Are You Reading the Bible Wrong?

“Bible, Bible, Bible. Everybody is reading the Bible.” This is how one of my seminary profs chose to begin one of his classes and it was slightly shocking because it was satirical. This statement is more or less true about Evangelicals because the Bible is our authority and the written revelation of God (no argument there). Have you ever encouraged someone to read their Bible? Have you ever told them that if they want to know God’s will for their life then they need to read the Bible? Have you ever even given the slightest thought as to what you were asking that person to do?

On a large scale we as Evangelicals claim that if Christians will interpret Scripture using a historical-grammatical method and good exegesis they will arrive at an orthodox interpretation. Is this true? No, and here is one reason why: interpretation never arises from a blank slate, which is what the historical-grammatical approach claims. This approach does not take into account that everyone comes to the text with presuppositions and a predisposition to interpret the text in a certain way. Currently, we find ourselves living in a post-enlightenment world, which states, “I am just concerned with the data.” So we look at the original language, the grammatical structure, and the cultural setting for our interpretation. This method is not all-together wrong or incorrect, but is it complete?

Here is how this scenario plays out… Suppose the head pastor of an evangelical church wants to do a sermon on David and Goliath. He spends the week leading up to Sunday studying the cultural background, geography, history of the Philistine/Israelite controversy, and the fight between David and Goliath. What will likely happen is after this information has been given, the pastor will say, “Here is how you slay the giants in your life,” and he goes off on that subject. Is that a poor application to make? Maybe not, but is the interpretation whole? Is that reading distinctively Christian? I submit that it is not because it is not informed by the Christ event, namely the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Stopping at the “facing your giants” interpretation seems to be what Dr. Christian Smith calls “Therapeutic-Moralistic Deism.” So what is the distinctively Christian reading? Tim Keller gave a good answer when he said, “Jesus is the true and better David whose victory becomes his people’s victory, though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.”

So what is the alternative? A Christocentric, orthodox informed lens through which we read and interpret the Scriptures. The early church interpreted Scripture through the lens of what had been passed down to them, known as the “rule of faith.” A simple definition of the rule of faith is apostolic, orthodox teaching. Irenaeus was a mainstream defender of the Christian faith against heretical teaching and he wrote that the one standard of correct interpretation is the rule of faith, which has been preserved in the church in the apostolic succession. So what is the lens? What should inform our interpretation? Orthodoxy. What is distinctively Christian is our starting point and that informs our interpretation.

In conclusion, we should not seek to read Scripture as anyone other than a Christian. You should not want to read the Old Testament like a Jew. You are not Jewish! You are Christian. The call is that we no longer place ourselves at the center of the Scriptures and determine “what they have to say to me,” but to read the Scriptures through the lens of orthodoxy and what is distinctively Christian. Is the Bible about what we are to do, or about what God has done? I believe that we have taught our people to read the Bible. We have even taught them to read it correctly with a historical-grammatical approach. But have we taught them how to read it Christianly? Don’t get me wrong, the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation is beneficial, but I do not believe it is complete. My fear along with others is that we are encouraging people to go home and read their Bibles in isolation and we give them no lens through which to do so. Sadly, the average layperson does not view God as Trinitarian, nor do they read the Scriptures through a  Christocentric lens. This is raising up a multitude of people who view the Bible as their “roadmap to life,” and have little to no knowledge concerning historic Christian orthodoxy. This, among other things has lead many to predict an evangelical collapse. Do you agree or do you think orthodoxy as a starting point is ill conceived?

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4 thoughts on “Are You Reading the Bible Wrong?

  1. ikehawk10 says:

    hey daniel. I enjoyed reading this post and found a lot of the information interesting. Due to my need to further understand what you are suggesting by this post let me ask a few questions:

    Your previous tweet, “There is nothing more dangerous than a person with a Bible who doesn’t know how to read it. It is like an untrained squire swinging a sword.”

    That is an unbelievably profound statement because, by my assumption, you are saying that one must not read the Bible without having the correct lens in place or else this person is likely to kill everyone. I cant get out of my mind the thought of how uninformed this statement comes across. Now, I think (or at least hope) that what you mean by this tweet is a lot less ambitious then how it is sounding in my head. So in order for me to give you the chance to clarify let me address the areas that cause such a strong opposition to this statement.

