Misunderstanding And Misusing The Bible

reading-the-bible-835822-mAtheists and “progressive Christians” alike are fond of pointing out things in the Bible they think are reprehensible. Some even claim to know more about these parts of Scripture than evangelicals who hold to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

Sadly, these are the people who are misunderstanding passages and misusing verses, twisting them to say what they want them to say. So they’ll take a verse like Psalm 137:9 (“How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones / Against the rock) as proof that the God of the Bible, or the God of the Old Testament, at least, is hateful and cruel, full of wrath and vengeful.

The problem is, such a view ignores passage after passage after passage that reveals God to be a protector of the innocent, a refuge to all who call on Him. Take Psalm 46:1-2 for example:

God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.

Scripture portrays God as the Advocate for orphans and widows. He chastises Judah in part for not living in accordance with His heart in their treatment of the most vulnerable and needy. He pronounces judgment on nations like Israel, Edom, Assyria, and Babylon because they were greedy or their leaders cheated the poor or they employed violence against others.

God, in His role as Protector, pronounces judgment on those who mistreated others. More often than not, He used other nations to judge those whose wickedness had reached a point of no return. So there are passages in the prophets that warn of this coming judgment:

Their little ones also will be dashed to pieces
Before their eyes;
Their houses will be plundered
And their wives ravished. (Isaiah 13:16)

You can find similar passages in Hosea, Nahum, Lamentations, and Zechariah—and the pictures these prophets paint aren’t pretty. But that’s the point. Judgment isn’t a slap on the wrist, nor should it be.

And it is just such judgment the Psalmist was calling for in the passage above.

Here in California, much has been made of the sexual assault of a three-year-old who wandered into a garage where a young man was working. Because he didn’t behave as a predator, searching out a child to abuse, the judge gave the perpetrator a light sentence, and the public is rightfully outraged. His criminal behavior requires a stiff penalty.

But when God says He’s going to give a stiff penalty to the wicked, somehow many find this tyrannical. Not just.

I surmise they don’t believe those in Scripture who describe God as righteous and good. They don’t believe Him when He says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ex. 33:11).”

Such misuse of the Bible—pulling one verse out of context in order to draw a conclusion about God and ignoring scores of others that contradict their view—is more a reflection on those judging God than on God Himself.

There are other people, however, who misunderstand the Bible because they take it too literally. Parts of the Bible are history and certainly were written with the intention that their readers would take their words as factual. Consequently writers gave genealogies, mentioned reigning kings, noted particular towns or rivers or seas, included details such as a great earthquake or a siege or a civil war.

But another part of the Bible, including some of the stories and analogies Jesus included in His conversations and discourses, have a different intention. Their purpose is to point to a particular spiritual truth, not paint a black-and-white portrait of what God does or does not do.

For instance, Jesus said it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Since we know camels can’t pass through the eye of a needle, does that mean Jesus was saying no rich man could enter the kingdom of heaven? Clearly not. Abraham was rich, and Jesus told a story about Abraham, indicating he was in fact in heaven.

People who want to apply literalistic treatment to metaphorical language are simply misusing the Bible! I would suggest that dashing children in pieces is possibly an example of hyperbole, taken as an indication that judgment would reach down and affect the children as well as the adults.

The trick, of course, is to know what is literal and what is metaphorical. Some things are obvious such as the fantasy stories in the Old Testament about talking trees. The people who told those stories were trying to make a point to their intended audience and used analogous language to do so. No one should read those passages and come away saying, The Bible teaches that trees talk.

One way to discern what is literal and what is figurative is by how the people of that time understood the writing or discourse. Consequently, the Jews who built a tabernacle and commemorated the Exodus, undoubtedly understood the first five books of the Bible—their Torah—as historical or they wouldn’t have acted upon what was contained within those pages.

