As I stood in line at the grocery store, the tabloid
headline grabbed my attention: "Bible system to win lottery!"
The article proposed a way to use the Bible in order to win
money—in any lottery.
When I went to the local bookstore, I saw a large
advertisement for a new book in which the author suggests that
a code has been found in the Hebrew Bible (only in the original
Hebrew language, mind you) that demonstrates the foretelling
of events that are happening in our day.
In the wake of the terrible torture and killing
of a gay college student in Wyoming in October 1998, religious
anti-homosexual protesters were seen with signs such as "God
hates fags—Rom 9:13." Ironically, the passage has nothing to
do with homosexuality!.
Driving in my car on a long trip, as I searched
for good radio stations, I happened on several Christian fundamentalist
programs. Enthusiastic preachers were spouting what they supposed
was God—s Word about how near the end of the world is because
of the approaching year 2000. Certain signs were recounted,
such as the fall of Russia, that allegedly were predicted in
For centuries the Bible has been used in many
different circumstances to promote one idea or another, to justify
one action or another. It provides a convenient text for such
purposes. It is, after all, God—s Word. A higher authority is
hard to find. Especially as we approach the millennium, we see
an increasing tendency to invoke the Bible for all kinds of
issues, especially doomsday predictions. Sadly, in many instances
the Bible is not being used properly. In fact, it is being abused.
This issue of Scripture from Scratch will explore how
Christians can properly use the Bible and how, all too often,
they misuse it.
The Bible Speaks, Everyone Listens?
At the heart of many examples of the use and
abuse of the Bible is the question, What authority does the
All Christians accept that the Bible is God—s
inspired Word. That invests it with a reverence accorded to
no other literature. The Bible is a sacred canon (from
the Greek, kanon, "measuring stick"), a means of determining
how we measure up to God—s standards.
But Christians are split on just what this perspective
means. Biblical fundamentalists interpret it to mean the Bible
is inerrant, containing no errors whatsoever, whether
scientific, historical or spiritual. Catholics and many Protestants,
however, acknowledge that the Bible might contain errors in
historical or scientific data, but not in matters of faith or
The former position promotes a literal interpretation
of biblical passages. The latter recognizes that the literal
sense does not always apply in every age in some one-to-one
correspondence. For example, during the 1970s, some suggested
that the Watergate affair during the Nixon presidency was predicted
in the Bible on the basis of the mention of the "water gate"
(see Nehemiah 3:26; 8:1). Such a reading is not only inaccurate,
it trivializes the Bible into some sort of ouija board or crystal
ball. The Bible—s authority stems from the Church—s belief that
while we do not know how biblical inspiration works, the Bible,
under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can guide our lives in
areas of faith and morals.
Context, Context, Context
The real estate maxim is, "Location, location,
location." Where your property is situated is its most valuable
asset. In biblical interpretation, the biggest danger is ignoring
the context of a passage.
Context means three different things. I will
use an example from the tradition of St. Paul. Some Christians
interpret a passage on marriage in Ephesians (5:21-24) as a
divine universal model to justify why men are superior to women
in a marriage relationship. It might even be used to justify
abuse of women in marriages. How can context put the passage
First, most narrowly, context means what goes
immediately before and after a passage. Paul writes that "Wives
should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord"
(Ephesians 5:22). This may seem like a universal principle.
But he says in the verse immediately preceding, "Be subordinate
to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21). The same
verb is used. One cannot validly make verse 22 into a universal
principle without searching out how it relates to the entire
passage. How does the same verb apply in both circumstances?
A second level of context is the larger context
of the individual book of the Bible. The passage is part of
a larger presentation. The entire chapter five of Ephesians
is directed by a principle that goes from more general to more
specific notions. The general principle is found in the first
verse: "Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in
love, as Christ loved us..." (5:1). The most important challenge
for all, women and men alike, is to imitate God in the way we
live and love. As the chapter proceeds, what is meant by this
narrows to more specific examples. It leads to Paul—s use of
marriage as an important image of how Christ loves the Church.
Not only is this the chapter—s context, but the entire Letter
to the Ephesians is largely about how Christ relates to the
Church. This larger context, then, helps direct our understanding
of the more specific issue, how marriage reflects this relationship.
The third level of context is the context of the
Bible itself. Ephesians is not the only place in the Bible to
use the image of marriage. How its particular use of the image
connects with other biblical texts is important. Overall, we
learn that marriage in the Bible is structured largely according
to cultural norms that existed in different time periods. For
example, in Genesis, the patriarchs had multiple wives and sometimes
strange customs associated with marriage (e.g., Gen 12:10-12;
16:3; 25:1). The Song of Songs provides a very different Old
Testament picture. It exalts the love of man and woman as modeling
God—s love of Israel. This is similar to Paul—s use of marriage
as a model of Christ—s love of the Church. In this case, two
different images from two different time periods seem compatible.
Only holding in tension the larger context of the entire Bible,
or the entire canon of sacred Scripture, helps us see this truth.
The Church ultimately makes decisions about the relative relationship
of one passage to another, but paying attention to this larger
context helps us avoid misreading the Bible.
The most damaging way to interpret a biblical
passage is to rip it from its context. Taking a passage literally
and cutting it out of its natural "home" almost always leads
to abusing the Scriptures. The late Father Raymond E. Brown,
S.S., one of the greatest Catholic biblical scholars of the
20th century, used to say, "A biblical passage is only biblical
when it is in the Bible." You can—t go wrong looking
carefully at the context.
Time, Culture and the Bible
Granting the Bible spiritual authority does not
mean rejecting or ignoring the impact of time and culture on
its formation. The Bible came into existence over thousands
of years through oral, written, edited and collected traditions.
