Updated: Aug 25
I attended seminary in the 90s, when American evangelicalism was arguably at its height. On my campus, there was a 30-foot-tall mural of Jesus on the side of a building. Students at the time sort of snickered at it. Discussions of graven images, ethnic accuracy, and “white movie Jesus” were discussed.
What was most striking (and laughable) was that this 1st century Jesus was holding a printed copy of the Bible looking like he just picked it up from the local Christian bookstore (when there was one). Probably lambskin, because Jesus wouldn’t get bonded leather, right? Maybe he should’ve been holding scrolls or something? Anyway, it just didn’t fit. The New Testament was written after the resurrection of Jesus, and I’m pretty sure the resurrected Jesus is not holding a printed copy of the Bible so he can refer back to it as he sits down at the right hand of God.
The mural is called “The Word.” And as silly as it appears, there’s a clear message to it: This painting, intentionally or not, conflates the Bible with the person of Jesus Christ.
As the title of the mural implies, the confusion comes because both the Bible and Jesus are referred to as “the Word.” In the first chapter of his gospel, John purposely uses language that is a call back to Genesis 1 when God spoke the world into being with just a word. Now, John explains, Jesus is the Word. Jesus is God’s voice in the world. When you hear the Son, you hear the Father. The Bible is also described as the Word. Orthodox Christianity teaches that they are starkly different.
In the last few generations, there’s been a misunderstanding of the purpose of Scripture, the Bible, or God’s Word (these terms are used synonymously). Its use and how we’ve taught people to read it has bordered on idol worship.
Am I being overly critical? Maybe, but I think this goes to a wider point of evangelicals’ misuse of the Bible. One of the most controversial posts I made on social media was when I wrote that Bible knowledge is not one of the fruits of the spirit. It didn’t go over too well. The pushback I received exposed the church’s mistake in elevating the Bible to worship status, along with God himself.
The basic principles of Bible interpretation or hermeneutics, which I ironically learned at my seminary, seem to be rejected or hidden from today’s modern church.
Here’s what Bible readers need to remember:
The plainest reading of the Bible is often NOT the most accurate. Although there are parts of the Bible that have a timeless meaning that go beyond culture, most passages need interpretation, understanding the intended audience, writer, and historical context. This doesn’t mean that God is purposely trying to confuse us. It just means that we have to do a little background research before we interpret these passages into our own lives.
Bluntly put, the “plain reading of scripture” is interpreting it from MY cultural, historical perspective, with MY biases and limited experiences. It’s a self-centered interpretation. It’s subjective. And it’s also just lazy reading. It causes misinterpretation, rather than reading it in the historical/cultural original context.
It’s Not Magic
Some tend to believe that God‘s word is somehow magical – that the Holy Spirit will perhaps translate it to us in the meaning that we need in the moment. I remember flipping through my Bible as a teenager, sticking my finger in a random spot in an attempt to get a special message from God. This is a belief that the words themselves have power instead of the meaning or application of the words having power. They look at the words of scripture as if it’s some sort of incantation. Jesus explained the purpose or proper use of God’s word to some Pharisees who mishandled the Bible:
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:39
Jesus states that reading the Scriptures is only a tool or a means to connect to God. Notice it’s not THE tool or means. Jesus says that HE is the way (John 14:6).
The Bible is not God. It’s a lamp that shows us the way, but it’s not THE way. C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.”*
The Bible is an ancient manuscript written by and to an ancient world. I’m sure like me, you have read scripture that was super confusing, until the historical context was explained or read. Honestly, ALL texts need to be read in their historical context.
This doesn’t mean it’s not to us. It’s just not ONLY to us. As I learned in seminary: the Bible is written to us through them.
For instance in Deuteronomy 25, there’s a commandment that a woman’s hand will be cut off if she grabs a man’s genitals while the two men are fighting (now I got your attention). I brought this one up because my wife asked me about it the other day. It’s a confusing passage! We have at least two choices: We can simply blow it off saying, “We’re not under the law anymore,” or we can try to understand the historical/cultural context behind it and so actually appreciate the spirit of the law. In the ancient world, especially among the new Hebrew nation, offspring were of vital importance to carry on God’s word and work. Offspring were also seen as a sign of God’s favor and love towards us. We see this when multiple women in the Bible are distraught over their own barrenness.
It’s not a wholly satisfying answer, but it helps us understand God’s heart and care in the commandment, and helps us appreciate that all of scripture points to the character of God. I would have missed all that, if I were to have read it “plainly,” thinking, “Well, I’ll make sure Amy stays clear of any fights I have with another dude.” It also helps me understand that God‘s commands are not arbitrary, but they all have meaning, even if I don’t know that meaning right away. There is a third interpretation – the “Plain Reading” rule. We ALL agree to not apply the plainest meaning, which is to literally dismember a woman showing “no mercy.”
We Apply “The Plain Reading Rule” When it Suits Us
I notice that those who want to apply the “plain reading rule” do it selectively. Concerning the clobber passages on “homosexuality,” I honestly would have to do mental gymnastics to try to interpret them in the traditional manner. If I interpret Romans 1 like a traditionalist, it plainly teaches that “homosexuality” rises out of idol worship. That means that people who participate in same sex acts are doing so as a natural consequence of their worship of idols. That just doesn’t seem like a reasonable reading to me. It’s more plausible that there was a situation where “same sex sexual behavior” was being exhibited in the context of the idol worship of that day in Rome. As I dug a little, I learned that there were temples where one would have to commit “unnatural“ acts as a part of their worship of heathen gods. It was the sexual licentiousness connected with idol worship that was sin.
It’s always about the character of God.
The populace or plain reading of scripture is appealing because we feel it gives everyone access to God’s word and eliminates an elitist reading of it. As a result, there are many passages that are misinterpreted as “plain reading,” which are in actuality the “wrong reading.”
In most cases, these wrong interpretations may not do any harm. But in others, the devastation can be great. Consider the views on slavery in the Old AND New Testament. The Mosaic law has rules about handling slaves, treating them fairly, etc. The assumption of the writer is that slavery exists, will continue, and seems to be sanctioned by God. Peter and Paul even encouraged Christians slaves to obey their masters.
We all now agree that slavery is evil, because treating another human being as property goes against the character of God. We don’t need a proof text for this. We understand God’s heart and value for humanity through reading the Bible.
This is why proof texts can be quite damaging. When reading the Bible, one must interpret it with the rest of the Bible and ask the question, “Does my interpretation fall in line with the character of God?”
Even the Bible reader with the most “fundamentalist” or literal view of scripture reveals their bias by making decisions based on their experience.
Everybody — even one that claims “Sola scriptura” or “the Bible only,” uses the Bible AND reason AND experience to understand God.
There is no true literalist.
By the way, a few years ago they updated the weird-white-Jesus-holding-a-Bible mural. It seems like the American Evangelical Church is doubling down on confusion. ~
*Letter (8 November 1952); published in Letters of C. S. Lewis (1966), p. 247
Mural Artist: Kent Twitchell