Sunday, March 05, 2006

Idolatrous Interpretation of the Bible

When I was in college at U. Mass Amherst, a friend of mine from Intervarsity fellowship told me about the time she visited a cult meeting (I believe it was called "The Way"). She said, "I know this sounds strange, but it was like they worshiped the Bible, not God."

Years later, that statement doesn't sound so strange to me. I've seen too many times where a Bible verse or teaching (more accurately, a certain traditional unsound interpretation of a Bible passage or theme) is worshiped above a more historically, culturally based reading of that passage. A second type of this practice is what I call selective literalism. When a reader says they take the Bible literally but in reality only accepts passages that fit their theology. They worship their theology above truth.

I believe the first main cause of this is the failure for churches to teach people good practices in studying the Bible. People who are told that it's the "Word of God" will take the English words in each verse at face value with little attention to the cultural, literary, or original-language context of those words. So a verse like "I wish above all things that you prosper", becomes 'God wants me and you to be wealthy'. "Flee sexual immorality", becomes 'Don't practice whatever I envision sexual immorality to be, e.g. masturbation, oral sex, viewing graphic sexual images, (all behaviors that the Bible doesn't address at all as a sin issue) or singles sexuality (a behavior that it addresses only as an ownership issue for a father or a bridegroom).

Selective literalism could take, for example, Jesus' discourse on the 'last days' and make it fit a present-day scenario (where every earthquake and disaster becomes "proof" that we are in the last days) but ignores Jesus' clear-cut statement "I tell you the truth, this [1st century] generation will not pass away until all these things take place". Or, refusing to address the obvious acceptance of polygamy, concubinage, and certain sexual freedoms in the OT, when interpreting sexual mores for today. Think about it. How many times has one heard a Bible message on the implications of God honoring these figures in the Hebrews hall of faith: Samson, who slept with a prostitute and took Delilah as a girlfriend, Rahab the prostitute, and David who had several wives and concubines and to whom God said he would have given more if he only asked?

Idolatrous interpretation can be annoying at best and dangerous (see my comments on Pat Robertson) at worst. Either way and even when it's sincere and well-meaning (often the case), it dishonors God to so casually call something his Word for people today when there is strong Biblical evidence to the contrary.


Jonathan said...


I can't tell you how many times I've read and re-read this post. I think you've hit on a great truth here! Thanks!


Michael said...

Wow, finally a comment on this one! Thanks for your encouragement. I hope there can be more discussion about this phenomenon by both Christians who quote and use the Bible too casually and others who see this misuse and discount the Bible altogether.


Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Hi Michael,
I don't think there are rigid rules about anything, including sexuality.

However - I think God's approval of people like Samson etc. was not because he necessarily condoned their sexual (or other) behaviour, but because he was looking for someone who would trust and relate to Him - their adherence to any rules was never the issue.

Michael Camp said...

Kerry, excellent point. Approval didn't mean condoning all behavior. On the other hand, there were times when God did condone behavior--David's polygamy, e.g., that modern society considers wrong. This doesn't mean we should follow this practice, but that we can't claim God was always against such a practice.