Using and Abusing the Biblical Text

One of the things I love most about our heritage in the Restoration Movement has been our desire to understand the text. I think that is a very godly thing. It was something the Hebrews tried to instill in their children from a very early age that knowing God’s Word and obedience to it was of the utmost importance (Deut 6:1-6 & Psalm 119 for instance). Jesus said in the wilderness that we don’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. We need to hunger for God’s Word. Why? Because the Word reveals things to us about God himself, who we are to desire more than anything else in all creation.

So we read the text, study the text, hunger for it and to some degree begin to try to master the text. Sometimes I wonder if we try to master the text rather than letting the text master us. So while we desire the Word of God we should never forget that the reason we desire it is not for the sake of the text itself but for the purpose of knowing more fully God himself, who reveals himself through the Bible. I also wonder sometimes if we study the text so much that we feel we have a corner on the truth market.

I am not implying that we shouldn’t study the text, I am saying that how we study the text and the motives in which we study has an impact on what it produces inside of us. I cannot tell you how many times I have studied a text to prove another person wrong rather than to find out what it actually says. So I find a verse that might work, see that it supports their side of the discussion and not my own and skip on to a verse more favorable to my opinion or doctrine. That is just crazy and I am sad to say I have done it in years past.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people argue intensely (myself included) over a passage of the Bible and try to “win” the argument against another Christian. It is almost like the Bible becomes a tool or even a weapon that is used to leverage people toward our understanding of the text rather than help both parties grow closer to God.

When God’s Word is used in ways it was never intended to be used it becomes self-defeating. As we discussion various issues here let us all have a humble attitude of letting the text speak for itself and let God and His Word shape us rather than trying to do it the other way around.

0 Responses to Using and Abusing the Biblical Text

  1. hang2gether says:

    I’m an atheist and an anti-theist but I’m not going to argue with you about your faith…

    The way you described believers framing the bible in order to suit their perspective is spot on. The same goes for people with certain political views, views on race etc. I’d like to take this one step further though. What of framing truth? Framing legitimate forms of truth based upon reason and fact as irrelevant solely because it contradicts what one believes to be true.

    Let me humor theists for a moment with this hypothetical situation:

    IF God exists then it can be said that the way that the world is how He intended it to be.
    IF God exists then humans were gifted with reason for a purpose. We would not be endowed with reason for the purpose of misleading us from the truth, so we can safely assume that humans have been granted reason with which they can observe the evidence of God’s existence.
    IF God exists then the truth, above all other truths, would be the physical world. Everything in existence as it is.

    Why then, after using reason to deduct that evolution (which theists, if they so wished, could view as a beautiful mechanism of God) has led to such probabilistically impossible creatures do believers continue to rally against the natural order of the world? I would consider this no less than denying existence itself. I feel as if religious folks worship the bible above God… This dogmatic obedience, in my opinion, destroys theists’ ability to truly value what they believe is God’s creation.

    Basically, although we disagree on a huge theological level, shouldn’t atheists and theists alike step back and value the TRUTH of the world we live in? It’s one thing we share.

  2. Dan Smith says:

    Here’s a thorough study of NT use of the OT:

    “Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture: Moving Beyond a Modernist Impasse,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 263-87. This article is an attempt to begin to outline how an understanding of the NT’s use of the OT in it Second Temple context can provide some fresh insights to help us move beyond some contemporary articulations.”

    http://peterennsonline.com/articles-and-essays/

    Perhaps you are familiar with his 2-year old book:
    Inspiration and Incarnation that got his fired from his teaching job at Westminister Seminary. It is a classic to be read by all.

    Keep up the great work,
    Dan in Reno
    http://peterennsonline.com/ii/

  3. mattdabbs says:

    Dan,

    Thanks for the link. I will have a look.

