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Don't be Imprisoned with a Distorted view of the Bible
The passages below are taken from Tremper Longman III’s book “Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind,” published in 1997 by NavPress Publications.
Is that a person standing over there by the wall or a tree?
And what does that road sign say: Merge Left. . . or Dead
Has it ever happened to you? Maybe you are blessed with excellent vision, but every few years I notice that my eyesight is getting worse. My old glasses just aren’t doing the job anymore. My friends start looking like interesting additions to the landscaping, and a routine drive through town becomes a heart-pounding adventure.
So I go to the doctor for a new set of lenses. Suddenly my misty world clears up. And when I walk out to the street in the morning, I can tell the difference between my car and the garbage truck!
THE LENSES THROUGH WHICH WE READ
Yes, I’m exaggerating---to make a point. One of the first lessons young Christians receive is to be careful not to read their own ideas into the Bible. Clearly, this is good advice; we ought to be fully aware of our preconceived ideas and conditions as we approach the text. Nonetheless, this kind of advice can go too far, suggesting that in order to avoid misinterpreting the Bible we must be thoroughly objective, ridding ourselves of our personal desires, interests, and backgrounds. In this view, such subjective aspects of ourselves would work like a bad pair of prescription glasses---with lenses that don’t clear up misty vision but rather distort the view.
Yet who can come to the Bible with complete objectivity? Each of us already has built-in lenses through which we interpret things---God’s Word included. It is impossible to approach the Bible without personal involvement because we cannot simply throw off our personality, culture, and education as we read the Scriptures. After all, the Bible isn’t a frog to be dissected and studied in a sterile laboratory; it is the Word of God which addresses each one-of-a-kind heart and mind. Since the Word is the place where each person meets and experiences the Lord in his own life, we read the Bible through our life experiences, which are legitimate interpretive lenses.
We look at the Bible through “lenses” because we are finite creatures. To be truly objective, we would have to be all knowing in a way that only God is. We are restricted to our own culture, education, upbringing, denominational connections, limited teaching on the Bible, economic stratum, and so forth. Everything that makes us who we are as individual human beings influences us as we read the Bible. No matter how hard we try, we cannot become completely blank slates with the hope that we will understand the Bible in a thoroughly detached way. There is no escape from looking at the Bible through our built-in lenses.
At Westminster Theological Seminary where I teach the Old Testament, I see this principle at work every day. While many who come to our seminary are Presbyterian in their basic theology, a minority of students come from Baptist, Episcopalian, charismatic, and other denominational backgrounds. Currently, we have students from thirty-five different countries as well. Our 600-member student body consists of men and women, rich and poor, bright and not-so-bright, stable and unstable, single and married. Some are right out of college, others are in their sixties.
These factors and the experiences of my students and myself influence how each of us reads the Bible. Our backgrounds and present concerns don’t determine the meaning of the Bible, but they do impact how we read it. A Christian from a Latin American barrio, whose government oppresses the poor, will read Psalm 113 with a different emphasis than an upper-class Caucasian American who is fairly satisfied with his living conditions.
Some people feel uncomfortable acknowledging that our lenses influence our interpretation of the Bible and for a good reason. It may be that our lenses aren’t helping us interpret the Bible; they may be distorting our understanding of it. We do want to know what the Word of God says to us, but we do not want to improperly impose our perspectives on the Bible.
This danger, as we all know, is quite real. How often have we seen or heard of people who bend the Bible to fit their own needs? That poor Latin American Christian may use her preunderstanding of the Bible to justify rallying the church to revolt against her government. The rich American may use the Bible’s teaching on God’s blessings to justify his oppression of others as he amasses more wealth. Someone who mercilessly beats his young son might justify his actions on the basis of Proverbs 13:24. A demented cult leader may read biblical prophecy in such a way that he leads his followers to a fiery death.
SOME DISTORTING LENSES
We must become aware of our lenses in order to know whether they help us or hinder us as we listen to God’s voice in the Bible. No lens is perfect. Everyone’s view of the Bible can be improved and expanded. But the sad truth is that some lenses do hinder more than help, distorting the Bible to an intolerable point. They don’t help us see reality clearly at all because they are like spectacles with plain glass in them---merely giving the pretense of help.
