In my book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper, I tell the story of how I came to believe the Bible is routinely abused, particularly by fundamentalists and evangelicals, but also by the general public. I make the case the Bible should be taken seriously as an historical document written by human beings that has much inspirational material from God, but nevertheless, is not a heavenly, literal instruction manual to be applied across the board. Discernment is necessary in applying the Bible’s message to modern believers. Here are four ways well-meaning readers abuse the Bible, usually unknowingly:
1 – Not Understanding Translation Problems – Contrary to popular belief, the translation of the Bible is not straightforward. There are many instances where scholars can’t agree on the correct translation for a Hebrew or Greek word or there are variant meanings. Moreover, there is sound linguistic evidence there are many words in our English Bibles that are mistranslated. Bottom line: Although this doesn’t mean we have to question everything we read, readers should not be dogmatic that what they read is the end-all meaning for a word, verse, or passage.
2 – Misinterpreting Passages – There are three major ways this happens. (1) reading verses out of context (not paying attention to the surrounding background or a writer’s overall point), (2) misunderstanding the history, culture, or literary style behind a text, and (3) selecting certain passages from the Bible while ignoring other themes or principles on the same topic in other parts of the Bible. This is why one should read the Bible like drinking large glasses of beer (gaining fuller context), rather than like sipping wine and reading things piecemeal. Moreover, without an understanding of background history and culture, it’s very easy and common to misinterpret the meaning of a passage.
3 – Misusing the Claim to Authority – The Bible is not a set of timeless axioms to be strictly obeyed to the letter. It never claims to be such. Even most narrow literalists prove this by ignoring certain verses. For example, most conservatives don’t allow women to be pastors or teachers but, contrary to Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians 14 and one in I Timothy, they permit women to speak in the church. They are selective literalists. The point is, as N.T. Wright says, “…there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.” Don’t get me wrong, I believe the Bible contains authoritative material. But its authority is not an across-the-board application. Its authority is found in as much as it reflects rationality and a remarkable dose of wisdom and moral inspiration that applies to one’s modern context. The Bible doesn’t always do this nor claims to. Not making this distinction gets “biblicists” in trouble as they attempt to get people to “submit to scripture.” Encouraging people to “love your neighbor as yourself” is a worthy goal, but teaching that all Christians must follow Paul’s admonitions for church order (which is also often misinterpreted) in the name of obeying God is just stretching the limits of whatever authority the Bible has. It also leads people to worship the Bible over and above God.
4 – Mislabeling Authenticity – Inerrancy advocates would have us believe the Bible is infallible with no errors whatsoever. But this flies in the face of biblical evidence. In my book, I cite a sampling of places where the Bible is clearly contradictory. As an historical document that sometimes cites eyewitness testimony, the Bible is comparable to other historical writings—it inevitably gets it wrong sometimes. This doesn’t mean it’s mythological, just that it’s a human document at its core (it doesn’t claim to be dictated by God). Such advocates also claim the Bible is wholly authentic. This also flies in the face of the evidence. Textual criticism is an important part of Bible study that not only reveals original meaning but how close and to what extent our modern Bible matches the ancient texts closest to the originals. Evidence suggests the Bible contains copyist errors and inauthentic passages. These aren’t huge discrepancies, but they need to be taken seriously. For example, that one passage (I Corinthians 14:34-35), where Paul says women shouldn’t speak or teach in church, was most probably added by a copyist with theological bias who wanted to keep the status quo of suppressing women in society (See Paul the Egalitarian).
In my studies, I discovered the modern, Western, evangelical way of looking at the Bible (infallible and the only authority for faith and practice) is not even supported by the Bible itself. And, other Christian traditions—the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example—have more rational ways of viewing the Bible that are much less susceptible to Bible abuse. I’ll continue to explore how to expose Bible abuse in later posts, but this is a good introduction to four common pitfalls serious students of the Bible need to avoid. Agree? Disagree? Please join the conversation.