Select Page

“But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life” ~ Athanasius (296–373AD)[1]

“In spite of a clouded memory, the mind seeks its own good, though like a drunkard it cannot find the path home” ~ Boethius (ca. 475–525AD)[2]


A Bible College professor I know of begins his class on hermeneutics (that is, biblical interpretation) by reading the following quote from Augustine’s book On Christian Teaching: “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”[3] The professor wants to impress upon his students the fact that living out the implications of the Bible is connected closely to understanding the Bible.

Disordered Love, Hermeneutical Errors

Building upon these thoughts, I think Augustine’s words make another important point—namely, that a person’s moral character affects how he or she interprets the Bible. Simply put, proper biblical interpretation demands certain character qualities. In keeping with the thought of intellectual titans such as Augustine (354–430AD) and Pascal (1623–1662), the Christian intellectual tradition recognizes that sinful desires lead not only to sinful actions, but also to sinful beliefs. Inasmuch as ethics deals with what one ought to do, we can classify sinful beliefs as serious ethical errors since we ought to believe the truth. This relates to biblical interpretation for the following reason: Harboring an inordinate love for ideas or actions that the Bible regards as morally perverse will affect how one interprets the Bible. We might encapsulate my point here with a maxim: Disordered loves lead to hermeneutical errors.[4]

Not Breaking New Ground

The idea that moral flaws impede one’s recognition of the truth is not a new insight. For example, Aristotle (384–322BC) noted in his Nichomachean Ethics that a man who has been “ruined by pleasure” will neither consistently choose wisely nor select the right course of action with any regularity.[5] Likewise, in his important work On the Shortness of Life, Seneca (4BC–65AD) argued that vice prevents people from discerning the truth.[6] Such sentiments continue down to the present.[7]

Bringing It Home

Here’s how this relates to biblical interpretation and misinterpretation and why God must reorder our loves: What we love affects what we’re willing to receive from God’s Word. If our aim is to hold on to our autonomy (intellectual or otherwise), then our loves are disordered. If we hold on to our cherished sin, refusing to relinquish it rather than submit to Scripture, then our loves are disordered. If we prize a thought-life free from the rule of God, then our loves are disordered and we will distort God’s Word.

Inordinate self-love leads inexorably to bad hermeneutics, because if one has not fully surrendered to God—including renouncing one’s own intellectual self-sufficiency—one will be motivated to sidestep the moral demands of Scripture.

Of course, the person engaging in such behavior will deny that he or she is doing any such thing, which brings us to one of the central consequences of the fall: Self-deception. Psychologists Ann E. Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick define self-deception as “being unaware of the processes that lead us to form our opinions and judgments.”[8] While they concede that the evidence is inconclusive as to whether self-deception is conscious or unconscious, they state clearly that self-interest factors heavily into our misconstrued conclusions on ethical matters.[9]

The Bible discloses that fallen humanity is not inclined to God with the totality of its being, but opts for self-lordship, and approaches God on its own terms. Such a posture is an example of self-deception because it constructs reality in accordance with its own imagination, definitions, and standards. Thus, any attempt to construe reality apart from God and his Word leads to both ethical and hermeneutical errors.

So . . . Why?

All this raises a question: Why would someone intentionally engage in self-deceptive behavior? Philosopher Kevin Kinghorn found that uncomfortable moral obligations provide the strongest motivation for one to engage in self-deception. Unsurprisingly, freedom in one’s sexual life is the strongest motivating factor involved in self-deception.[10]

Fallen human beings are hell-bent on escaping the Lordship of Christ. For this reason, we typically settle on an ethic that we find attractive. We are willing to violate our consciences, part with traditional beliefs, and abjure the morals of our upbringing if we have a deep desire that a particular outlook, worldview, or course of action be true. However, since self-deception is linked to a lack of self-awareness, most people will not admit they are self-deceived. Rather, they will justify their unethical actions by renaming them, allowing them to simultaneously sidestep the moral demands of Scripture while rationalizing their behavior.[11] No wonder Pascal said that self-love stands behind self-deception and that self-deception is the central threat to the moral life.[12] 

And thus we return to the Bible College professor who begins his class with the quote from Augustine cited above. As young students beginning to swim in the world of the Bible, they need to know—as all Christians must—that reading the Bible faithfully entails cultivating certain habits of the heart and mind.

Aids in Doxological Reading[13]

Years ago J. I. Packer remarked, “God’s purpose in revelation is to make friends with us.”[14] Because God has made friends with us by means of his Word, Christians read. Through his work of regeneration, God creates within his people a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6), a desire to conform their lives to his precepts, and an insatiable craving to feast upon the riches of his Word. Since they have “tasted and seen that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8), they find his Word “sweeter than honey” to their mouths (Ps. 119:103; cf. Ps. 19:10). Because God has given them a new heart and they have immersed themselves in Scripture, they tremble at his Word (Isa. 66:2), approach him with confidence (Heb. 4:16), exhibit heartfelt devotion (Ps. 119:97), and study the Bible with diligence (2 Tim. 2:15)

In my estimation, the most important ingredient for faithful reading is humility. A posture of humility is needful because, as created beings, we are always in the position of receiving from God. The entailment of this truth calls for patient readers, not “commanding readers,” who dictate to God what they will or will not receive.[15]

Reading the Bible is an exercise in humility because in it we find a God who is sovereign, authoritative, and in control, a God who, when questioned by Job, responds by asking, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it. . . . Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:2, 8).

Since the Bible does not answer every conceivable question one may have, it is important for students of Scripture to display contentment with the revelation God has disclosed and renounce their own intellectual self-sufficiency when confronting issues that are beyond their ability to answer to their satisfaction. As fallen creatures, we own our inadequacies, admit our smallness, confess our limitations, and refuse to judge God by our own fallen notions of fairness or our own self-constructed categories of moral perfection.

I agree with Calvin: “So if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘humility’” (Institutes 2. 2. 11).


[1] On the Incarnation, 9.57.

[2] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, rev. ed., trans. Victor Watts (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 3. 3 (49).

[3] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1. 86.

[4] For a brief list of Christian intellectuals who insisted that a person’s moral state affects their ability to perceive truth, see Bradley G. Green, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 93–97.

[5] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, IV, 1140b.

[6] Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, trans. C. D. N. Costa (New York: Penguin, 1997), 2–3.

[7] A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 24–25; W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), 16; John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 63; R. R. Reno, Fighting the Noonday Devil—And Other Essays Personal and Theological (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 98.

[8] Ann E. Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick, “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” Social Justice Research 17:2 (2004): 225.

[9] Ibid., 229.

[10] Kevin Kinghorn, “Spiritual Blindness, Self-Deception, and Morally Culpable Nonbelief,” Heythrop Journal 48 (2007): 527–545. See esp. 542.

[11] Tenbrunsel and Messick, “Ethical Fading,” 226. On how this is an abuse of power, denial of reality, as well as a denial of others’ humanity, see the work of philosopher Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992).

[12] William D. Wood, “Axiology, Self-Deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s Pensées,” Journal of Religious Ethics (2009): 357, 368.

[13] Language borrowed from Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 110.

[14] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 50.

[15] John Webster, “Creation of out Nothing,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 134.