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Evangelicals and the Bible

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

Modern Evangelicals, as well as some from other Church traditions, have sometimes had a hard time coming to terms with how to understand Scripture apart from the category of absolute truth about everything. However, often that "truth" is related more to the assumptions, context, and interpretations of the reader than to what is actually contained in Scripture.  As we have learned more about the cultural and historical context of Scripture since the early nineteenth century, many who deeply believe the Bible have felt threatened by what seems to be a diminishment of the Bible as a divine book.  Yet, it has become more and more obvious that some things that we had thought were truths about God and his actions in the world were tied to the culture of biblical times.

For example, the prohibitions in Deuteronomy against planting fields with two kinds of grain or wearing clothes made from two kinds of cloth (Deut 22:9-11) served a purpose in the context of the threat from the syncretism of Ba'al worship.  Yet, few today, even among evangelical literalists, would make hybridized plants or blended fabrics a moral issue.  Few today from any Church tradition would argue that the Old Testament laws regulating slavery, especially the selling of children into indentured service to pay debts (Lev 25:39, Neh 5:4-5; Matt 18:24-25), is an acceptable practice in today's world.  And we would be horrified at the prospect of selling daughters into sexual servitude (Ex 21:7-11).

Some would counter that these are Old Testament prohibitions superseded by the Gospel (which raises still other problems about the authority of Scripture, since other passages like Lev 18:22 are used as moral arguments). Yet, some would still try to argue, for example, that Jesus really did not drink alcoholic wine or that the writer of Timothy really did not mean alcoholic wine in his advice about maintaining good health (1 Tim 5:23).  And many evangelicals would deny women any leadership role in the Church based on Paul's comments to the Corinthian Church.

The question then is:  How does one separate truth in Scripture from a faulty understanding of what was thought to be truth about God?  How do we distinguish what is only the expression of a certain time, place, and culture, from that which has ongoing validity as instructions from God?

An adequate answer to this would require a good sized book.  But here are several observations that might help us think about the issue.

Assumptions about Scripture

1) Most of us evangelicals operate with a historically literalist approach to Scripture that has been greatly influenced by Calvinistic absolutist perspectives. That is, we want to affirm the authority of Scripture, often in the “God said it” mode, and often at the expense of careful reasoning and exploring all the evidence.

2) As heirs of Protestantism, and especially of certain strands of the Reformation, we evangelicals want to affirm sola scriptura (Luther, “scripture alone”) or homo unias libre (Wesley, “a man of one book”) but apart from an historical understanding of what that actually meant in the Reformation or in eighteenth century England. As heirs of the more radical elements of the Reformation, many evangelicals have tended to elevate Scripture as the only source of any kind of truth.

3) When that is combined with an aggressive anti-intellectualism in some circles (with historical origins), as well as elements of Pentecostalism and charismatic theology, we end up with a view of Scripture that basically affirms that whatever we think to be true about Scripture is the truth of God on the subject. We need no historical perspective, no understanding of the context, no understanding of culture, history, biblical languages, or any theological perspective, let alone any “Tradition” to help us.  We end up with a view that Biblical truth is self-evident to anyone as long as they sincerely believe the Bible.

4) This very easily leads to the “golden tablet syndrome,” in which we see Scripture as something other than a human product, written by the finger of God without any kind of error and absolutely perfect in every aspect (See The Modern Inerrancy Debate). Scripture is actually seen as something apart from humanity, a 100% divine book, sacred because of its origin not its content, unmarred by humanity, which picks up the fifth century neo-Platonic assumption that human beings are fatally and irredeemably flawed precisely because they are humans. From this view it is only people who try to interpret Scripture who introduce any kind of disharmony into Scripture, which is actually to say “introduce disharmony into the logical system that we have created to support our ideas of what Scripture ought to be”.

5) We have long understood that there are significant differences within Scripture, not only between the Old Testament and the New Testament, but within both Old Testament and New Testament (see The Synoptic Problem). Since part of the assumption about Scripture from the above is that there can be no conflicts, we have deftly used rationalism and logical formulations to make the Bible fit within preconceived parameters without considering the possibility that the basic premises were wrong. That logical preservation of certain theologies or ideologies is part of the role of perspectives like “progressive revelation,” or “predestination,” the immutability or sovereignty of God, or even “original sin” (in its more classic logical formulations as the source of all evil).