For me it’s a bit comforting to know that the disciples didn’t always know what was literal and what was figurative in the things Jesus said. They thought, for example, that His declaration that He would go to Jerusalem and die and be raised again on the third day, had some metaphorical, spiritual meaning. It wasn’t until after the fact that they realized He’d been talking about literal death and literal resurrection.

My point here is that misunderstanding isn’t something to be ashamed about. Rather, when we come to Scripture, it’s important to hold what we “know” loosely, to do some questioning and some comparison. And never to take the word of a person over the word of Scripture itself.

For example, someone might say in a convincing way that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth, not to be believed as literal, that they are simply archetypes of early humans, that there was no actual garden, tree of life or of the knowledge of good and evil, that there was no talking serpent (I mean, we already discounted the talking trees, right?)

However, the rest of the Bible clearly treats Adam and Eve as real people while equating the serpent with the Accuser, Satan. In other words, the people who wrote Scripture and to whom Scripture was originally given, and those who read it throughout centuries, understood Adam and Eve to be historically real people. So clearly, for us today to say, Adam and Eve are mythical, we would be taking the word of a person who came up with or is parroting the idea, over and above the word of Scripture.

Jesus, Progressive Christians, And The Bible

Bible-openAccording to Roger Wolsey, author of “16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible,” he, like other Progressive Christians, “employs a ‘canon within a canon’ lens” when studying the Bible, meaning that some books are more important and all others should be understood based on those.

For Mr. Wolsey, his “canon within a canon” consists of the gospels, though he clarifies that not all are equal. John, apparently, is the least of the gospels, with Mark, Luke, and Matthew coming in first, second, and third respectively.

What I don’t understand is how Mr. Wolsey can use the gospels and yet say things like this:

The hermeneutic of love seeks to see the forest for the trees and that allows the spirit of the law to trump the letter of the law (which Jesus modeled). (Emphasis in the original.)

In fact, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:17-18)

I understand that Matthew is only third in importance to Mr. Wolsey, but Luke also records a similar statement.

Perhaps Mr. Wolsey is thinking of Jesus’s refusal to follow the traditions the Pharisees added to the law, such as certain ceremonial washings for lay people and their definitions of work.

I’d think Mr. Wolsey would have realized Jesus’s dismissal of Pharisaical tradition was not Jesus choosing the spirit of the law over the letter since he claims Progressives believe in “interpreting Scripture with Scripture.” However, he apparently missed the fact that the Law recorded in Leviticus and Numbers spells out the specifics the Jews were to follow, and what the Pharisees tried to make Jesus do simply isn’t found in the Law.

More than that, Jesus Himself made clear His view of the Law when He rebuked the Pharisees: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42, emphasis added). In other words, Jesus was not blowing off the Law in order to serve the spirit of the Law. Rather, He was clearly saying religious activity does not replace what that religious activity was supposed to express.

Mr. Wolsey also said

We follow Jesus’ example in being willing to reject certain passages & theologies in the Bible and to affirm other ones. (He did it a lot) [emphasis in the original].

Because no specific passages or theologies are listed, the point is clearly unsubstantiated. But I suggest it suffers from something greater—it clashes with what is known from Scripture about Jesus and the Old Testament and the theology it contains.

Jesus made clear what He thought about Old Testament Scripture on more than one occasion. For instance He said after His resurrection,

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)

Earlier, in Matthew He said

And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40)

In fact, the New American Standard Version, from which these quotes come, puts Old Testament passages quoted in the New Testament in all caps. It’s easy to tell, therefore, that with some frequency, Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, as did the gospel writers. (In fact, the gospel of Mark, the one Mr. Wolsey thinks is most important, begins with a quote from Isaiah.)

Here’s one passage from Mark in which Jesus quoted from the Old Testament:

And He was saying to them, “To you [His disciples] has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.” (Mark 4:11-12)

I’d think this indication that God gave something to His followers that He didn’t give everyone else would be one of the theologies that the Progressives would think Jesus rejected. But here it is, quoted from the Old Testament right there in Mark.