    **You aren’t saying that there is no benefit to reading the Bible “incorrectly”.

    Even without a “christo-centric lens” to read the Bible by, the reader gains access to the message and beauty of the Gospel. I would say that even without viewing the stories in the Old Testament as a shadow of what is to come in the New Testament and of the Christ Event, once the reader begins to read the content of the New Testament, without a given lens, they will still be moved by the fact of a gracious God who revealed himself through Jesus for the purpose of offering himself up as a sacrifice for our opposition towards and rebellion against God so that, by no work of our own we might be reconciled to this creator God. So I would say that there is still a benefit in being exposed to the contents of the Bible even without the “proper” (a term which is up for debate) way of reading the bible.

    Now I would say that a continuing in this ignorance without being open to new methods of interpretation or lens in which to view the contents of the Bible is potentially a dangerous endeavor and can lead to the surfacing of some degree of error. But lets be honest, who can say that they know how to read the Bible perfectly? I would say that there is vast majority of people who say that their way of reading it is the best way that they know of at the time, but to say that this lens is absolutely the most perfect interpretation of the Bible and is error free is the saying of a fool and one who doesn’t have a decent grasp on Christian history nor the limitations of the human mind’s comprehension.

    **There can be something good that comes from this activity and it isnt a hopeless endeavor.

    It is similar to asking the question, Is there a benefit to Joel Osteen’s preaching? Most people would say no, but I would say that that is a hasty, uninformed answer. Is the teaching of Joel biblically accurate? I would say no. But i am sure that there is a great number of people who are turned on to his preaching and for the first time attend “church”. now that Joel’s preaching has got them in the door and now these people feel fairly comfortable hanging out with and talking to church goers they might come across someone, whether at the gym or at work who can sit down with them and point out the flaws in the doctrines held by Joel and in so doing, realign this person’s view on the Bible, God, humanity, and sin. Now this person is interested and is open to new ways of interpreting the Bible, but it all started because they felt comfortable and were drawn to Osteen.

    Now the untrained squire with the sword in his hand is absolutely dangerous. but to say that it is the most dangerous undertaking ever is an overstatement because after all, this squire now knows how the sword feels in his hands, he know the weight of it, the texture, how it flies through the air and above all he is learning. But what if a trained knight assists this uninformed squire in his pursuits of nobility? Now the potentially dangerous undertaking of the squire has great potential to be something great and meaningful.

    So in summary i guess my question is this- is it possible to acknowledge that there is some benefit to not having the proper lens on while reading the Bible and therefore makes it not the most dangerous thing. and, saying that there is only one way to accurately read the Bible is a little ambitious.

    So the danger doesn’t lie in the fact that they are reading the Bible in way that needs some correcting, but in their refusal to continue to be instructed and taught. Which makes me ask the question, is your lens in which you read beyond being in question?

  2. Hey Isaac,

    Two things I wish I had: 1) You sitting right by me so we could talk face to face—I miss that. 2) More time to adequately answer these questions. So I will try to respond to a few things you brought up but we should probably realize that this is an ongoing discussion. I have gone through a paradigm shift and it didn’t happen over night but through months of conversations with friends.

    **You aren’t saying that there is no benefit to reading the Bible “incorrectly”.

    True. I am not saying there is NO benefit to simply reading the Bible and being exposed to the story. I believe that the Spirit can move in a person’s life by just being exposed to the metanarrative. Basically, this conversation is best fit for those within the family of God, not those who are just now being introduced to the story. However, I will say that the Bible is not just any other book and should not be read like it is any other book. It is set apart, Spirit inspired, and is only truly understood by spirit-filled people (1 Cor 2:13-16). I think to treat it like any other book is to de-emphasize the divine author. In addition, the Bible should never be read in seclusion from the community of faith. That doesn’t mean that you and I should not read the Bible on our own, but that when we read it, we agree with the Apostolic Faith (Nicaea, Chalcedon…) and Christian orthodoxy (rule of faith) as it guides our interpretation.

    **I would say that there is vast majority of people who say that their way of reading it is the best way that they know of at the time, but to say that this lens is absolutely the most perfect interpretation of the Bible and is error free is the saying of a fool and one who doesn’t have a decent grasp on Christian history nor the limitations of the human mind’s comprehension.

