Is Personal Bible Reading Bad for Christianity?

Is Personal Bible Reading Bad for Christianity? September 17, 2014

Paul Penley, in a guest post on Jesus Creed, discussed whether personal Bible reading has had an overall positive or negative impact on the church. Even those of us who are heirs to Luther’s convictions about individuals taking responsibility for their own beliefs and following the dictates of their own consciences, we can feel the force of Johann Eck’s response to him at the Diet of Worms: “Martin, there is not one heresy which has torn apart the bosom of the church, which has not derived its origin from some interpretation of Scripture. The Bible itself is the arsenal whence each innovator has drawn his deceptive arguments.”

The sheer number of denominations which have resulted shows that providing people with the Bible in their own language doesn’t get us closer to a single, unified truth, but makes us more divided, as this chart suggests:

Reformation, translations, denominations

Islam makes people dependent on those who know Arabic, and even those who know the language can disagree on the meaning of the Qur’an. Protestant Christianity (at least in its popular form) gives people the illusion that they can simply read the text and draw their own conclusions without having to worry about other languages, ancient cultures, or any other such considerations.

I prefer the freedom Luther stood for to the authoritarian alternative. But I think there are alternatives besides the two extremes. One can imagine a middle ground in which people have the freedom to read the Bible for themselves in translation, but are aware that even in doing so they are dependent on experts in language, history, and other fields, leading those readers to exercise humility and eschew dogmatism regarding their own conclusions.

I’m not saying that’s realistic. But it is desirable.

Of related interest, a rare photo of Martin Luther from the Diet of Worms has come to light recently:

Martin Luther Diet of Worms

""Everything is proceeding as I have forseen."- Palpatine"

How Star Wars Ends
""There’ll be no one to stop us this time.""

How Star Wars Ends
"Holy Cr*p !!!!!!!!!!!!!! He's Back!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My Lord Sidious is Back!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My blog willed him back ..."

How Star Wars Ends
"No, I don’t have a persecution complex. I am most likely an HSP (highly sensitive ..."

153 Fish – The Definitive Explanation

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Dale Tuggy has provided a (clearly tongue-in-cheek) illustration of what it is possible to prove by simply reading the Bible and following logic:

  • Matt McLaughlin

    Come Zionism, Protestantism brought an even bigger difference from Catholicism than Henry VIII or Luther ever desired.

  • “If you suspect that my interest in the Bible is going to inspire me with sudden enthusiasm for Judaism and make me a convert of mountain‐moving fervor and that I shall suddenly grow long earlocks and learn Hebrew and go about denouncing the heathen — you little know the effect of the Bible on me. Properly read, it is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

    Isaac Asimov, as quoted by his wife, Janet, in Notes for a Memoir: On Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing.

  • Bro Steve

    Actually if someone reads the Bible and comprehends what they are reading in context it not only makes perfect sense, but God’s word is alive within the pages.

  • Mark H. Harris

    The NT was written in Greek. The OT was written primarily in Hebrew and Chaldean. We have the OT in Greek, and we have the Samaritan Pentateuch. Studying the scriptures in the original languages is of paramount importance. If studying in English, well, the student must use five or six translations on a continuum from formal equivalence (on the one hand) to dynamic equivalence (on the other hand). Beyond that, is the scripture ‘descriptive’ or ‘prescriptive’ ? If you are a Greek Bible scholar (like myself) vs a fundamentalist Bible-belt pinhead with his|her King-James-Only-Bible, well, you are going to notice some differences of opinion regarding almost all of it. / On the other hand, if the Bible is studied within the historical and cultural context appropriate to the study, in the context of the Church, with some tools at hand (commentary, Bible dictionary, &c) with several translations in hand, some progress towards understanding may be achieved… but it will be a journey. I encourage prayer along the way too.

    • Does the comparative slope of the “pinhead” make a difference?

      • Mark H. Harris


    • Button Gwinnett

      Oh, what a wonderful demonstration of love for fellow believers. Pin-head, indeed.

