Friday, November 11, 2005

The Use and Abuse of Scripture

I believe that our familiarity with scripture borders on contempt. How often do we go back to texts we think we know and read and reread? What are we thinking during the scripture readings on a Sunday morning? Have you ever complained that a preacher read too much scripture? Just last week I got a note from a member asking me not to read so much scripture! Then I think of my trips to Zambia. I wish you could see the faces of Christians pleading with us to send Bibles. I wish you could have heard one African brother telling me that the only Bible in their congregation belonged to his father way back in 1937. I wish you could have seen the men frantically writing down every text we read because they had no Bibles to read it for themselves.

I see example everywhere of the abuse of scripture, some obvious, and some subtle. I have heard scripture rapidly quoted with anger and bitterness by people using the Bible as their own personal machine gun to win an argument, and I have debated with an atheist on historical inconsistencies they happened to uncover in the Bible. These examples have one thing in common – these people were quoting scripture without having a relationship with the author of scripture. You must have a loving relationship with God in order to understand His revelation to us!

I have observed two very extreme, very opposite ways of reading scripture, and I believe they are both dangerous:

1. Pattenism:
By this I mean reading scripture for the sole purpose of extracting rules and procedures, and guidelines. This is dangerous because scripture then becomes cold and lifeless. Passages can be ripped from their literary and historical contexts, and we tend to focus on the question, “Does the silence of scripture prohibit or allow something?” – a question that the Bible itself does not answer. Reading the Bible this way can make us intellectually lazy because if the Bible is reduced to a collection of facts to be learned, then you can only know so much, and once you have all the facts and rules down there’s not much left to do but argue with anyone who disagrees.

The other way of misusing scripture is even more dangerous:

2. Subjective Emotionalism:
When I am around students at ACU I often hear the phrase, “God laid it on my heart.” However, what they think God laid on their heart is sometimes heresy. God could not have laid on their heart something nearly as vapid as what comes out of their mouths. One of my theology professors told me that one time a young married couple came to see him, and the wife boldly declared that God had spoken to her – she was to abstain from sex with her husband. The teacher asked the husband, “Has God spoken to you about this?,” and he said, “NOPE!” And the teacher said, “Now this is interesting. Do you know that God has addressed this topic directly in scripture?” (see 1 Corinthians 7:5) A woman was claiming a “revelation” from God that directly contradicted scripture!

This is the danger of treating the Bible as a “living document.” When reading scripture becomes a private, purely emotional, application-only experience you also rip passages out of their contexts, and force those passages to say things they were never intended to say. Looking for “personal meaning” in scripture is like interpreting a piece of modern art at the museum – “whoa, that’s cool – never saw that before.” This way of reading scripture perpetuates the trendy myth that the sole aim of Christianity is to develop a “personal relationship” with Jesus, but when you find an unintended application in scripture you are committing violence against the integrity of the text. For example, I was sitting in on a small group study some time ago, and we were studying one of the prophets – a text where the prophet was condemning Israel, Isaiah I think. And people were saying, “Us Americans need to change. Look at this message from God. God will destroy our nation if we continue to sin and act immoral” – and I felt foolish pointing out that the prophet was speaking to Israel, not the United States. God has no covenant with the United States. The "new Israel" is the church, not America!

Here’s my point. I basically believe that scripture cannot have a meaning that the original author did not intend for the original audience to understand. I know that earns me the label of being a historical-critical reader of scripture. It’s just that I’ve seen so much abuse of scripture I want to be sure I approach scripture with humility and give the text the respect I claim to have for it.


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Ray said...


Great post!!!

Charles North said...

Thank you very much bro.

Josh Kellar said...

Brother Charles,
You have touched on a long-standing frustration of mine. It is interesting that you mention the lack of biblical depth of many comments heard around ACU. This is a great frustration of mine as well. In my history interacting with other Christians, I have found myself being incredibly judgemental of those with the fundamentalist approach. Lately, I have found myself even more judgemental of those with the "fluff." I agree with your desire to look to the original intent and I pray that God will continue to guide us both into a better understanding of him through his word.

Charles North said...

Thank you Josh. I really appreciate it. If you don't mind, tell us a little more about yourself.

Ryan said...

Great post. I second Ray's Amen.