I could go on—Jesus referenced “certain passages” such as Genesis 2-3, the account of Adam and Eve in the garden; or Jonah 1-4, the account of Jonah running from God only to be swallowed by a big fish which God appointed; or in Exodus, containing the accounts in which Moses encountered God in the burning bush, in which God gave His people manna from heaven, in which He cured them when they looked on the bronze serpent lifted up.

All these are passages Jesus clearly did NOT reject.

There’s one other passage Jesus quoted from the Old Testament which I think pertains to Progressives—this one also from the book of Mark:

And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men
.” (7:6-8, emphasis added)

In short, there’s not much in Jesus’s teaching that squares with what Mr. Wolsey said in his article, and yet, since it was published six months ago, nearly 57,000 people shared the post on Facebook.

I suppose the purpose of sharing it might be to help Christians understand what Progressives believe. It is instructive, but what it says about the Bible and Jesus isn’t remotely true. I hate to think anyone would read that article and think Progressives have come up with the right way of approaching the Bible.

From this short look at what Mr. Wolsey said, it’s clear that he, at least, must not even know what the gospel says which he believes to be the most important. And that, I think, is the critical issue. It’s easy to say the Bible is important and “we” approach studying it in these sixteen ways, but how many of the “we” are actually reading it?

In fact, how many of the “we Evangelicals” are reading it?

Using The Bible To Make Sense Of The Bible

A few weeks ago I wrote a post (The Misconception About Weaker Brothers”) about the way many writers–well, Christians in general, I suppose–inaccurately use Paul’s writing to the Roman believers and to the Corinthian church on the subject of eating meat offered to idols. My intention was to give an illustration–perhaps the first of several–to show that Scripture is its own best interpreter.

I’m not a Bible scholar, so I’m pretty sure I learned that principle from Chuck Swindoll who pastored my church for fifteen or more years. It’s not a new idea, of course, and many, many Christians believe in reading Scripture in this way. In fact a good many of the sermons I hear start with putting Scripture in context–another way of saying, the meaning of Scripture can best be understood by relating it to Scripture.

I’d also mention, though, that there is an immediate context and a greater context. So in the discussion about eating meat offered to idols, the immediate context is all of Romans 13, 14, and 15 which together make Paul’s point that Christians are not to judge one another but to support each other and to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).

The greater context is the New Testament–including the book of Acts with its record of the early church wrestling with whether or not Gentile Christians should be required to keep the Jewish law, and including the book of Revelation with the words of admonition Christ gave to the churches, twice referencing eating meat offered to idols.

The overarching context, of course, is the entire Bible, with God’s commands to have no other gods before Him and to make no idols; with the numerous times and ways the people of Israel broke that command; and with the pagan practice of child sacrifice as a part of their worship ceremonies.

Eating meat, in light of the whole Bible, is suddenly not this optional gray area that contemporary Western Christians have so often understood it to be.

Sometimes letting Scripture interpret Scripture flies in the face of long held beliefs–our own or those of the Evangelical community at large or Catholic teaching, Calvinism, Covenant theology, Methodism, holiness, or what have you.

I’ve mentioned some of those from time to time–one being the verse that says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” In context the verse refers to God enabling Paul to live in poverty or in wealth. The greater context of the Bible, however, identifying God as omnipotent, loving, good, and desirous of answering prayer, means that to extrapolate and apply the verse to a different circumstance isn’t off base. To understand it, however, as a promise or a guarantee that God will make sure I succeed in all I set my hand to, is quite erroneous–again, clearly understood in the greater context of Scripture.

I’ve also used this idea of interpreting Scripture with Scripture to examine the six-day creation theory. Not only does God refer to the evening and the morning, the first day, before He created the sun so that time could be measured by days, but the English translators also translated the word for “day” few chapters later as “time,” calling into question what “day” actually referred to.

Other Scripture tells us that to God a day is like a thousand years: “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

Peter was making his statement to rebuff the idea put forth by some that Christ wasn’t coming back since decades had passed without his appearance. In other words, in this context he was saying, “days” are a meaningless measure when you’re dealing with God’s work.