Let us survey some common examples of the lenses we ought never to put on. They will cause us to view the Bible as:
1. A treasure chest of golden truths. The alarm clock rang at 6 A.M., and Kanisha sprang out of bed. Early morning was her favorite time of day. She just couldn’t understand people who had to drag themselves out of bed in the morning. After brushing her teeth and showering, she grabbed her Bible and got into her comfortable “praying chair.” She closed her eyes and, with a short prayer for guidance, pointed and read:
I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it;
my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live. (Job 27:6)
Wow! she thought to herself. God really can speak to my heart. How did He know that I felt so guilty about that argument with my mother on the phone last night? We1l according to God, I guess I shouldn’t let it bother me. It’s all behind me now. She closed the Bible and grabbed her coat, rejoicing that she had completed her Bible study this morning.
Some people, like Kanisha, approach the Bible as a loose collection of inspiring phrases, golden nuggets that fall out of the sky. These ancient sayings lift us up in the morning and help us get through a tough day. But the Bible is certainly more than a collection of mottoes to be framed and placed on the wall of our minds. The Bible is the story of God’s salvation and along with the uplifting verses are some pretty hard-hitting statements about humankind and our life in a fallen world. The Bible is a narrative masterpiece, a story made up of many stories. To understand any part we must have a grasp of the whole.
Kanisha’s method of choosing a text may not be yours, but have you ever picked up biblical passages as though they were little golden nuggets scattered among other jewels of wisdom? It is a problem of disregarding the broader context. In Kanisha’s reading, when Job states the words recorded in 27:6, it is questionable whether Job is as righteous as he thinks he is. Perhaps his conscience should have bothered him! In any case, Kanisha improperly applied the verse to her own life without further reflection upon the whole message of the book of Job.
2. A grab bag of promises and comforts. Gertrude had spent years doing needlepoint, and it lifted her spirit to see all the promises of God so artfully displayed around her house. That was why she felt so comfortable in her warm house and hated to go outside into a rather frightening world.
Another approach to the Bible, similar to the preceding, is one that dips into the Bible only for the comforting promises of God. With this lens on, we see only the things that make us feel better, when, in reality, often the Word of God spoken into our lives ought to make us quite uncomfortable. Yes, there are many, many rich promises in the Bible. But, once again, pulling those promises out of their context means disregarding the totality of the Bible’s message.
3. A compilation of riddles and secrets. The Bible speaks of mysteries, ultimately incomprehensible realities, and the wonder of God and His creation. And this living Word does not submit itself to exhaustive interpretation. Yet the Bible is not a book of riddles for which the interpreter must find a special key to unlock its secrets.
The examples of such an approach are endless. A few years ago I debated a popular radio preacher who felt he had found the key that revealed the true meaning of the Bible. His work was unnecessarily complicated, and it is not worth repeating here, but he felt that much of the Bible pointed to Jesus’ return in September 1994. The key, for him, was to apply precise mathematics. In a very convoluted argument, he supposedly demonstrated that God created the world in 11,006 B.C.; therefore, the world must end in 1994. He used passage after passage to buttress his argument, basing everything on the crucial importance of the number thirteen. His faith in this interpretive key was so intense that when 1994 came to a close, he argued that we should follow the calendar of the “Jewish year,” which would end in March 1995. That only gave him three months, though, to prolong his inevitable embarrassment.
The Bible is not a book of riddles that needs to be solved. We encounter difficult passages in its pages, but the central message is clear as a bell.
4. A talisman with magical power. Some people view the Bible as a magical charm to keep close in times of trial or danger. “It’s a holy book,” said John, “a book that keeps harm at bay and gives me the power to face each day. I take a little Bible with me wherever I go. I heard that a guy once carried a Bible in his breast pocket---and it stopped a bullet. Obviously, the Bible can save your life!”
People who have a view like this read the Bible out of fear. The Bible can help prepare us for danger and even death; however, it is primarily a book of life. It brings us guidance and encouragement in the face of suffering, but only if we read it, reflect on it, and apply it in practical ways. That is not magic but discipleship.
These are just a few of the ways we try to reduce the Bible to our own size, with lenses that make the Bible smaller than it actually is. Other strategies include treating the Bible like a law book. Or, the opposite, treating it as a book that frees us totally from any rules, arguing that we are in a period of grace in which the law no longer has any role in our lives. Some read the Bible as a political tract, supporting right-wing, Marxist, or feminist agendas.
We must not conclude from these myopic and distorted viewpoints that reading with a perspective is all bad. Even these approaches highlight important truths about the Bible. But they refuse to treat it as an organic whole. And they close off aspects of God and His message that we may not wish to acknowledge.
