How often I have heard this emphatic statement from fellow Christians, often followed by another declaration, “I believe the CLEAR teaching of scripture.” What is not understood is that we all read the Bible through “lenses.” Those lenses, whether they be cultural, or derive from a certain theological framework, (Dispensational, Catholic, Reformed, etc.) change the meaning and intent of the original writers. More often than not, we skip over the original intent and situation the authors were dealing with to arrive at a simplified message of “what the Bible is saying to me.” While it is good to seek directions and application from scripture, we often prefer to bend the author’s statement to fit our own racial, political and cultural biases.
Part of this is due, no doubt, to the particular individualistic bent of American Christianity, and partially due to the Protestant reformation’s rescue of scripture from an ecclesiastical elitist priesthood, declaring the “priesthood of all believers,” in a sense, putting scriptural interpretation into the hands of the masses.
Having gone through seminary doesn’t make me an authority on theology, but it has given me a unique understanding of HOW biblical interpretation ACTUALLY works in our churches. The term “Bible believing church” is actually a bit misleading. A more truthful statement would be: “we are a church that interprets the Bible following the framework of belief devised by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Hodge or (insert your favorite theologian).”
Most “Bible churches” are either thinly veiled Calvinist or, in the case of those Pentecostal, an amalgamation of dispensational authors and the “Princeton School of Theology,” a 19th century reformed view of scripture. What few parishioners seem to realize, is that their pastor, priest or minister has been TRAINED TO READ THE BIBLE A CERTAIN WAY. While exegesis in the original languages is taught, the APPLICATION of scripture is almost always put into some sort of systemized school of interpretation. When I was a seminary student it was Charles Hodge and B B Warfield, two systematic theologians who followed the reformed Princeton School of thinking of the late 19th century that formed our framework. Today, in many seminaries and Bible schools it has given way to the systematic theology of Wayne Grudem, which is a rehash of Hodge.
What has happened in American churches and denominations is that we have fallen into different camps theologically speaking, whether liberal, fundamentalist or conservative, each thinking they are truly disseminating the “truth” of scripture, while, in reality, the unique historical situations the original authors faced and were concerned with are overlooked in an attempt to make the writings directly relevant to today. Jesus was not a liberal, he was not a conservative, he was not a socialist, he was not a capitalist. Paul did not preach against “homosexuality,” (a 20th century term), nor did he condemn feminism. These are examples of how the church has reinterpreted the Biblical message to reflect our own modern biases.
Does this mean the Biblical messages are hopelessly archaic and irrelevant for today? No, certainly not. Actually the answer to understanding scripture is not hard. But a little un-learning is necessary. First, the Bible was not “written to me.” There is this myth that dogs much of popular American Christianity: that the Bible is God’s “love letter” to ME. No, JESUS is God’s “love letter to me,” period. The Bible tells us much about that love letter, but is not the letter itself.
Speaking of letters, there are a number of them in the New Testament. Learn who they were written to and why. This is the second step, and related to the first: the letters were written to someone else other than you, but to whom? This is critical for it establishes what theologians call the “sitz im leben,” of scriptural passages: the cultural and religious situation in which author wrote. We often assume the authors somehow knew about our current situations (because God “wrote” the Bible?) and therefore jump to an application that was furthest from the authors’ minds.
Thirdly, there is this overwhelming desire to harmonize scripture into an homogeneous whole, where everything neatly fits and there are no contradictions. While the Early Church Fathers were aware of the problems, it has become a particularly dishonest and misleading practice of the church in the last two centuries. The Bible is not inerrant…get over it and move on! It is extremely discourteous to both scripture and the original authors to try to bend scripture into a mold it does not fit. This is basically the trap brought on by the Princeton School of Theology and the fundamentalist movement in American Christianity. It will affect one’s reading of scripture, and not in an honest fashion.
Fourthly, scripture is not meant to be read in a “flat” fashion. Not every word, not every sentence and not every book is equally important in understanding the gospel message: “God loves you.” Trying to see Christ in every line of scripture actually started quite early in the church. Some of it is apparent in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were written by anonymous sources. But he is not in every line of scripture. Again, this is related to the third erroneous attempt: harmonizing scripture. Furthermore, it can have disastrous results. The heinous practice of American slavery is the direct result of Biblical flat reading, the fundamentalist distrust of science is another.
And lastly, the Bible was never meant to be “weaponized.” While there are pronouncements of judgement in scripture (a topic due its own post alone), we are not the ones to do the judging. The gospel message is good news, not a legal indictment of impending punishment that we are (self-righteously) to post to nonbelievers doorsteps. Far too many of us, and I have been guilty too, bash non believers with various clobber passages to prove how “sinful” they are (and somewhat smugly, how we are not). The key element to sharing the gospel is love, not judgement.
Hopefully these suggestions will prove helpful. Thank you.