6) All of that suggests that we have built a very elaborate rational theological system in relation to Scripture in order to make all the pieces fit, and that system makes sense on the surface to most people. The problems come from two sources:  a) when we carefully examine the inner logic of the system and realize that if we actually carry through the logic we end up with a God that looks nothing like the God of the Bible even on His worst days; and b) when we examine closely the biblical evidence and realize that it will not support the logical systems since they are not even tangentially connected to the biblical text.

Engaging the Text

While the last observations above may be overstated for many evangelicals today, I think this is basically where we came from in trying to understand Scripture. A second set of observations, related to Scripture itself, begins to sketch how we could, or ought to, deal with the questions.

7) We have tended to use Scripture either as proof texts without consideration of the meaning of a text within a larger context, or we have focused on Scripture only in short sermon texts or single short passages without considering larger blocks of text.

8) We have also tended to focus on selected passages that support certain readings without considering other texts or passages that say something different. Because of other assumptions (above) we have tended to assume that passages that appear to say something different really do not if we only had more information about them. Since we do not have that information, those passages are effectively ignored.

9) This means that we have easily harmonized Scripture to make it all say the same thing, without considering that what we think it says in this truncated version curiously reflects the way we think in our particular time and place.  In effect, we have made the Bible say what appeals to us from our own context without actually hearing what Scripture itself has to say from its own context.

10) As a result, and because we have developed rational arguments to explain the text (#5 above), we have not really been aware of the tremendous diversity within the biblical traditions themselves. We have not noticed that priestly language and perspectives are very different from prophetic language and perspectives, or that the wisdom traditions (Song of Solomon!) and many of the psalms (137) are really not very pious from our sanitized and harmonized ideal of Scripture. We have not noticed that within the pages of Scripture itself Israel actually changed many of the “laws” attributed to God, and did so without any new Sinai revelation.

11) Until very recently (mid 1800s) we knew very little about the history and culture of the Ancient Near East, so it was easy to assume that Israel was unique in the world and that its religious practices recorded in Scripture as being given by God were likewise unique. Now we know that, for example, most everyone in the Ancient Near East except the Philistines practiced religious circumcision, that everyone offered sacrifices to the gods, and that religious festivals like Succoth, Yom Kippur, even Passover/Unleavened Bread were practiced throughout the region (with different names). We also know that the Akkadians had a creation story, the Egyptians had a collection of wisdom sayings, and the Sumerians had a flood story, all a thousand years before Abraham. Virtually all the nations of the Ancient Near east practiced holy war, offering conquered peoples to the gods (killing them). Of course, none of this means that the Bible is not true. But at the very least, it calls us to understand Israel within a cultural and historical context.

There are other things that could be discussed here. But these two major factors, our assumptions about the nature of Scripture and our lack of informed and critical engagement with the biblical text, have allowed us to claim things about the Bible that simply cannot be sustained today without some modification.

Steps to Understanding Scripture

So, how do we distinguish "truth," that is, what the Bible says about God, us, and our relationship to God, from translations of that into time- and culturally-conditioned confessions that may be modified? Again, this could take a whole book, so these are only the "bare bones" of the issue.

1) Take all of the previous points seriously, and try to alter our perspectives and assumptions about Scripture. As hard as it is to swallow, the Bible simply is not what many people think it is or want it to be. Once again, that says nothing about the truth of the Bible; it remains Scripture of the Church and as such “inerrantly reveal[s] the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation” (Article of Faith on Scripture, Church of the Nazarene). But it does say something about what some people think about Scripture and the “battle for the Bible” promoted by some as God’s own agenda. In reality, that battle only promotes a certain view; it is not a battle for the Bible at all, but rather a battle for a certain theological doctrine that is seriously flawed.

2) Allow Scripture to have its own voice without telling it what to say. To do that, we must understand the human dimension of Scripture, the human times, places, and circumstances into which God’s word to us is incarnated.

3) Incarnation did not begin with Jesus. It is the way God has always dealt with humanity, of which Jesus is the best example. Incarnation is not just an event, but part of the nature of God. That is, God has never dealt with humans in absolutist terms apart from human existence, but always within the flow of human history. He has always revealed himself within the mundane that has always been located within a certain time and a certain place. And the people who passed on the traditions and wrote the Bible all lived within the same times and places and spoke and wrote from within those contexts.  It is only within the context of later Greek philosophy that we began to contemplate "truth" as an abstract reality disconnected from day to day human existence.