In addition, Peter’s time declaration is a reiteration of what Moses said thousands of years earlier: “For a thousand years in Your sight/Are like yesterday when it passes by,/Or as a watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4).

Then, too, we know from Isaiah that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways. He is not constrained to act as we think He should act. His manner, methods, timetable, are His and not ours.

All these various passages should suggest that a hard and fast literal interpretation of creation doesn’t require a belief in God accomplishing His work within six of our 24-hour days.

That He used six time periods is, in fact, reinforced in Scripture. The Jewish requirement for keeping the Sabbath was tied to God having rested on the seventh day. However long that period of time was, God equated it to a day by commanding His people to rest on the seventh day of the week. Of course He also required them to rest for a whole year every forty-nine years, and Scripture called that a Sabbath rest too.

To the point, interpreting Scripture with Scripture suggests that specifics surrounding creation aren’t revealed. Did God create in six 24-hour days? An omnipotent God–who Scripture reveals–certainly could have, and might have. Do we know for a fact that He did? Not if we also believe what He said through Peter and through Moses–that time is irrelevant to His working–and what Isaiah said about His ways and our ways being different.

I may offer other examples in future posts, but let me make one finally point today. One sure way we can know we have misunderstood Scripture is to ignore verses that seem to contradict the verses upon which we’re basing a theological belief.

Your turn. Let me know what you think about interpreting Scripture.

Published in: on August 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm  Comments Off on Using The Bible To Make Sense Of The Bible  
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Putting The Bible Puzzle-Pieces In Place

Once upon a time, I was a child. 😀 Not startling news, since we all were. But I remember as a child, then as a teen, being told that I should read the Bible every day. I tried for a little while and was actually quite surprised at how interesting Genesis was. And the beginning of Exodus. It bogged down in the middle chapters of that book, then came Leviticus. Need I say more?

I was in college when I actually had to read the Bible through for a class. We were quizzed over it every day without fail. Still, there were passages that … you might say, I didn’t stay awake well as I was trying to dash through them late at night, nor did I exactly pass those quizzes with flying colors. 😕

Fortunately, after college I became a teacher in a Christian school where I was required to teach a Bible class. Fortunately, I say, because I had a principal who laid it on the line–how could we teach the Bible if we ourselves weren’t reading the Bible? It made sense to me.

A fellow teacher told me she read the Bible through each year and had been doing that for ten or so years. I was impressed. She gave me the schedule–three chapters a day during the week and five on Saturday and on Sunday.

I started out, convinced I should do this, equipped with a method to do this. As before, I was pleasantly surprised by stories about creation, the fall, the flood, Abraham and God’s promise of a son, all the way through to Joseph and his forgiveness of his brothers. Exodus followed suit for the most part, but then came Leviticus. It was still there, like a roadblock, bringing my resolve and good intentions to a halt.

Slowly I pushed through, but one thing became clear: I was no longer on the path to finish the Bible in a year.

This scenario repeated itself a time or two before I realized that reading the Bible through in a year was not mandatory. I could go at my own pace. No one was holding a gun to my head. If it took me a year and a half, two years, so be it.

Suddenly I wasn’t feeling quite so beholden to a method.

Not long afterward, I also came to the decision that I didn’t have to read the hard passages–starting with Leviticus. What a burden came off my shoulders. Genesis, most of Exodus, parts of Numbers, all but the begats in Deuteronomy … that became my pattern.

I can’t even tell you when it began to change. I know I fell in love with Deuteronomy. Yes, Deuteronomy. And I even stopped skipping the begats. Eventually I started looking for ways of understanding the hard parts. How was Leviticus organized, what benefit or protection did all the laws give the Israelites, that sort of thing. Before I realized it, I had begun to study the hard parts, and gradually they stopped seeming like they actually were hard.

Why do I detail this process? Yesterday in “The Bible Puzzle” I made a case for looking at the entire Bible, without any missing pieces, so that we can see the entire picture.