SOME CHRISTLIKE PERSPECTIVES
To read the Bible through distorting lenses is to blind ourselves to God’s full message. The people who use such lenses may not be evil, but they have taken up immature perspectives on Scripture. They grasp a part of the truth about God’s Word but then treat it as the most important---or even the only---teaching of the Bible. In contrast, God invites us to come to His Word with commitment and trust, the kind Jesus Himself demonstrated toward His Father’s Word. There are certain Christlike perspectives on the Bible that we can embrace in order to read it according to the intention of its divine Author. Consider:
1. Approaching the Bible as God’s Word. Is the Bible the Word of God? Or is it just another inspiring human document? Your answer to this fundamental question will have major impact upon how you read the Bible (and how it “reads” you). Christ Himself affirmed the Scriptures’ divine authorship.1 To accept the Bible as the Word of God is to imitate Christ’s own belief and practice.
Along with this fundamental attitude toward the nature of the Bible comes a related question: Do you believe and trust the Bible’s view of the universe, that it is more than the material existence we can perceive through our senses? Is there a supernatural dimension to reality, as the Bible describes it?
Our basic view of the nature of the Bible and its world significantly impacts how we read it. The apostle Paul argued,
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even
Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:13-19 NIV)
While not speaking directly to our point, Paul draws a close connection between three things: faith (what we believe), the word (his preaching), and the supernatural universe (Christ’s resurrection). These three are intertwined and dependent on one another.
The lens that the Bible invites us to put on is a perspective that understands the Bible to be the Word of God. It thus calls us to approach its pages in faith, believing in the universe it describes, even when our senses may not directly confirm what it says. Otherwise, we approach the Bible with skepticism and subject the Bible’s worldview to critical analysis rather than letting the Bible analyze every other theory of existence. In an insidious reversal, we become critics of the Bible rather than allowing the Bible to criticize us. Bypassing this unhappy approach, we can bow to the authority of the Bible. Thus, we can let the Lord lead us into His presence, praying as one dedicated noblewoman prayed centuries ago:
Lord, as I read...
let me hear you singing.
As I read your words,
let me hear you speaking.
As I reflect on each page,
let me see your image.
And as I seek to put your precepts into practice,
let my heart be filled with joy.2
2. Reading the Bible as a guide for living. We do come to the Bible with certain expectations about its subject matter. Once we accept the Bible as the Word of God we need to ask what God has chosen to speak to us about. Second Timothy 3:16 informs us that God intends to address all of life in His Word:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Paul encouraged his young mentor, Timothy, to search the Scriptures for answers to life’s most perplexing questions. The Bible is our divinely given life guide. Jesus believed this and submitted to His Father’s Word for the direction of His life, even to the point of going to the cross.
As we read the Scriptures, we are amazed at how it tells us of life, the whole range of life experiences. It teaches not only about God and our relationship with Him. It instructs us about how to deal with suffering in this world and gives us hope in the midst of everyday chaos. We also receive crucial guidance in marrying, parenting, working, playing, worshiping. The Bible provides the perspective we need in order to live in a way that pleases God in all our endeavors.
Of course, some people take a more academic approach to this passage in Timothy. They argue that here God tells us that the Bible is the only place we can learn anything about the world and life. So we must come to the Bible before we address any issue of human concern, whether it be religion, psychology, finance, politics, science, or morality. Others feel that the Bible is only interested in matters of faith. We read the Bible in order to learn about our relationship with God, not to discover the method of creation or to learn of specific developments in ancient history.
As with most controversies, the truth likely dwells between the two positions. Clearly, the Bible is concerned about faith and salvation. But God has accomplished our salvation on earth in real history. Therefore, when the Bible addresses matters of science or history, it speaks truly and accurately. But often it does not speak fully. For instance, we can’t find out in the Bible about the best computer software for Bible study. But that doesn’t mean computers don’t exist or that they shouldn’t be in our lives.
3. Interpreting the Bible with Christlike humility. If anything, the previous paragraphs should lead us to great humility in our interpretation of the Bible. To be sure, a number of basic teachings in the Bible are simply unarguable. The Bible clearly and repetitively teaches that we are sinners in need of a savior. It clearly teaches that the Savior is Jesus Christ. Many, many other fundamental teachings are quite clearly taught in the Bible. However, a number of other teachings are not so clear, including some that are dear to us.