      • Mark H. Harris

        We are not discussing love at the moment. We are discussing Bible scholarship and whether private reading of the Bible might be harmful. Inappropriate private interpretation of the Bible is indeed harmful, and my love for fundamentalist pinheads does not change that. I’m just very glad that the Bible does not call for lopping off the heads of infidels.
        To reframe the question a bit what we are trying to get at there is whether the Bible in the wrong ‘radical’ hands might be as dangerous as the Qur’an in the wrong ‘radical’ hands?
        I have seen that indeed the danger exists. If the crusades, the Spanish inquisition, slavery in the South (U.S.), Pope Leo at the time of Martin Luther, Queen Mary I, nor the Third Reich are not ample examples I have more.
        Fundamentalist Bible thumpers in America are some of the most dangerous people I can think of… and out of check could be (in every sense) as dangerous as radical Islam.
        … one of the reasons for the high wall of separation between the church and the state in the U.S.
        Love is another topic all together.

        • Button Gwinnett

          1 John 4:8. Check your theology.
          And your apparent belief that you have a “superior” form of Christianity is EXACTLY what you accuse the “pin headed, fundamentalist , KJV-only radicals” of.

          • Mark H. Harris

            Kevin, this is not a discussion of theology, nor the nature of God, nor my theological viewpoint regarding love for my fellow man; why do you feel compelled to be condescending? Perhaps you’re making my point for me.
            Second, there is no accusation; nor are we discussing my Christian beliefs, nor Christianity generally (mine or otherwise, superior or not).
            We are discussing whether inappropriate private interpretation of the Bible might be harmful to Christianity. It is my observation that it has been, and that unchecked it continues to be a danger.
            Consider 2 Peter 1:20-21; the apostle Peter makes an assertion similar to the point this author is trying to convey. Inappropriate private interpretation of the Bible has for centuries been dangerous and harmful to Christianity generally, as well as dangerous to Christ followers specifically. It is not a theological discussion.
            PS. Continue to read 2 Peter chapter 2.

          • Button Gwinnett

            I guess I don’t understand how you can have a discussion regarding the Bible that doesn’t include God. And I guess I don’t understand why you have to resort to ad hominem.

            I called you out, as a fellow believer, on what I saw as a sinful error. I backed up my statement with a verse from God’s word. You have not addressed that issue; indeed you changed the subject.

            You disagree with someone on matters of doctrine. Fine. But we are very specifically and very strongly commanded to act in love to all. I shouldn’t even have to argue that point. The fruits of the Spirit are certainly not evident when speaking of fellow created beings as pinheads. Neither are they evident when a man feels it needful to describe himself as “a Greek Bible scholar rather than a fundamentalist pinhead”. Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before the fall.

            Finally, I have on many occasions been accused of condescension. Looking back, you are correct. I apologize for that.


          • Mark H. Harris

            You are not correct to accuse me of sinful error, nor of pride. Fundamentalism since the protestant reformation has almost destroyed the evangelical church world-wide, and is presently destroying the North American church… what James McDonald speaks of in his book “Vertical Church” as “Ichabod” or “an epic failure”! (in love!)
            Our endearing term for fundamentalist pinheads at Seminary is “fundy”. Its just a label.
            I go to church with fundys. I eat with them, shake their hands, work beside them, and always in a spirit of love try to help them love and understand the Bible. But they are still pinheads… why?… because they remain willingly ignorant and unwilling to budge.
            My credentials are not pride. They are what they are. Bible interpretation is difficult, and correctly applying biblical interpretation is even harder… the reason for pastors and teachers. Inappropriately interpreting the Bible in private is the path to disaster (theologically and socially) and should be fought (with words, I trust, in love)
            It seems that you are really ruffled by the word pinhead. Its meant to catch attention, deliberately.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Absent love I would suggest that any bible reading would be harmful. That’s how you get biblical texts used to justify the most egregious hate. Paul does not for nothing say that without love all one does is for naught.

          Edit: that said, “love” is not self-identical with “nice.” Martin Luther King, Jr., was an exemplar of love, yet he had few nice things to say about the racists who oppressed his people. “Love,” in the biblical tradition, is siding with the weak over the strong, the powerless over the powerful, and sometimes that means saying less than salutary things about the strong and powerful. It means calling their evil evil, and that’s not necessarily a nice thing. It is, however, a loving thing, for it refuses to deny the self-evident truth standing before oneself.

          • Mark H. Harris

            Oh, I would dare to suggest that there is no way to apply the test of love. For instance, Queen Mary I (bloody Mary) firmly believed that she was acting out of love for the Catholic faith when she mercilessly hounded and murdered hundreds of protestant clerics (because of her biblical interpretation). She thought her actions were God honoring and good for England and for the Roman church. Inappropriate private biblical interpretation played a huge part in that bloody history.

            Edit: that said, and in response to your edit… as I pointed out to Kevin, this is not a discussion about love. This is a discussion trying to answer the question, “Is private interpretation of a sacred text ‘dangerous’ to civilized order?” I would say that certainly it has been in the past, and left unchecked will continue to be in the future.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Well, first, the title of this blog post was “Is personal bible reading bad for Christianity?” so this is a question about constitutes a specifically Christian reading, and a specifically Christian reading that excludes love is not Christian at all. And so what if Mary thought that killing Protestants was an act of love? She was, by any reasonable measure, mistaken on the matter. If one cannot recognize that murder is hardly a sign of love then one has problems deeper than hermeneutics.

          • Mark H. Harris

            Not so. The question is nuanced. It is not about a ‘Christian’ reading … it is about personal interpretation of biblical reading ‘regardless’ of whether the reader is Christian or not. This precludes love as a component of the argument, and hence changes the outcome.
            Presumably, and this is always my personal hope, that when someone reads the Bible they will be transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit (the person of God responsible for writing the text) ; however, while that often does occur this is not necessarily the case— particularly when the ‘reader’ is looking to prove something, or is in aggressive opposition to God (or to the church) and is using the Bible to state or bolster their case, or cause. This happened in the South to justify slavery (forced servitude of Black laborers sold from Africa in the U.S. and other American parts), it was also the motivating factor behind the Klu-Klux-Klan (still is today in many parts of the South— the work of predominantly fundamentalist pinheaded racists. (love has no part in it, but inappropriate private interpretation of the Bible does)
            I spare you, I could go on and on with this…

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m not sure that we’re reading the same post. The post asks if personal biblical interpretation is good for Christianity. It asks whether it is good for the church. This is all about reading in the Christian context.

          • Mark H. Harris

            Permit me to ask a sensitive question, “Are all people in the church, who are reading the Bible, Christians?”

            The people responsible for the Spanish Inquisition believed (mistakenly) that they were Christian, but that is not possible.
            The Klu-Klux-Klan believe they are Chistians, but they are sadly mistaken.
            Just because a person reads the Bible, in church, does not necessarily a Christian make them. And many people who quote the Bible are not Christ followers.

            The reason you are trying to mix love into this discussion, similar to Kevin, is that you are assuming that all Bible readers are authentic Christians.

            Its better for this discussion to stay near the surface and discuss the author’s main point. Since the protestant reformation the number of translations of the Bible and the number of supposed Christian denominations have (in parallel) increased drastically. That means (necessarily) at least schism in the church and probably the fact that many of those people are not Christ followers… along the lines that they might all be wrong, but they cannot all possibly be right.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            In point of fact I make no distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” Christians. You, not I, have introduced that into the discussion. But that then leads to the question: what distinguishes authentic from inauthentic Christianity, and the biblical answer, the one that Paul gives, that the prophets give, that Jesus gives, is love and justice. Those people you enumerate were and are terribly bad Christians precisely because they forgot about love.
            And note that once again, in your statements, you acknowledge that we can distinguish love from not-love, justice from not-justice. That is precisely the criterion by which you are basing the judgment that they are not Christians.

