What Scripture Says...
and Doesn—t Say
Have you ever heard two people who totally disagree
with each other use Scripture to "prove" that God is on their
side? Instead of letting Scripture form their thinking, they
use a quote from Scripture, often taken out of context, to support
their own opinions.
We—ve probably all done this to some extent. Even
expert theologians use Scripture quotes to show that their teaching
is rooted in the Bible. But a proper understanding of biblical
revelation will challenge us to examine our approach to Scripture
and overcome any tendency to quote the Bible out of context.
Instead of asking, "Do these words support what
I already think?" we need to ask, "What is this passage trying
to teach me?" When we recognize what the inspired biblical authors
intend to teach we are opening our minds and hearts to the revelation
The revealed Scriptures do not necessarily hold
the same meaning we may want to attach to the words. The inspired
biblical authors intended to say and teach certain truths, and
we need to root our understanding of Scripture first and foremost
in the intent of the author.
But how do we determine the intentions of an author
who lived thousands of years ago in a totally different cultural
setting? The Church teaches us that in order to understand the
revelation the Bible contains we must learn first and foremost
to read passages in the context in which they appear.
What Are You Reading?
One way to safeguard against misunderstanding the
intent of an author is to determine the kind of writing the
author has chosen to use. Any piece of writing has a particular
literary form: poetry, prose, fiction, essay, letter, historical
account and so on. This is as true of the biblical books as
of any piece of contemporary writing.
If we misunderstand an author—s literary form,
we will misunderstand what the author intends to say. In order
to understand what we are reading, then, we have to make allowances
for the form and change our expectations accordingly.
We do this any time we read a newspaper, for example.
As we turn the pages of a newspaper we encounter a variety of
literary forms—news, features, editorials and so on—and we adjust
our idea of what we can expect from the writing for each form.
For instance, after I read a news story I expect
to have the answer to the question, "What happened?" I expect
the author of a news story to be objective and evenhanded, to
inform me of the facts. If the story is about something controversial,
I expect the writer to cover all sides fairly.
When I get to the editorial page, I change my
expectations. Now I know that the author is allowed to be persuasive
rather than objective. I may find facts that support the author—s
point of view but nothing that contradicts that point of view.
So if I read an editorial with the same frame
of mind with which I read a front-page news story, thinking
that the author has responded to the question, "What happened?"
I will be misinformed after I finish my reading. It is not the
author—s fault that I am misinformed. It is my own.
How the Inspired Author Tells the Tale
Now let—s look at how literary form functions
in the Bible. One of the inspired biblical authors—the author
of the Book of Job—has written in the form of a debate. This
literary form demands that you be as persuasive as possible
on both sides of an issue. If you write on the side you agree
with persuasively and the side you disagree with poorly, you
have not written a good debate.
The author of the Book of Job lived at a time
when people believed that all suffering was punishment for sin.
He wrote a debate to argue against this belief. The author places
his debate in the context of a preexisting legend that establishes
at the outset the fact that Job is innocent. So why is he suffering?
The author portrays Job—s friends arguing with
Job over the cause of his suffering. All the friends think that
Job must have sinned or he wouldn—t be suffering. They do not
know, as does the audience, that Job—s sinfulness is not the
source of his suffering. The friends are wrong.
Now, if you did not know that the Book of Job
is a debate, in which some of the characters argue persuasively
for the point of view with which the author disagrees, you might
read an isolated passage and conclude that the book teaches
the opposite of what the author intended to teach. You might
think that the friends are teaching a valid message about suffering.
If we look at the book as a whole, we discover that the author
places the truth he is teaching not on the lips of Job—s friends
but on the lips of God. God appears at the end of the debate
and responds to the friends— arguments. Obviously the author
agrees with what God has to say. God contradicts the belief
that all suffering is punishment for sin.
Because this book is in the canon we know that
it teaches revealed truth. We can only discover this revealed
truth, however, if we look at the literary form of the book.