    Hang2gether,

    Thanks for stopping by. Hope you will find yourself back here in the future. Truth has to transform us and not the other way around. Believers are not against nature. They are against theories that cannot be proven when it comes to the origin of mankind. They are just theories. Secular schools have the same problem you are talking about when they present a theory as fact and when they ignore other facts because it goes against evolution. It goes both ways and not just against Christians in how truth is viewed and used. We have to be fair with that.

  4. What I would argue in this respect is that sometimes we train or teach the most useless texts (in my opinion). I can remember as a kid of 9 or 10 years being in a ‘Bible Bowl’ competition and having to know the exact number of people associated to each family in Ezra 2 and 8. I had to know the whole book and spent weeks memorizing it. Wouldn’t gleaning the love that God has for us out of the Bible be a better use of time and training? I just think back to those studies for textual superiority and cringe when I think of how they seem to miss the point.

  5. K. Rex Butts says:

    I have been doing some reading on the Protestant Reformation and here is an interesting observation I ran accross:

    “…given the central role of the Bible for Protestantism, this new trend meant that the Bible tended to be read through the prism of ‘confessions’ – statements of faith that frequently influenced, and sometimes determined, how certain passages of the Bible were to be interpreted. This shift was a contributing factor to the rise of ‘proof-texting’: citing isolated, decontextualized verses of the Bible in support of often controversial confessional positions. Paradoxically, this development actually lessened the influence of the Bible within Prostestantism, in that biblical statements were accommodated to existing doctrinal frameworks rather than being allowed to determine them, and even to challenge them” (Alister McGrath, “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea,” p. 103).

    I have discussed the observation by McGrath in more detail on my blog.

    I like your observation that the Bible is sometimes used as a weapon. I think it is safe to say, that for those of us who believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, sometimes the way we use the Bible reflects everything but the gospel. Before we learn to ‘master the biblical text’ we need to let the gospel redefine our values.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  6. Philip III says:

    I agree with Matt that we have to be fair in terms of having a conversation about truth & representing both parties in this issue. It would be ludicrous to accuse only Christians of chicanery & skulduggery and to associate only the most noble of motives to evolutionists, atheists, and/or anti-theists.

    Also, I think that hang2gether makes some vast leaps & assumptions in logic about God. Although, I tend to agree with this conclusion that, to a larger degree than we might be willing to cop to, Christians can be guilty of “bibliolatry.”

    THAT said, I return to the first point of my comment that Matt originally highlighted. At least Matt is being honest & forthright in his self-disclosure about past abuses. Is hang2gether willing to uncomfortably examine his own personal malfeasance of time’s past? Or to look in the mirror at the misrepresentations that folks of his ideology & worldview have been guilty of? Its easy to pile on. Its a little bit harder to make your own mea culpa & try to move forward in seeking truth.

  7. doug young says:

    Great point Matt. Reading Eat this Book by Eugene Peterson has been a big help! If you haven’t read it, you should get it and move it to the top of your reading list.

    Doug

  8. preacherman says:

    Matt,
    Great post.
    I wonder how many preachers every Sunday take scripture our of context or even with the church basing doctrine on proof texting.

  9. Gary Greene says:

    This doesn’t seem the right place, but I don’t know of any other place to respond to hang2gether’s comments. I would like to look at his logic.

    I accept all the premises stated and assumptions made up until: “IF God exists then the truth, above all other truths, would be the physical world.” This premise is false. It does not take into consideration that God, as God, must be greater than his creation. Therefore, God is something that his creation is not and has a power his creation cannot have. So the creation cannot be “the truth above all other truths.” This would elevate the creation over the creator, an absurd position.

    Observation of nature helps us find that there must be a creator that put the world in the order it is in. That creator has told us why he put the world in that order. That is truth.

  10. hang2gether says:

    Matt,
    I think it’s important that we separate the atheist community from the scientific community. This goes hand in hand with my response to Philip so here’s two birds with one stone. I’ll be the first to say that a great deal of atheists are reactionary elitists. I’m sure you’ve run into a number of atheists unwilling to compromise or unable to answer to any questions you may have regarding the legitimacy of evolution. You’ve probably run into just as many of those kinds of atheists as I have run into theists unwilling to understand evolution.

