Pitfalls of the Bible reader

Not only is knowledge basic to the Christian life, it follows that error is detrimental to it. Truth leads to godliness; error not only leads to godlessness, but it also comes from it. I've given some positive suggestions for the Bible reader, all of which are common sense, the type of thing we should do without thinking when reading any book. The following article is an excerpt and helpful caution from Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen  (1973) giving some pitfalls that Bible readers would do well to be wary of (1):

1. Flights of fancy.
The man who interprets the Bible must always be asking himself ‘What did the human author mean?’ When he ascertains this he will be close to the meaning which God wants him to have.

Trouble is caused by those who wish to see the plan of salvation (or something else) everywhere in the Bible. Thus Naaman’s seven dips in Jordan have been used to give the seven points of conversion (contrition, confession, conversion, commitment … etc.) or the seven points of sanctification, or any seven points the speaker has in mind. Whatever we end with, it is not God’s word!

Similarly the parable of the good Samaritan has been abused, so that every detail of the story stands for something—the man for Adam, the priest for the law, the Samaritan for Christ, and the inn for the church. Anyone can read any meaning he wishes into the Bible if this is permitted.

Fantasies have been read into the high priest’s garments, Elijah’s robe, and Christ’s seamless robe. Someone recently said that he thought that the institutional churches were represented in the Bible by Saul, for whom God withdrew his Spirit!

There is no end to such examples: but the sad result is the same. The word of God is stolen from the Lord’s sheep and they are not fed. A man’s relationship with God requires true knowledge.

2. Fixation.

This describes the habit of being so engrossed in one doctrine (e.g. predestination) as to read it everywhere in the Bible.

3. Wrong presupposition.
We must come to the Bible very carefully and humbly, knowing that our culture and theology have conditioned us to read it in a certain way.

Thus, a person who has a firm conviction that God’s love is irreconcilable with punishment may well explain away those passages in the Bible which speak of his wrath. Some have even gone so far as to abandon the whole of the Old Testament on these grounds; others omit parts of the Psalms in church; others retain the unpleasant sections by unconsciously re-interpreting the Biblical language to suit the twentieth century.
We are all subject to this. We hear a Biblical word or phrase, read our own meaning into it, and then proceed on the assumption that the Bible is speaking like that.

4. The misuse of narrative.
This is a common evangelical failing, and especially in relation to the book of Acts. We hear that the early church did something and we assume that it is a command from God for us to do it—that is, we turn a description (an ‘is’) into a prescription (an ‘ought’). In this way open-air preaching is justified; or small cell-group meetings; or appeals for commitment at meetings and so on.

Christ has granted freedom in these and many areas; some teachers seek to remove our liberty by turning narrative into commands. No one pretends that we must always ask anyone we meet who is reading the Bible, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (Acts 8:30) as Philip did; or that we must pool our resources as the primitive Christians did (Acts 2:45);1 or that we must sing hymns at midnight if we are in gaol as Paul and Silas did (Acts 16:25). That men did these things is wonderful and interesting; that we must do them is nonsense.

A further example will illuminate the point. In 1 Corinthians 15:29 the practice of receiving baptism on behalf of the dead is referred to. This is the only mention of it in the New Testament, and Paul does not condemn it. If anything, he is favourable about it.

The Mormons actually practise the baptism for the dead, basing their activities on this text. Yet no one else does, for it is plain to most people that the description of a happening in apostolic days is not in itself a command for us to do the same. An ‘is’ is not an ‘ought’.

This example illustrates, too, the main problem with unexplained narratives—they cannot give the whole story. The author selects some details to tell us, but does not give us all; thus when we come with our questions, questions which did not trouble him, we find the text silent or ambiguous. One instance of this is in Paul’s conversion which is noted on page 33. The careless reader, too eager to see what is already in his mind, will be led astray.

Naturally, narratives have some use. They can, for example, confirm that a certain practice is not contrary to the gospel. So we may be confident that open-air preaching is not contrary to God’s word, since both Jesus and the disciples did this; but we are not to assume that it is commanded in God’s word. We may gather imperatives or doctrines from narratives where the author himself has given the details a theological significance known to us. This significance may be learned from his writings as a whole, or from the immediate context, or both. But taking a narrative on its own clear terms is rather different from the unfettered inventiveness so typical in much Biblical interpretation.

To take an example, Peter’s dealing with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) is not a model for us to follow. But it appears to be in Luke’s terms an illustration of the authority of the apostles (Acts 5:11, 12). Speeches given as part of a narrative are of the same character. We may indeed gather commands, promises, and doctrine from the words of an apostolic speech addressed to the public whether general or Christian.

(1) Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 7-16): The Quest for Power. Reproduced here with permission.

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