On Picking and Choosing

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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.

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22 responses to “On Picking and Choosing

  1. Nice! Personally, after a very strong Penecostal background, and then coming home to Judaism, (like Jesus) I trust the Holy Spirit in all things, because of the being written on my heart and mind. Keeping my judgements to myself, choosing love and asking for guidance in all things is where I have found that “peace that passes all understanding, not in faith, but in certainity. My religion is kindness, I trust God for the rest.

  2. I just finished reading “misreading scripture with western eyes” and it pointed out many Western biases that affect our interpretation of Scripture. It boggles the mind to think about how our tendency to read “we” as “me”, read modern virtues like thrift and efficiency and rank vices in terms of what we believe to be the worst can distort the authors original meaning. Many of us don’t always appeal to the Greek or Hebrew to understand what was really said. Even if the Bible were infallible and inerrant, we aren’t. Our interpretation filters through our lens much like the light through a prism. The results often vary, so its no wonder there is a lot of disagreement.

  3. I really enjoyed this post and I appreciate your ability to explain the different “lenses” without sounding judgemental. One minor point of disagreement is that I wouldn’t say fundamentals look at scripture through an “angry God lense.” Most I know view God completely as the God of love and that the discipline that comes from all those “thou shalt nots” comes from a place of love.

    • No. Sorry. I have dealt with too many who inhabit that ilk. They are an incessantly angry people serving an incessantly angry god—a god who really resents being kicked out of Heaven when the throne was so close to being his that he could taste it.

      You know what he said don’t you? When he was being kicked out of Heaven? He said, “Gentlemen. It’s been a privilege flying with you.” You can watch it right here:

      • Well, I am sorry you’ve experienced such hate from the Fundies. My experience has been just the opposite, but as the author states, we all bring our own lenses to the perspective party.

        Not sure the relevance is with Apollo 13, but it was a fun clip to watch. I’d forgotten what a great movie it was!

    • There is an old Christian tradition that when God flung Satan to Earth he was going so fast when He hit the atmosphere that his body interacted with the air, built up friction heat, and looked like a hug meteorite entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Go back to the movie clip and pretend the space capsule is Satan who God has just flung towards Earth in extreme anger.

    • P.S. If you liked that clip, here is my favorite teaser advertisement for a movie. Watch closely, hang on every word, and be sure that God always knows what the future holds:

    • The Greeks used feminine pronouns to describe the Holy Spirit, so I’ve been told. Of course, God is neither male nor female, though we refer to Him as “Father.” Seems like a good way to keep things in balance. Or perhaps we could go with the gender-neutral “hir” or “zir.” 🙂

      • Not only the Greek, but the Hebrew as well. The words pneuma (Greek) and ruach (Hebrew) are feminine and are both translated as Spirit and wind. If the early church fathers had not such misogynistic lenses we might have all had a much better idea of what the Kingdom of God is like!

  4. This is a great post. It’s almost funny now that when I was considering converting to Christianity, it was because there seemed to be more unity there, and it was the Jews who couldn’t make up their minds about what to believe. The longer I’m a Christian the more I realize how deeply divided we actually are…and it honestly makes it near impossible for me to trust the ‘authority’ of Scripture when I don’t know whose authority we’re talking about.

  5. I guess the Question left unanswered is: What’s the solution?. switch lens??…that’s not really a solution. What if it were possible for us to grow beyond the need for such “lens” with our faith in Christ intact. I so appreciated hearing you speak of allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us, and I couldn’t agree more. I think we eventually reach a point that we have memorized enough of the scriptures where we can safely lay them aside and stop the endless circular rehashing routine that is responsible for the phenomena of Arrested Development so prevalent in Christendom. This “setting aside” of the holy writ takes enormous courage and TRUST in God/The Holy Spirit, yet it is the next natural step in the progression of our journey/walk in faith- Trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, She is our teacher now.

