I’m still working on my series about church authority. In the meantime, I’m inspired with many other topics that I want to tackle.
Today, I want to talk about the claim that Christians “pick and choose” which scriptures they want to follow. In my experience, it’s not so much picking and choosing verses out of context (which does happen to an alarming degree), but more about picking and choosing what kind of lens we use to interpret scripture. Make no mistake, everyone has a lens. No one approaches the Bible objectively, no matter how much one might claim to the contrary.
For example, what is your view of God? Some–like many fundamentalists I’ve met–believe God is continually angered by sin. He let Jesus go to the cross as a punishment for this sin, the wrath of God being poured out on his body. However, some believe that God is all about love. Sin disappoints him, but, through the ransom of Christ’s blood, He chooses to overlook our sinfulness and declare us righteous.
Calvinists believe that Christ’s atonement is limited, saving only the elect. Arminians believe that the atonement is unlimited, able to save whoever is willing. Universalists believe that the atonement saves everyone, whether or not they make a confession of faith this side of the Resurrection.
These are all lenses. If you have the “God is angry” lens on, then you’ll focus on those scriptures that talk about God being angry. You’ll view every word in the Bible as authoritative in its message. You’ll see simple encouragements like “fear not” as commands that must be obeyed into perpetuity.
If you have the “God is love” lens on, you’ll focus on those scriptures that highlight God’s grace and forgiveness. You’ll take more seriously God’s commands to care for the poor. You’ll put less emphasis on following the Old Testament laws.
And then there are other lenses we read through–namely, cultural ones. When the Apostle Paul spoke of women being “keepers at home,” do we imagine scrubbing floors and changing diapers? Or do we understand that in ancient Rome, the home often doubled as a storefront for a business? Can we see how the Proverbs 31 woman is described an investor, merchant, and property manager along with being a mother and a seamstress?
Do we understand that Proverbs 31 is a praise and not a spiritual obligation?
Do we recognize that Jesus was Jewish? Or that he wasn’t white? Or that any of the people in the Bible weren’t white and European? Or that very few were wealthy landowners? Or that much of Old Testament scripture existed for hundreds of years as an oral tradition before it was set to paper? Or that what qualified as a “true account” in the ancient world is a far cry from a “true account” in the modern world?
Culture makes a difference.
This is why issues of homosexuality, biblical inerrancy, and women in ministry aren’t so easily settled. We’re all reading out of different lenses that inform our view of scripture. Some lenses are much clearer than others, but all are foggy in spots. And if this makes your head hurt, I empathize. It makes mine hurt, too.
There is more discussion now than ever before about how one should approach the Bible. It’s a straight-up battle of the blog posts out there. There’s a group called The Red Letter Christians who build their theology around the teachings of Jesus. Karen Swallow Prior, a research fellow with the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)–a bit farther to the right than I am–countered by calling herself an “all letters Christian,” stating that “the only way to the red letters is through the black letters.”
I think both views are missing something.
The first is that using only scripture to interpret other scriptures doesn’t work too well if you’re already reading out of a poor lens. Historical scholarship matters.
The second is the Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit when we read the Bible, or we’re certainly going about it half-cocked. The primary purpose of the Spirit is to teach and remind us of everything Jesus taught. The one thing Jesus did in his ministry was open the scriptures to his followers and, occasionally, the Pharisees. He illuminated the Old Testament law and the Kingdom of God in ways that left people’s mouths hanging open. We have access to that knowledge through the Holy Spirit–if we will let her guide us.
As I recently put it in an email to a reader, “the Bible and the Spirit work together to guide our understanding. If you have the Spirit but not the Bible, you may be led astray by your own inner voice. If you have the Bible but not the Spirit, you may forget grace and fall into the trap of the Pharisees. So you need these two things working together.”
And the thing about the Holy Spirit…she’ll occasionally ask you to change lenses. And that can be uncomfortable if you’ve decided that your lens is the correct one forever and ever, amen.
It will also be uncomfortable if your family or church doesn’t approve of your new lens. There will be a struggle. A big struggle. Inside and out. You’ll wonder if you’ve heard from God at all.
But that’s the whole point. Jesus told us to ask, seek and knock. I think the deeper we go in the Spirit, the more asking, seeking, and knocking we have to do. The moment you think you have all the answers, the jig is up. No one will ever have all the answers. The questions are the answers. If we had all the answers, we wouldn’t need grace.
It’s not so much that I pick and choose scripture. What I’m really doing is picking my lens and choosing grace to cover the rest.