What Does This Verse Mean to You?—Verses Most Commonly Taken Out of Context, Pt. 1: Some Thoughts about Understanding the Bible

Quite some time ago, I began to put together some thoughts regarding specific Bible verses or passages that I thought were often taken out of context. Those thoughts have taken the shape of a study that I’ve had the opportunity to conduct in various venues. Here, what I want to do is to take one verse or passage at a time from that study. I begin with some general thoughts about understanding the Bible.

Does Everything in the Bible apply to Us Today?

First, does everything in the Bible apply to us today? I was in a discussion about Bible interpretation when this question came up. I told my friend that it would seem that answer must be ‘no’. In making my case, I appealed to what I thought would be a relatively uncontroversial example from Matthew 21. Verses 1-2 tell us “Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, {2} saying to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me.’” [NKJV] It seemed obvious to me that none of us today are under the obligation to a donkey to Jesus. Clearly, Jesus’ command was to the disciples present with Him then and was not a prescription for all time for us to loosen a donkey and bring it to Jesus.

I must quickly add, however, that, based upon hearing some of the most ridiculous sermons and Bible studies, I would not be surprised that somewhere in a pulpit one Sunday, there will be a sermon preached “Have You Loosened Your Donkey for Jesus?” In thinking about what a “donkey theology” might come to look like throughout the Christian world I had to conclude that the Reformed Calvinist Christians held firmly to the notion that you cannot loosen your own donkey. Instead, God has to sovereignly loosen your donkey for you. To be sure, God only does so for His elect. I’ll avoid the tricky task of trying to referee the debate between the Supralapsarians who hold that God’s decrees are so ordered that God decrees to tie the donkey first and then decrees to loosen the donkeys for the elect vs. the Infralapsarians who insist that God’s ultimate decree was that His elect would have their donkey’s loosened and only then decrees to have them antecedently tied.

Baptists, of course, are noted for their battle cry “Once loosened, always loosened!” The Arminians not only disagree with the Calvinists over whether someone has the free will to loosen his own donkey, but they warn of the danger of losing your donkey on your way to bringing it to Jesus.

Departing from the more conservative wings of the faith, one will note that the liberal Christians maintain that it doesn’t have to literally be a donkey that you bring to Jesus. It can be any farm animal as long as you’re sincere. Moving even further away from a core evangelicalism, the radical pluralists believe that it doesn’t even necessarily have to be Jesus to whom you bring your donkey. You can bring your donkey (or other farm animal) to Krishna or Buddha or more. Last, the New Ager urges everyone to just become one with his donkey. [I can't take credit for that last one, as it was suggested to me once when I was telling this joke.]

Other passages could be given like the donkey passage that seem to collapse into absurdity when forced to apply to us today. Whenever I encounter a Christian who seems too full of himself in how obedient to the commands of the Bible he thinks he is living, I ask him if he has greeted Rufus yet. After all, we can see from Rom. 16:13 that we’re commanded to do so!

Setting aside, then, those instances where Matt. 21:1-2 or Rom. 16:13 could only be made to apply to us today by the most illegitimate interpretive move, a sober reading of such passages makes us aware that, with any given Bible reading, we have to come to terms with the issue of whether it does or does not apply to us today.

The Challenge of Descriptive vs. Normative (Prescriptive) Passages

In addition to the above challenge (actually a close cousin to it) is the problem of distinguishing descriptive from normative (or prescriptive) passages. A descriptive statement is one that merely states what a situation is, i.e., it describes the situation. A normative (or prescriptive) statement states what a situation ought to be, i.e., it prescribes a situation. I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke about the long-haired “hippy” teen-ager who wanted his dad to buy him a car. The dad, who had grown weary of his son’s long hair, told him that he would buy him a car only if the son cut his hair. The son responded “But dad, Jesus had long hair!” to which the dad countered, “Yes, and he walked everywhere too!” What the joke points out is the issue of whether, because Jesus did X, we, as His followers, should do X.  I remember well as a young person and a new Christian my spiritual leaders urging that we should rise early in the morning to pray just as Jesus did in Mark 1:35. Little did they realize how much they were setting this night owl up for the bleakest discipleship experience because of my repeated failures to crawl out of bed early enough in the morning.

