Bible Verse Arms Race

Bible Verse Arms Race July 5, 2013

I read a piece by Steven Harrell in Relevant Mag about the Bible Verse Arms Race, which could be called being right without being biblical, or being right without being good. Here’s a brief clip:

I like to call this exercise a “Bible Verse Arms Race.” The key to winning is to pile up as many verses on your side of the argument as you can while simultaneously discounting your opponent’s verses because they aren’t reading them in the correct context or they have the original language wrong.

It’s universally understood that New Testament verses always trump the Old Testament, and Jesus’ Red Letters always trump Paul. The game is most popular among high school students, seminary students and Emergent theology bloggers. (I’ll let you draw your own ironies from there.)

Predestination vs. free will. Consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation. Faith alone vs. good works. Scriptural authority vs. traditional authority. Mysticism vs. orthodoxy. For 2,000 years, each side has had verses that seem to very much confirm their relevance to the faith, while other verses seem to diminish them altogether….

So, what do we do? Is it possible to determine the way we ought to act through Scripture alone? Can we model our actions and beliefs on the whole of the Bible and be certain we’re being faithful to God’s design?

I think the answer goes back to the 2,000-year-old conflict between faith (good theology) and works (good actions).

Here’s one of his kickers to upload into your thinking and into our conversation today: some turn being right into the opportunity to make everything they believe into what is right.

In my (biased) view, many folks “have faith” in Christianity because they believe Christianity is “right.” In other words, that it’s historically true, morally sound and spiritually resonant. But once they’ve taken the name “Christian” and now stand on the “right side,” they reverse-engineer their newfound faith to match their long-standing beliefs, biases and preferences.

Now his second kicker:

This is why the Bible Verse Arms Race is not a very good way to discover Biblical truth. When two people, each with a firmly held “faith,” find as many verses as possible to uphold their belief and dismiss the others, no one leaves convinced of anything except that the other person is stubborn. (Including, I might add, an increasingly post-modern, relativist world that sees these debates as archaic and disingenuous.)

I think Jesus offers a solution in Matthew 7:15-20, when He warns against false prophets. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit … Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

In much of our Christian culture, the evidence of “good faith” is belief in the “right answers” of Christianity, defended by a large collection of Bible Verses. Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 directly challenge this notion, as He proposes good deeds are the tangible effects of good faith.

James says it a different way, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:22-24).

As someone who has taught and written about James for thirty years, and attempted to live his message out, I’m keen on hearing someone affirm that text from James. It’s one of those “first this, and then second that” or “first things first, and until you get first things first the whole is distorted”…

Am I saying seeking the solutions to complicated theological problems is useless? No, such work can help perceive the character of God. But unless we strive to live in a way that reflects this discovered character, systematic theology devolves quickly into a clanging cymbal.

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  • Susan_G1

    This sounds like a debate between two Pharisees.

    On one site, someone commenting threw this insult at me: “So, I see you’re a red-letter Christian.” I had never heard that phrase before (tells you what kind of circles I run in.) The more I thought about it, the more tickled I got. How could that be an insult? It was meant to insinuate I had a narrow understanding of Scripture. Maybe, but it broadened my knowledge about Christians, or this one, at any rate.

    What happened to encouraging one another to love and good deeds? Loving our neighbors as ourselves? Knowing that we see through a glass darkly? Trusting in the Lord and not leaning on our own understanding? To doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God? Am I picking up on the rules of this game? I don’t want to play.

    It’s a sad game. What a confusing picture we must offer the non-Christian onlookers (and how sad that Christians understand this game)! I wonder how many people find in this behavior a reason for not wanting to believe…

  • Norman

    Sounds a lot like Paul’s approach. Have you ever counted his quotes in Romans from the OT? This method of using scripture to bolster your case goes back to Christian inception. No need to over lament it’s practice 😉

  • Scott Eaton

    The author said: “In my (biased) view, many folks “have faith” in Christianity because they believe Christianity is “right.” In other words, that it’s historically true, morally sound and spiritually resonant. But once they’ve taken the name “Christian” and now stand on the “right side,” they reverse-engineer their newfound faith to match their long-standing beliefs, biases and preferences.”

    My experience was very different from the author’s characterization. My views on many things changed radically and substantially when I came to faith in Christ. And I did not believe in Jesus because I evaluated Christianity and assessed it to be right and historically true. I came to Jesus because I heard the gospel and the Spirit drew me to Him.

  • Mickey

    So is the author arguing that perfect living is the way we discern if someone is interpreting the scripture correctly? If so then what defines perfect living? Keeping The Law? Keeping the law of faith, of my mind, of life in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, the law of Christ or the law of liberty? When a person falls to public sin, does that discount their theological conclusions? What about sin that is just between that individual and God?

    Certainly, Jesus lived a perfect life, kept The Law, the law of (pick your favorite NT phrase that describes it) and had perfect theology. I guess my question is can I?

    I submit the moment I proclaim I have figured it all out; I am now guilty of pride. By falling to the sin of pride, have I then disproven my theology? We have all know arrogant condescending professors, did that disqualify them from knowing and teaching their material in a factual way? Character matters; but does that outweigh proper exegesis? In that respect I agree with Norman.

    In asking and asserting answers, am I guilty of the author’s first point. Have I used Christianity to reverse engineer my presuppositions? Should not the God of the Bible guide my presuppositions instead?

  • Phil Miller

    I didn’t take at all that the author was expecting anyone to live perfectly. I think, though, what he was saying is that theology isn’t worth very much if it doesn’t help produce fruit in the life of its adherents. It’s not so much about action trumping beliefs, but rather our actions often reveal our true beliefs.

  • Interesting question, Norman. I agree with the author that there are bad ways of using scripture. Do you think that Paul used the “Bible verse arms race” method as described by the author or did he use it differently? Jesus too quoted frequently from the OT to support his claims. Is the litmus test for correct use alignment with the heart/character of God, tradition, or what? Perhaps being right in general is secondary to having the right kind of heart?

  • Norman


    Obviously this is a nuanced discussion on several fronts and
    by being brief it’s hard to bring to bear those issues. I essentially agree with your bottom line conclusion that the Heart is the main player in all of this and that is why we really need to pay attention to Paul’s flexibility in Rom 14-15 and 1Cor 9 & 13 leaving judging of ones motives up to God.

    However I have no qualms recognizing how the early Christians and Jews historically used scripture to establish their premises
    regarding messianic prophecy and fulfillment. For me the bottom line is that I take Paul seriously in his approach, and so far in my studies I find no inconsistency with his hermeneutic methodology. There were though various factions of Jews as we all know at the time of Christ very similar to what we see today in diversity. There are the literalist readers and the analogical reading groups and they were at odds for centuries over how to interpret the prophet’s readings regarding messiah. Paul essentially uses OT and 2nd Temple scripture to establish his case, in fact many if not most historical critical scholars reject Paul’s hermeneutic methodology as being a change agent from the original authors intent. I strongly beg to differ with them but that is as deep a subject as you can get into so will leave it for another day.

    To answer your question: IMO, yes Paul used what he considered the proper scriptural context to establish his teachings about Christ fulfillment in their time. If we don’t trust his methodology then IMHO we are as he says in 1 Cor 15:9 to be pitied. If there were not enough early Christians who agreed with Paul then there is no telling what Christianity would look like without him.

  • Norman, thanks for your response. Good thoughts.