How to Read the Bible the Wrong Way
By erik swenson
January 18, 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 Abraham’s life.
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. Erik's blog is ErikSwensonWalk.com.