Critical Thinking: So Often Ignored, It’s a Sin: A Few Thoughts on Kurt Eichenwald’s “The Bible-So Misunderstood, It’s a Sin.”

There are already a number of substantive refutations of the Newsweek article “The Bible-So Misunderstood, It’s a Sin” by Kurt Eichenwald (01.02.2015 – 01.09.2015), pp. 24-41. Indeed, Eichenwald’s points were already deftly refuted even before he put pen to paper. But if one’s sources are limited (either deliberately or through no fault of one’s own), then perhaps it is not surprising that Eichenwald would make some of the mistaken observations he made. However, I thought I would weigh in on just a few points I have yet to see in other analyses. I have my brother, Tom Howe, to thank for some of these insights.

First, Eichenwald uses the hackneyed example of how certain ambiguities arise in English if one ignores the spaces between words. While it makes for a good joke, it does nothing to contribute to any substantive point about the Bible. His version is the difference in meaning between “We should go eat, mom” and “We should go eat mom.” (Skeptics had already run the pseudo-point into the ground with their “God is now here” and “God is nowhere” quip which Eichenwald also mentions.) My favorite use of the ambiguity is the T-shirt that reads “Grammar saves lives” followed by “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!” Without a doubt, the T-shirt application to make the joke is all that this ambiguity is worth. It has nothing to do with any point about understanding the Bible. So, how does Eichenwald think that it does? He (rightly) points out that in certain biblical manuscripts the Koiné Greek lacks any spaces between the words. He then (wrongly) concludes that, just as the lack of spaces between words can create ambiguity in meaning in English, so, too, might it do in the Greek. Eichenwald’s point is a non-sequitur for several reasons. He illicitly mixes the protocols for English with those for Greek. To eliminate the spaces between words in English is to do violence to the rules and conventions of English grammar. It is no wonder that, when one discards the rules for a language, that language loses its ability to deliver meaning without ambiguity. In contrast, for there to be no spaces between words in Koiné Greek is not a violation of the Greek language. It creates no such ambiguity. The reason this is so is because, Greek being an inflected language, the part of speech a given word might play has mostly to do with how the word is spelled (inflected), not with where the word occurs in the order in the sentence or whether the word has spaces separating it from its adjacent words. Thus, while “The dog bit the boy” means something different in English than “The boy bit the dog” this is only due to the fact that the difference between which word is the subject of the verb and which word is the object of the verb is where the word occurs in the sentence. Not so with Greek. Thus, (to revisit Eichenwald’s example), the word ‘mom’ functions as a vocative precisely because it is set apart from the previous part of the sentence by a comma. Without the comma, ‘mom’ becomes the direct object of the verb ‘eat’. (Interestingly, Eichenwald’s example has less to do with whether or not there are spaces between the words and more to do with whether or not there is a particular punctuation. He might as well have tried to make his point by observing that Koiné Greek has no punctuation.) For an inflected language, a noun that functions as a vocative will be spelled (i.e. inflected) differently than the same noun functioning as the direct object of the verb. Because of this, it almost never matters (with some notable exceptions) where in the sentence the noun occurs.

Second, on pp. 27-28, Eichenwald quotes Bart Ehrman that “there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” Though Eichenwald admits that “most of the discrepancies are little more that the handwritten equivalent of a typo” it is clear that he intends to imply something that is not true, viz., that, because of these numerous variations, the meaning of the text is hopelessly lost or obscured. The overwhelming majority of these variations is comprised of spelling differences, and, further, most of these spelling differences are not even possible to translate. This is so because these spelling differences are most commonly the “movable nu” which is roughly equivalent to the English convention of putting an ‘n’ after the article ‘a’ before nouns that begin with a vowel. One can see that it has nothing to do with understanding the meaning whether one says “Bob ate an apple” or “Bob ate a apple.” But observing that there are more of these variations than words makes for good copy.

A third lapse in Eichenwald’s critical thinking has to do with the pericope of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. He makes the astonishing claim “Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.” (p. 28) Setting aside for the moment as to whether the pericope is original with John’s gospel, even if John did not write the story, it certainly does not follow that the event never occurred. Are we to conclude that John’s gospel recorded every event in Jesus’ life? Even John himself denied this. He tells us in his gospel, 20:30-31, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (NKJV) Such a lapse of logic on Eichenwald’s part is embarrassing. What is more, before one confidently concludes that the story is not original with John, one should consider the counter arguments. To be sure, the story does not appear in any NT manuscript before the 4th (or possibly 5th) century. Thus, anyone who thinks that it is original with John must advance an argument accounting for its absence. This is the demand one will hear quite often of those who believe that it is original with John. But it also follows that anyone who thinks that its absence from these earlier manuscripts is enough to prove that it was not original with John has a burden to show how and why the story does appear in the 900+ manuscripts where it is found. Some sort of textual history is called for. (To be fair to Ehrman (whom Eichenwald again cites), his argument against it being original with John does not rest solely on the manuscript evidence but also includes internal, textual, stylistic evidence.) I would commend to your reading the short treatments of the subject by Zane C. Hodges (with Arthur L. Farstad) in the introduction to their The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), xxiii-xxxii. They discuss both external (manuscript) evidence as well as internal (stylistic) evidence. One might also find interesting the discussion by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (together with their footnote to a further work on the subject) in their The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005 (Southborough: Chilton Book Publishing, 2005), xi-xii.

Fourth, another one of the few scholars that Eichewald cites is Jason BeDuhn and his work Truth in Translation. All I can ask from my reader is that, before you make any decisions about how much you think BeDuhn has made his case, please read the (in my humble opinion) devastating critique of BeDuhn titled Bias in New Testament Translation? A Defense of the Deity of Christ (Charlotte: Solomon’s Razor, 2010) by my brother Tom Howe. The book is currently out of print but should be attainable through inter-library loan.

Fifth, to pile on the “problems” of the New Testament, Eichenwald raises the specter of translation. He seemingly thinks it is a problem that “many words in the New Testament Greek don’t have clear English equivalents.” But anyone familiar with working from one language to another knows that this is not necessarily the obstacle that Eichenwald would have us think. The reason is that, even in those instances where the meaning or nuance of a single Greek word cannot be captured by a single English word, the meaning of the Greek text can certainly be conveyed into English. If it takes more words than the translation can manage, this is where the Bible teacher comes into the picture. Eichenwald seems to think that, without a clear, word for word capturing of the Greek, one is at a loss to know what the Greek New Testament has to say if they only read the English. If this is not what he is implying, then why characterize the issue of translation as a “problem”? With the abundance of commentaries and study Bibles (together with English translations that come virtually as close to a word for word as one could want), understanding the Bible is not as out of reach as Eichenwald seems to imply, even if it is de facto missed by some of the examples of the misuse of the Bible that he cites.

Last, what is one to make overall of the article? It constitutes one giant fallacy of the false dilemma. No doubt one can find much to criticize about contemporary American Christianity and its use or misuse of the Bible. One would not have to look far to find examples of how the Bible is sometimes used for ridiculous purposes and nefarious agendas. Eichenwald’s examples could be added to. I do not necessarily disagree with his criticisms here. But the “solution” is not to abandon sound, critical thinking and opt for overlooking the “rest of the story.” To offer the abuse of the Bible on the one hand for another abuse of the Bible at the other end of the ideological spectrum is to offer a false dilemma. There are more voices to consider on the subject than Westboro Baptist Church on the one hand or Bart Ehrman and Jason BeDuhn on the other. In addition to the critique of BeDuhn I suggested above, I could suggest numerous, scholarly analyses of the Bible of which Eichenwald is seemingly quite ignorant (or, at least, chose to conveniently ignore for the purposes of his article). A name like Daniel Wallace (as a corrective to Ehrman) comes immediately to mind. I invite the reader to listen to the debates that Wallace had with Ehrman that are available on the internet.

ID, Science, and the Philosophy of Science: Some Thoughts by Philosopher Dr. J. T. Bridges

I have been reading Stephen F. Mason’s A History of the Sciences and at the end of the chapter on Galileo’s work in mechanics he juxtaposes Kepler and Galileo writing:

Kepler was primarily concerned with making astronomy more precise and accurate technically, whilst Galileo was mainly interested in propagating the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Copernicus….

The nature of Galileo’s interests helps to explain why he largely abandoned the mathematical method in astronomy, and concentrated upon making qualitative telescopic observations. Any person could see the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and the mountains on the moon, with a telescope, but only skilled mathematicians could be convinced by Kepler’s findings that the heliocentric theory was essentially correct. (163-164)

If the analogy is not illicit, I believe I have found a crucial distinction between myself and many ID scholars here paralleled. In my research I have been concerned to place ID theory into a well-formed epistemology of science. In doing so, like Kepler, I have been concerned with the more technical, philosophical (rather than mathematical) elements of the theory. These technicalities are, perhaps, only convincing to those who are “skilled in philosophy.”

It seems that many ID theorists, concerned as they are to “propagate an intellectual revolution” desire simply to point to the empirical merits and mathematical cogency of their ideas. This makes them, in my experience, impatient with the more fine-grained philosophical technicalities that do not rise to the level of quantitative evaluation.

The danger of this unhappy dynamic is that if there really are subtle philosophical distinctions that shift the tenor of the debate, and these distinctions are persistently overlooked, then the ID theoretic has been artificially restrained from its fullest possible effect.

The above passage from Mason, for me, rang eerily familiar. Though I must admit that it was also comforting since I now recognize that my frustrating interactions with those I seek to aid have, at their core, something as commonplace as differing motivations.  [Dr. Bridges is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Ph.D. Program at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC.]

What Does This Verse Mean to You?—Verses Most Commonly Taken Out of Context 03: Immediate Context – How might the surrounding verses aid our understanding of a passage?

Because there are so many important examples of verses misinterpreted because the immediate context is ignored, it is a challenge to decide where to cut off with the examples and move on the next type of context. For the time being, I’ll stay on this section and explore a few more. The next passage is one whose misinterpretation has even made its way to a book title. Here, the misinterpretation stems not only from ignoring the surrounding verses, but also because over time the verse has been misquoted so often, many people will fail to notice that the familiar wording is not to be found in the text. When I teach on this subject, I will sometimes deliberately misquote Proverbs 23:7 and ask the audience how many have heard this verse. Almost everyone indicates that they have. Then I ask how many know how I just misquoted the verse. Almost none can tell me. Most of the time, when I encounter this verse it is quoted “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” James Allen’s little booklet is titled As a Man Thinketh (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revel, n.d.). The teaching of the book shows why a proper interpretation of this verse within its context is so important. The “asamanthinketh” web site offers a free download of Allen’s book. There is even a Wikipedia article on the book (where the verse is also misquoted).

What’s at stake is how New Age heresies regarding the nature of human beings are promulgated by this misinterpretation as if to say that these heresies are corroborated by the Bible. They are not. The New Age movement teaches that so much (if not everything) about ourselves as human beings is determined by our minds; by our thinking. The teaching says that any limitations we have are self-imposed by the way we chose to think about ourselves and our world. To the New Agers, the answer to mankind’s problems is a matter of the consciousness. They claim that if only we will “expand our awareness” of “who we really are” we can experience the limitlessness of our being. In its more extreme versions, the idea is that we can use mind powers to manipulate reality in much the same way Witchcraft teaches. According to this heresy, nothing shall be impossible for us. Such “mind dynamic” philosophy is echoed by other “self-help” and “success motivation” teachers like Napoleon Hill in his Think and Grow Rich. Even aside from the issue of whether this is true about us and whether this is a biblical view of human nature, there can be no doubt that Proverbs. 23:7 is saying nothing of the sort when considered in its context. (For more on the errors of such “positive thinking” see my article “Some Concerns about Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinkinghere.