Did God create the universe in six literal days? What about evolution? Will Christ return after, or before, the Rapture? Will there be a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth? These and many other questions of interpretation have caused tremendous fights and rifts down through the centuries. I have definite opinions about them, and, when I first became a Christian, I was willing to go to the wall for them. But now I realize that Christ doesn’t want us to fight for interpretations that are neither central to the faith nor capable of absolute certainty. He is growing within each of us a heart that seeks something much better than merely being right.
Give us a pure heart
that we may see thee,
A humble heart
that we may hear thee,
A heart of love
that we may serve thee,
Whom I do not know
But whose I am.3
As Dag Hammarskjold the former General Secretary of the United Nations, expressed in this prayer, we will never have a complete handle on God, never fully “know” Him in this life. All of our theology is finite; only God is infinite. Therefore, as we seek fuller enlightenment about His indescribable character, we’ll breed within ourselves a certain humility as we study---that is, we’ll wear our interpretive eyeglasses loosely and give our Christian friends the benefit of the doubt and a fair hearing when their interpretations differ from our own.
PROTECTING WHILE PRESERVING
As devoted disciples of Christ, we must develop a recognition that our lenses both help us and can possibly hinder us. We need to wear our lenses, knowing that we approach the text with pre-understanding. But we should wear them lightly, being willing to subject our viewpoints to the Bible itself for correction and change. These are the two poles of reading the Bible with passion, for God desires our hearts to be in pursuit of Him as we read His Word. We cannot be lukewarm, detached, and objective as we read God’s Word.
How can we protect ourselves against distorting the Bible while at the same time preserving our passion? First, we’ll need to read the whole Bible rather than focusing only on our favorite parts. The Bible teaches its truth repetitively. God comes back again and again to His most important teachings. As we broaden our understanding of the Bible, we will gain more balance in our interpretations. For instance, we’ll see that Bible passages promising blessing for the believer are tempered by other passages that acknowledge suffering in a fallen world and the material success of the wicked (see Psalm 73).
Second, as we interpret, we’ll need to mentally place ourselves in ancient times, so we can understand the context in which the books of the Bible were written. The books of the Bible were written directly to the audiences contemporary to its human authors and only secondarily to the generations that followed. As we remember to place ourselves in the ancient world of the Bible, we create a healthy distance between ourselves and the text. (We’ll talk more about this later.)
Third, we’ll interpret the Bible in community. That doesn’t mean I avoid reading the Bible alone in the quiet of my study or bedroom. It means that I should also be talking to other people about my interpretation with an openness to their opinions. I can also read the writings of seasoned Bible scholars from different backgrounds to get their insights on the text. They might see things in the text that I don’t. Further reflection may convince me that they are right.
And that is a crucial point. We all look at the Bible through lenses, but we can and often must change “prescriptions.” As I read the Bible, I may notice passages that I just can’t square with my previous understanding of the text. Perhaps I once thought the Bible taught that women were somehow inferior to men. I read Old Testament laws that seemed to indicate that men were more valuable than women (Leviticus 27:1-10). But by adopting such a position I am forced to struggle with Genesis 1:26-28, which teaches that women, like men, are made in the image of God. I may then have my attention drawn to Galatians 3:28, which says that in Christ there is “neither... male nor female.” My understanding of the Bible’s teaching on gender may then undergo a major shift that affects not only the way I think but also the way I act.
The moral of the story, then, is that we can change our glasses. We are not imprisoned with a distorted view of the Bible; we can constantly be improving our eyesight. Indeed, most of this book is devoted to helping us discover the best lenses for reading the Scriptures.
Yes, some people are trying to fool themselves that they don’t wear glasses at all. This view is dangerous because it doesn’t allow a person to be self-critical of his or her pre-understanding. Other people are wearing beaten-up glasses, those big horn-rimmed types with the ear pieces bent out of shape, a bit of masking tape at the nose piece. The lenses haven’t been washed for years, and the person who wears them has come to believe that every object he sees is supposed to fade into another. When that happens, so much of God’s truth is blocked from view,
We should know that we wear glasses and that our glasses will need adjustment from time to time. That is, we ought to become aware of our subjectivity. As the poet Goethe once said, “Each one sees what he carries in his heart.” (51-60)
1. This topic is too broad to treat here. For a survey of the evidence please consult W. A. Grudem, “Scripture’s Self—Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture,” in Scripture and Truth, D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), pp. 19-59.
2. Lady Jane Grey in Van deWeyer, Robert, ed. The HarperCollins Rook of Prayers (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 172.
3. Dag Hammarskjold, in The HarperCollins Book of Prayers, p. 186.
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