Just after my wife and I were married, she worked as a teller at a bank. One of her co-workers was a devout Muslim who was schooled in Muslim apologetics against Christianity. Every day she would come home with a list of objections that he had to the Bible. Three out of four times the objection would involve something in the Bible that he found offensive. Sometimes it was commands that seemed wrong (God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac). Sometimes it was statements about God that he thought demoting (the Bible speaks about the “eyes” of the Lord, but he does not have eyes). But most of the time it was about the immoral acts found in the narratives of the Old Testament. The one that stands out most is the offense he took with the story of Lot’s daughters. Yeah, the incest thing.
But his problem was clear. He thought that just because something was in the Bible that something was true, good, and representative of God’s will. What I had to convince him of was that if it is in the Bible, it is not necessarily true.
We follow the Bible in what it teaches, but not everything it records is intended to be teaching in the proper sense. Our goal as Christians is to be good interpreters of the Bible, being able to discern when something is being taught or when something is being told. This way we don’t get flustered, and find ourselves in the odd place of trying to defend the morality of adultery, incest, or child sacrifice (you know, that crazy story of Jephthah in Judges 11:30-39?).
Here are five ways that we can mistakenly believe that the Bible is teaching truth or principles when it is not.
1. Some parts of the Bible are incidental to the bigger picture, not intending to teach any principle.
Be careful that you don’t try to find a principle in every passage. Not every verse or chapter of the Bible has an “application” in the traditional sense. For example, the chronologies of Matthew and Luke are not intending to teach a principle in and of themselves. They are simply attempting to give necessary background material so that Christ as the Messiah can be substantiated. (And don’t get me started on the prayer of Jabez!)
2. You have to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive passages.
This is related to the previous and is especially relevant to narrative books such as Acts. We must be very careful with narratives since their primary purpose is to tell a story that is relevant to the bigger picture of redemption, not to give us prescriptive commands to live by. For example, in Acts chapter 1 we are told that the Apostles “cast lots” to discover who God wanted to replace Judas among the twelve. This is not giving principles on how to elect a pastor! It is simply saying this is what happened, nothing more, nothing less.
Another example (although not narrative) appears in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul tells Timothy to “bring him his cloak” (2 Tim 4:13). There is no abiding theological principle saying that Christians are to bring people coats! It is simply teaching us that Paul asked Timothy to bring him his cloak. Paul was cold! Nothing profound.
Throw into this mix the story of Lot, his daughters and Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter. The Bible was giving an account of man’s depravity, not looking at these events with approval.
3. Different types of literature have different types of truth.
You cannot interpret a Psalm the same way you do a Proverb. And you can’t interpret a Proverb the same you you do an epistle (letter). And you can’t interpret an epistle the same way you do apocalyptic material. They all follow different rules. And the truths that they communicate will be understood according to those rules. For example, a Proverb is a general truth of wisdom that does not necessarily apply or hold in every situation. Just because the Bible has proverbs does not mean that we are to sanctify the way we interpret the proverb. In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean that it is a truth that does necessarily apply in every situation. Psalms are songs and need to be understood under such imagery. Epistles are letters and need to be understood under the “rules” that apply to a letter. And then there is Ecclesiastes…don’t get me started there!
4. Sometimes the author does not want you to take him literally.
Authors can exaggerate, speak candidly, be sarcastic, or be in bad moods. This will effect the way we are to interpret them. This will also effect the “truth” that they are teaching. For example, Paul says that “all Cretans are liars” (Tit. 1:12). Does this mean, since it is in the Bible, that at the time Paul wrote this every individual who lived in Crete continually lied? No. We use exaggeration as rhetoric all the time. We don’t intend people to take us literally.
Another example is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He says about false teachers: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1Ti 6:3-4). The Greek word used for “nothing” is meden. It means “no thing” or “nothing.” (Wow!) Does this mean that in order to be faithful to the truthfulness of Scripture, we have to take Paul literally here? Does this mean that the false teachers did not understand what 2+2 is? Of course not. The meden is limited to what Paul is talking about. It is a rhetorical overstatement—hyperbole—that Paul uses for effect. The false teachers did not understand anything with regard to the doctrines which they were teaching.
The Bible can record using figurative language. While it is true that God, in his essence, does not have eyes (though he can see better than anyone), anthropomorphic language is very common in the Bible.
5. Sometimes the Bible records falsehood.
I was at a website the other day that had a daily Scripture at the top of the page. This particular day it had Matt. 4:9 “All of this I will give to you if you will worship me.” Out of context, that looks fine. God will give us many blessings if we worship him. The problem is that this is a quotation from Satan when he tempted Christ! This verse is in the Bible, but it is not true. We need to be careful that we are mindful of who is talking, when, and how their words are to be understood. I hear people quoting Job’s friends all the time as evidence for certain characteristics of God. But Job’s friends are not presented in a positive light. Some of what they say is true, but much is wrong—even if it is in the Bible.
When interpreted correctly, I believe that the Bible always speaks the truth. However, when proper hermeneutics (bible study methods) are not used, the Bible does not always speak the true. If the Bible says it, this simply means that God wanted whatever it says to be included. We believe that the Bible is true in whatever it teaches, but whatever it says is not always meant to teach in the way we often assume. Be careful with God’s word. It is the most wonderful book in the world, but it is also the most dangerous.