Throughout my course of theological study, there is one class which stands out as a class which taught me the value of having caution and humility when it comes to declaring that I know what Scripture is teaching: The History of Biblical Interpretation. Each class period we were assigned a passage of scripture and an era in human history. It was your job to research what the leading theologians of your particular era were teaching in regard to the assigned Scripture passage. Sometimes you were looking for theologians who were writing in the early church days or you were reading the words of theologians who lived during medieval times. Still other times you were reading those who were key figures during the Reformation years or you could be reading from theologians whose writing were less than 100 years old. Regardless of the time period you were reading from, one thing was always consistent: the passion the writer had to know God better and share their insights with others.
Within the first couple of class periods, I quickly learned that not all theologians said the same things throughout the ages. For some Scripture passages, the interpretation of the passage and the life applications varied wildly while others hardly varied at all. Some varied because of increasing accuracy in being able to translate the Bible into the English language. Other variances were because of social or political influences of the time. And still other variances came about because of advances in our understanding of the physical world in which we live and our ability to communicate with other peoples and cultures has changed so dramatically, especially in the last 50 to 100 years.
While I had grown up in a church which cautioned against the practice of proof-texting, taking a single verse and using it to support a certain point of view without consideration for the context in which that verse was written, this class taught me just how influenced I am by my own pre-conceived ideas, hopes, beliefs, experiences, and personal history when I read the Bible. It was an eye opener. Now, more than ever, seeing a verse taken out of context causes me to cringe.
This next series on the blog is going to focus on some of the most commonly misused, abused, and taken out of context Bible verses in today’s world. We are going to take a step back and put them back into context and take a deeper look at what they really were intended to teach both the original audience and us as the audience of today. But first, why is this so important?
First, when you use Scripture correctly, you are more accurately representing the true heart of Christ. When we misquote Scripture, or use it out of context to justify our personal viewpoints and opinions, we are misrepresenting the very heart of God. At best, it is in innocent mistake made because you liked the way the verse made you feel. At worst, it turns people away from God and inspires them to see truth from places other than the Bible.
Additionally, striving to use Scripture correctly is a sign of spiritual maturity. It is a sign someone is growing in their faith and learning more about who God truly is. After two master’s degrees in theology, I often tell people that for all the answers about God I have found, I have at least twice as many questions. The reality is that the more you learn about God, the more you should learn there is to learn about God. Additionally, we as individuals grow and mature. If your faith and understanding of God is exactly the same as it was twenty years ago, I would challenge you to strongly consider stepping outside of your comfort zone. None of us, no matter our age, are the same person we were twenty years ago. Our faith should reflect that we have experienced life.
Our understanding of Scripture should grow and change with a growing, changing life and faith.
It is a continually humbling experience to be digging deeply into Scripture. It calls you to be open to diving into the complexities of stories you didn’t hear about in Sunday school as a child. It calls you to realize that the Bible is a beautiful mix of prose, poetry, and biography. It forces you to acknowledge a time and culture which is very different than the world we live in today (spoiler alert: there are no cell phones or computers mentioned in the Bible!). At the same time, it is a continually fascinating experience. Just when you think you have learned all there is to know about a particular story, passage, or even single verse, you discover there is more to learn. Some archeological dig unearths something which shifts our understanding of ancient Jewish culture. Or the few who have dedicated their lives to the study of ancient Greek and Hebrew agree that we have been incorrectly translating a word just enough to impact our understanding of a Scripture passage.
Or, perhaps most wonderful of all, something happens in your life which causes you to be able to see the passage from a new perspective. The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, experiencing love, traveling to a different culture and country, making a significant career change, facing a medical crisis: all of these events and more have the potential to dramatically change how we view the world and how we connect with God. Therefore, all of these types of events also have the power to influence how the Holy Spirit speaks to us when we spend time reading Scripture.
Finally, when we fall to the temptation to engage in proof-texting, it is super easy to twist scripture to say what we want it to say rather than what it is actually saying. For just about any theological position you wish to hold, you can find an isolated verse to support it. And the internet has made this easier than ever. Go ahead and go a quick google search for verses about whatever topic comes to mind. Verses about baptism, communion, marriage. You don’t have to search specifically about theological topics, you can also search things like verses about social justice, abortion, politics, or finances. Whatever viewpoint or position you are looking to support, chances are you can find some single verse taken out of context to support it. After all, Scripture has historically been used to support slavery, corrupt leaders, the Holocaust, and physical abuse: all sins most of us today would agree are not in line with the heart of God or the proper use of Scripture.
I truly don’t believe most people miss-use Scripture with the intent of being deceitful. Most of the time they are simply quoting a verse which sounds good to them, which seems to fit the moment, without taking the time to actually consider if the text is actually saying what they believe it to be saying. My hope in this series is that, ultimately, we will all be a little more cautious and quicker to ask what the full context of a verse really is before quoting it to make us feel better or support out point of view.
What are some of your favorite verses to quote? Have you ever considered their original context?
What was your favorite Bible story as a child? Why? Have you done a deep dive into that same story as an adult? If so, what were you surprised to learn?
- The Problems with Prooftexting published by Deeper Christian
- The Perils of Proof-Texting and How to Avoid Them by Greg Koukl published by Stands to Reason
- Why Proof Texting Makes for Bad Theology by Dale Chamberlain published by Kainos Project