One might be mightily confused about what Christians stand for if you listen to some of the high-profile, public preachers who have a national platform for their words. For example, not long ago, a pastor said that Romans 13 gives carte blanche to the government “to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un."
And it's not just public people either. In a viral video from Univision, a member of the Ku Klux Klan tells a Hispanic woman that II Peter instructs him not to eat with immigrants or people of color, and that the Biblical admonition to "love thy neighbor," really means to "love thy people."
These “Biblical” responses might prompt one to question whether the Bible is worth using at all. The truth is that ANYTHING can be supported or proved by the Bible. After all, slavery was supported by the Bible — the sale, transfer, and ownership of human beings was upheld as a Biblical principle. If the Bible can be used to justify slavery, then what else can it support? Murder of children? Check — see II Kings 2:23-25 for a chilling story in which the prophet Elisha directs two bears to maul 42 naughty kids to death. Genocide? Check — see Joshua 6 for just one example when God instructs the Israelites to conquer a city and kill every living thing in it.
Can we really believe that the Bible is a trustworthy and reliable document?
Of course I believe that the Bible is worth using. It’s just that there are good and bad ways to read and interpret the Bible. The key is learning how to understand it.
When the apostle Paul was aging, he spent much of his time mentoring a young man named Timothy. In one of his letters to him, he encouraged Timothy by saying, “Make an effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who doesn’t need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly.” In other words, there is a right way and wrong way to interpret Scripture.
This is a skill that is not only learned by pastors with years of seminary; every single one of you can also become a more informed, better equipped reader of the Bible. We need these skills now more than ever.
Here’s a list of five things to know/do in order to avoid misinterpreting the Bible:
1. Refuse to take verses out of context. Every book in the Bible was written at a particular time in history, by a particular person who is trying to make a particular point. One can’t simply pull a few words out of a passage and quote them to win an argument. It’s certainly tempting to start a sentence with the words, “The Bible says …” but you can’t do that unless you are sure that this is what those words actually meant to the one who wrote them.
2. Recognize that the Bible is not — cannot be — inerrant. One of the great stumbling blocks of American Christianity is the 20th century doctrine of Biblical infallibility, or inerrancy. This teaching claims that the words of the Bible came directly from God, and are recorded precisely as God wanted them to be recorded. In this view, there cannot be errors, mistakes, or incorrect information recorded therein. Furthermore, one part of the Bible cannot contradict any other part of the Bible. The problem is that close scholarship of the Bible naturally reveals all sorts of mistakes in the text. Often there are contradictory accounts of the same event. This does not invalidate the Bible’s importance in our lives; rather, it reinforces the importance of reading it correctly.
3. Remember that the Biblical writers were not perfect. We know this to be true; how then can we expect that their writings are “perfect”? In fact, their writings are an attempt to record a revelation of God in a reliable and genuine way. None of them thought that what they were writing at the time would come to be regarded as Holy Scripture. Paul was simply writing letters to friends in churches. The gospel writers were merely trying to record the oral accounts of Jesus’ life and death so that they would not be lost. Not a single one of the authors would argue that their document was “inerrant”; after all, they were simply humans trying to figure out what God was doing in the world.
4. Realize that the Bible contains different genres of writing. The Bible is full of different genres, and each genre has its own rules of interpretation and use. The Psalms, for example, are poetry and song; they function like hymns or songs for use in worship. They are not necessarily places to go for doctrine; check out Psalm 138:8-9. Or to take another example, I Corinthians is a letter written to a specific church in response to a letter which Paul received. Unfortunately, we don’t have a copy of that original letter to which Paul was responding; we hear only one side of the conversation. To what extent does the letter even apply to the rest of us? That’s a matter that’s up for debate!
5. Let go of the “single interpretation” model. Most of us were raised to believe that there is only one correct interpretation of any passage of Scripture, and that the goal of Bible study and scholarship is to figure out that correct meaning, to wrestle the kernel from the seed. I used to believe it, too. However, my experience of Scripture is far more complex than that. I believe most texts are multivalent, meaning they have multiple legitimate meanings. I think this is what makes the Bible especially relevant and authoritative today; our acceptance of the Scriptures as authoritative for our community is based on our sense that God has spoken — and is still speaking -- through these texts. Scripture is a living, breathing document, and the Holy Spirit is active in and through it to speak to us in our own context.
I pray that you are not scared away from the Bible by these suggestions. We don’t need less Scripture, we need more! In these crazy times in which we live, we need the comfort, challenge, and transformative words of the Bible more than ever.