How We Read the Bible Rightly and Get It Wrong

Let's show mercy to those who 'misinterpret' Jeremiah 29:11 and other favorite verses.
How We Read the Bible Rightly and Get It Wrong

Imagine yourself as a seminary student. Now imagine yourself as a young, male seminary student with a semi-educated, somewhat emotional, faithful churchgoing but biblically untrained mother-in-law. You like her well enough, but as your own seminary training has increased your exegetical skills, knowledge of church history, and theological acumen, you have found a corresponding increase in discomfort when talking to her about God and the Bible. She is very passionate about the latest devotional book she is reading and the new insights she has gained into passages of Scripture from looking up Greek words in Vine’s Expository Dictionary.

Every time you see her, you sense with increasing intensity that she could be on the cover of the next edition of Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. On your better days you just nod and smile politely. In your grouchy moments you daydream about ripping the books out of her hands, mocking them, stomping on them a few times, and throwing them into the fireplace while quoting Greek paradigms.

But then when you arrive at her house one Thanksgiving, you see something that pushes you over the edge. On the refrigerator, holding up her unrealistic diet plan, is a magnet with a nice flowing script of Jeremiah 29:11—“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” It is obvious that this verse and this diet plan are organically related in her mind. She is taking this verse to heart every day as a promise from God for her success in shedding a few pounds.

How will you respond? Your exegetically and theologically trained mind immediately populates a list of problems with her use of this verse: this is a horrible translation of the Bible; this verse is taken out of context; this is a word spoken to the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant and therefore can’t apply to her; God doesn’t care about her diet, and on and on. Thankfully, you have enough sense and wisdom not to attack or mock her and her refrigerator magnet, but in your quiet moments later you face a couple of crucial questions. These questions are ours as well when we read Scripture and when we read and hear interpretations of Scripture. First, what is wrong with her interpretation/reading/application of this verse? And second, should you say anything to her about it?

What is wrong with this use of Jeremiah 29:11? In the first instance, we are right to emphasize that what a text or verse means is best approached in its own literary and theological context. Her ignorance of the overall story of the Bible and the fact that this verse is from a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the elders and priests of Jerusalem who were then in exile in Babylon is a regrettable oversight. This knowledge would deepen and contextualize the significance of these lines. We may also register some concern that not every word to the nation of Israel necessarily has a direct application to the individual Christian. Other examples come to mind including details of the Mosaic law concerning diet and clothing or promises of physical blessing for obedience to Torah.

However, we must also ask what might be good about her reading. And herein lies much that we might initially overlook. Even though her reading and application of this verse may not be very sophisticated or theologically astute, I would suggest that ultimately what it possesses is greater than this deficiency. At one level her reading is in fact more theologically perceptive than our systematized view might be. That is, in a very real sense a promise like Jeremiah 29:11 does apply to the individual who is in Christ (in whom “all the promises of God are Yes and Amen”; 2 Cor. 1:20). Jeremiah’s words are God’s words; they reveal God’s heart and disposition toward his people, who are now defined no longer ethnically but based on faith response in Jesus—that is, all Christians. To read Jeremiah Christianly is to receive this as God’s promise to us, albeit in light of the full picture of Scripture in which the church is now in a time of sojourning exile awaiting the return of the Son.

Moreover, what is good—even glorious—about her reading of Jeremiah 29:11 as applied to her diet is that she has the right posture toward God and Holy Scripture as she reads. That is, she is going to the Bible looking for God to speak and guide and direct her life very personally. She expects the living God to speak to her, and she is willing to listen. She has chosen the better part. Certainly we might want her to grow in her theological knowledge and interpretive skills, but not at the expense of this simple God-ward faith and posture.

We as trained exegetes and theologians can and should also have this posture, but honest self-reflection reveals that for most of us, our learning often creates layers of distance between us and hearing the Bible as God’s Word to us. Although it was obtained for the supposed goal of bridging the gap between us and the biblical text, our training in fact often creates in our hearts and minds an elaborate structure of paper walls and divisions that create a maze of distance between us and Scripture. Relegating meaning to the sensus historicus, obtained through the employment of an elaborate skill set, and making understanding and application secondary steps only opens the door for this deferral more widely. Instead, we can learn from our faithful mothers-in-law that to read Scripture is to seek to hear and obey God now in very practical ways. Anything less is not reading Holy Scripture according to its purpose.

If we’ve made it this far in our thinking, then the second question posed to ourselves becomes a little clearer. We should not say anything to her about her refrigerator magnet if that conversation will be a lecture on improper exegesis or the foolishness of such mistaken theological reading. If we discourage her devotional reading of Scripture and/or sow seeds of doubt in her mind about reading the Bible as God speaking to her, then we are certainly doing more harm than good and likely we should be put into the category of “causing those little ones to stumble”—not a positive place according to Jesus.

Yet at the same time, this does not mean that she is free from the need for instruction and guidance in reading. This is, after all, why God has always given teachers, preachers, and prophets to the church: to guide how we read and understand and apply the Scriptures. And herein lies a beautiful balance worth pursuing: developing skills as readers (whether professional or lay) while also keeping the true goal always in sight—hearing, reading, and applying the Holy Scriptures to our lives. This is understanding. This is wisdom.

This same situation was already pondered and illustrated by the great theologian and hermeneutist Augustine in his textbook on how to read Scripture. His illustration has stood the test of time and indeed has experienced a renaissance recently through the rediscovery of a theological reading of Scripture. Augustine promotes a balance between reading the Scriptures for the sense that the author (including God) intended and yet recognizing that the ultimate purpose is to build up “the twin love of God and neighbor.”

Thus a reading that results in greater love for God and for neighbor, no matter how poor the exegesis, is in some real sense good. Those who read in this way—maybe our mothers-in-law—are mistaken, Augustine says, “in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them to. Still, they must be put right, and shown how much more useful is it not to leave the road, in case they get into the habit of deviating from it, and are eventually driven to take the wrong direction altogether.” Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 1.36.41, from the translation, Teaching Christianity, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996), 124.

Good exegetical skills, reading for the authorial/Authorial intent, are important guidelines for our reading now and in the future, and thus they should be learned and taught to others. But we must never mistake these means for the real end—developing a posture and practice of love for God and neighbor. And to the question of how we speak to our mother-in-law about her reading, Augustine would be the third person, I’m sure (after Jesus and Paul), to remind us to speak in such a way that we too promote the twin love.

Jonathan T. Pennington is an associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary.

Adapted from Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2012), used by permission. pp. 139-141

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How We Read the Bible Rightly and Get It Wrong