Ever since I was introduced to it some 47 years ago, I have loved to study the Bible. I have spent countless happy hours poring through the pages of that wonderful book. I don’t find it difficult, or laborious. Rather, studying the Bible is pure joy for me. The more I do it, the more grounded, or “centered” I feel. I love to marinate in its words, stories, thoughts and spiritual insights. The more I do that, the more they become an internalized part of me – and the more I can live the “inspired” life.
It grieves me therefore to see that the Bible is often misused, used as a club, or attacked. Let me explain:
How the Bible is Misused
It is amazing how often we have all heard people say, “Oh, you can prove anything by the Bible.” Of course there’s an element of truth to that statement, but it needs qualifying. You can “prove anything” by the Bible if you misuse it.
One common misuse of the Bible is called “proof texting.” Technically, proof texting is: “The citation of a single biblical verse as a justification for a theological argument or position” (Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Donald K. McKim, p. 223). An extended meaning is to string together an assortment of contextually unrelated passages to “make a case” for a doctrine that has already been decided going in. This technique usually involves selecting passages that seem to bolster the argument, and interpreting them to do so, while ignoring those that defeat it. Or, they will read into the translation or text things that are not there.
Those who wish to “prove” that tithing is obligatory for Christians, for example, will read the finite number of passages that address the subject quite differently than those who oppose the doctrine. If we enter the subject with the idea of confirming what we already believe to be true about it, sure enough, that’s what we’ll do. If we start with the notion that we’re willing to be corrected by the Scriptures if necessary, then we’re more likely to discover the truth.
We all read Scripture variously, depending upon our interests, presuppositions and worldviews. Consequently, we apply it variously, if at all. It is difficult, if not impossible, for any person to bring pure objectivity to his or her study of the Bible. We all wear filtering spectacles.
One of my teachers, Dr. Roy Blizzard, has often said that understanding salvation is easy, understanding Scripture is not. When it’s difficult it’s often for precisely some of the reasons I mentioned above.
Using Scripture as a Club
The more authoritarian a Church leader is, the more likely he is to use Scripture, and his unique interpretation of it, as a club to control his flock. This approach often involves a good deal of emotional blackmail. “You’re not going against me,” thunders the leader, “you’re going against the Bible!” Those who honestly question the glorious leader’s interpretations are labeled “heretics,” “Laodiceans,” or “rebels,” and are therefore marginalized and eventually spun off into denominational outer darkness.
To suggest that someone is right about his interpretation of Scripture simply because he’s ordained or in a position of denominational leadership is absurd. If he’s right, it’s because he’s demonstrably right, not because he’s in a position of authority. It is just as easy for a church leader to be wrong as it is for anyone.
It is the myriad of interpretations of the Bible that have produced the phenomenon of Christian denominationalism today. Conflicts over the meaning and application of Scripture have fragmented the Church, rendering it a house divided.
This is at once a tragedy and a blessing. It’s a tragedy because the Church cannot present a united front against a hostile world. It’s a blessing because it keeps any one denomination from imposing its will on the whole. There is no room in the world for authoritarian Christianity. At the same time, the fact that the Church is divided against itself on moral issues means it has little or no moral authority in the world. In our time, we are witnessing the prevailing culture influencing the Church on moral issues, rather than vice versa.
Attacking the Bible
It is now “cool” to attack the Bible, even among Christians. It is one thing to attack the abuse of the Bible, but quite another to attack The Book itself. Bishop Spong, of the Episcopal Church, has produced a steady stream of books in which he questions the very foundations of the Christian faith. He calls for a new reformation in which the findings of liberal Bible scholarship be considered in the formation of doctrine.
From the time of the Enlightenment to the present, the Bible has been under relentless attack, and that has taken its toll on the Church. Part of the reason the Bible has been so frequently attacked is that it has been misused, misunderstood, and used as a club. The attacks on it, apart from being the product of scholarship, are a natural reaction to abuse.
Make no mistake: it is easier to misuse the Bible than to use it properly. Reading it critically, responsibly, and exegetically can be hard, but joyful, work. The apostle Paul instructed Timothy to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Timothy 3:15). Bible study involves effort. The word translated “study” here is spoudazo in the Greek. It means to “be zealous or eager, take pains, make every effort” (BAG* Lexicon, p. 763).
The King James “right dividing” is translated by the NIV: “correctly handles.” The Greek actually means “straightly cutting” or “cutting out a path in a straight direction.” It is orthotomeo, perhaps meaning to “…guide the word of truth along a straight path (like a road goes straight to its goal), without being turned aside by wordy debates and impious talk” (BAG* p. 580).
Many of today’s “scholars” do need to be ashamed. In fact many of us do, including some of us non-scholars. In the past, I have sometimes contributed to the mountain of heresy that blocks the light of understanding. Perhaps some of the articles that are still in print under my byline are in fact heretical. I am trying to improve the quality of my exegetical writing to the point where I have no need to be ashamed. In modern times however, we are starting out behind the eight ball when it comes to Bible study. Many of the commentaries and Bible helps that are “out there” indoctrinate us into heresy, though at the time, we don’t realize it. In fact, the English translations of the Bible contribute to the misunderstanding and abuse of the Bible itself. They are not translated, in the main, with a full understanding of the Hebrew thought and language behind them: “The Gospels,” say Dr. Roy Blizzard and David Bivin, “are rife with mistranslations…In fact, had the Church been provided with a proper Hebraic understanding of the words of Jesus, most theological controversies would never have arisen in the first place” (Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, p. 67). Mistranslation often leads to misunderstanding.
As intellectually honest students of the Bible, we must hack our way through the thicket of mistranslation, misunderstanding and misapplication and seek to glean the sense of the original text itself. The effort involved can be daunting, especially for those of us who are not academically equipped to do advanced exegetical work. Unless we have the ability to “work with” the original languages, we are already at a disadvantage. Some people claim understanding on the basis of pure inspiration, or by virtue of the fact that they can use Strong’s Concordance and refer to Clarke’s Commentary. This is most unfortunate. Those tools have their place as Bible study helps, but not for establishing doctrine.
Nor can the scholars who do have the tools be trusted to lead us into the light. Some of the leading scholars are in fact non-believers. Like Bible helps, we must learn to use the output of scholarship judiciously.
An excellent book for helping us to use Bible helps is Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study by Frederick W. Danker. A revised and expanded edition is now available. It is published by Fortress Press. As one scholar said, “No serious Bible student should be without it.” I agree.
* A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich.