Studying the Bible until it hurts

bible studyWhen comparing ancient manuscripts of the Bible and trying to reconcile the differences between those manuscripts, one rule of thumb is that the hardest reading is often the original one. That is, one can see why a scribe would “correct” a text that says something difficult, but it’s less likely that they would take a simple statement and make it harder.

To some degree, I think the same applies to biblical interpretation. Not that we should seek obscure meanings or secret codes within the text. What I’m saying is that I trust someone’s conclusions more when I realize those conclusions aren’t necessarily what the person wants them to be.

It’s a bit like some news I heard the other day. A study found that a certain medication greatly reduces the risk of heart disease. The study was funded by the company that makes that medication. That makes me less likely to accept their findings as valid.

Years ago, when speaking about a now-defunct publication, one of my friends said, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Yay, the Bible finally says what we always wanted it to say.'”

I often hear someone say, “Here’s a great study about this topic.” Usually what they mean is that the study agrees with their position. Rarely are they enamored of the methodology; they like the outcome.

We need to be willing to study the Bible until it hurts. We need to follow Jesus not because he makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because he challenges us to re-examine every aspect of our life. We need to dig into the Bible until what we read makes us think, “Surely it can’t mean that.”

I’m pointing the finger at everyone else, but especially at me. It’s time for some painful Bible study.

Just how clueless were the biblical writers?

Apostle PualThe title to this post reflects a question that’s been growing in my mind as I read what many are writing about the Bible these days. Seemingly, the biblical writers were pretty clueless.

You know, like when the Pentateuch talks about God wanting people to offer sacrifice for sin. Fortunately, later writers (the prophets) corrected this misconception. There’s no sin between people and God. Just bad feelings and frustration. God didn’t want sacrifice. He just wants people to feel better.

And that talk about God being angry? That’s just ancient writers projecting their feelings into the text. God is love. God is forgiveness.

Hints that salvation is a privilege and not a right? Merely a reflection of the views of ancient people living near God’s people. God wants everyone to be happy and plans to save everyone. The apostles risked their lives preaching the gospel to let people know that they would be saved no matter what they did or believed.

And as clueless as the biblical writers were, I must be even more so. Because I just can’t wrap my mind around the rewrites of the Bible progressive Christianity offers. And I’m silly enough to think that inspiration counts for something. Go figure.

Form versus function, revisited

DCF 1.0OK, let’s get back to the discussion of men and women in the church… soon. This weekend I downloaded Jay Guin’s e-book Buried Talents, and I’d like to at least familiarize myself with Jay’s work before going to much further. I deeply respect Jay and his approach to God’s Word. We are both members of the Church of Christ, so we not only share a common background, but a common present reality. I’d like to hear his voice on this subject. I encourage you to download the free book and read it as well (I’d like to post a link to it, but Jay’s site doesn’t seem to be responding right now. You can find a link at

So let me review a concept that I think can be important as we look at all of this: the idea of form versus function. It’s the idea that, when studying biblical examples, we need to look not only at what was done but why it was done. What was the purpose of the action? Then we have to consider whether the same function can be fulfilled in better ways in our culture, or if the original form is so tied to the function that it should not be changed.

The classic example is foot washing. Foot washing was an act that conveyed a lot of meaning in the ancient world, particularly about social hierarchy and relationships. In short, it was something done by the person at the bottom of the totem pole, i.e. the least important person. (in the views of the ancient world, at least) When Jesus commanded his disciples to wash one another’s feet, he wasn’t merely addressing hygiene.

Foot washing is very different today. In our culture, it’s as likely to make the recipient uncomfortable as it is to please them. It rarely comes across as an act of service; more often than not, it communicates that someone wants to perform an artificial act of service. (I’m not talking about mutual foot washing assemblies; I know that those can be special, spiritual moments)

The function of foot washing can be better served by other acts of service in today’s culture.

I think the act of baptism is a form closely tied to its function. I have yet to see a better expression of the death and burial of the old man, as well as the beginning of the new life. While there can be much debate about its significance, baptism continues to be the form that best addresses its original function.

When we look at the New Testament letters, for example, the question really isn’t whether or not these are rules and regulations for the modern church. The question is what function did each teaching serve and how is that function addressed today.

Photo courtesy of Annika on

Bible-shaped culture or culture-shaped Bible?

Bible in the shadowI realize in talking with others that there are lots of different views as to how the Bible interacted with the culture of the people who wrote it. No surprise, I know, but I understand better now how that deeply affects how we read the Bible.

Some people, for example, take an extremely low view of Scripture. The Bible, for them, is merely a sacred text like other sacred texts written by ancient peoples. Prophecies were written after the fact and adjusted to fit what actually happened. Laws were written to give “divine sanction” to existing situations. The slaughter of other nations is justified by describing it as holy war, while attacks on one’s own people are an affront against God. Women are oppressed and slavery is upheld because the Bible was written to uphold the status quo.

Others see the Bible as coming down from heaven untainted by human culture. If the Bible says God has storehouses for snow, then there are some sort of heavenly structures filled with frozen precipitation, waiting to be sent. If God said not to trim the corners of the beard, then there’s a heavenly reason for that. Laws were not shaped around man; man was shaped around the laws.

Then there’s a myriad of views in between, seeing God as speaking to human culture within the framework of a specific historical context. Heavenly truths expressed through earthly means. God’s word for a particular situation needing to be translated into God’s word for our situation.

That’s why some look at demon possession and say “epilepsy.” Others look at teachings about greeting with a holy kiss and say, “Yes, but that was then.” Others will only take the Lord’s Supper in an upper room.

If you had to state your views on how the Bible shaped and was shaped by the culture of its time, what would you say?

photo from

Those pesky chapter numbers!

01_Ge_08_13_RGOK, I let it happen again. Or, at least, I think I did. I let one of those big numbers printed in between the words of my Bible get in the way of my seeing something that’s obvious in the text.

It’s not a major theological point. But it’s worth looking at.

You remember when Noah got off the ark. After months of listening to animals, smelling animals, dealing with animals, Noah finally did what he’d been wanting to do. He took his knife to them.

Not just one animal. A bunch of them. The Bible says, “Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (Genesis 8:20)

Then the chapter ends with God promising never to destroy the earth. The rainbow is given as a sign of that.

Then we get that big number 9. New chapter. New context, right? Another day maybe. Another setting.

I don’t think so. What God says about Noah being allowed to eat meat is directly related to the fact that Noah has just butchered a bunch of animals and has them cooking on an altar behind him. (If you haven’t read John Mark Hicks’ Come to the Table, I highly recommend it. He is the one that showed me the obvious: many sacrifices in the Old Testament were designed as a fellowship meal between man and God.)

God is saying, “That sacrifice you made… eat any of it that you wish.* And feel free to do so in the future.”

*yes, I know, with certain guidelines about not eating blood, etc.

And I never caught that simple fact because I let the chapter number get in the way.

Graphic courtesy of Sweet Publishing
Purchasing via the referenced link generates revenue for this blog