Repost: How not to read the Bible

After perusing an argument on another blog in which some autistic guys were arguing that the Bible nowhere condemns fornication, porn, or polygamy (except when it does) so those acts are A-OK, I decided I should dust off this old post. 


Not my fault, I swear.

Not my fault, I swear.

Whatever the Reformers were trying to accomplish with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, their intention could not have been to unleash upon the English-speaking world the phrase “were’s that in the Bible?” If Luther really intended for his anglophone cousins to be saying things like “But where is Sunday worship commanded in the Bible? The Old Testament only mentions Saturday worship! Ellen White was right!” then I am afraid he must be crackling and spitting on a griddle in the deepest pits of hell, the demons poking him with red-hot irons asking “Hey Marty, where is Sola Scriptura in the Bible? C’mon buddy, chapter and verse.”

But the Reformers are not the ones to blame. Modern European thought (by “modern” here I mean 16th through 19th centuries) focuses on creating rational systems based on self-evident principles, along the lines of Euclid’s Elements: give me clear definitions of points, lines, and parallels, and I can build you a Death Star.


“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were silenced.”

The philosophy of Descartes is just such an attempt: give me a cogito, and I can solve all the problems of God and ethics in twenty pages, and then we can get onto real problems.

After two millienia in the dustbin of history, the atomic theory of Democritus was revived precisely because it offered a vision of a fully rationalized material world: from a limited collection of the smallest bits of matter (which we now know are not the smallest bits, there probably are no “smallest bits”) we can derive the whole universe.

This mentality is applied to the Bible; give me a handful of one-liners conveniently indexed by chapters and verses and I can build you the ideal church. Bible verses serve as the Euclidean definitions, or atoms, from which I construct Christendom. A perfect example of this mentality can be found in the New Atlantis, where Francis Bacon’s empirically-minded inhabitants of Bensalem create a perfectly Christian society after finding a copy of the Bible miraculously washed up on their shores.

Which is a load of bunk. Divorced from the organic communities to whose faith and self-understanding it is a testament, the Bible is next to meaningless. The book did not create the community, the community created the book. Contrary to the Islamic categorization, Jews and Christians do not (or in the case of some American Evangelicals, ought not) understand themselves as “Peoples of the Book”, but as People of God.

I am not trying to engage in the false apologetic trope sometimes used by Catholics “what good is the Bible without an authoritative church to interpret it”. The Bible is plenty good for plenty of people not under the authority of Rome, and Popes seem to know that better than their apologists. Rather I am pointing out that the Bible must be read for what it is, not for what it is not.

The reason why the Bible, for the most part, cannot be a proof text or rule book is because it is a story. Granted, this particular story is created out of dozens of smaller stories. Within it, there are books which are not properly stories. Here and there, one can even find rules. Despite the wide array of genre, the Bible consists mostly of stories that ultimately form a single narrative.

The narrative consists of two parts. First is the story of a bronze-age tribe who, after much suffering and humiliation, comes to the conclusion that its local deity is in reality the creator of the world guiding history to its fulfillment. Second is the story of the beginning of that fulfillment in Jesus’ life-project of renewing and re-founding the people of God.

The Story is not the Bible. The story and the text are not the same thing. The Story of God and of Jesus exists primarily in the people who believe it, act on it, and live it. The people predate the Bible and will continue on even if every copy of the Bible were destroyed. The Story exists secondarily in the Bible, which contains crystallized forms of it, monuments to the stories which the Prophets and Apostles told.

The Bible therefore does not serve as a proof text for every theological argument, but as a way of making sure that we, either as individuals or as communities, are getting the Story right when we tell it though our lives.







  1. The Rev. David Hermanson M.Div., S.T.M. · · Reply

    Thanks for a lucid straightforward article on reading Scripture. While I often disagree with your political analyses, especially those concerning identity politics, a notion I find to be generally overblown and ill-defined, in this posting you manage to convey in a few lines of straightforward language a notion of biblical hermeneutics that many professors of New Testament would be pressed to convey in hours of lecturing.

    Regrettably, many Christians of the evangelical sort have become more concerned with biblical “inerrancy” them with questions of interpretation. Clergy and scholars pushing such positions often attempt extraordinarily convoluted logic to defend against the overwhelming complications such notions introduce to reading Scripture, but many folks in the pew just seem to “not care.” On the surface, inerrancy and “literal” interpretation seem obvious and defensible. I’ve often been asked “after all, isn’t that what it means for Scripture to be God’s Word?”

    Equally regrettably, we seem to live in a time when the simplistic trumps the straightforward, especially when the straightforward requires even a bit of thought. But then, it’s always been easier to feel than to think, and we live in an age of rampant emotion, amidst a population trained by advertising, media content producers and instant communication to an understanding that emotional authenticity is more important than logical validity. I seem to remember Augustine having a similar concern about rhetoricians.

    Again, thank you for a fine essay. I’ll be sharing it with a few friends.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I suspect the practice of googling bible verses is taking this fragmentation phenom to a whole new level.

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