            So we are once again driven, by the logic of your own argument, back to the question of love: that the way to adjudicate between adequately Christian reading–and again, this is about the church, about Christianity–is the presence or absence of love. ‘Cause if there is love there will be convergence: love brings together. The disparate forms of scripture will begin to pale in comparison to the lived reality of suffering and broken bodies. And that is when authentic Christianity begins to emerge.

          • Mark H. Harris

            Not so. You are applying circular reasoning, requiring a false premise that love is required to read or misapply the biblical text.

            Love has nothing to do with it.

            The obvious evidence to the contrary is demonstrated by the author’s graph (above) and the simple fact that most of the people in those disparate denominations will claim to be loving people full of grace and justice. Its just not true. Many of those folks (by nature of misapplying scripture in the first place) are legalistic, and legalism trumps love every time.

            The reason being, people do not really want to be loving, they want to be right (some of them desperately want to be right) regardless of the harm being ‘right’ causes. Which gets us back to the author’s thesis. Private interpretation of the Bible is harmful to Christianity. The irony is that risk is a factor even in personal Bible study and theological reflection. We want people to read and study the word of God, and yet we know that often that study will lead to harm (for others) rather than to personal transformation for the reader. Fortunately, this is not always the case, but the risk is ever present.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            I’m having a hard time following your argument. If your point is that people often fail to be what they should be, sure. But it seems that you are exactly making the point that I am making: that absent love personal bible reading, and all Christian practice, will devolve into fractiousness.

          • Mark H. Harris

            To see how silly you are being, reverse your process.

            Ok… pour love into the equation. Pick your person, give them a Bible, add love and a spoon full of sugar. Stir gently, and whalla… all the worlds historical and future problems solved.

            WHAT IS YOUR POINT ?

            Your point is esoteric, and mostly silly. So, “Absent love, Bible reading and all (Christian?) practice will devolve into chaos” <–that's your point

            How does your point help us to understand the author's thesis, or apply a framework for helping people understand the Bible?

            How do we deal with 'loveless' people who continue to be willingly ignorant and unwilling to learn?

            Is there any way to put the genie back in the bottle (pre reformation sola scriptura) ?


          • Jonathan Bernier

            I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • Mark H. Harris

            Ok, here is the bottom line for this discussion:

            The author is getting at the central point of the debate which began the protestant reformation. Who should be reading the Bible (rightly dividing the word of truth, for you KJV only folks)? Is it the Magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, or is it the common man in the common tongue?

            Well, as we know, Popes are indeed fallible; as are conflicting councils. Martin Luther was apparently right, there he stood, God helped him. The corruption between the Pope of Rome and the Fugger banking family in Germany (the Holy Roman Empire) led to indulgences of all kinds, money flowed, and corruption was high — if only the people had the Bible in the native German tongue! Luther gave them the Bible and the people learned that purgatory was a sham, that indulgences were worthless, and that the Pope did not love them at all; but Jesus did!

            Martin Luther gave the people the Bible, which brought on the peasant’s revolt, wherein more than 100,000 peasants were slaughtered (because the Church misapplied scripture and tradition, and because the peasants applied their new sola scriptura with anger in their hearts).

            The irony is enough to kill you if you let it, and in fact it did kill millions from the time of the protestant reformation. The word of God was freed, and the common man was slaughtered; across Europe and into England. Beheadings, stake burnings, because on the one hand those responsible for caring for the word of God fell into corruption, and those to whom the word of God was passed were unaccustomed and ill equipped to handle it rightly. And so it goes.

            At the end of the protestant reformation (up to now) following the council of Trent, leading on to Vatican II, and the following exploding expansion of the Late Great Evangelical Church of dissension and fractured schism, we are once again asking the age old question— Is personal Bible study harming Christianity (as though it hasn’t already)?

            Does personal Bible study lead to personal transformation in love through the power of the Holy Spirit?

