When we look to scripture to reinforce our own worldview, we can end up alienating others and missing what God may have to say to us. It can be hard to dive deep with theology, but exploring the fullness of what the Bible has to offer is crucial, says Chris Goswami
A young man in my church told me that, growing up, he felt he could not become a Christian “because of six-day creationism”. This is the idea that God created the earth in six, 24-hour days. He was told that the Bible plainly teaches this, but it didn’t fit with what he was learning in the science degree he was taking at university.
In fact, the Bible does not “plainly” teach this, and Christians hold differing opinions (see here and here) on how the earth was created. It is a good example of three things we should stop doing with the Bible:
1. Don’t assume there is always a plain reading of the text
“Don’t interpret the Bible, just read it!” is sometimes stated by well-meaning folks who insist on a plain reading of the Bible, which usually means taking it absolutely literally. Sometimes the Bible is literally true, for example the accounts of the life of Jesus - for which there is strong, historical evidence. But there are also songs, poetry, parables and symbolism. In these cases, a “plain reading”, with no regard for genre, why it was written and to whom, leads to narrow, entrenched views. And, in the worst case, it becomes a stumbling block to faith.
Genesis 1 does say that God created the world in six days. But if we were to think of that chapter as a metaphor, story, or poem, it may change our approach. The genre really matters - it’s unlikely that Genesis was written as a scientific text. Maybe God did create the world in six, 24-hour days, but maybe he didn’t. Surely the important point is that he created it?
Our understanding of the Bible has, for centuries, come through white, middle-class, heterosexual men
There are many passages that could, similarly, be viewed as story. Take Jonah or Job, for example. We might find out one day that the account of Job is literally true. That in the course of one day, a good man lost his home, livelihood and all of his family died in a horrific accident but, in due course, he receives back from God twice as much. Or we might discover that this was a story, written to make us think about the false views of God that Job’s friends hold, about sin, and, most importantly, about the truth of human suffering. In other words, it may not be literally true, but it conveys truth.
Some people react badly when you say that parts of the Bible aren’t literal. But to those people, I ask: Is God incapable of giving us a story to learn from? Is he so lacking in imagination? Where do you get this idea from? (Because it’s not from a plain reading of the text - Jesus himself told stories all the time).
2. Don’t carelessly cherry-pick verses
Do you need an argument against women in ministry? No problem, just use 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”.
Want to defend slavery? Easy! Just grab Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling”.
Perhaps you’d like to prove that everyone who says ‘the sinner’s prayer’ goes to heaven, while everyone else burns in hell? It’s John 3.16 of course! "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Whatever your view on any matter, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a line in scripture somewhere that can be lifted out of context to support it - as long as you ignore the rest of the Bible. So often we have a pre-determined view, absorbed from our upbringing or our church, and we come to the Bible resolutely clutching this view and seeking the verses that support it - and ignoring those that don’t. And often, we don’t even realise we’re doing it.
But theology is much more than coming to the Bible to find scripture that suits our opinions. If you do that, it’s easy to make the Bible say anything you want it to. But saying “God says this…” when he almost certainly doesn’t, is an example of taking his name in vain.
Responsible reading means you may need to zoom out from your favourite verses and ask if your view is aligned with the direction of scripture. Perhaps your verse was given for a specific people or a unique occasion? Try reading the Bible verses quoted by people who disagree with you. It goes against the grain, but that’s how we grow in truth.
3. Don’t assume everyone reads the Bible the same way as you
It’s easy to think that everyone must interpret the Bible the same way we do. After all, it’s the same text, and it’s the unchanging word of God, right?
It is helpful to remember that none of us come to the Bible as a blank page. Our background and experiences affect how scripture speaks to us – that is the wonder of scripture. It is able to speak into different people groups in specific ways.
A simple illustration is found in the way we think about ‘the rich’ and ‘the poor’. Take Luke 18:25: ”It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Or Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”.
Is God incapable of giving us a story to learn from? Is he so lacking in imagination?
We tend to assume that “the rich” in this passage must be people who are richer than us and that, therefore, we don’t need to pay much attention to the warnings contained within them. But that is different to the way millions of other Christians read this. Liberation Theology is a way of understanding the Bible that arose in the poorest areas of South America in the 1960s. According to this view, God is not neutral but favours the poor and turns away from the rich. So, when they read “the rich”, they naturally think of the capitalist West who have exploited their nation to gain advantage. In other words, they think the rich are us, and are looking forward to wrongs being righted by God. Black Theology, arising out of a heritage of enslavement, and Dalit Theology, from India’s ‘outcasts’, also place huge importance on the rich and poor passages and the liberation and reparation that God will surely bring about.
For most of us, our understanding of the Bible has, for centuries, come through white, middle-class, heterosexual men. I have nothing against them, but it can mean other voices are excluded. Other theological positions can be challenging to our thinking, but can also expand our understanding. For example, Feminist Theology takes the view that the classical teachings of the Church minimise the perspectives of women. Queer Theology (“queer” meaning to take something from the margins and to the centre) attempts to understand scripture from the perspective of LGBT people.
You may well disagree with some of these voices, and the theological positions they hold, but don’t assume that yours is the only authentic reading of the Bible.
It’s absolutely fine to read the Bible without understanding theologies or contexts. Many passages speak with simple and immediate clarity, and God can - and will - speak to you even if you don’t have a 100 per cent grasp of the text. But the pitfalls I summarise here often occur when we become intolerant, or use the Bible to casually judge other Christians, which, unfortunately, seems to happen more often than it should.
Watch out for the accompanying post: 3 things to start doing with the Bible, coming soon!