    I am not saying this interpretation is flawless, but I do believe it is more holistic. We have been given a method of interpretation based on the enlightenment whereby anyone can understand the true meaning of Scripture if they use a proper historical-grammatical (critical) method. This method claims presupposition-less interpretation but a person always approaches a text with some sort of pre-understanding of what the text says, whether that be in the realm of science or religion. Thus, I am arguing for a form of interpretation that is not only historical and grammatical, but is also communal, canonical, confessional, and spiritual. You say the human mind is flawed? I strongly agree. All the more reason to submit to the community of faith and a distinctively Christian interpretation.

    ****There can be something good that comes from this activity and it isn’t a hopeless endeavor.

    Hopeless? Perhaps not, but I still say dangerous. The great heretics Marcion and Arius read the exact same Bible we have grown up reading. They read the Bible individually, apart from the community, and word for word literally, which eventually led them to error. The difference is they refused to submit to the rule of faith and held the foundational assumption that Jesus is not divine, which led to unorthodox, unchristian interpretations that lead thousands astray. You gave the example of a person coming out of Osteen’s teaching but I feel like this only proves my point. The person’s view of God and Scripture is all wrong until someone within the community of faith explains why they are wrong and puts them on the right track. This is just like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Scripture does not seem to indicate that the Ethiopian would have made any progress on his own. If he would have eventually figured it out, then why did God send Philip? Plus, does the few that possibly come out of this make up for the more than 80,000 week in and week out who are lead astray?

    **The untrained squire

    140 characters prohibited me from truly fleshing out what I meant by this. An untrained squire swinging a sword is fine if he is accompanied by a knight who is training him, but what if he were placed on the front lines? Then he not only has a responsibility to protect himself, but the men to the right, left, and rear of him. At this point, he is indeed a danger to everyone around him. A believer who does not have a proper lens through which to view Scripture is a danger to himself and others.

    I will admit that the analogy is exaggerated. It worked because this conversation is what I was hoping for.

    **Is it possible to acknowledge that there is some benefit to not having the proper lens on while reading the Bible and therefore makes it not the most dangerous thing.

    I’m sure it’s possible there is some benefit, but it is still dangerous. I know you know this but interpretation of the Bible is serious stuff. Not everyone can do it. Only the Spirit-filled person in submission to the community of faith. Again, the language of “the most dangerous thing” is an overstatement, but dangerous nonetheless.

    **Which makes me ask the question, is your lens in which you read beyond being in question?

    Of course not. However, I am trying with all my might to submit to the orthodox faith in my interpretation and that means doing my best to know and affirm the Apostolic faith. When I deviate, I (hopefully) let the church correct me by the grace of God. That is why when I study the Scripture’s and I come to an interpretation, I call a few buddies of mine and ask them, “Am I interpreting this text Christianly?” So, it is because I am suspect to my interpretation that I set the safe guards in place. Submitting to historic Christian orthodoxy is the very thing that critiques my interpretation.

  3. ikehawk10 says:

    Yeah dude I love your thoughts behind it and really agree with everything you’ve said. I thought that what you just now explained was how you were writing the tweet, but like you said, 140 characters is impossible to fully tie together all the lose ends that could lead to heretical material.

    You are far more educated in than I in the matters of Theology so I hope you didnt take my questions as attacking in any way. It was merely a chance for me to challenge my brain, articulate my thoughts, and converse with a knowledgeable friend how has really good stuff to say. So, even if it is you, me, and emily reading this stuff, my intentions behind it have still been fulfilled.

    I really like what you say about interpreting scripture within the community of believers. Over the past years i have not cared about correct doctrine and really wanted to focus on “loving God”-merely an emotional pursuit, to arguing with no intention of hearing the other person’s case and thinking that I am right, to not wanting to have discussions because, in my experience they lead to only frustrations, to now coming around to having in depth conversations about doctrine with an attempt of humbly learning what I can from everyone i talk to. So pretty much a Rom 10:2 approach where i want to have a ZEAL for God but in accordance with a KNOWLEDGE of Him.

    so thanks for the intelligent response to my questions. due to my intellectual capacity i can only hope for these types of discussions once or twice a year..

  4. No man, I completely understood your intent behind your questions. I am still chewing on these things so every chance I get to articulate them I will take it, whether it be in person or in the blogosphere. I am continually impressed with your faith and knowledge and I don’t see myself as “more educated” than you, just poorer. haha. I still want to come see you and Alex soon. Hopefully we can make that happen. Until then…

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