A recent post on a Little Leaven displays a company that sells fortune cookies filled with bible verses. They claim, ‘These are a great way for children and adults to learn the Bible!’ and ‘Perfect for Bible study groups, camps and retreats.’
While I realize this is just another secular business looking to make a buck, I am convinced there are people out there who will actually think this is a good idea. Now I have no problem with memorizing bible verses, but I think this kind of product marketing stems from the actual way many Christians study the bible. Many pastors and teachers also approach the bible like it was all written in the style of the Book of Proverbs – you know, that book primarily written by king Solomon filled with bite-sized pearls of wisdom. The problem is, the bible consists of 66 books written by over forty different authors. Proverbs is the only book of its kind. We cannot hope to interpret the overwhelming majority of the biblical texts in a ‘Proverbial’ manner – so to speak.
I know of people who wake up in the morning, crack open their bibles, thumb through the pages randomly and then point their finger (while looking the other way) at a verse, and then make that verse their focus for the entire day – without so much as a passing glance at the surrounding text.
I know of bible study groups that will discuss a verse as if it were handed to them in a fortune cookie. The context of the verse, the passage it is derived from and the author’s overall intent of the writing are usually never considered. Only personal opinions on what the verse means to that particular person are discussed. This is called subjective interpretation.
A pastor may preach a sermon from the pulpit, exhorting why Christians should be having better sex, or some other ear-tickling felt-needs message and he will usually always have an isolated scripture or two to support his assertions. The bible is not being expounded, it is being manipulated to fit that pastor’s personal agenda.
One of my old favorite bible commentators (old as in he has long since fallen from my favor) would cast down an avalanche of ‘proof-texts’ in support of his pet doctrines. This so impressed me that I would immediately accept his evidence as cold-hard fact. Later in my Christian walk, as I gained my spiritual legs, I started examining many of these ‘proof-texts’ and discovered many times the verses were ripped out of context. This means the verse in isolation takes on an entirely different meaning than it does in its original context.
Let me stop a moment and define the term proof-text. This Wikipedia entry states:
Prooftexting is the practice of using decontextualised quotations from a document (often, but not always, a book of the bible) to establish a proposition rhetorically through an appeal to authority. Critics of the technique note that often the document, when read as a whole, may not in fact support the proposition.
Ministers and teachers have used the following humorous anecdote to demonstrate the dangers of prooftexting:
- A man dissatisfied with his life decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, “Then Judas went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5b) Closing his eyes again, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:37b)
- That’s a nice illustration demonstrating the inherent dangers of treating the bible as a collection of fortune cookie quotes. I believe in Christendom, the worst abusers of this unbiblical hermeneutic are the propagators of the Word-Faith movement. I’ll give a quick illustration. A popular Word-Faith teaching purports that man is actually a ‘little god.’ To support their position they cite the following scriptures:
I have said, You are gods; and all of you sons of the Most High. (Psa 82:6)
The Jews answered Him, saying, We do not stone you for a good work, but for blasphemy, and because you, being a man, make yourself God. Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your Law, “I said, You are gods?” (Joh 10:33-34)
Now, if you’d have cracked open a fortune cookie and pulled the slip of paper out and read these words you might begin to get puffed up in your heart a little bit. The question is, does the context of these verses affirm the doctrine that men are ‘little gods’? I’ll let John MacArthur expound these scriptures:
“A simple reading of the Psalm however, says something very, very, different than that. If you look at the Psalm it will reveal to you that those words were spoken to ungodly rulers who were on the brink of judgment: ungodly rulers on the brink of judgment. Look at verse 7, (they never want to read verse 7), “Nevertheless, you will die like men; and fall like any one of the princes. Arise, O God, judge the earth.” What is this? There is a note of irony. God looks at these rulers and they have been rendering unjust judgments. Back in verse 2 they have been judging unjustly; they have been showing partiality to the wicked. They have been, rather, doing injustice than justice and He says, “Look, in your own eyes you think you are gods, but you are going to die like,”…what? “men.” How could you ever rip that 6th verse out of that context and make it an affirmation that a Christian has become a god? Far from confirming their godhood, God is condemning them for thinking they were gods!