We need to remember, too, that the Bible is actually
a "library" of many different books. To say that Job is a debate
is not to say that the Bible as a whole is a debate or that
a Gospel is a debate or that the Book of Revelation is a debate.
The answer to the question, "What literary form am I reading?"
will vary from book to book. Often the introduction to each
book in a good study Bible will give you the relevant literary
Culture in Context
We have seen how easy it is to "misquote" the
Bible by taking passages out of the context of their literary
form. A second context we need to consider is the culture and
the beliefs in place when the book was written. The inspired
author and the original audience shared knowledge, presumptions,
expressions and concerns that may not be part of our awareness,
but may nevertheless influence the meaning of the book or passage.
The inspired author may have applied the revealed
message contained in a particular book to a shared cultural
setting in order to make the message clearer. People sometimes
mistake such applications for the heart of the revealed message.
Thus they put the full authority of Scripture behind passages
that reflect beliefs of the time rather than the unchanging
truth the author intended to teach.
In expressing the revealed truth, a biblical author
may show cultural biases and presumptions that later generations
know are inaccurate. This kind of misunderstanding resulted
in Galileo—s excommunication. We know, as biblical authors did
not, that the earth is not the center of the universe or even
our solar system. We also know that the Bible does not claim
to teach astronomy. Rather, the Bible addresses questions about
the relationship between God and God—s people, about what we
should be doing to build up God—s kingdom rather than to tear
A biblical author may also apply an eternal truth
to a setting that is important to the original audience but
not to us. For example, one of Paul—s key insights is that the
way we treat every other person is the way we treat the risen
Christ. He applies this insight to the social order of his own
day, an order that included slavery. We misuse Scripture if
we say this application shows that God—s social order includes
slavery. While Paul—s core message is eternally true revelation,
the application was relevant only in its own cultural context.
Revelation Is Ongoing
A third context we must be aware of is the place
the inspired author—s insights have in the process of revelation.
The Bible is not a book of bottom-line answers like a catechism.
The Bible is a "library of books" written over
a two-thousand-year period. It reflects the process by which
the inspired authors came to greater knowledge of God—s revealed
truth. People who do not realize or do not believe that the
Bible reflects this progression take an early insight as the
For example, people may make this mistake when
arguing over the death penalty. Some people who support the
death penalty try to put God—s authority behind their opinion
by quoting Scripture: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,
a life for a life." It is true that Scripture teaches this (see
Exodus 21:23-24). However, the teaching dates to the time of
the Exodus, about 1250 B.C.E. At the time this teaching was
an ethical step forward. It taught people not to seek escalating
revenge: If you harm me, I can—t do worse to you than you originally
did to me.
Jesus later challenged people to grow beyond this
teaching. He said, "You have heard that it was said, —an eye
for an eye and a tooth for a tooth....— But I say to you, Love
your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." (Matthew
5:38, 44). Jesus did not say that the law was wrong, only that
it did not go far enough. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law.
We are misusing Scripture if we quote Exodus to
support the death penalty and fail to quote the words of Jesus
in the Gospels. When we use a passage from Scripture to support
our side of an argument, we must ask ourselves if the passage
reflects the fullness of truth or whether it is a partial truth,
perhaps an early insight.
Context, Context, Context
It is distressing to hear Christians abuse the
Bible by quoting it in favor of un-Christian positions. It is
doubly distressing to realize that we ourselves might be guilty
One way to avoid this mistake is to remember always
to consider the context. Determine the place of a passage in
its larger context. Ask yourself what literary form the author
is using. Explore the beliefs and presumptions the author may
share with the original audience. Learn something about the
time when the book was written. Know how the author—s insights
fit into the process of revelation.
If we do this, we will avoid many a harmful error.
We will be less likely to abuse Scripture and more likely to
hear the revelation of God—s love that the biblical authors
intend us to hear.
Finally, invite the Holy Spirit to open up your
mind and heart as you listen to the word. Discerning God—s will
in your life will leave you with Christ—s own peace in your