The consequences for misinterpretation can be deadly. It is estimated that seven thousand people die each year from errors related to the misinterpretation of a doctor’s prescription. This means two Americans died in the last hour because a doctor’s instructions were misread. The number of interpretive errors causing non-fatal but nonetheless serious harm to the health of patients is significantly higher.
No one would dare to argue to the thousands of families who have lost loved ones that accurate interpretation is a not matter of life and death. Yet this is exactly what many do with the Bible. Some argue this aggressively. Interpretations of Scripture are neither correct nor incorrect, they say. Whatever meaning the biblical text has to an individual will be different for different people, or even different for the same person from one day to the next. Judging the validity of an interpretation is not only unnecessary, but offensive—a shameful attempt to assert control over others. To challenge readers on the accuracy of their interpretation is viewed as a subtle attempt to bully believers back into the Dark Ages, a time when the Bible was kept out of the hands of the people and only the religious elite were deemed fit to interpret it correctly.
Others may not articulate these arguments, but they apply them in their everyday handling of the Bible. Their haphazard approach reveals an underlying conviction that inaccurate interpretation has few, if any, harmful side effects. What is most important is that a person uses the Bible. How he or she uses it doesn’t matter. After all, God is gracious.
This raises the question: Is it even necessary to think about how we interpret the Bible? Does it really matter? Bernard Ramm helps us consider what really is at stake:
To determine what God has said is a high and holy task. With fear and trembling each should be ever so careful of that which he has adopted as his method of biblical interpretation. Upon the correct interpretation of the Bible rests our doctrine of salvation, of sanctification, of eschatology, and of Christian living. It is our solemn responsibility to know what God has said with reference to each of these. This can be done only if we have carefully, thoroughly, and systematically formulated that system of biblical interpretation which will yield most readily the native [original] meaning of the Bible.
Further, we need to know the correct method of Biblical interpretation so that we do not confuse the voice of God with the voice of man. In every one of those places where our interpretation is at fault, we have made substitution of the voice of man for the voice of God. We need to know hermeneutics thoroughly if for no other reason than to preserve us from the folly and errors of faulty principles of understanding.
We can add to Ramm’s response three compelling reasons why accurate interpretation really does matter.
1. Scripture Itself Expects It
A survey of Scripture reveals exhortations, warnings, and examples given to remind the student of God’s word that he must handle it correctly. One text in particular stands out: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy is embedded in the midst of a warning concerning the threat of false teachers (2 Tim 2:14-19). Men like Hymenaeus and Philetus were spreading error about doctrines like the resurrection. These men cared little for others, but they loved arguing, particularly about words. In response, Paul does not exhort Timothy to downplay or ignore the importance of words and precision in interpretation. To the contrary, he instructs Timothy to double down on his handling of the Word.
To do this, Paul first reminds Timothy of the interpreter’s ultimate audience: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God” (v. 15a). The command to “be diligent” means “be zealous, take pains, be especially conscious in discharging your obligation!” This was something which the false teachers of Timothy’s day were obviously not doing. Moreover, as an interpreter and teacher of Scripture, Timothy’s obligation was to present himself “approved to God.” The picture Paul paints is sobering. Those who handle Scripture do not have a right to private judgment. They do not do their work as islands unto themselves.
They conduct their interpretation before God and must present their results to Him.
He is there, and He is watching
Paul then describes the interpreter’s necessary character: “as a workman who does not need to be ashamed” (v. 15b). To continue the analogy, Paul describes the interpreter as a “workman,” a term commonly used for those hired for physical labor. Timothy and all who interpret and teach the Bible are just that, laborers. They have a task delegated to them that is neither easy nor inconsequential. Their responsibility is to fulfill that task carefully, the way intended by their master. More than that, they must conduct their labor with an eye on the prize. At the end of the day, their work will either be judged worthy of reward or condemned as a disgrace.
Third, Paul explains the interpreter’s singular assignment: “handling accurately the word of truth” (2:15c). The participle translated as “handling accurately” means literally “cutting straight.” It refers to the activity of cutting a straight path without veering to the left or to the right. That which was to be “cut” is identified as “the word of truth”—a synonym for the word of God (cf. John 17:17). This is the crux of Paul’s instruction. In order to avoid a shameful fate at the divine judgment seat, Timothy was to handle God’s truth in a particular manner—accurately. This was his singular duty. Timothy’s future reward depended on it.