    Gravity’s a theory, too. The reason that things like gravity and evolution are theories is simply because science is always open to question. It’s always open to being disproved. In fact, I feel that most scientist revel in the constant updating of previously known “truths.” But the fact is, rarely does it occur that we accept one hypothesis (evolution, gravity etc.) and suddenly realize that it’s the exact opposite (divine intervention). Most of the time it’s little errors WITHIN a hypothesis that are corrected…

    I’ve picked up a bible and read it. I spent the first 3/4 of my life studying religions, actively trying to believe though I could not. I gave religion the greatest benefit of the doubt that I could. Do you know any theists who have read Darwins’ Origin of Species? I was, and still am, one hundred percent willing to accept that I could be wrong. If I am wrong and it is revealed to me so, I will have no problem saying that I am a believer. Atheists with this kind of respect for truth feel the same way. The question I posed in my original post was simple: why, if your faith is so strong, are you worried about finding evidence disproving Gods existence? What is there to be afraid of if God’s truth is ultimately THE truth?

    Phil: I’d be more than happy to answer to a checklist of the faults of the atheist community…

    Gary,

    I understand what you’re saying. What I meant was worldly truths. For instance, the undeniably strong evidence that evolution was and is a force in the world would, if you were so convinced, be an act of God. The age of this planet is not in question. I’m sorry young Earthers, it’s not. But I don’t understand why theists cringe at that. Why not embrace it? Why not say “Ok, well the bible’s poetic. A hyperbole of actual events. These things really happened but perhaps not in the time span stated. But if proof shows that the world is billions of years old, well that just shows the glory of God. This is God’s Earth and this is how he intended it.” Billions. Billions of years. That’s mindblowingly long. All I’m saying is that science and your faith are not incompatible if you TRULY BELIEVE that this world and all evidence ABOUT this world are creations of God. I would, if I were a believer, value the observable world (all of which, by your account, was created by God) above the bible which has been altered numerous times by Kings. That’s all…

    Also, Philip, I’m not certain if it’s warranted but I feel a sense of hostility. I didn’t come here to argue the belief of God or to disparage theists. And I will certainly answer to any criticisms you pose so long as you understand that this is friendly discourse not heated debate :]

  11. mattdabbs says:

    hang2gether,

    Tone is hard to convey in print. I know Philip very very well and can just about assure you this comment is not a hostile one. I don’t have time to respond right now but I will tomorrow if I get a chance.

  12. hang2gether says:

    Noted. Upon re-reading I realized that my greater point in all of this is missing from my last post. My perspective is not one that cuts down religious folk. Not in the slightest. If anything, I feel my understanding would strengthen their faith. I just think it’s absurd to believe (as most believers do) that humans have been placed here in God’s image with the tools of reason but that when our reason brings us to undeniable conclusions about our planet that contradict the bible suddenly they’re no longer real. They’re a figment of our erroneous reason. I can’t wrap my head around the concept of choosing the reality in a book which we know to have been altered over time over a physically observable world with such strong proofs for its outstanding age and “design” if you want to call it such. Intelligent Design doesn’t do the world justice, either. I wouldn’t even consider ID a concession to the natural world. The Earth deserves appreciation in truth whether we believe it began one way or another. Basically, I’m saying that we shouldn’t be in disagreement about the natural order, but simply about how it all began… We should be standing side by side pointing at the stars, not across from one another pointing at each other.

  13. Philip III says:

    I don’t mind being direct & not beating around the bush. Sometimes that can come across in print as hostile. This is a post that started with an apologetic tone. You joined the conversation bringing a very different tone. I intended to highlight the imbalance in what two parties were bringing to a conversation & invite you to correct the imbalance.