Word-Faith teachers will immediately turn to their other favorite proof text, John 10:33-34. Guess what? This is where Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6, so if you understand Psalm 82:6 you don’t have a problem understanding John 10. “The Jews answered Him, ‘For a good work we do not stone you, but for blasphemy because you being a man make yourself out to be God.'” And then Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your law, ‘I said you are gods.'” Don’t fail to notice Jesus’ purpose for choosing that verse. It would have been a very familiar one to the Scribes and Pharisees. They would have understood that that verse was an condemnation of wicked rulers, and Jesus is simply echoing the irony of the original Psalm. Walter Martin wrote an excellent comment on this, He said, “Jesus mocks the people as if to say, ‘You all think you are gods yourselves. What’s one more god among you?'” Oh, the irony. You are going to stone me for claiming to be God, you all are claiming the same thing. What’s one more god? The sarcasm..”
How do we combat this confusing and dangerous method of interpreting the scriptures?
The most important thing Christians should do is to understand and apply the principles of biblical hermeneutics. Don’t let the big word intimidate you. Hermeneutic simply means a consistent method of approaching and interpreting the biblical texts. Now, proof-texting is a form of hermeneutics – just a very poor one. Its science of interpretation is isolating a verse or two and forcing a subjective viewpoint to give it meaning. It is not an accepted historical biblical hermeneutic.
There are several schools of interpretation but the one which lays the foundation for them all is the Grammatico-Historical method. This hermeneutic teaches that every bible passage must be studied in its immediate literary context and in the broader context of the biblical document it is contained in. Properly utilizing this hermeneutic involves understanding the elements of biblical languages, literature type and historical background along with geographical and cultural settings. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says it like this:
A basic requirement for the understanding of these documents is their grammatico-historical interpretation or exegesis – bringing out of the text the meaning the writers intended to convey and which their readers were expected to gather from it.
I can almost hear the protests of many who would say it is unrealistic to expect every believer to engage in such studious work. My answer is:
1. Believers are exhorted to thoroughly know and study the bible. However, the degree of knowledge and wisdom we need relates to the calling God has on our lives. But with heresy lurking behind every corner, all believers must have a good working knowledge of bible doctrines lest we fall into deception.
2. We must take advantage of God’s many gifts to the church; namely the teachers and preachers throughout church history who were called by God to labor their whole lives to faithfully and consistently interpret the scriptures. They laid most of the groundwork so that we don’t have to. Christ’s church erects foundations to build upon, not tear down after every generation and build again. We must avail ourselves to diverse commentaries and expositional sermons from orthodox teachers who have poured out their lives sacrificially for the benefit of the Body of Christ.
Exposition is an essential element and product of proper hermeneutics. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says this:
Exposition aims to apply the text and its meaning to men and women today, enabling them to answer the question: What message has this for us, or for me, in the present situation? To be valid, exposition must be firmly based on exegesis: the meaning of the text for hearers today must be related to its meaning for the hearers to whom it was first addressed. The study of the principles of interpretation – both the grammatico-historical interpretation and the practical application of that interpretation in the pulpit – is called hermeneutics.
For those of us who are called by God to teach His eternal truths, a solid hermeneutical foundation is crucial to the success of our ministry. We must rightly divide the word of truth for the sake of our own souls (both for spiritual benefit and accountability before God) and for the sake of those God gives us to teach. Fortune cookies may be mildly sweet to munch on, but if they constitute our entire diet we would die of malnutrition very quickly. Believers need a fresh-from-the-grill 16 ounce sirloin every time they dine at the Lord’s table. The Church hungers for the milk and meat of the word. Teachers and preachers are responsible to both satisfy and provoke that hunger. I pray that the readers of my blog experience a little of both.