Passages from the prophetic literature may be
most vulnerable to abuse. Many Christians think of prophets
as fortunetellers. They saw into the future, predicted what
would happen, and it came to pass. Often fundamentalist preachers
speak as if the prophets were only talking about the late 20th
century. This is a sinister corruption of the authority of the
Bible. What does such a position imply about preceding generations
of Christians (and Jews!) who used God—s Word for spiritual
Passages in the Bible that concern the endtime
developed for historical reasons. In the period prior to Jesus—
birth, a type of literature arose that is called apocalyptic
(from Greek apokalypsis, meaning "unveiling" or "revelation").
It focused on the endtime because the present tyranny, oppression,
violence and persecution were so difficult to endure. Apocalyptic
literature, found in both the Old and New Testaments, reflects
God—s response that gave hope for a distant future when all
wrongs would be made right and all hurts would be undone. Inevitably,
this situation led to speculation about the details of such
end times (see Zephaniah 1:15-16; Daniel 7:11-14; 1 Thessalonians
Jesus himself was influenced by these teachings
(see Mark 13:5-8). Yet even he admits that no one knows when
God—s ultimate justice will occur: "But of that day or hour,
no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but
only the Father. Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when
the time will come" (Mark 13:32; cf. Acts 1:7). If Jesus does
not know, but only God his Father, how can some claim today
that they know?
Even a passage with apparent details about the
endtime, such as Paul—s apocalyptic vision (1 Thessalonians
4:16-17), needs to be understood with care. The details come
from typical Old Testament passages about God—s final judgment
of the world (Zephaniah 1:14-16; Zechariah 9:14). Paul expected
the end of the world in his own lifetime, but he also warned
that no one knew the timetable for these events (1 Thessalonians
5:1-2). He is not providing a road map but a vision of hopefulness
that God—s victory will arrive one day.
Some may wish to flee into a mysterious apocalyptic
world in order to escape from their daily troubles, but using
the Bible to justify arcane theories about exactly how, when
and where God will choose to act to bring the kingdom to its
fullness is a waste of time and an abuse of the sacred word.
Interpreting the Bible Faithfully
How then can you read the Bible for your own
personal enrichment? You can read the Bible faithfully and be
nourished by its teaching, but I also caution that interpreting
the Bible is not a mere one-to-one correspondence between the
sacred text and our day. Modern interpretation still requires
that we honor the nature of the text we seek to understand.
Let me give a few general principles.
1) The Bible is God—s word in human words.
Calling the Bible God—s inspired text does not alter the human
dimension of that word. Remember that culture, historical setting
and means of expression all influenced how the Bible came to
be and needs to be read.
2) Not every passage is equally applicable
in every age. The Bible contains apparent contradictions
(compare, for example, Isaiah 2:4 and Joel 3:10 which give opposite
advice). God—s word in a given circumstance may not apply in
exactly the same way at another time in history.
3) The literal meaning is not the only meaning.
The meaning of any given biblical passage is multilayered. The
literal meaning cannot legitimately be ignored or contradicted,
but to get to the deeper spiritual meaning of some passages
requires a more thorough understanding of the historical and
4) There is no one foolproof method of biblical
interpretation. Each passage must be handled on its own
in its various contexts.
5) Your personal interpretation is not the
interpretation. This is why Bible study is so important
and why it is necessary to consult respected commentaries for
6) The Bible does not contain every detail
for living an ethical life. Strict fundamentalists would
disagree with this statement. But from a Catholic perspective,
the Bible alone does not give us every detail of God—s revelation.
Many modern ethical dilemmas (nuclear arms, genetic engineering,
cloning, etc.) are not specifically addressed in the Bible,
even if it contains basic principles from which we can deduce
proper ethical directions. The Church, through its magisterial
teaching, provides an authentic guide to discerning God—s will
through the Bible.
7) The Bible concerns as much what happens
in this life as what takes place in the next. Despite
the popular urge to speculate about heaven and hell, angels
and devils, end-of-the-world timetables and catastrophic events,
these issues are treated in only a small percentage of the Bible.
8) Some biblical passages reflect an earlier
moral perspective no longer acceptable. The acceptance of
slavery or the total annihilation of an enemy, essentially genocide,
is not part of our moral fabric today even if the Bible assumes
or condones such practices in some passages. As the faith has
grown, so has our moral perspective.
9) Nothing in the Bible justifies hatred of
others. Even passages that speak of God—s destruction of
Israel—s enemies (Joshua 8:24-29) or of condemnation for sinners
(Jude 7) do not permit humans to act violently against one another.
Nor can the Bible be used to justify the superiority of one
race over another, such as some hate groups have asserted. Controversial
passages, such as those on homosexuality (like Romans 1:27),
also do not justify intolerance and persecution. Jesus— command
to judge not, lest we be judged (Matthew 7:1; cf. Romans 2:1-2),
takes precedence over any such warped interpretation. In instances
of true sinfulness, we are still called to hate the sin but
love the sinner (Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32).
10) Some parts of the Bible remain a mystery.
Even for scholars, the wording of some passages is so ambiguous,
or the background so obscure, that no one can be said to have
the final word on interpretation. If a passage does not make
sense to you, move on to an easier passage. We need to apply
the sacred text faithfully to our own lives, but we must do
so with careful attention to context, history and literary form.
To use the Bible is admirable, to abuse it is to wield a weapon
to achieve our own warped ends. There is a fine line between
these two poles. With the Holy Spirit—s guidance and a willingness
to expand our knowledge, we need not worry about which pole
will be our guide.
Next: Israel—s Neighboring Nations (by Elizabeth