How to Read the Bible the Wrong Way
By erik swenson
February 29, 2012
Most Christians aren't able to read the New Testament in Greek. But I
assume most do read the Bible with the hope of actually understanding
it. So what is the role of biblical scholarship for the average
Christian trying to find God through the Scriptures?
The reality is we are vastly removed from the context of the Bible.
It's nearly impossible to read anything with complete objectivity. Our
assumptions, perspectives and experiences drip onto the pages and coat
the words we read. It's vital to seek ways to move past ourselves as we
read the Bible. If we don’t, we will likely misuse or simply miss the
very truths we are trying to get at. We need to apply some degree of
scholarship to our handling of Scripture.
Strength in numbers
The simplest way is to study the Bible in the context of a community.
Every person who has anything to say about the Bible is ultimately
issuing an opinion; an interpretation. The more interpretations we can
collect, the more likely we are to move toward a clear understanding. I
try to operate with the base assumption that there are people who know
way more than I do. I seek out those people (whether in person or from a
distance) and try to learn.
I was once listening to Rob Bell teach about Abraham and Isaac. That
story always troubled me. I couldn't reconcile the idea that God would
ask Abraham to stab his son. Even though God already had a substitute in
mind it seemed like a cruel test. But then I learned more about the
context of that story. Bell explained in that religious atmosphere, one
would have had no reason to question a deity who demanded child
sacrifice. His interpretation was that God brought this instruction to
Abraham and allowed him to believe He was just like gods of his fathers.
But then God intervened and provided the substitute snagged on a bush.
In this act He set Himself apart from the false gods that occupied
In this case, my understanding of the nature of God was at stake. I
believe I was holding a misinterpretation. In other cases, we may not
have a false interpretation but may be missing the magnitude of the
text. For example, Jesus told His friends to take up a cross and follow
Him. When we read that with only a vague mental image of what the cross
was, we lack the context to allow this teaching to completely wreck us
the way it should. In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip
Yancey suggested this statement would have leveled the first people who
heard it. These people were not removed from the practice of
crucifixion. They had certainly walked down roads lined with bodies
pinned to wooden stakes; spectacles set out by the Romans to remind the
people they were occupied. The invitation to carry a cross was and is
far more weighty than we would think without knowing this context.
The risks of scholarship
Having affirmed the importance of biblical scholarship, there is
another side to this discussion. There is a risk in all of this. It is
possible to dissect a text so thoroughly that we can completely miss
that which is beautiful, simple and even obvious. One can easily kill a
poem by treating it like a specimen. There are some truths that can only
be accessed by the heart.
The goal of our scholarship should be to know God more fully.
Sometimes our motive lies elsewhere. Jesus’ words may be difficult to
put into practice, but they are not usually difficult to understand. If I
am seeking out various theological interpretations of His instruction
to love my enemy, it may not be because I am looking for a deeper
knowledge of God. It is more likely because I don’t want to love the
person who belittled my career, insulted my religion, stole my
possessions or worse. Often, our theological discussions can become a
way of sidestepping the things God is asking us to do.
There is another false motive that is perhaps even more devious. For
some of us, the desire to obtain biblical knowledge is driven simply by a
desire for knowledge. Allow me to explain: Some of us do not study the
Scriptures for the purpose of knowing God. We study them for the purpose
of knowing more. We harbor a degree of superiority and pride in
the fact that we are more knowledgeable than most. We seek to correct
the interpretations of others, not to help them see God, but to
establish our own authority. And if this is our motive, we are not
likely to ever find God. For Jesus said: “You diligently study the
Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.
These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come
to me to have life” (John 5:39-40, NIV).
It seems instead that God reveals Himself to the humble. Because
Jesus also said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and
revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25, NIV).
Yes, the study of Scripture is risky. It's a journey littered with
fine lines and gray areas that invites a community to know a mysterious
God. But it's a risk always worth taking.
Erik Swenson is a freelance writer and artist living near
Indianapolis with his wife, Heather, and their three children. This article originally appeared on RELEVANTmagazine.com. Erik's
blog is ErikSwensonWalk.com.