            Does personal Bible study lead to legalism of all kinds, schism in the church of Christ, and harm to those not capable of discerning their left hand from their right?

            The problem is partially that few people even know what we are talking about.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            This is what has me confused. You repeatedly say that love has nothing to do with the discussion, then you ask “Does personal Bible study lead to personal transformation in love through the power of the Holy Spirit?” I don’t know how to respond in the face of this incoherent.

            As for the other points you raise, I’ve addressed them here:

          • Mark H. Harris

            Dr. Bernier, thank you. Your blog post is the very kind of engagement I would expect from you, or anyone else knowledgeable of this subject.

            Your first pass (this discussion) had me feeling like you were sweeping the question under the rug, along the lines of “absent love what might we expect— fractiousness?” Every single question of human nature can be answered the same way… without love there is a problem, move on. Or the way John Lennon put it, ‘all you need is love .. ‘ /

            Your blog post much better answers the question, and provides the analysis | solution. I’m not saying its completely correct, but your argument and conclusion get at the real core issue. Absent the Magisterium (in some meaningful form) personal Bible interpretation is harmful to Christianity. I agree.

            The Bible can never mean what it never meant. Bible interpretation must always deliver what Christians everywhere have believed at all times. Some body politic ecclesiastical must oversee that interpretation, without corruption, within community, for the purpose of preserving biblical truth and eliminating heresy. Enter the Magisterium. This is a dialogue ‘talking point’ between Catholics and Protestants for sure, and should be pursued.

            Loss of the Magisterium in the evangelical community has been the heart of this discussion (and a problem) for 500 years!

            I think its time to fix it.

            PS I must tell you that I have a ‘Meyer & Lonergan’ pedigree. My hermeneutics professor at Bethel picked up Lonergan and Meyer while studying with N.T.Wright in the U.K., then brought it back with him to the states. I am a dedicated critical realist. In my previous posts on this topic the fundamentalist pinheads are the staunch objectivists who believe if they just sit long enough in a vacuum with the Bible they can arrive at full object truth (nonsense)! The relativists are the ones who say the Bible means whatever the ‘person’ believes it means and all you need is love! My critical realist position on the matter is that we obtain objective truth as the fruit of our efforts to hone our subjective skills! Critical realism is the proper framework for the analysis of this complex problem. Very few evangelicals today would be willing to admit that they were incorrect to absolve the Magisterium of ecclesiastical authority.
            Again, thank you for your blog post.

            Edit: As just another point for consideration here, Martin Luther never intended to create the Lutheran Chruch… he intended ‘reformation’ within the Magisterium.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Thank for this post. I think we can reasonably conclude that our prior disagreements were largely the result of miscommunication. It happens, especially on the interwebs. I would be *very* interested in learning the name of your former professor. There frankly aren’t that many of us working with or on critical realism in biblical studies, so I love to be in touch with those who are.

          • Mark H. Harris

            My former hermenuetics prof, while I was working on my M.Div degree @ Bethel Seminary St. Paul Minnesota, is Dr. Thorsten Moritz. I’m not sure that he is still with the Seminary there. I found these links on-line:




            Bethel Seminary has many 1st class profs, but Dr Moritz was one of the profound influences on my training at Bethel– not only from a hermenuetics perspective, but also for the insights I gained from him on the thoughts of Meyer and Lonergan, for his take on ecclesiology, and the home church movement. I see him from time to time at the Society of Biblical Literature, where we are both members. He introduced me to N.T.Wright a year ago at SBL, who has become my new favorite author and theologian.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Very interesting. Thanks for the info!

  • Jonathan Bernier

    Worth mentioning that Eck was just channeling Vincent of Lerins’ argument from the fifth century: every heresiarch, from Marcion on down, was a master of scripture, but absent consent to magisterial authority they all went ways that diverged from the sound teaching of the Great Church. Hard to argue with that historical analysis. Now, whether it is a bad thing or good, that’s a different question.