“We can’t interpret the Bible according to our own personal taste! Or twist it to conform with today’s culture! Or invent our own meaning!” Most of us evangelicals would say Amen. And we all could list Those People Out There who rewrite the Bible to fit their own ideas of truth.
And then we go on to commit the very same mistake. Bible rewriting is a universal disease, not a quarantined outbreak.
Let’s use a well-known verse as our test subject:
“Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:15–17
So, we need to be child-like. What does Jesus mean? Should we be Trusting? Happy? Intelligent?
Below are quotes from Google’s top four results of the search, “Bible how to receive like a child”:
(1) the key characteristic of children is humility; (2) they want to learn everything they can about God; (3) they are completely vulnerable and dependent; (4) children are straightforward! And of course people will add, they are trusting! Oh, and they have a sense of wonder! Look a cute story! Have you seen my baby pictures?
If you ask an adult class, you’re liable to have similar results: they may be ‘spiritualized’ humble! Hopeful! Trusting! Innocent! Needy! ‘Not my kids!’ may be shouted to a roar of church-approved laughter.
We’re faced with a question. When Luke wrote this, did he intend to have all these different meanings? Or was there an explicit point he wanted to make?
Our reading of Luke 18 is an example of a wider problem in biblical study: the belief that Scripture means whatever the reader wants, save for a few unspoken (but understood) exceptions. Certain passages are considered to have fixed meanings: readers may not interpret the passage differently (these primarily include the crucifixion accounts and certain moral statutes such as those condemning homosexuality). Second, the chosen meaning must conform to generally-accepted doctrines.call this the Interpretational Buffet: choose, within reason, whatever meaning you want!
It’s not surprising that a group of believers, hearing the same pastor, reading the same authors, going to the same men’s / women’s Bible studies would have very similar theology. What is surprising is that most can’t prove how they got there by their own study/hermeneutical methods. George Lindbeck, referred to this problem in his article on Postcritical Canonical Interpretation:
“Agreement on what Scripture says combined with disagreement on how to derive it from Scripture was once exceptional but is now widespread across the spectrum of Christian opinion from right to left. Such methodological chaos, however, shifts authority, contrary to the intentions of ecclesially-oriented interpreters, from the Bible to private preference.”
In our example text (Luke 18:15–17), readers take for granted that they know what childlikeness really means. In the context of a Bible study, everyone may share their own opinion and each would make an individual decision. Most of the time, the opinions stay within accepted limits: for some, they would believe they needed to be more humble. Others would tell themselves to rely more on God. Others may decide that they need to trust more. Usually the most spiritual-sounding answers will gain more support: I think I remember that Pastor X said… or didn’t children back then… Rarely do the answers cross into outright heresy. For example, none would say: “Kids are rotten, we should be too! Then grace will abound!”
Luke 18 provides a compelling illustration of the Interpretational Buffet. The passage itself, nestled snuggly between the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and the account of rich young ruler, makes the point that the attitude of the tax collector is child-like, whereas the attitudes of the Pharisee and ruler were not. Somehow sites calling themselves ‘Bible Study Guide” and “Bible Daily” manage to miss this. We’ve traded exegesis for word association! When you hear ‘child-like,’ what’s the first word that pops into your head?
My experience is that Luke 18 is not an exception. I’ve seen people share that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is a warning against coveting (the three friends, having been elevated by Nebuchadnezzar would have been an object of envy of the exiles! Look what those three suffered for their faith! Be careful coveting, you may not be ready for the trial!). I’ve heard that Hebrews 12:2 is about not being ashamed of our past sins; or that Ezekiel 28 says that before his fall, Satan was God’s Worship Leader. What’s shocking isn’t interpretations as such, as ridiculous as they might be, but the fact that these were shared with groups of believers and readily accepted without any real form of critique.
The issue is that these answers frequently have nothing to do with the passage being studied. In the words of Walt Kaiser ironic cheer, “Yaaaay for the theology! Boooooo for the interpretation!”
Rather, we need to be like the stodgy, algebra teacher. She insists that students show every step of their calculations. She seems to think the process is as important as the result! We must ask others (and ourselves!) how the conclusions are drawn from the text. When we have an ‘almost anything goes’ mentality with Scripture (with some very strong, but unspoken, rules) why are we shocked when so many evangelicals are extending this relativism to challenge some of those unspoken rules? Many are simply interpreting those same passages the same way they’ve been taught to study the rest of Scripture. I see Christians embracing (and even defending) cursing, Darwinism, worldly sexual ethics, and hyper-liberal or hyper-conservative politics. It’s extraordinarily difficult refuting these beliefs if their entire understanding of Scripture is based on ‘choose your own meaning’.
