3 Wrong Ways to Read the Bible
By Jason Boyett
December 21, 2010
One of the most curious artifacts of my Bible-belted, Southern
Baptist childhood was an activity called Bible Drill, in which kids in
grades four through six compete on how well they know the Word of God.
We’d be quizzed on our ability to quote verses, memorize references and
identify passages. One of the coolest parts of the competition was a
timed event where we had 10 seconds to locate a specific book of the
Bible. We’d line up, facing a crowd of nervous parents, and the
moderator would call out the get-your-Bibles-ready command: “Attention.
Present swords. Begin!” And in a flurry, we’d scramble to locate, say,
the book of Amos.
I rocked Bible Drill. And weirdly, I still find that archaic phrase
“present swords” fluttering through my mind, like song lyrics without a
There’s plenty of precedent for using Scripture as offensive
weaponry, including the famous Armor of God passage in Ephesians 6. But
we’ve taken that metaphor much further, turning the Bible into a box of
ammunition. Individual verses have become our bullets in the culture
war. Fighting homosexuality? Load up on Romans 1:27. Battling Hollywood
filth? Chamber a round of Philippians 4:8.
The problem is that the Bible is so much more than a rulebook.
Granted, parts of the Bible—Leviticus and much of Deuteronomy, for
example—were sets of rules. But Jesus redefined that way of thinking and
living. Later, Paul made it clear that an over-reliance on the “law”
side of Scripture was like living under a curse (Galatians 3:10) or
looking at life through a veil (2 Corinthians 3:14).
If the Bible can be reduced to a collection of ethical principles,
how do we deal with the fact that Christians throughout the centuries
have come to contradictory conclusions on what they are?
The Bible as toolbox
You can’t walk through a bookstore these days—religious or
otherwise—without seeing the Good Book made into a tool to enhance your
life. Biblical steps to weight loss. Biblical steps to overcoming
addictions. Biblical steps to business success. We crack open the Bible
for parenting advice, marital tips and scary prophetic insight into oil
prices and the Middle East.
That’s missing the point, too. Not that the Bible doesn’t have a lot
of great information about living a fulfilled life. It’s useful, Timothy
says, for teaching, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy
3:16). But our tendency is to jump into a passage, yank out a principle
about joy or perseverance, apply it to some out-of-context situation,
then pat ourselves on the back for our dedication to the Word.
But that’s like watching a great movie so you can find an
inspirational quote to tape to your fridge. Sure, it’s one way of
interacting with Scripture, but there’s so much more to it than that.
The Bible as science book
Not long ago, I came across a statement by a creation-science
lecturer who pretty much said this: If you don’t believe the world is
6,000 years old, then you don’t believe the first 11 chapters of
Genesis. Therefore, you don’t believe the Bible, and your faith is in
Yikes. Focusing on the factual accuracy of the Bible is a wrong
approach, because the core of my faith has nothing to do with whether or
not the days of creation are 24-hour days. My salvation doesn’t depend
on my interpretation of Genesis. It depends on whether or not I believe
the Gospels, whether I believe Jesus is who He says He is. According to
Paul, our faith hinges on the resurrection, not on Noah and the flood.
To get bogged down in the math and physics and biology and chronology
of Scripture is to major in trivia. It misses the point.
The Bible as easy answer book
“God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it.” According to this
mindset, the Bible fell from heaven one day, bound in black leather and
helpfully divided into chapter and verse. With a satin bookmark.
The truth is that the Bible and its history aren’t nearly that
simple. The Old and New Testaments come from a bunch of crumbling scraps
in a mix of genres, written across the centuries by dozens of different
Don’t worry: I believe the Bible is God-inspired and perfect in what
it communicates. But the “God wrote it, I believe it” brand of
inspiration fails to account for an important kink in the process:
People are idiots. While the Bible’s message may be perfect, those of us
reading it are unequivocably not. It’s easy to rip verses out of their
cultural and literary context so we can slap them on a bumper sticker.
The easy-answer approach makes it that much easier to misuse or abuse
the Bible. A number of recent evils, from modern sexism to slavery and
genocide, can be and have been backed up by carefully selected passages
of Scripture. A better approach is to read the Bible with careful
analysis of context, an acknowledgment of its complexity and a healthy
dose of humility.
What, then, is the Bible?
The Bible contains powerful moral authority, but it’s not just a
weapon. The Bible points to a fulfilled life, but it’s not just an
advice manual. The Bible tells us where we came from, but it’s not a
history or biology textbook. The Bible addresses many of life’s biggest
questions, but it’s by no means an easy read. To reduce the Bible to
these ways of understanding is to spotlight little truths at the expense
of the big Truth.
The big Truth of the Bible is Jesus. Yes, there are layers upon
layers of depth and truth and revelation to be found studying Scripture,
but the main story of the Bible is Jesus. The purpose of its thousands
of words is to point us to God’s final Word: Jesus Christ.
This article originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine.