There were a number of directions I thought about going for the final part in this series. We could certainly talk more about the history of the Christian sermon or the history of Christian music or Church finances or varied approaches to Christian education. But with one week left, I’d like to address what I think is a bigger and more fundamental issue in the Christian world at large – our approach to reading, understanding, and using Scripture.
As Jesus was entering into his public ministry he began by going through a 40-day testing period out in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). Satan did everything he could to get our Savior to crack, but Jesus wouldn’t succumb. Interestingly, one of the ways that Satan, the great deceiver, tried to lure Jesus into sinning was by ripping none other than God’s own words out of their original context, using them to promote his own agenda. This is called “proof-texting” (and has nothing to do with what young people do on their cell phones :)).
In this particular instance, Satan took Jesus to the highest point of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and told Jesus to throw himself off of it, since after all, God did say in Psalm 91:11-12 “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” In other words, Satan is suggesting that since God has promised that he’s going to watch over you, you have nothing to worry about and you can live your life as carelessly and haphazardly as you’d like. Wisely, Jesus, used Scripture that coincided with its original context to refute Satan’s challenge. He said, “It (the Bible) says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Deuteronomy 6:16).
Proof-texting is still an issue today, often presented by churches to promote their mentality or theology. Here’s just one example: In the mid-1800s, a guy by the name of John Nelson Darby promoted teachings that are called dispensationalism and pretribulational rapture that are tenets of modern millenialist beliefs. To arrive at such teachings, he used the method of proof-texting. Millenialism is ultimately based on one section of difficult apocalyptic literature. In Revelation chapter 20:1-10, John writes about an angel coming from heaven and binding Satan for 1000 years. There is NOTHING in the rest of Scripture that suggests a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth to usher in the end of the world. And no one is ready to take all of the rest of the numbers of Revelation literalistically (e.g. the 144,000 believers in heaven). Nonetheless, this teaching, formed by ripping one section of Scripture out of its context and divorcing it from the rest of what the Bible has to say, is the basis for how approximately half of American Christians believe the end of the world is going to look. Do you doubt the power of proof-texting? The Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye, which is a fictional tale promoting this millenialist doctrine has sold more than 65 million copies, making it one of the most successful Christian books/series of all time.
So much corruption can come from not understanding the Bible in terms of the context in which it was originally written. And to be honest, we don’t always make it easy for good-intentioned Christians to understand what their Bibles are saying. Let me explain.
Most conservative Christians understand that their Bibles are inspired by God. We call this “Verbal Inspiration” (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Tim 3:16). But did you know that there is nothing technically inspired about the order of the books of Scripture?
The Apostle Paul wrote about two-thirds of the New Testament, 13 letters over the course of about twenty-years. Any idea how they are ordered in your Bible? Most Christians wouldn’t be able to come up with the correct answer: length. Nobody orders the books in their home this way. Typically we do so alphabetically. We’d also probably assume that since the New Testament is a bigger narrative, the books would probably be arranged chronologically. Not the case. Starting with Romans and ending with Philemon, Paul’s New Testament letters are arranged from longest to shortest, the way ancient Greco-Roman literature was usually ordered. According to the best available scholarship, the New Testament should probably rather be ordered Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy.
Now maybe you’re saying, “What’s the big deal?” Well, it’s only a big deal if it’s clouding the originally intended message from God. If we don’t know the circumstances surrounding Paul’s letters (or any book of the Bible for that matter) – who they were written to, what those individuals were struggling with, what occasioned it’s writing, we might not grasp what the Holy Spirit (through the writer) is seeking to communicate. Worse yet, we might make some false assumptions that aren’t entirely accurate or are downright misleading.
How many times haven’t we heard people reference Matthew 7 and it’s “don’t judge” message as reasoning for tolerating someone else’s sinful lifestyle, when Matthew 7 is not at all promoting permissiveness towards sin. How many times haven’t we heard Philippians 4:13 and it’s “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” message used as encouragement for worldly success when in reality Paul is talking about contentment despite at times a lack of worldly success. Passages like John 10:10 and its “full life” message have been used by prosperity theologians in recent years to support their appealing teaching that God is going to make you wealthier and more prosperous on the basis of how strong your faith is. I mentioned last week how Ephesians 4:11 often gets used to defend the modern “offices” of pastor and teacher as mandated by God. I’ve heard passages about “bringing tithes” misused to encourage offerings or “building a temple to the Lord” misused to encourage project fundraising. We could go on and on like this. Proof-texting is very, very easy to do. We’ve all, at some point, under the temptation of Satan, used some isolated knowledge of God’s Word to rationalize behavior that supports our own agenda. Jesus certainly forgives us for this. But it’s our goal to grow beyond this dangerous approach to the message of Scripture.
Proof-texting is made easier, again, by the way the Bible is set up by man. In all honesty, I’m very thankful that the Bible is set up according to chapters and verses. It makes it that much easier to reference, like addresses giving us directions so that we can all get on the same page. However, there’s nothing inspired about the referencing system. Chapters of the Bible came about when Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 13th century and professor at the University of Paris, added chapter numbers to all of the books in 1227AD. They’ve stuck ever since. In 1551AD, a printer by the name of Robert Stephanus, added verses to the text of the New Testament within the chapter divisions as he was riding on horseback from Paris to Lyons. He didn’t follow any consistent or particular method in this process and even his own son suggested that his versification was a disservice to readers and unnatural division to the text. Still, the verses stuck.
The benefit of the Bible’s chapters and verses is that they make it measurably more navigable. The potential danger, as mentioned, is the temptation to rip these little divisions from their context in order to support our preconceived arguments, and in the process, depersonalize a very personal gospel in hopes of creating a very systemized set of beliefs.
If you want to understand the massively splintered Protestant world in which we live today (i.e. why there are literally hundreds of different Christian churches in the U.S. alone right now), you have to understand the danger of proof-texting. The end result is that you have many Christians who act as though quoting a random decontextualized verse from Scripture in support of their argument ends all discussion on any issue and can’t understand how others don’t see their viewpoint.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with quoting Scripture. I personally do it all the time. Jesus himself as well as many faithful in the New Testament did it frequently. There are over 300 quotes from and 4000 allusions to the Old Testament recorded in the New Testament. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, however, these writers always understood the passages they were referencing in their original context. To quote Scripture properly, and just as importantly, to grow in our understanding of God’s message to us, we’ll want to do everything we can to develop a full understanding of the context of God’s Word.
I personally have to be very careful of this when I’m teaching our adult instruction class to prospective members. I don’t want to merely say “this is what we teach at our church” and then roll out a couple passages that seem to support it. I want to thoroughly investigate portions of Scripture with others who are seeking the truth and then let students come to their own Holy Spirit-guided conclusions about what God’s Word really says. I think, by and large, that our church and church body do a really exceptional job of this.
It’s at this point that I’d say why I’m a pastor in the church body that I’m in – the Wisconsin Ev. Lutheran Synod (WELS). Every Christian church’s doctrine can be mapped on the basis of the role they feel that the Bible, Tradition, Reason, and Personal Experience should play into the formation of doctrine. For instance, Roman Catholicism elevates Tradition (and leadership of the church) to a higher level of emphasis than other churches do. This affects their doctrine. Pentecostal and Charismatic churches elevate Personal Experience to a higher level of emphasis than other churches do. This affects their doctrine. Churches that follow a Calvinist theology (e.g. many Reformed churches in America), elevate Human Reason to a higher level of emphasis than other churches do. This affects their doctrine. I think our church has the right perspective on all of this.
I hope I’m not a pastor in our church body because I grew up in this church body and it was convenient. That’d be a fairly hypocritical and weak reason for being in a profession that promotes a specific belief system, i.e. because it was spoon-fed to you. No. I’m in the church body that I’m in because I believe we have the purest way I’ve seen to form doctrine – let Scripture speak for itself and let Tradition, Reason, and Personal Experience (which are all great things when used properly) be subjected to the truth of the Bible.
Finally, this is really one of the reasons I wanted to write this series. I believe we have a rock solid approach to biblical interpretation and doctrinal formation in our Confessional Lutheran church body. It’s absolutely beautiful. In all of the comparative denominational study I’ve done, I sincerely believe we avoid the dangers of proof-texting as well as any church body. I would hate to see that pure message and saving gospel at all limited in exposure due to a potential misunderstanding of other issues (like those detailed in the three previous parts to this series – namely, according to the New Testament, what being part of a church means, what worship really is and is not, and who should be playing what roles in the church).
So I ask you to continue to pray with me that we as a local church, national church body, and part of Christendom in general would continue to grow in our understanding of what “The Church” really is, the truth God desires us to proclaim, and the assembly, relationship, and body that God desires us to be.
Thanks so much for reading :). I’ve received loads of questions in emails on this series, which is great. As always, if you find anything helpful or enjoyable, please consider sharing with friends. I always appreciate it. As we near Holy Week, my schedule only gets tighter, so I’ll see you next after Easter. Wherever you are, I pray that the victory we share in Jesus, our Risen Savior, gives you more peace and happiness than you can handle.
For further reading: The Canon of Scripture (F.F. Bruce) and particularly enjoyable for directing your Bible Reading, The Untold Story of the New Testament (Frank Viola).