Church leaders must spend more time on a sound and practicable hermeneutic. We can’t simply be satisfied at correct doctrine; we must give them the tools to do this themselves.
With that in mind, here are 4 Ways to Fix Your Exegesis.
- There is definitely a RIGHT answer, and it is very probably discoverable
There is a popular saying in Christian circles: “I can read a passage 100 times, and every time it’s different!” This is emblematic of the problem. A true statement (awe and power of God’s Word) that is made in a way that conveys, “I need a different (deeper, more spiritual) meaning every time I read this!” In reality, most of Scripture has a clear definite point. Don’t be satisfied with a bunch of people saying it means different things. You can read it 100 times, and every time GET THE SAME MESSAGE! Which is a blessing as this avoids our human weakness to look for something different or worse: twist it to say something that it doesn’t to avoid challenging our own sinful desires. Instead let’s say: “I can read a passage 100 times, each time it’s the same. But many times the application changes!”
- What is the writer most concerned about?
As the saying goes: “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.” If the author is concerned about something, we should be too. This doesn’t exclude discussions or studies about secondary topics, but we should deal with the central issues in the text before tackling the peripheral ones. If it’s a bigger text, I’ll ask, “What are the top 3 things the writer is concerned about?”
- Context Does Matter
Attention to context would have helped us better understand Luke 18. I like to ask: How does the passage fit into the immediate stuff around it? How does it fit into the book as a whole? If you can’t answer this (or are satisfied with a vague guess), you might be an evangelical relativist.
- Never Walk Alone
Consider reading a commentary. If you’re not sure which one, ask your pastor for his recommendations. Be careful with free study tools and Google searches; they’re free for a reason (out-of-date information, downright poor scholarship). Personally, I’d recommend looking on eBay for the volumes in the Tyndale Commentary Series. They are easy to read, solid, usually available for under $10. Beyond this, I highly recommend buying yourself a copy of Fee’s How to Read the Bible Book by Book. I also recommend checking out Bible Project videos.
Preaching and teaching should encourage believers and model how to do it. As a pastor, it’s tempting to try and ‘wow’ others with our great knowledge, or super holy (and humorous) personal revelations. Why share a story about your own humble child to illustrate Luke 18, when Christ himself provides an illustration 5 verses earlier (the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee)? We’re teaching folks to spiritualize analogies to determine what it is to be childlike while ignoring an obvious contrast provided for this purpose! When we dabble in the Interpretational Buffet we encourage our congregations to do likewise. This weird way conservative churches study the Bible is a problem, especially if we are claiming that God exercises his authority through Scripture. If, in the words of N.T. Wright “God is at work, through Scripture (in other words, through the Spirit who is at work as people read, study, teach, and preach scripture) to energize, enable, and direct the outgoing mission of the church,” rather than encouraging everyone to make their own meaning, we should be submitting to it.
As a fallen person, when faced with God’s holy Word, I’m constantly tempted to rationalize, minimize, excuse, or ignore my sin. If I have a chance to pretend I’m following the Bible, rather than surrendering to it, I’m frequently tempted to take it.
For that reason, brothers and sisters, we need to be disciplined in teaching the handling of the Word.
 Generally-accepted by those present. These aren’t necessarily biblical. Depending on the church/denomination, the doctrines being served may involve a heavy dose of your preferred political party, nationalism, LGBT (for or against), strange end-times calendars, and much more.
“Who rewrites the Bible? Probably we all do!” by Sam Kautzmann, Associate Pastor of Student Ministries at First Baptist Church in Minot, North Dakota USA
Thanks again for a year of inspiring, challenging and helpful posts, I really appreciate them.
Thinking over this post, I wondered if you would consider doing a series (say, once a month), on familiar but oft misquoted verses (mainly related to context), e.g. Jeremiah 29.11
Just a thought.
Thanks so much, Graeme!
I have been thinking along the lines of such an article; I have seen many useful treatments of the theme, and my personal rule is not to write up a thing until I’m sure I can add something new to the discussion, so right now it’s in the thought stage.
Many blessings, Gary