Friday, December 12, 2008

Scripture Twisting

On of my favorite introductory works on biblical interpretation is Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible by James Sire (InterVarsity Press, 1980).

In this relatively short book, Sire handily addresses the most common issues encountered when interpreting the Bible. While he specifically refers to examples relevant to cults and new religions, the application of Sire's insights extend far beyond those areas. There's also a helpful appendix summarizing the 20 interpretational errors covered in the main body of the book.

Some of my favorites include The Figurative Fallacy, Ignoring Alternative Explanations, Esoteric Interpretation, and World-View Confusion. Working backwards, for no apparent reason, I'll present Sire's definitions in brief.

World-View Confusion: "Scriptural statements, stories, commands or symbols which have a particular meaning when taken within the intellectual and broadly cultural framework of the Bible itself are lifted out of that context, placed within the frame of reference of another system and thus given a meaning that markedly differs from their intended meaning." This happens a lot when pantheists try to draw their worldview out of the New Testament such as when they interpret "you must be born again" in light of reincarnation.

Esoteric Interpretation: "Under the assumption that the Bible contains a hidden, esoteric, meaning which is open only to those who are initiated into its secrets, the interpreter declares the significance of biblical passages without giving much if any explanation for his or her interpretation." Deepak Chopra seems to favor Esoteric Interpretation when, for instance, he interprets the "word" of John 1:1 as the Eastern meditation mantra, "Om," despite the fact that the passage later clearly identifies the "Word" as Christ (1:14).

Ignoring Alternative Explanations: "A specific interpretation is given to a biblical text or set of text which could well be, and often have been, interpreted in quite a different fashion, but these alternatives are not considered." Since Sire's example on this one is classic, here it is: "Erich von Daniken asks why in Genesis 1:26 God speaks in the plural ('us'), suggesting that this is an oblique reference to God's being one of many astronauts ..."

The Figurative Fallacy: "Either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2) mistaking figurative language for literal language." There are too many potential examples to list here and even Christians fall into this trap. It essentially ignores some foundational principles of interpretation such as being aware of the context and intent of the author.

Scripture Twisting remains a great book nearly 30 years after publication. If you're looking for an introduction to hermeneutics that doesn't read like a textbook, I highly recommend Sire's fine book.

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