And picture it is–God’s word-picture showing us His character, His plan for us and the world, His work. But it is a picture that is layered and it’s not presented entirely in sequential order. Poetry is interspersed with history, letters are bumping up against prophecy. And then there are the begats, not to mention the laws and the sacrifices and the feast days and the parts of the tabernacle and the order of marching in the wilderness and ….

Quite honestly, a jigsaw puzzle is an apropos comparison, but so is putting a jigsaw puzzle together, at least how my family worked puzzles when I was growing up. We first started by finding the edges, especially the corner pieces. Once we had the edges fit together, we had a frame for the picture. Then we could start gathering similar colors.

The point is, we started with the easiest part first and gradually worked our way through to the harder sections–the field of grain or the solid blue sky. But by then, the part of the puzzle we were working on was much smaller and we could concentrate on shapes, since the colors were so similar. In the end, unless we’d lost a piece, we always finished our puzzles.

To complete the analogy, a Christian’s goal should be to complete the picture God has given us. He wants us to see how all the pieces fit together. But it’s not a bad thing to start with the edges. It’s not shameful to wait to do the sky last. In the grand scheme of things, it is much more important for us to start and to make progress toward the goal of understanding God’s revelation than it is to declare it too hard or boring or irrelevant, and stick with the favorite parts we think we can solve even without the edge being in place.

Anyone might be able to put together the snow cap, but does it fit into the picture as part of the mountain or part of the reflection of the mountain? If all you have are parts of a puzzle then you have a distorted picture, not a complete one. So too with the Bible.

But we may take some time getting all the pieces in place, and that’s OK.

Published in: on July 19, 2012 at 5:47 pm  Comments (6)  
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The Bible Puzzle

I don’t think there’s anything more important than understanding the Bible. The problem is, there’s a whole lot that seems confusing, contradictory, and if we’re truly honest, boring.

I mean, have you read this passage in Numbers 7?

13 and his offering was one silver dish whose weight was one hundred and thirty shekels, one silver bowl of seventy shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 14 one gold pan of ten shekels, full of incense; 15 one bull, one ram, one male lamb one year old, for a burnt offering; 16 one male goat for a sin offering; 17 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, five male lambs one year old.

The thing is, this exact same list is repeated eleven more times, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Then the totals are all given for each item, just in case we can’t do the math, I guess.

So are sections of the Bible that seem uninteresting and irrelevant ones we can ignore? To the larger question, can we focus on those passages that we “get”?

That’s kind of like a college student saying to a history prof, Can I read about the historical figures I connect with? First, these would be ones the student already knows about. Second, they would be ones he approves of or agrees with. How, precisely, would this be considered learning?

When it comes to the Bible, I think a lot of people approach it with the idea that it is full of material they already know. And what they don’t know, they don’t care about because it is outdated and irrelevant.

Why, then, would anyone want to read a tired old book over and over? After all, today’s generations want fresh and page turning. We want stories, not lists of do’s and don’ts, not verses and verses naming the sons of this man, who was the son of that man who was the son of that other man–all names that are nearly unpronounceable.

What most people don’t realize is that the Bible is a jigsaw puzzle. It all fits together to make a remarkable, unified picture. You have pieces that are full of color, and shapes that give you a hint at what the finished puzzle will look like, but you have lots and lots of sky pieces or water pieces or leaves pieces that by themselves seem uninteresting and hard to fit in with the whole.

But what would a seascape be without puzzle pieces of blue water? What would a forest scene look like without leafy trees? The hard pieces play a vital role in creating the whole picture.

So too with the Bible. Much of what seems hard connects the colorful pieces together to create a complete picture. But when we don’t read the whole, when we study only a piece here or a piece there, we get a skewered view of the Bible and of God and His work in the world.

Could this be the reason a growing number of people are following after false teachers?

Published in: on July 18, 2012 at 5:32 pm  Comments (3)  
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