Wilson’s 3 Ways of Distorting the Bible and My 3 Options For Reading It Without Chucking It

andrew wilsonLast month Steve Chalke wrote a piece over at Christianity.com about the way we’ve been misreading Bible. It wasn’t terrible, but I definitely wasn’t a fan. Then he and my buddy Andrew Wilson had those fun debates over at Premier.TV about the Bible. As you may remember I had an opinion on one of those as well. Well, Christianity.com has just posted Andrew’s piece responding to Chalke’s on the nature of the Bible, and whether or not we can call it the Word of God. He knows the difficulties involved with that:

Most of us know what it’s like to read a section of scripture and find ourselves thinking, I wish that bit wasn’t there.

Sometimes that’s because the Bible contains puzzling details (like when people start swapping sandals in the middle of a love story, or holding each other’s thighs when they’re agreeing a deal). Sometimes it’s because we feel embarrassed about the easy confidence with which it talks about impossible things (parting the Red Sea? Really?). Sometimes it’s because we’re genuinely confused by a difficulty, either within the text (how did Judas die, again?) or outside of it (did a flood really cover the entire Earth, and if so, why isn’t there any geological evidence for it?).

And often, it’s because we simply don’t like it. It’s ancient, different, challenging, scary, radical, courageous, provocative. We live in a world where many of the things the Bible says – God made everything, human beings are responsible for the world’s problems, God chose Israel as his special people, sex is only meant for one man and one woman in marriage, Jesus is the only way to God, the wages of sin is death, God is going to judge the earth one day, and so on – are profoundly unpopular. Saying them out loud may get you labelled a bigot or an idiot; saying them on a reality TV show means either you get kicked off or the show gets cancelled.

But what can we do with those sections?

The question is: what do we do when that happens? Do we stand as judge over the Bible, and decide which bits we will accept and which bits we won’t? Or do we sit under the loving authority of God, expressed through the scriptures, and allow him to shape us, correct us and challenge us? Do we let ourselves edit the Bible, or do we let the Bible edit us?

He helpfully lists three typical distortions one can make when it comes to approaching the Bible.

  1. First, we can make the mistake of “literalism”, essentially ignoring the context and, in general, a sloppy hermeneutic so that, in a misguided attempt to accept it all as true, we accept what it isn’t saying.
  2. Second, we can make the mistake of “liberalism”, which boils down to only accepting those bits we find acceptable according to our own modern reason and sensibilities.
  3. Third, we can make the “mix and match” mistake of selectively appropriating those bits we find lovely and wonderful and chucking out the rest.

That third one is the bit that seems to resemble Chalke’s approach most, which Wilson goes on to elaborate about at length. I’d highly encourage you to read the whole thing because it’s gold.

Also, interestingly enough, I had a post in the queue about 3 options we ought to consider when approach difficult, offensive texts we run across, before concluding it’s wrong and chucking it out.

Well, before we chuck them away in disgust, I would like to suggest at least 3 possible options to consider before you come to the conclusion that the Bible is wrong on a given subject:

  1. The verses you’re reading don’t say what you think they say. Honestly, a good commentary can clear up a lot of heartache by pointing out linguistic confusions and socio-historical factors that show you’re not reading the thing properly. Read carefully. If something disturbs you, don’t just chuck the Bible away in disgust, but wrestle with it and read it charitably, like a letter from a friend that initially reads offensively. Give it the benefit of the doubt and then try to understand it. Whether it’s Sabbath sticks, or the Conquest in Joshua, or maybe even slavery in the New Testament, there are often-times contextual issues at work that need to be considered when you’re reading an ancient text.
  2. The verses say what you think they say, but the problem is not with the Bible, but your own cultural presuppositions. I mean, let’s just be honest and say, this wouldn’t be the first time you were wrong about something, right? Sometimes we don’t stop and consider the finiteness or our intellectual horizons, both at the personal or the cultural level. It should give us pause that the very texts that we appreciate most on the Bible, (equality, forgiveness, grace), are some of the most culturally-offensive in other parts of the world, while the text that give us pause (judgment, wrath), are the ones quickly accepted in other parts of the world. As Keller points out in The Reason for God, if the Bible is the transhistorical truth of God, it makes sense that it would offend and correct some part of every culture throughout history.  You may just have to consider the fact that a dusty old book might get something right that our current culture gets wrong. Humble yourself and be open to your own fallibility.
  3. The verses say what you think it says, but the application is up for grabs. The Bible very clearly condemns adultery and divorce. Nobody’s going to argue that one. There’s still a difference of opinion amongst Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians as to what the state should be doing about that. Should the state make/enforce adultery laws? How hard should divorce be? Should non-Christians be held to the standards of the church? These are all legitimate questions that people who agree about what the Bible says on the moral issue still can discuss. Applying the text is not always a straightforward affair. My buddy Alan Noble has some good reflections on misguided Christian appropriation of the Bible for political rhetoric over at Christ and Pop Culture that are worth considering in relation to this.

To conclude, I know it’s a lot easier to look at the Bible and take the parts you like and scrap the parts you don’t like as it fits your own experience or judgments arrived at independent of the text, or simply “read” it and try to ham-handedly apply it to our lives no matter how awkward (or possibly wrong) we are in doing so. It takes a lot more effort to wrestle with the thing, struggle, read carefully, pray, be uncomfortable, struggle again, and submit to what the Lord says. Still, this is the call. May God give us grace to read carefully and read humbly.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “Wilson’s 3 Ways of Distorting the Bible and My 3 Options For Reading It Without Chucking It

  1. Have not watched all of the debates yet but I liked what I saw. Wilson just has this razor-sharp focus when debating/discussing issues (as with his radio debate with Rob Bell) and his response to Chalke is equally so. I don’t always land everywhere Wilson does, but it is so awesome to have another strong reformed-ish, evangelical voice in the UK like Him.
    Actually, just finished Wilson’s book “If God, then What” recently – have you read it? Great logically laid out, accessible apologetic for the Christian faith in this post-modern age.

  2. I especially appreciate your point concerning our own cultural horizons. C. S. Lewis’s warnings about “chronological snobbery” haven’t lost any of their relevance 50 years after his death. Such snobbery can manifest itself in a variety of ways when we turn to interpret the Bible. For instance, it’s a bit ironic when some Biblical scholars insist that we must read the text according to the canons of post-Enlightenment historical criticism, because only then do we approach the “original” meaning or significance. Any other method (such as reading within the Rule of Faith) is damned as a theological imposition on the authors’ intent. But of course, that’s exactly NOT how the Biblical writers themselves interpreted their Scriptures – consider how the prophets reinterpret the Exodus, or how Paul rereads the OT story Christologically. While not identical to, say, Patristic or Reformation exegesis, there’s arguably more continuity between the Biblical writers and “premodern” interpreters on the level of HERMENEUTIC than there is between the Biblical writers and modern critics. And that’s the irony: by insisting on historical criticism as the only valid approach, all in the name of recovering the “original perspective,” many modern critics simply demonstrate the yawning conceptual gap between them and their source material. Fortunately, there does seem to be renewed interest in premodern hermeneutics burgeoning even in critical circles: the spate of new journals and monographs dedicate to “theological interpretation of scripture” is, in my view, a very positive sign.

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