Unfortunately, the Bible is also incredibly misunderstood. All one has to do is briefly explore the massive number of Bible-related internet websites (which all claim to be ‘biblical’ in their own unique, special ways) to see just how radically different people take various passages and themes from the same book. They can’t all be right can they? I mean, at least not when they say contradicting things about the exact same topic, right?
Before I say any more, let me say that I am becoming increasingly more aware of the fact that I’m on a journey in my understanding of the Bible. Realise it or not, we all are. This makes some people uncomfortable. Some grow nervous with such talk, because they feel it is leaning towards uncertainty and instability concerning the the Bible. I understand why they might feel this way, but it seems to me that while the Bible will no doubt remain intact itself, our understanding of it’s content and message is quite another thing and will always (I might even say must always) be flexible. Do we really believe that the message is living? I do, and while I don’t think for a minute that God changes, I still insist that the idea that we simply don’t understand Him or His ways is a thoroughly ‘biblical’ one (1 Corinthians 1 & 13 and Isaiah 40 & 64 are good chapters to read if you ever think you’ve got God cornered.)
Now that I’ve said that, I want to pass along some advice that I’ve taken on board regarding reading the Bible.
First, let me introduce you to a term. It’s a term called pre-texting (of course, some of you will be quite familiar with both the term and examples of it’s use). In a basic sense, pre-texting happens when someone quotes a verse (or part of a verse) to support a point or belief they are trying to explain. The problem isn’t quoting the verses themselves, it’s when the verses are used in a way other than they were intended to be. Here’s a common example of a mis-use of a verse (text). I once talked to a street ‘preacher’ who was telling anyone who would listen that true Christians don’t sin. He was quoting from 1 John 3:6, which says, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” Seems pretty open and shut, doesn’t it? Well, a verse that comes before that one (1 John 1:8) seems to cloud the issue – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So if I admit that I sin, I don’t know Him, and if I say I have no sin, then I’m a liar? Well, it’s a good thing there are more verses in 1 John than these two.
1 John is widely believed to be written in response to an early (late 1st or early 2nd century) group of false teachers (in this case, Gnostics) that believed that Jesus didn’t have a real flesh and blood body, and that He wasn’t eternal or ‘from the beginning.’ They basically ignored physical sin, because to them all that really ‘mattered’ was not the realm of matter, but the realm of ideas, or the spiritual realm (look up ‘dualism‘ and then thank Plato for many such misunderstandings of our universe – many of which still cloud our thinking, and yes can distort our interpretations of Scripture). It seems that 1 John seems to be strongly warning against taking seriously the idea that sin wasn’t serious. See how the text comes alive when you read chapter 1 (especially the first 3 verses) with this understanding!
As you can see, the problem is not quoting the Bible, but quoting it out of it’s proper context. First, we must know the immediate context (surrounding verses), then the context of the section of the book (If you didn’t notice, I intentionally referred to entire chapters above – not just to verses. In a sense, that is still pre-texting, but in a safer way.), then the book itself, etc. Even this is not enough. We need to be mindful of both the textual context and the historical context. That means sometimes we have to study history to better understand the Bible. That also means that we don’t always have the right interpretation of the Bible even when it may feel like we do. This is not bad news, or an attempt to scare or discourage you from studying the Bible, but rather quite the opposite. Join with us on the journey! It’s exciting! Grow! Think! Learn! Ask questions! Dig for the answers! Own your beliefs! Don’t just recite what you learn from others!
At last, here’s the simple advice I’ll pass on. Read the Bible in large chunks. As respected biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has said, “Get a sense of the sweep of the narrative. God gave us this book not as bite-sized little chunks, but as a large thing to open and broaden and develop our minds.” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps embracing this ethic of reading larger portions can help us to quote the Bible more faithfully, and not with cheap pre-texting games, where ‘my verse is better than your verse’. I also think we possibly underestimate the value of reading the Bible in community, where our interpretations don’t go recklessly unchecked, but are able to be sharpened and strengthened by those around us. This, in essence, was what happened (and still happens) when Jews gathered in Synogogues to study. May we in the Church develop and embrace a similar ethic?
We have the opportunity of a lifetime, and it will take a lifetime. We have the thrilling task and calling to join God in His story. We need to know our place in it. As we familiarise ourselves with history and His-story within it, we link arms with each other as we grow in understanding and we also link arms with the long line of Saints before us who thought, prayed, studied, served, taught, sacrificed and struggled to live their part in the Story. It’s our turn.