  6. Now April. April. April. April. You know there is no such thing as “interpretation” of the Bible. The Bible says what it plainly says, and it is inerrant in all respects. God made it all very simple and literal, like a Superman comic book, so the average person could read it and fully understand it while sitting under his own fig tree. The in-dwelling Holy Spirit makes certain that every “true” Christian will always understand the precise thing God intended to say because He reveals it directly to the reader as she reads the Bible—so no “true” Christian will ever or can ever misunderstand what the Bible is saying. Moreover, the Bible exhibits historical and scientific perfection, and the Bible does not internally contradict itself at any location whatsoever on any point—never. preacher says so, and preacher knows what’s right because he has been to Preacher School.

    The Bible says that “there is a name that is above every name.” Some idiot was in here the other day trying to tell me that scripture verse is talking about Jesus. It most certainly is not. There is a name that is above every other name—and that name is “Bible.” Heck, without the Bible we would not even know that Jesus existed. So Bible must be the name that is above every other name. It is certainly above his.

    Now, Just one last thing. I learned this in Sunday school at Central Baptist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Our teacher, who has degrees in English and teaches English to high school students, read this from the Gospel of John:

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).

    She had this huge black Bible in her lap. Right after that verse was read, she grabbed that Bible with her right hand, thrust it up as high as it would go above her head, and sounded out to the whole class:

    “See this!!! THIS IS GOD.”

    So you see April, there is no God the Father, Jesus, or Holy Spirit as independent and functional personhood-type entities in the universe. The Bible IS GOD, and GOD is the Bible. It is all in the words. Surely you see this. The Bible is the Word because it is made up of words.

    April. You have no idea how hard I had to bite my tongue while writing that piece of crap above—but the great tragedy is that millions of people firmly believe all of what I just wrote above. And Just remember, on Palm Sunday, Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on the back of his favorite dinosaur.

  7. By the way April, I agree with your lead post and could not have presented it any better myself. I most often have on the Red Letter Lenses and the Love Lenses. However, I am also aware that other sets of lenses are useful for other things.

    If you ever need any help with issues involving history, culture, and languages, I am a professional anthropologist. Human culture and understanding it are my business. Just drop me a line at tcbkjbbrown@comcast.net.

    For example, while you are on this subject of lenses, are you familiar with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? It fits in deeply with your lead post. You can read about it here:

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sapir-whorf+hypothesis

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

  8. For me it’s never been so much a pick and choose type of scenario, but rather a granite blocks vs. grains of salt thing. In other words, how much weight am I going to give the various texts from the Bible? I choose to let my conscience be my guide in deciding which is which. In my opinion the Bible defies 100% linearization with each and every verse.

  9. The perspicuity of Scripture refers to salvation only; even Peter stated that some of Paul was difficult to understand – 2 Pet 3:15,16. As for pneuma, it is gramatically neuter; John 16:13 refers to the Holy Spirit as “he;” paraketos is masculine, so what might the agenda be for making it otherwise?

    • Parakletos and pneuma are Greek words. The word for spirit in Hebrew and Aramaic is feminine (ruach). So the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit as he, she and it. What’s the agenda for insisting that it be male all of the time?

      • No, the agenda is referring to him as other than him, as he was never referred to otherwise by the church. Personhood implies gendr, and that is how God chose to reveal himself. Have you a NT example of the Holy Spirit being referred to as “she?” The male verb is used, hence gender of person is male. What do you find so objectionable about this, and why?

  10. hahaha reading your posts is like listening to myself think.

    hahaha.

    ahhh. so much of this post I’m getting.

    the way I see it…

    Every Christian I know gets most of “it” all wrong. Myself included.

    GRACE.

    “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”.

    When you present the above ‘good news’ to anyone willing to hear they will only do one of two thing:

    a) repent (change their mind) + believe
    b) reject

    The relationship between the Word (Jesus, not the red letters + Book), the Father and HS is far more amazing than I can understand or explain. I don’t try (lest I teach error). I just ask God to help me understand and don’t seek to tell people how to interpret those passages.

    I believe the Holy Spirit teaches and ‘speaks’ (ooo) to us today.

    Our job is to listen and not ignore and heap of false Holy Spirits (heaping up teachers).

    Just some thoughts. 🙂