Cherry picking the Bible? Yes and no

There’s been a little dustup recently about people supposedly “cherry picking” the Bible. Holy writ, goes the charge, is the highest authority in all matters, provided we can isolate certain verses and use them to support our predetermined positions.

Neale Donald Walsch started the ruckus at the Huffington Post saying that — surprise, surprise — people actually do this! In fairness, he invoked another loaded metaphor, the buffet.

Thomas Whitley responded for the Associated Baptist Press, not only serving our beloved fruit, but also leveling the table. “[E]veryone cherry-picks the Bible, he said.

This was more than Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council could stand. Whitley, he said, “wrongly conflates hermeneutical difficulties with selective application.”

Maybe. But isn’t there is a certain inevitability to cherry picking?

Can you hold the entire Bible in your mind at once? What about an entire book? Even a chapter?

Like all of us sorry mortals who lack omniscience, we cannot comprehend all of the divine revelation contained the scripture in a moment, which means we are forced to move from one passage to another and hold them together in some sort of sequence. It can’t be helped.

If that cannot be helped, then neither can selective emphasis. How we order and weigh the various patterns is subjective, no matter who we are.

The more useful questions concern whether the sequences we come up square with anything that passes for a traditional understanding of things. Have Christians arrived at this conclusion before or is it novel? Do our readings align with the general, historical understanding of the church?

In a reality where selective emphasis is inevitable, we should be wary of the novel, ready to submit to the traditional, and humble about everything else.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • Susan_G1

    “In a reality where selective emphasis is inevitable, we should be wary of the novel, ready to submit to the traditional, and humble about everything else.”

    This is humbling and true, and a very good point. I want to embrace this attitude and practice it. Cherry picking is inevitable, as you point out. But are clobber verses? You know, the ones you use to condemn people to “that place”. I think your answer applies to these as well, though I hate to see Scripture used this way.

    In medicine, we have an axiom, “Be neither first nor last.” Usually this refers to the use of a new drug, but also applies to any line of new thinking; a new therapeutic approach, a new test, a new procedure. It implies enough humility and wisdom to hold off a bit to see that it is really safe, but not so little wisdom that you’re the last person to adopt a change for the better. I think your prescription fits here as well.

  • garbo77

    Hi Joel and everyone!

    When we look at the word “traditional” (derived from divine revelation) I hope we are looking back much further than the beliefs and traditions of many of our churches of this age. I feel that the church God has always meant for us to follow is the example given in the Bible of how the first church functioned after Acts 2:4.

    In John 20:19-22 we are told Jesus appeared to the disciples who were assembled for fear of the Jews and in vs. 22 that Jesus breathed on them and they received Holy Spirit. In Luke 24:49 Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until endued with power from on high. Jesus stated that this was a promise from His Father. Also, in Acts 1:8 Jesus tells the disciples that they shall receive “power” when Holy Spirit has come upon them; the same Holy Spirit that the disciples received in Jn 20:22, however, in Acts 2:4 they received the “power” of Holy Spirit.

    Acts 2:1-4 explains how Holy Spirit came and they were filled with Holy Spirit. We only need to check the disciples fear by reading when Jesus was taken by the guards prior to Him being crucified on the cross and when Jesus appeared to them in Jn 20:19-22 and found them in fear, to see the change in their lack of boldness to bold men of God after receiving the “power” of Holy Spirit. This can be proven by continuing on in Acts as Holy Spirit worked through them.

    Point being, even though I was saved and a Christian, I know that I understand the scriptures much better, have written many spiritual books and Holy Spirit gives me the words to say wherever I go to teach, without planning a study of what I’m going to teach, since being filled with “power” of Holy Spirit. I’m not saying that planning a teaching prior to giving it is wrong or not of God; that is absolutely fine as long as it is led by Holy Spirit. It’s just that God works differently with me. My wife is a strong woman of God and, not always, but usually she plans her teachings prior to giving them, as Holy Spirit leads.

    I feel it sad and not in the will of God that we have over 4,000 different religions. Believing as I do, that God has always meant for us to function spiritually as the early Acts church, I feel it very important to be careful of what traditions that we follow.. I’m not intending to say that you said otherwise in your article. I just felt led to explain what I feel God is leading me to share.

    In all honesty, even though filled with Holy Spirit, I certainly don’t remember where all the scriptures are that I retain and don’t say that I retain all scripture that I’ve read. However, I feel that when we are living our daily lives with the fullness of Holy Spirit we will understand the “truth” of the scriptures much better. Many have memorized much in the Bible, but do they have a true understanding? I pray that we all understand. I know there is so much more I want to understand and to teach others as God leads me to fulfill the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-18).

    Joel, I enjoy reading your articles. Keep the faith! You’re in my prayers!

    God’s Blessings on You and Yours!

    Dr. Gary

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

    Whenever I see a text peppered with Bible references supporting an argument (a Chick tract, for example), cherry picking is almost always a problem. I discount such articles.

    The problem is that the Bible can be made to say just about whatever you want it to say. The author never says, “The Bible uniformly says X on this topic,” both because a single verse is much easier to find that to scan the entire Bible for a single contrary word on the matter, and because there’s very little of interest that the Bible makes a 100% clear and unambiguous statement on.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I think that Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible is a very helpful book to consult when thinking on this issue. Also, we’d probably do well to more closely heed James’ admonition: “Let not many of you become teachers.”


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