“Sarah, what are you doing?” Carmen stared at her friend as if she were looking at an ET look-alike.
Sarah slid into the front seat of her SUV. “I thought you said you wanted to go to the beach?”
“I do, but you forgot to lock your door. That’s not like you.”
“It is now. I found this cool Bible verse in 2 Timothy that says, ‘He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.’ I’ve entrusted my house to Him, and this verse promises He will guard it, so I don’t have to lock up any more.”
That little fictitious scenario is an illustration of what I call “using the Bible.” In some cases, there is a grain of truth. God certainly can guard and protect our stuff, for instance. But the particular verse this character quoted has nothing whatsoever to do with God keeping thieves from stealing a TV.
A friend of mine related another fictitious tale, used most often to steer people toward Bible study rather than Bible pick-and-choosing:
A young man decided his life was aimless. He needed help knowing what he should do, so he turned to the Bible. He decided that he’d fan the Bible open and point to a verse. This then would become his life verse. Turning his head, he released a good two-thirds of the pages and stabbed a finger onto the open page. “And Judas hanged himself,” the verse read. The young man gulped. There had to be some mistake. What could God possibly be saying to him? He decided to try again. Once more he closed the Bible, released pages, and pointed to a verse. This time he read, “Go and do thou likewise.”
So what am I saying with these illustrations? Simply this: not only is it possible, but some people actually do, take verses out of context and make them say something other than their clear meaning.
The key here is taking the verses out of context, for surely Sarah correctly quoted a part of 2 Tim. 1:12. Those words alone do say that God will guard what I entrust to Him. However, the context—the rest of the verse, chapter, book, and BOOK, show that God is promising something about our souls and for eternity, not our stuff for the here and now.
Notice, the context of a scripture is the book of the Bible in which it is found but also the Bible itself. The latter is the greater context, the totality of which gives meaning to individual verses, even those that are in apparent contradiction with each other.
2 Timothy indicates that false teaching—the result of taking Scripture out of context and ignoring parts of the Bible—will only increase:
But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:13-17 (NASB)
And here I am, quoting verses of Scripture to prove a point. Is this not the very “using” of the Bible I decried above?
Understand, I was not saying a person can’t extrapolate principles from the Bible and apply that propositional truth to daily life. But there are some guidelines in so doing:
- 1) The principle should not contradict any clear statement of Scripture.
For example, if some man took the principle, I can do all things through Christ, and used it to justify sleeping with a married woman, he would violate a clear Scriptural injunction.
2) The principle should be an outgrowth of what the original intended.
This is where things get sticky, I think. How can we know the original intent? Only by studying the context. First the context of the book itself. Who was the author, why was he writing, what was he saying? Although the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, this did not happen in a vacuum, but in a specific place and in a particular period of time. The words had meaning to the person who wrote them and to the original target audience. It is that meaning that creates a backdrop of understanding by which we may make present-day application.
3) The principle should not become an exclusive doctrine if scriptures also exist that point to a paradoxical principle.
Here’s where a lot of denominational differences have been created. One denomination finds verses about Topic X that seem to indicate Doctrine A should guide our beliefs. Another denomination finds verses about Topic X that seem to indicate Doctrine B, in opposition to Doctrine A. Which denomination is right? Are some of the verses to be ignored or explained away?
Is the Bible contradictory?
If the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is to be believed as inspired by God, then even the apparently contradictory parts are there for a reason. I reject the either/or arguments and adopt a both/and approach. God put both positions in the Bible, to the point that scholars steeped in the Word can make credible cases for opposing views. I conclude, God is saying both things, though they appear to be contradictory.
This may appear to be illogical, but I don’t think it is, not if we remember who God is. He is three, but one. Came to earth as a man though he did not cease to be God. Is merciful AND just. You get the picture. Not only does paradox exist in God, but He transcends our limitations. If I know Him to be so, then I don’t have to tie up Scripture in a neat doctrinal bow at the expense of some of what He has to say.
Now don’t misunderstand. I think there are doctrines that are clear, without any contradiction, the chief being who Jesus is and why He came and what He accomplished. Those clear statements are the ones that define being a Christian.
The others—the ones that seem paradoxical—still need to be believed. It is in dismissing the ones we don’t like or that clash with others we believe that creates problems. If nothing else, it divides Christians.
This post is a combination of two articles that first appeared here in April 2007.