Starting with the popular Christian principle, “Let the easy Bible passages interpret the hard ones,” we’ve been examining six principles for biblical interpretation (beginning with this post). Here are two more.
Principle #3: “Description is different than approval”
What do you do when you read in the Old Testament about God’s support for slavery, demand for genocide, or some other bad action? Source 10P (see part 1 for sources) says:
Sometimes critics of the Bible (or critics of Christianity in general) point to an evil or corrupt situation described in the Bible to argue God (or Christianity) approves of the situation (or is the source of the evil). Remember, just because a Biblical author writes about something, this does not mean God condones it or supports it.
This principle attempts to tap dance away from God’s approval of things we find horrifying today.
Here’s an exercise that will explore what God does and doesn’t approval of. Consider the following lists, each containing three items mentioned in the Bible. For each list, think about what connects the items in that list and how it is different from the other lists:
- Murder, lying, and stealing
- Slavery, genocide, and polygamy
- Weights and measures for commerce, sheep herding, and eating meat
The items in List 1 (murder, lying, and stealing) are all prohibited in Exodus 20. They’re typically numbered 6, 8, and 9 in the Ten Commandments. (As an aside, it’s interesting that they’re not on the second version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 34, the one that found its way into the Ark of the Covenant.)
The items in List 2 (slavery, genocide, and polygamy) are never prohibited. They can be restricted, however (for example, elders are to have just one wife according to 1 Timothy 3:2), and rules can apply (for example, slaves can be beaten, but not so much that they die according to Exodus 21:20).
The items in List 3 (weights and measures, herding, and meat) are also never prohibited. Rules can apply to them as well (“The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him”).
Lists 2 and 3 are distinguishable only in how we judge them—we prohibit List 2 but accept List 3—but that’s not in the Bible. This leaves us with the biblical view of prohibited things in List 1 versus acceptable things (though possibly regulated by God-given rules) in Lists 2 and 3.
Only modern sensibilities tell us that slavery, genocide, and polygamy are bad. Not only did God regulate slavery and polygamy just like he did accurate weights and measures, Jesus had nothing bad to say about them either.
This principle, “Description is different than approval,” is a transparent attempt to give God a pass when he goes off his meds. It fails.
Principle #4: Begin with the assumption that the Bible has no contradictions
I must admit that this one sounds much like principle #1. Perhaps this repetition is my excuse to shine more light on it. Here’s the principle stated in “How to Interpret the Bible” (HIB):
The “analogy of faith” is a reformed hermeneutical principle which states that, since all scriptures are harmoniously united with no essential contradictions, therefore, every proposed interpretation of any passage must be compared with what the other parts of the Bible teach. In other words, the body of doctrine, which the scriptures as a whole proclaim will not be contradicted in any way by any passage. Therefore, if two or three different interpretations of a verse are equally possible, any interpretation that contradicts the clear teaching of any other scriptures must be ruled out from the beginning.
So before you say, “Aha—there’s a contradiction here in the Bible,” go back and rethink that, because there are no contradictions. (The first rule of Look for Contradictions in the Bible Club is that there are no contradictions in the Bible.)
You can see the problem. “There are no contradictions” would be a conclusion, not a starting assumption, and there is a huge mountain to climb before this principle can be validated.
As an aside, this principle, where Christians simply declare that the Bible has no contradictions, has a parallel in Islam. The Principle of Abrogation states that if there’s a contradiction in the Quran, the later passage (that is, the one written at a later date) wins out over the earlier. Problem solved—no more contradiction.
As damning as the Muslim principle is (how could the Prophet have gotten it wrong the first time?), at least it’s a rule. Principle 4 simply makes a groundless assertion.
Let’s let the Bible itself speak on this.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh which I command you (Deuteronomy 4:2).
The verse from 2 Timothy tells us that any passage, even the ones that make Christians squirm, should be read and followed, and the one from Deuteronomy says that the Bible must be allowed to speak for itself and not be treated like a marionette. So don’t pick the more pleasing verse and pretend the “difficult” verse doesn’t exist because the Bible makes clear there are no difficult verses!
Christians, if you must step in to sanitize your holy book, think about what that means.
Concluded in part 3.
He is always convinced that it says what he means.
— George Bernard Shaw
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/15/16.)