Anyone who teaches the Word of God wants people excited about exploring Scripture. Ultimately, you want to turn listeners into competent students so that they can teach others. Along the way you have to deal with a lot of mistaken methods and conclusions. But so what? Hey—having folks engaged in studying the Bible is more important than what they actually think they see in it. It’s no concern that what most Christians think is “digging deep” is barely scratching the surface of a passage or a topic. I’ll take one misguided Bible student over a hundred straight-laced, passive, ecclesiastically-correct “believers” who never open a Bible anywhere else but church.
At least those are the sorts of things I’ve told myself for a long time. If I’m honest, though, I’ve had doubts about the wisdom of my position. I still do.
I’ve run across a lot of bad Bible interpretation over the years. The problem isn’t just the internet. Granted, most of what passes for Bible teaching online could be aggregated under the banner of the P.T. Barnum School of the Bible. Unfortunately, a lot of poor thinking about Scripture has been published for popular consumption in the Church—and consumed it is.
But is it really harmful? Most of it isn’t destructive. It won’t do anything worse than keep those who buy into it ignorant and never able to move on to what they might really discover. And I’ve seen a few instances where bad Bible interpretation has even been helpful. Because of the sorts of things I do—especially writing paranormal fiction and maintaining two blogs on strange stuff that people believe—I often encounter people with terribly misguided ideas about the Bible and its meaning. My offbeat “ministry” produces all sorts of, shall we say, interesting email. Many people who contact me are Christians with genuine testimonies who’ve had an unusual, frightening experience, or who’ve spent too much time watching Ancient Aliens on the Fantasy (er, History) Channel. After their pastor or another friend who’s ill-equipped to talk about what’s causing their spiritual crisis tells them they need counseling (or worse), they have a decision to make: dump Christianity or find a way to process what’s disturbing them using the Bible. I’ve heard some of the most absurd Bible interpretation imaginable emerge from those sorts of struggles, but it often keeps people pursuing the Lord. So be it. In these circumstances, the last thing that’s needed is a biblical scholar-bully destroying the interpretations that keep people in the faith. It’s far better to maintain some relationship and build some trust. Maybe down the road we can have a talk about the fact that the Tower of Babel really wasn’t a stargate.
Truly destructive Bible interpretation
But some Bible interpretation is truly damaging, and on a wide scale. For that sort of harm you needed professionals—people who are supposed to know better because they have degrees or are in positions of spiritual leadership.
Perhaps the most egregious example is racism. Since the Age of Exploration (16th century) on through the eras of European empire and colonization, the racism that was an inextricable part of those centuries can be laid at the feet of the Church. Though it may make you flinch, it’s true—and I’m not launching into some ludicrous left-wing propagandistic screed. It’s pretty simple and, on its own terms, very understandable, though the coherence of how it all came about is no excuse.((A good deal of scholarly work has been done in recent years explaining how flawed Bible interpretation led to theories of race and racial superiority. For example: David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, & the Politics of Human Origins (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).))
In the sixteenth century as Europeans ventured for the first time across the Atlantic and deepened their penetration east into the “Indies,” they encountered people and places that were not part of the biblical world. The place that would be called North America was not India or China, places that Europeans had been exposed to earlier. How did they get here? The Bible said nothing about them. Things didn’t get any more comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after the decipherment of the literary language of ancient India (Sanskrit). In a shocking twist, Sanskrit turned out to be from the same language family as classical Latin and Greek (Indo-European), the intellectual bedrock of European civilization. Sanskrit texts revealed a much longer human history than that of the Bible. And the physical evidence of a civilization much older than the patriarchs gave weight to that history.
The cumulative impact of all these discoveries was that the Bible no longer looked like it had any claim on being special. To make the crisis even more acute, in 1859 Darwin published his Origin of Species. In the wake of that bombshell, the alternative stories of creation in Sanskrit and the discoveries of people in the New World who shouldn’t have been there gave opponents of the Bible all the ammunition they needed. The Bible was not only wrong, but inferior. After all, it was such a Jewish book.
It’s no accident that this was era that produced theories about how all races not European (especially the Black and Semitic) were inferior to the “more pure” Europeans. Defenders of the Bible couldn’t argue there; instead they did their best to make the Bible say these things. The era produced “scholarly” defenses of how the sin of Ham produced the Negroes, or how Cain’s wife proved there were co-Adamic races in antiquity (inferior to Adam—who wasn’t Jewish by the way), or that Jesus wasn’t really a Jew but an Aryan (a Sanskrit term for the high born). Other interpretive gymnastics justified older suspicions of Jews as Christ killers whose disinheritance by God had subordinated them to the civilization who had embraced Christianity—Europeans. But at least the Bible wasn’t left behind in its “accurate” understanding of history. It still deserved its high status. And so the Bible was “saved” through horrific Bible interpretation. And we’re still living with the results since this was all brought to American shores.
So yes, sometimes bad Bible interpretation is truly destructive—even lasting generations. This is yet another illustration why we need to get serious about interpreting the Bible in its own context, not against the backdrop of our own modern questions. The tragic baptism of racism was completely unnecessary. But there it is.
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Check out Dr. Heiser’s introduction to Bible interpretation with the Mobile Ed course BI 101 Introducing Biblical Interpretation: Contexts and Resources.