However, such considerations can quickly get one into issues that are less funny than they are controversial or divisive. Consider Malachi 3:10 which commands us to “bring all the tithes into the storehouse” after which God has promised that He would “open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” Forget wishing that you had a dollar every time this passage was preached in a contemporary church to defend a doctrine of tithing for the Christian. I’m sure such preaching has brought many dollars in already. But is tithing something obligatory (or even expected) for the Christian? Is the Christian church a “storehouse”? Is it obvious that the passage is prescriptive for today?

If such questions were not divisive enough, how about Acts 2:4? The early disciples were all gathered in the upper room. When the Holy Spirit filled them, they “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Is such an experience normative for the Christian today? Ought we to seek such an experience? Or is it the case that this experience was something only relative to what God was doing in the early stages of the Church?

The Problem of Moralizing or Allegorizing

More often that I care to count, I have heard sermons where a given passage is “moralized.” This means that the preacher takes the passage, attempts to glean some moral principle from the passage, and then applies the passage to our lives today. What could be wrong with this? After all (some might wonder) is not this the very calling of a preacher vis-à-vis the Bible? The problem arises when, in attempting to glean any such moral principles, the interpreter has to allegorize the passage. Various elements of the passage (most often, but not always, a historical narrative) are given an allegorical (or “spiritual”) rendering.

How many times have you heard 1 Sam. 17:38-39 preached to teach that we should not seek to adopt someone else’s “calling” or “ministry” for ourselves? Instead, we should seek to discover what God’s unique ministry is for us in our own “calling.” This, the preacher might insist, was what David discovered when he attempted to put on Saul’s armor, only to find that it didn’t fit. For David to try to do God’s will in this situation by wearing Saul’s armor (instead of going forth with what God’s had equipped David) was the wrong path. Once he discovered that Saul’s armor didn’t fit (i.e., once he discovered that God did not intend for David to work within what God had given to Saul) then David “took them off.” You know the rest of the story. So, the conclusion goes, if you want to succeed in God’s will for your own ministry, don’t try to “borrow” someone else’s “calling” or “equipping.”

If that lesson doesn’t sound familiar, surely you’ve been encouraged more than once on how to “slay the giants in your life.” The familiar story of David and Goliath has always (in my hearing) been preached as an allegory. It is (so the common interpretation goes) the classic story of the triumph of the underdog. Goliath represents (i.e., is an allegory of) the seemingly insurmountable obstacles we all encounter from time to time in our lives. But with God’s help, we can have the hope of being able to overcome those obstacles by slaying these “giants” that we encounter. What could be a more uplifting message with which to walk out of church to face our week?

Sometimes the stretching used to make a passage “preach” itself begins to stretch credibility. While few people with whom I’ve discussed the issue would see anything wrong with the above take on the David and Goliath passage, I almost fell out of the pew when I heard a preacher encourage all of us to “lighten our loads” in our lives, based on the “principles” he saw in Acts 27:18 “And because we were exceedingly tempest-tossed, the next day they lightened the ship.” If your life is getting to be too much to bear, perhaps you need to consider lightening your load! What made it even worse; the preacher admitted at the beginning of his sermon that this probably wasn’t what this passage was teaching. Apparently the allegory was too hard for him to resist wrenching out for his sermon.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t visit the most notorious example of allegorizing a passage in a public sermon. There are a number of versions of the stories. Most of the versions I’ve heard come from people claiming to have actually heard a preacher preach the passage this way. Then they quickly add the joke that they so cleverly thought while sitting in the pew listening to the sermon. As the preacher is preaching about Jesus riding on the donkey for His triumphal entry, observing how the donkey is “carrying Jesus to the world,” making the application of how we, too, ought to be a “donkey for Jesus” to “carry” Him to our world as (to extend the application) the Great Commission commands, the one telling the story remarks how fortunate it is that the preacher is not preaching from the King James Version of the Bible!

