7 Dangers of Fanciful Interpretations

Fanciful interpretations get great feedback, but they do great damage.  Fanciful interpretations get some people very excited, but those who know their Bibles, or have been to Bible school tend to look glum in the midst of the hysteria. Is this because all who have training are killjoys?  Or is it perhaps because they see through the hype like a parent watching children getting excited about excessive amounts of sugar?

You can usually spot the indications of fanciful interpretation.  One big red flag is when people are saying, “I would never have got that from that passage, wow!”  Or even, “That was so rich, deep, original, (you choose the description)!”

But if people are so obviously blessed and encouraged, what is wrong with it?  Let me offer seven problems with fanciful interpretation:

1. Fanciful interpretation teaches listeners bad Bible study. You may have convinced yourself that that particular reference to a boat has a deeper meaning relating to postmodernism, or that the name of the valley is an anagram of a suburb of Manchester, or whatever.  But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that your clever interpretation doesn’t seem to do any harm and is motivating for the listeners on a spiritual level (perhaps a spiritual theology of David’s brothers’ names, or the significance of a geographical feature for the Christian life).  Surely no harm is done?  It is if the listeners then copy your way of handling Scripture and come up with an application you find objectionable (the cults do this all the time).

2. Fanciful interpretation offers nutritionally empty fare. Perhaps you’ve come across the notion of empty calories?  Something made with highly processed sugar and white flour and unnatural ingredients.  These things tend to taste good (temporarily), but have no nutritional value.  In fact, over time and in excess, they can do great harm to you.  The same is true of overly sweet, overly processed Bible fancies that stir excitement but offer no nutritional value.

3. Fanciful interpretation may cause listeners to give up on their Bibles. After all, if they can’t see how you got there, maybe instead of copying your approach, perhaps they’ll just feel inadequate and give up on their Bibles.  They may look forward to hearing you again (which is the motivation for some speakers), but their Bibles will gain dust in the meantime.

The rest of the list tomorrow . . .

Can You Support It?

One privilege of preaching is the privilege of study.  But not everything you discover in your private moments poring over the sacred text should be shared from the pulpit.  Some things may be an exegetical cul-de-sac that you pursued but led to an apparent dead end.  Other things may be genuine insights from the passage and its context, but are still better left unshared.  For instance, perhaps you discern an apparently symbolic or spiritualized understanding of some aspect of the preaching passage.  Should this be presented to a mixed congregation at various levels of biblical understanding?  Here are three questions to ponder before deciding to go ahead and share your insight:

Will your explanation be enough?  We all know the challenge of trying to explain intricate study, perhaps in the original language, to people seeing the text for almost the first time.  If our explanation appears inadequate, we run the risk of undermining our credibility or the logical cohesion of the message.

Do you feel the need to resort to cheap argumentation?  For instance, “If you were to read this book through once a week for 25 years, then you would begin to see that . . .”  This kind of throw-away remark in a sermon can cut deeply into the listeners.  Is the preacher unable to communicate the point now, so the listener is assured they would see it if they studied more?  (Incidentally, I was wondering whether the speaker who said this had read through the book in question 1300 times in the last quarter century!)

Will people copying your methodology get into trouble?  If the insight is somehow symbolic or spiritualized, do we want others copying the method?  Let’s say the insight is genuine.  What would happen if the listeners copy the method and start assigning non-obvious meanings to elements in their Bible readings?

There are times when an exegetical insight, even a genuine one, is better left in the study (or the classroom).  As preachers, we shoulder a significant responsibility for our listeners.  Let’s be sure to consider what is best for them, rather than what looks good for us.