    You claim open-mindedness and a willingness to stand side-by-side in examining these issues. You also appear to try to represent yourself as studied & aware of the landscape of issues. Yet, if in all your examination you haven’t found anything intellectually dishonest or elitist in atheistic material — if you have to ask for a checklist — then I (and perhaps others) have a hard time taking you seriously. Because you appear to have a different agenda than the one you claim to represent.

    (BTW, let me make it clear that I’m not trying to make you feel unwelcome. I’m just a guest here as you are. I’m simply explaining a gaping hole if you genuinely wish to move forward in a conversation of this nature.)

    And I don’t have a checklist of offenses sitting in front of me to run by you. But I would direct you to the work of Dr. Bert Thompson (despite his personal moral failings). Although, he generally spills a lot of ink addressing evolutionist scientists. For a more philosophical approach, Dr. Jim Baird is also an interesting resource from our perspective.

    In reading what you’ve written, you appear more unsettled on a worldview. I think it would be a mistake to think less of others who have settled on one. As well, I consider that it would be a mistake to assume that those who have more settled worldviews necessarily ignore or overlook dissonant evidence. Rather, there are ways to fit *seemingly* conflicting pieces of evidence into a theistic framework.

    I suppose those are enough thoughts for now

  14. hang2gether says:

    I never once stated that I hadn’t found anything dishonest or elitist in atheist material. In fact, I said the opposite:

    “I’ll be the first to say that a great deal of atheists are reactionary elitists.”

    As far as a checklist, well you weren’t precisely clear on what “malfeasance” you were addressing. I was merely asking you to narrow the field. When I consider theists, I don’t lump suicide bombers and profiteers like Pat Robertson in with you. I’m not asking you to apologize for the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. Are you asking me to acknowledge the rather hostile tone some atheists take towards religion? Done. Also, that atheists can be elitist and can take bible passages out of context in order to shock and awe? Seen it. When I first became an atheist did I have a habit of cutting down theists with ad hominem attacks? Yes. Did I wear atheism on my sleeve without having approached the subject from all angles and without understanding some of its tenets? Yes. If it’s personal behavior you’d like me to atone for, you’ve got it. I know where I’ve been and where I am at.

    I didn’t realize that my comment would be taken as such. I was merely taking Matt’s argument that sometimes we frame our resources in order to suit our needs and expanding upon that idea. Matt and Gary were able to discuss my perspective but all I seem to be getting from you is Fox-News style character analysis.

    I will look into both Dr. Bert Thompson as well as Dr. Jim Baird. What you call being “unsettled” I call “being willing.” I can assure you that based upon my life, my experiences and my knowledge of religion and atheism that I am an atheist. That is not in question. What you are considering being “unsettled” is my willingness to accept new evidence. If you considered that unsettled (and you did so, it seems, looking down your nose at me) then I’d say it’s unfortunate you feel that way. I’d appreciate it, though, if you didn’t presume and rather stick to the topic at hand. I haven’t gone about dissecting your somewhat caustic brand of passive comment, though I could if I wanted this to devolve into nonsense.

    I beg you to explain to me how you fit these “*seemingly*” conflicting pieces of evidence into a theistic framework. And I don’t mean that in a sarcastic tone. You use the word “seemingly” which I take to mean that I personally cannot see how they fit but you can. I’ll restate the original purpose of my comment once more:

    God created the universe as it is. God gave us reason. If we have reasoned the the Earth, the universe: everything operates a certain way that seems to contradict the bible, aren’t we beholden to the physical world that God created over the bible which we know to have been altered by man?

    That’s it. This isn’t an anti-theist argument in the slightest. I haven’t asked anyone to give up God or even made an argument that disproves God whatsoever. I, personally, do not understand why some theists reject the natural order when, in my opinion, if I were a theist I would cherish the natural order as a gift from God… Again, I didn’t come here to cause trouble, it’s just a question. I could have come here and been a reactionary elitist and begun posting all kinds of garbage to ruin the thread and generally be a rude little prick. I’m not into that. I admire empathy in people and try my best to be empathetic as often as I can. Put me in your perspective so that I can expand. Thanks :]

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