Exploring Christianity – Part 5 – Interpreting the Bible or abusing it?

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See below to see the latest installment of my friend Nicholas’ interview with me about Christianity or click here for the whole thing.  

Nicholas wrote: Historically, the Bible has been used to justify some pretty atrocious actions.  I assume you believe there is one correct interpretation of the Bible and that any interpretation which allowed these actions was incorrect.  Do you believe that you are in possession of that one correct interpretation?

With respect to atrocities that were rationalized by using the Bible – and I’m pretty sure we agree on what those actions were and that they were indeed atrocious – I think it is possible to interpret the Bible clearly, just as it is possible to interpret it clearly on the essentials of the faith. 

Does the fact that people misinterpret or even abuse scripture mean the scripture itself isn’t reliable?  Of course not.  Otherwise anyone could disprove anything they wanted to by twisting the meanings  (You didn’t pose that question; I just assumed someone might be wondering about that possibility).  In fairness, we should apply this principle to other faiths as well.

In What about the Crusades?! And the Inquisition?! Etc.?! I pointed out that one shouldn’t judge an ideology based on the actions of those who violate its tenets.  But as you allude to, how can we be sure what the real tenets are?

I am probably more agitated at those who misinterpret the Bible for their own ends than you are, because it distracts people from the basic Gospel message and harms our ministries.  False teachers really bother me.  The Apostle Paul didn’t mind if people preached the Gospel with wrong motives as long as they got the message right.  He minded a lot if they got the message wrong, even if their motives were sincere.  The importance of sound, accurate teachings is a key element of Christianity. 

In general, I hold to this saying regarding church doctrines: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.  This means that if someone doesn’t hold to the essentials of the faith (Jesus is God, He is the one way to salvation, the Bible is authoritative and reliable, etc.) then he doesn’t meet the orthodox definition of a Christian.  But there are plenty of things we can charitably disagree on.

Having said that, there have been atrocious things done that were justified by misinterpreting the Bible.  These are exceptions to the saying above.  They may not have been in the “essentials” category in the sense of what defines a Christian, but that doesn’t mean the issues weren’t important or worth fighting over. 

As these examples will show, the solution is more and better Bible reading and study, not less.  The answers are there, but we have to be Biblically literate enough to point out false doctrines when they crop up.  People may come to these wrong beliefs by accident, lack of effort or because it furthers their agenda or fits their preconceived worldview.  Jeremiah 17:9 says The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

There are rules to use when interpreting the Bible, just as there are when reading any work of literature.  When in doubt, follow some basic Bible Study Tips: Reading passages in context is perhaps the most critical rule (see Never read a Bible verse).  You can also view multiple translations, go back to the original language, let the clear explain the unclear, read it in light of other scripture, etc.  This will solve most problems. 

This applies to the classic example of U.S.-style slavery.  I add the qualifier “U.S.-style” because it is quite different than the slavery acknowledged in the Bible.  Did people try to twist the Bible to justify their actions?  Yes.  But a thorough reading of the Bible, in context, crushes those arguments.  These people were obviously stolen from their homeland, and to say the slave owners didn’t love their neighbors (the slaves) as themselves is a massive understatement. 

Now let’s consider a more current example: Abortion.  Some Christians try to twist scripture to say that the Bible is supportive of abortion.  Their main point is often that “Jesus didn’t say anything about abortion.”  That is called an argument from silence, because there are many things that Jesus didn’t specifically mention (rape, pedophilia, drunk driving, etc.) that are clearly moral wrongs.  More importantly, He did say, “Do not murder.”

The main passage pro-choice Christians use to support their position is Exodus 21.  Click the link for a good overview of the controversy.  If people are after the larger meaning that hitting a pregnant woman is different than hitting a non-pregnant woman, then virtually any translation of that passage will suffice.  However, if someone wants to determine if there are implications to the abortion debate based on that passage then they will get mixed messages from different translations.  Some make it clear that the unborn is a distinct human being, while others make it appear that there is a lesser value.

So what is the solution?  Simple: Just go back to the original Hebrew.  As the link shows, that clears things right up. 

Another example is the Inquisition.  I’m not sure what verses, if any, they used to justify their actions, but they couldn’t have been more opposed to Biblical teachings if they tried.  Forcing someone to believe is simply not a Biblical motif.  Consider the story of the rich ruler.  The man didn’t like Jesus’ terms, so Jesus let him walk away sad.  Jesus did not run after him and tackle him or force him to believe, even though Jesus loved him. 

You can also watch some of the false teachers on TV and see how they twist scripture to make it look like God just wants you to be rich and healthy.   They are God’s middlemen, of course, and to get things started you need to send them money.  I keep trying to find that in the Bible, but I can’t. 

Twisting God’s Word is not a new development.  Satan did that in Genesis 3 (“Did God really say . . .”) and Matthew 4, for example.  Again, the answer is more scripture, or more accurate scripture readings, which is how Jesus responded. 

Let me know if you want to dive more deeply into any of these or if you have other examples you would like addressed.  I think the overall principles will apply to just about any controversy you can find.   

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