2. The Danger of Error Demands It
The greatest harm to humanity has not been inflicted by the enemy’s attempts to silence the word of God, but through the actions he takes to distort it. In fact, history begins with this very act, when Satan introduces Adam and Eve to sin by means of a temptation based on the inaccurate interpretation of God’s words (Gen 3:1-7). Human history from the fall of Adam to our day is replete with similar examples. As one theologian stated, “The Bible is the most maligned book in the world!”
No interpreter of Scripture can ignore this reality. We do not interpret in a sterile environment, impervious to the influences of personal ignorance or other more nefarious powers. The apostle Peter warned his readers of this when he pointed to the presence of “untaught and unstable” men who “distort . . . the Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16b). He prescribes this approach in response: “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (vv. 17-18a).
In the dangerous world in which we live, nothing less than interpretive vigilance will do
In particular, the interpreter must give attention to three factors which give rise to error. In a sense, all distortions of Scripture trace their origin to these three influences:
An Inappropriate Attribution of Authority
In other words, Scripture is no longer “cut straight” when in the process of interpretation something other than Scripture is given the first and final word. Common candidates include human reason, personal experience, or religious tradition. When these things are treated as unassailably reliable, and even as sources of truth in themselves, the text of Scripture is inevitably distorted in an effort to make it agreeable to one’s reason, intuition, or tradition.
A System of Interpretation which is Inconsistent with the Nature of Scripture's Language
The meaning of the biblical text can be distorted even by those with a high view of Scripture. The problem here is not the failure to recognize Scripture as the ultimate authority. Rather, the problem is traced to a system of interpretation which is inconsistent with the nature of Scripture’s language. An example is the allegorical method. The concrete realities of the biblical text are disparaged in favor of “spiritual” ideas that supposedly lie behind the text. The assumption is that language interpreted at face value is too plain and worldly. God is too transcendent to use language in such a manner. The language of Scripture must therefore be approached as other-worldly.
An Incorrect or Inconsistent Application of the Right Hermeneutics
This is much more practical in nature. It is the problem of an incorrect or inconsistent application of the right hermeneutics. In other words, interpreters can rightly acknowledge Scripture’s ultimate authority and embrace an interpretive approach consistent with Scripture’s language. But limitations in skill or lack of experience can still lead to interpretive error. This explains why those who have the same reverence for the word of God, and agree on the same interpretive methodology, can still arrive at different exegetical conclusions. The problem is not that God was ambiguous in his revelation. The problem is due to this most basic, and humbling, of realities.
Any interpreter can fall under the effect of any of these influences. He must remain vigilant against these dangers if he is to avoid substituting his voice for the voice of God.
III. The Need of God’s People Requires It
The apostle Paul provides a series of rhetorical questions in Romans 10:14 that emphasize the importance of means in the conversion of sinners: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” He follows this up with a concise assertion: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
Clearly, the content of preaching matters. Although God could save sinners and sanctify saints without the preaching of his word, He has chosen for His own glory to incorporate the means of human preaching to achieve these goals.
If the content of preaching matters, then the interpretation that
gives rise to such content matters not an iota less
Consequently, the fact that others around us can be victimized by our inaccurate interpretation should compel us to pursue accurate interpretation at all costs. Recall the illustration of medical misinterpretation and its consequences. It is one thing if the patient himself misreads the doctor’s orders and suffers harm. It is a wholly different matter if the pharmacist misreads the prescription and issues a fatal dose of medication.
The lost in our world and the members of our churches need to hear the word of truth cut straight. If we truly believe that the word of Christ is necessary for true conversion to take place, then a misinterpretation of that word—a substitution of our voice for God’s voice—has awful significance for the hearer. If we truly believe that the saints are sanctified by the truth of the word of God, then a misinterpretation of that word—a substitution of our voice for God’s voice—will be a dangerous impediment to their growth. They will suffer consequences, and so will we.
A Matter of Life and Death
The consequences of misinterpretation are no small thing. Their deferred realization must not lull into complacency. Much is at stake. Lives, in a very real sense, depend on it. As Ramm so aptly states, “we need to know the correct method of Biblical interpretation so that we do not confuse the voice of God with the voice of man.”
For more on hermeneutics, read Does Your Hermeneutic Hold to Sola Scriptura?
 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), 2.