Some Comments on the Issue of “Out-of-Context” Verses

Let me bring this first installment to the broader issue that concerns me. All of the above points fall under the heading of hermeneutics; the science of textual (in this case, biblical) interpretation. There are seemingly countless books that have been written on hermeneutics. Sadly, too many of those books have been compromised (to a greater or lesser extent) by bad philosophy; specifically the philosophical issues surrounding the nature of language, the nature of meaning, the relationship of language to reality, and the nature of how meaning is conveyed from the meaner to the reader. I am not here so much concerned with these critical philosophical issues. For that, I would recommend to my reader Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation by my brother Dr. Tom Howe. For my purposes, I should like to focus on a few more general points and then visit different senses in which a verse or passage can relate to its context.

Sometimes one may use a verse out of context to defend a point that is true and that may actually be taught elsewhere in Scripture. Thus, for me to quarrel with a verse out of context, does not necessarily imply that I disagree with the ultimate conclusion that someone may put to the passage to serve. What is more, while I am confident that I am right about the following verses being out of context, I am not necessarily so confident that my suggested replacement interpretations are correct. I welcome any comments one way or another.

Four Types of Context

As to the issue of context itself, there are a number of sources of misinterpretation of verses of Scripture. I want to focus on five. First there is the Immediate Context. This asks “How might the surrounding verses aid our understanding?” Unpacking this a bit, one should consider in which Testament (Old Testament or New Testament) the verse is found. This can be important because some things are true absolutely and transcend the context of the particular Testament such as God’s existence and nature. Some things are true specifically in reference to the subject matter of the particular Testament. Some verses/promises/warnings/commands pertain to the Nation Israel, some to Christians in general, and some to specific individuals. Also, one needs to consider who exactly is doing the speaking in the passage. Sometimes the passage represents the words of a speaker who is not necessarily conveying God’s words (e.g., Satan in the Garden of Eden) and may, in fact, be speaking a lie. Sometimes the passage represents the words of God Himself.

Second, there is the Original Language Context. This asks “How might the original language of the text aid our understanding?” The Bible was written in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Koine Greek (New Testament). It is possible that the original language might convey a sense (either meaning or significance) that is obscured by a translation.

Third, there is the Grammatical Context. This asks “How might a careful reading of the English grammar aid our understanding?” A few examples I will look at illustrate the need to pay careful attention to the adequately translated passage.

Fourth, there is the Historical/Cultural Context. This asks “How might historical or cultural considerations aid our understanding?” Since the culture of the Bible is several thousand years (and even more miles) removed from many of us, the interpreter has to be careful not to ignore this context (or, worse, not to impose his own) in considering a passage.

Last, there is the Theological Context. This asks “How might theological considerations aid our understanding?” Admittedly, this can be the most tricky, if not the most abused. It plays off the delicate interplay of, on the one end, exegesis (leading out of the text the meaning that is there) and, on the other end, systematic theology (the careful arrangement of one’s conclusions about the truths of God into a systematic, coherent whole). Exegesis without systematic theology is in danger of being inconsistent (and, thus, false at some point) while systematic theology without exegesis can lead to defending a theological system without careful regard to the testimony of Scripture.

With these preliminaries behind us, in my next entry I will start with one or more examples from each of these five different kinds of context.

Young Earth Presuppositionalism

I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion/debate with K. Scott Oliphint (Westminster Theological Seminary) and Jason Lisle (Institute for Creation Research) on the relationship between apologetic methodology (presuppositionalism vs. classical apologetics) and the age of the Earth. I invite you to view the video here. Our discussion hit the highlights of our contributions to the Christian Apologetics Journal available for purchase here.

Forty-Seven Years Ago Today

I suppose that as long as there are March 3rds, I’ll do at least one blog a year (although it seems I actually did miss a few years). I don’t suppose I’ll never forget the date. Because of this, I feel compelled to re-post these musings.