4) If we take that historical dimension seriously, then we can track through history the different ways human beings have talked about God (theology=God talk), the ways they have changed their language and practices in different periods and circumstances, even the way they have applied the biblical commandments in practical ethics. From that, we can begin to see how God’s people have understood and applied the truths about God, in both positive and negative modes.

5) This not only applies to Scripture but extends to how Scripture has been understood in various periods throughout the past 2,000 years. Whether we American (and some European) evangelicals like it or not, we need that Tradition both within and beyond Scripture to help us establish a theological trajectory through Scripture into the modern world. It is that trajectory that provides us a basis to talk about God (theology) in new ways, as well as to do new lawmaking that is faithful to the biblical witness (here is where “traditional” evangelical perspectives cause us the most problems).

6) We are really back to John Wesley and his theological method, sometimes called the Quadrilateral in which Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience stand in a dynamic and interactive relationship. Wesley always began with Scripture. But he understood that at the same time he was “a man of one book” that Scripture never stands apart from an interpreting community and the process of God-given lawmaking that “works out [our] salvation with fear and trembling.” Wesley openly acknowledged that there is a human factor in how we read, understand, and apply Scripture. I am suggesting that this same human factor is part of Scripture itself, part of the incarnation of God into humanity.

7) It is even helpful to compare the Old Testament and the New Testament, not just to disregard the Old Testament as archaic, which is often either the goal or the result of such comparisons, but to see how the truths about God from the Old Testament are incorporated into the New Testament confessions in light of new times and circumstances (the Advent of Jesus; for example, see Nazareth and the Branch or Immanuel in Isaiah and Matthew).

Following these suggestions will not insure that we have absolute truth.  But it may help us begin to take the actual biblical text and Scripture itself a little more seriously. And in so doing, we might just be surprised how contemporary Scripture can be as it is allowed to challenge our "sacred cows," our carefully guarded assumptions about God and what he expects from us.

Applying Scripture to Christian Living

Yet, the question still remains for many Christians: how do we implement this in terms of using Scripture as a guide for Christian living today?  How can we discern the difference between biblical commands and precepts that are culturally conditioned and have no direct application today from biblical principles that we need to take seriously in Christian living?

The basic question here is the question of hermeneutics. Generally, hermeneutics is the process of interpretation of a written text. However, some make a distinction between exegesis, the study of the meaning(s) or communication of a text in relation to its original context(s), and hermeneutics, how we understand what a text communicates to have meaning or application in a different context (ours).

Others combine the two ideas into a single interpretive process, arguing that one cannot distinguish past and present meaning since all meaning seen from the present will be in terms of the present (any “original” meaning(s) is not recoverable from our perspective).

I try to take a mediating position between these two. I take seriously this last perspective in realizing the huge amount of meaning we tend to project onto a text from our own location in place and time (“the Bible says” far too often means “I think it ought to say”). Yet, at the same time I think that by careful attention to the various contexts and dynamic of a text we can hear a/the communication of a text in order to have some ability to track that communication across and through history (a trajectory).

The difficulty in the question about implementation is that there are a range of views about how to practice hermeneutics, and a variety of approaches to doing exegesis. That means that there are a lot of resources that answer this question in various ways, without any one of them necessarily being the “right” way.

As far as implementation, I follow a couple of very basic hermeneutical principles, both of which I would like to think are biblical principles.

1) the covenantal principle expressed in the formula “I will be your God and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12, Jer 7:23, etc.).  This is a basic faith confession that works out in various ways throughout Scripture. It is the confession about God that affirms his initiation of relationship by grace. And that grace calls people to response. In the Old Testament “I will be your God” is the exodus/return from exile, while “you shall be my people” is Torah, how we work out living in the world as people of God.  In the NT, “I will be your God” is the Incarnation, while “you shall be my people” is embodied in the teachings of Jesus (for example, the Sermon on the Mount) and the applications of those teachings in the epistles.

2) the principle of expectations for living as God’s people that are condensed by Jesus into the Great Commandment: love God and love neighbor (Matt 22:37-39). Not only are these quotations from the Old Testament Torah (Lev and Deut), they are expressed in various ways throughout both the Old Testament  (for example, Micah 6:6-8) and the New Testament (for example, John 13, Rom 12, etc.).

Taken together, these provide a "lens" through which we hear and understand the biblical testimony.  We live in the world as grace-formed people of God who carry the responsibility of living in the world as God's people.  And responsibility is shaped by the central call of God through Jesus that we live as people who love God and love others.  That becomes the overarching criteria of all our ethical and moral decisions.

Note that neither of these principles involves “law” in the sense of specific commands about how to live. In neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament is law ever a basic principle of how to understand God or to live in the world, as Paul forcefully argues in Romans (although in culturally conditioned ways!).

That simple fact has some tremendous implications about how we read Scripture. It directly relates to how we answer the question of determining what is cultural in Scripture and what is more enduring. These principles suggest that when we read, for example, that “You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead” (Deut 14:1), we are dealing with a cultural issue.

Yet, this is clearly an attempt to translate covenant relationship with God and the principle of love God-love neighbor into practical living in ways that would allow the people to live as “children of the LORD your God” in a specific time and place.  While impossible to be taken as law for the modern world, that principle of living as God's people while not yielding to syncretism with surrounding culture certainly has direct application in a modern world. This same principle is expressed by Paul as "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Rom 12:2).

Of course, this example is easy. But the principle is sound even when we are dealing with texts that are not so obvious, such as the well-known passage about women in 1 Corinthians 14. The basic idea here is that all ethical instructions in Scripture are culturally conditioned because by their very nature ethical issues are context specific (most anyone who has worked cross-culturally understands this well; moral principles, like the Ten Words, are a different issues and a different topic).

Yet, that does not mean there are no boundaries, contrary to what some advocate or contrary to the fears of “slippery-slope” proponents. The principles of covenant and love relationship are actually much more bounding than law could ever be, which was Jesus’ point in the early sections of the Sermon on the Mount. They are just not as easy to put into religious laws or special rules. Sadly, in our quest for law we seem to have perennially forgotten that finally sin is not a matter of actions only, but a matter of the heart. We forget that we can only look on the outside but God looks on the heart.

Now, of course, I understand the necessity of guidelines and ethical standards within a community. But the issue here is biblical interpretation, and how we read biblical texts. The guideline here is that in almost all cases what we tend to read in the Bible as legal behavioral commands for all time are culturally conditioned ethical instructions that need to be interpreted before we impose them today as our law or ethical guidelines.

Beyond ethical issues, I think these same two principles can serve us in broader application in asking questions about cultural context. This also involves very essentially what we understand Scripture to be as noted above.

Basically, the Bible tells us three things: 1) about God, 2) about us as human beings, and 3) about our relationship with God. If we keep in mind that whatever else Scripture says (or whatever we think it says) it is really about these three things, we can avoid getting sidetracked by a lot of other ideas.

For example, Genesis 1 is not about science and evolution; it is about God, cast in the language and thought world of fifth century BC Israelites who had struggled with the syncretism of Baal worship. Joshua and Judges are not a historical chronicle of the Israelite conquest of Canaan; they are about the faithfulness of God and human failure and sin, cast in the language and culture of eleventh century BC tribal Hebrews struggling to come to terms with how to live as God’s people in a very violent and polytheistic world. Before we move those texts into modern applications, or ignore them as irrelevant, we must begin with them there.

There is one other factor that we need to consider and take seriously in dealing with biblical texts: Scripture did not arise at a single time from a single place by a single author. And it did not emerge full grown and immutable from the head of Moses or Paul. Scripture is not just a book, but is a set of traditions that were dynamic across more than 1,500 years of human history (and in some ways are still dynamic). What we read in Scripture is a community of Faith in dialog with itself across a millennium and a half, through several epochs of human history. The biblical text cannot be flattened out and made to read as if it were written as a whole at one time, and certainly not as if it were addressed to us as it stands.

This means that all of Scripture, including the New Testament, is culturally conditioned, not just the parts that are hard to understand. And it is conditioned not just by one cultural or historical context but by several or many. As a result, on a cultural and historical level Scripture will not be consistent (for example, three different systems of tithing in Deuteronomy). That necessitates the two basic hermeneutical principles as well as understanding essentially what Scripture addresses (God, us, relationship) in order to focus on what the text communicates, without getting lost in the details.  Yet on the level of being the people of God in the world and loving God and others, there is a consistency in Scripture that transcends the cultural and historical incarnation of the text, if we take the time and effort to hear it.

Doing that will not guarantee an absolute ethical rule for every circumstance.  But it will facilitate hearing Scripture, all of Scripture, as guidelines for Christian living.  Otherwise, we reduce the Bible to a dual level authority with some sections of absolute law that we must rigidly obey and other sections that have no relevance for us today.  That is not how the Church has historically seen the authority of Scripture (see Torah as Holiness).

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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