What can we know about the meaning of this verse when we consider the context? First, we have to make sure that the verse is quoted correctly. Instead of saying “As a man…” the verse says “As he …” (emphasis added). Second, as with the last passage we examined (Isaiah. 55:8-9) it is essential that we pay close attention to the antecedents of the pronouns that verses contain. Sometimes the antecedent is clear within a given verse. Other times we have to look to the surrounding verses to know the antecedent. With Proverbs 23:7 we have to ask ourselves “Who is the ‘he’ to whom the verse is referring?” Consider the entire passage that captures the complete thought in vv. 6-8. “Do not eat the bread of a miser, nor desire his delicacies; for as he thinks in his heart, so is he. ‘Eat and drink!’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you. The morsel you have eaten, you will vomit up, and waste your pleasant words.” From the context we can see that the writer is warning the reader to be aware of those who might feign hospitality and friendliness toward you. Don’t be fooled by their insincere kindness. Their flattering actions actually hide how they really are disposed toward you. Here the miser resents the fact that you are eating his food despite the fact that he offered the food to you in the first place. It is how the miser is thinking in his heart that reveals the truth about his disposition of animosity toward you. Don’t be so naïve as to think that every kind word issues from a trustworthy friend.

What Does This Verse Mean to You?—Verses Most Commonly Taken Out of Context 02: Immediate Context – How might the surrounding verses aid our understanding of a passage?

In a previous entry of “What Does This Verse Mean to You,” I introduced the subject of biblical interpretation, especially with regard to the matter of context. With the preliminaries behind us, in the following entries I want to take a look at one or more examples from each of these five different kinds of contexts Immediate, Original Language, Grammatical, Historical/Cultural, and Theological.

My first example actually serves more than one passion of mine. Besides its relevance to the issue at hand, a refutation of the improper interpretation of this passage together with a defense of the proper interpretation is crucial to the task of sound apologetics, especially with regard to the biblical case for the classical apologetics model. Isaiah 55:8-9 says “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (New King James Version)

One of the first questions to ask when anyone says anything to you and uses a pronoun is “What is the antecedent to the pronoun?” If a friend said to you “He walked right up to me, wished me a happy day, and handed me a one hundred dollar bill!” you would undoubtedly ask “Who?” To ask your friend to whom the ‘he’ is referring is to ask what is the antecedent of the pronoun. Here we need to ask the biblical text the same thing. We see several pronouns. The possessive pronouns ‘my’ and ‘your’ occur (in the English) four times each. To properly understand the passage, it is necessary to identify to whom each pronoun is pointing or referring. Regarding the ‘my’ it seems evident from these two verses themselves to whom the ‘my’ is pointing, viz., the Lord. What causes trouble for the reader is the false assumption that the ‘your’ is pointing to the reader. This seems understandable precisely because (in my experience) these two verses are almost always taken in isolation from their context. Taken this way, it seems to make sense to regard the passage as talking to the reader. Because of this mistaken assumption, this passage (again, in my experience) is without fail taken to mean something to the effect that the way God thinks about things is quite different than the way we mere humans think about things. God, if you will, has His own logic about matters. Because of this, God’s ways of doing things are quite different than ours. Extending this, the passage is then taken to be an indictment upon the ability of humans to reason about various matters.

To be sure, God’s ways of thinking and doing are not the same as our way of thinking and doing. God’s thoughts and ways are only analogous to our thoughts and ways. But it is not to any reference to the analogy of being (a technical philosophical matter) that the misinterpretation is aimed. Despite any real differences between God and man for which one can argue on the basis of sound metaphysics, I contend that the conclusions based on this passage that disparage human logic and reason are unwarranted. This is so because the passage is not making a point about human logic or reason.

Extending the context will help the reader identify the actual antecedent to the possessive pronouns. Verses 6 and 7 say “Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.” Notice the parallelism. It is the ways of the wicked and the thoughts of the unrighteous against which the ways and thoughts of God are contrasted. Thus, the passage is making a point about wickedness and righteousness, not a point about logic and reason. Anyone who seeks to argue against the legitimacy of human logic and reason on the basis of this passage is misinterpreting the passage because he is ignoring the immediate context.

What Does This Verse Mean to You?—Verses Most Commonly Taken Out of Context 01: 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.