(re-posted from previous years, mutatis mutandis) I remember being in the our front yard one afternoon after school on Marwood Dr. in Jackson, MS. One of my older brothers had had his telescope out looking at the cloud formations. It began to rain so my brother scooped up his telescope and he and I ran into the house. I sat down to watch television. It was about 4:30. We had a window over the kitchen sink that looked out into our carport. Suddenly, the rain and wind became so intense that the view from the carport window became obscured even though it was protected by the carport ceiling. Then the power went off. That was always frightening to a child, even in the afternoon. Then another brother came running into the den area where we were with our mom. (My youngest brother had been asleep on the couch.) Dad was away on one of his out-of-state business trips. My brother was yelling, “It’s a tornado! It’s a tornado!” None of us knew exactly what to do. The kids wanted to just jump in the car and flee but none of us knew exactly where to flee. Before we had time to really gain our composure (being only 10 years old, perhaps I was the only one who was actually panicked) the storm had passed. There was an errie calm that set in as we began to hear the scream of sirens. The tornado had passed at least a statue mile from our house and we sustained no damage. It was not so for Candlestick Park Shopping Center. Some sources say 13; others say 19 were killed in the shopping center. More were killed as the tornado tracked eastward across other parts of Mississippi and Alabama. Over 300 were injured. After the twister devastated Candlestick Park, it hit a power sub-station (which is what made our power go off). It then followed along Cooper Road for several hundred yards and lifted up, skipping over downtown Jackson. Another brother of mine (I have four) watched the storm from his office window in a downtown sky-scraper (or what would pass as one in those days). The duration of the afternoon and into the night was filled with the sounds of cars rushing to take the injured to the hospital. Someone came to our door and asked if we had a thermos he could borrow to render aid to the rescue teams. We sat around our kitchen table listening to a transistor radio. I was a Beatle fan. I heard for the first time their new hit “Nowhere Man.” Needless to say, every time I heard that song for many years after, it always took me back to those eerie and frightening feelings of that day. Finally, in what seemed like forever, our power came back on at about 10:00 that evening. We all hugged. It was Thursday, March 3, 1966.

Intellectual Dissonance

How Blogs by Writers Who Don’t Understand the Arguments and Reasoning They Have Read in Certain Other Blogs Makes for Irksome Reading for the One Whose Arguments and Reasoning Was Completely Lost on Said Writer – A Rejoinder to Fred Butler’s “Apologetic Dissonance: How Popular Apologetics Causes Me to Grimace and Massage my Forehead Right above My Eyebrow.”

This is my rejoinder to Fred Butler’s blog entry “Apologetic Dissonance” found at http://hipandthigh.blogspot.com. In that entry, Mr. Butler has set out what ostensibly is a critique of my earlier blog entry “It’s Worse that I Thought” found at http://quodlibetalblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/its-worse-than-i-thought/#more-164 where I analyze a talk by Ken Ham I heard at a church near my home. The reader is encouraged to read my entry because I will allude to that article on several occasions. I also encourage you to read Mr. Butler’s article as well. Continue reading

Breaking My Internet Silence on Mike Licona and Inerrancy

Until now, I have deliberately not directly weighed in anywhere on the internet regarding the row over Mike Licona’s views and the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Scriptures. The continued barrage of views in various blog posts and on FB (some by people I know and others not) has compelled me to give my 1.5 cents worth. I do not flatter myself to think that anyone would care what my views are in this matter; at least, not as far as being relevant in settling things. There might be some, however, who know me (and perhaps have studied under me) who might be interested in what I think about this debate, if only in as much as it departs from their own thinking. Continue reading

God Can Exist Even If Atheism Is True

It is becoming increasingly more common for atheists to define atheism, not as the denial of the existence of God, but as a lack of belief in the existence of God. As such, these atheists maintain that atheism is merely the lack of any affirmation of the existence of God.

Atheist B. C. Johnson says, “Theists believe in God, while atheists do not have such a belief.  Many theists insist that it is the responsibility of the atheist to offer evidence justifying his lack of belief in God.  But is the theist’s demand rational?  Must the atheist justify his lack of belief in God?   Or does the burden rest with the theist? [B. C. Johnson, The Atheist Continue reading

My Name is Richard Howe, and I’m NOT a Mormon

No doubt the flood of commercials of everyday people telling us that they’re Mormons is an attempt (understandably enough) to massage the public mindset and attitude about Mormonism in anticipation of Mitt Romney’s nomination for the Republican candidate for President. I’m not suggesting that he will undoubtedly be the nominee. I would say, however, that, all other things being equal, his being a Mormon is less relevant to his qualifications to be the President than many other factors. I would take a Mormon Mitt Romney over a Baptist Jimmy Carter any day of the week.

What bothers me, especially in light of the row over Continue reading