalms point to Jesus. It helps me put my eyes on Christ when reading the bible.

    You have always helped me greatly to see this.

    • Martin Pakula

      Thanks Alex. Very encouraging, but particularly because of your honesty. I’m sure a lot of us can say the same.

      God bless,

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *