One of the things that I find very interesting is that when people find something in the Bible that they’re not very comfortable with, they usually won’t just come out and say, “I simply disagree with what the Bible has to say here.” Now for most people I think this has to do with their belief in the inspiration and authority of scripture. For others it has to do with cultural residue that, for some reason, still makes people want the Bible to be right on certain issues, especially when it comes to moral issues.
So when people encounter something in the Bible that they don’t like, they usually won’t say that the Bible is wrong; they will often try to come up with some very elaborate arguments to try to show that the Bible isn’t actually saying what people think it is saying. Sometimes this is done for apologetic reasons (i.e. to defend the Bible from its critics), which, by the way, is no excuse. At other times it’s because they have an agenda for something that they are trying to push for the church today. But very often it is simply because we have a hard time accepting that the Bible might actually disagree with some of the beliefs or values that we have today.
In this post, I want to deal with five common strategies that people often use to try to explain away passages in the Bible they don’t like. Now obviously I’m not recommending these strategies because I don’t think they usually lead to a credible readings of the biblical text. But the more we are aware of these strategies, the easier it will be to spot them and the less likely we will be to use them.
So here are the strategies:
Strategy #1 – Cast as much doubt as you possibly can on the meaning of key words in the text that you’re dealing with – even if the context or a little bit of research will make the meaning of the word clear.
Now it’s definitely true that there some cases in the Bible where we’re not entirely sure what a particular word or a particular phrase means. Usually it’s because the word or phrase only appears once or twice in the Bible and because it isn’t found in literature outside of the Bible.
And it’s definitely true that there have been some words that have been translated incorrectly in our English Bibles. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important for both biblical scholars and pastors to know the biblical languages and be familiar enough with linguistic theory to properly use them.
That being said, one of the main strategies that people use to undermine the traditional teaching of scripture is to cast serious doubt on the meaning of key words that are found in the passages they are dealing with. This is the case with תּוֹעֵבָה in Leviticus 18:22, ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12. The idea is that if you can cast enough doubt on what those words have been traditionally understood to mean, even if the alternatives that you come up with aren’t very convincing, then you can proceed to say that these passages don’t really teach what they seem to teach on the surface.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be a legitimate debate about what these words mean. But when you’ve seen this strategy used enough times – and it always happens to be by people who have a vested interest in the passage not meaning what it has traditionally been understood to mean – it’s pretty easy to see this strategy for what it really is. If we can’t lay aside our desire to have the text say what we want it to say, it’s going to be very difficult for us to give a credible reading of that text.
Strategy#2: Do some “background” research, construct a narrative based on that “background” research, and use that narrative to what the text actually says.
The reason why I use the word “background” in quotation marks is because very often the background material that people bring to the text is either not real (i.e. based on false information or the faulty interpretation of that information) or not very relevant to the text.
Let me just give two quick examples. First, it is sometimes said that Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be read in light of the worship of Artemis in the city of Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering when this letter was written. The problem with this is that even though this background material is real, it doesn’t seem to be very relevant for understanding 1 Timothy 2:12. Regardless of how we think 1 Timothy 2:12 should be applied today, the way that Paul words his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the instructions he gives about overseers in the following chapter make it seem as though this was his normal teaching regardless of what city he was referring to. An even more important consideration is this: Paul never mentions or even alludes to Artemis worship anywhere in this letter. When Paul mentions false teaching in Ephesus, his main concern seems to be with some form of proto-Gnosticism (1 Tim. 6:20-21), extreme asceticism (1 Tim. 4:1-8), and/or some kind of false teaching that had to do with Jewish law (1 Tim. 1:3-11). Regardless of what kind of false teaching lies in the background of 1 Timothy, which might not even be relevant for applying 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the worship of Artemis.
Another example – and this one is really controversial today – has to do with what Paul has to say about same-sex sexual practice in Romans 1:26-27. This is often explained today in terms of the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, temple prostitution, or the sexual exploitation of slaves. But what’s interesting about Romans 1:26-27 is that Paul’s concern doesn’t seem to be the age difference between the partners in the relationship; his concern doesn’t seem to be that this activity might be carried out in the context of idol worship, which doesn’t even seem to be on Paul’s radar despite the mention of idolatry in the previous verses; and his concern doesn’t seem to be with sexual exploitation, even though I’m sure he would say this is wrong as well. His problem seems to be that he doesn’t think that men should be having sexual relationships with other men, which makes sense given Paul’s Jewish background. What Paul has to say about lesbian sexual relationships in 1:26 would seem to confirm this but this can be left for another time.
The point is this: when we use “background” material to help us interpret the text, that background material needs to be both real and relevant. There needs to be very strong reasons in the text itself to show that this background material really is relevant. We also need to make sure that we don’t use “background” material to overrule what the text seems to be saying when taken on its own terms. We can disagree with what Paul had to say (obviously not if you believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture) – but we shouldn’t make him say something he never meant to say.
Strategy #3 – Blame the Greeks.
This is something that happens quite a bit. Simply blame the Greeks. The idea here is that there are certain elements of traditional Christian theology that can’t be found in the Bible but are actually based on the influence of Greek philosophy, which seeped into Christian theology in the formative centuries of early Christianity.
Let me just give one example. People who believe in conditional immortality will often argue that the idea of an eternal hell is based on the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul rather than on categories that can actually be found in the Bible. If we want to understand what the Bible has to say on this issue, according to them, we need to get rid of any influence from Greek philosophy and read the Bible on its own terms.
While this sounds very good in principle, in many cases it simply doesn’t work. Now, of course, we do need to accept the possibility that some of the things we believe as Christians or the way we formulate things theologically are due more to the categories of Greek philosophy than the Bible, but saying so doesn’t always make it the case. Going back to the example of conditional immortality, if the Bible actually does teach something similar to the immortality of the soul, which I think is a priori likely given both Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs about the afterlife (I also think it is found in the Bible too!), then it doesn’t matter if some of the early theologians of the church were influenced by the ideas or language of Greek philosophy that fell along the same lines. When early theologians went too far in this regard, like Origen’s beliefs about the eternality of the soul and the descent of souls, it was very often filtered out by the tradition, which itself was ruled and guided by the categories of scriptures.
So if we’re going to blame the Greeks for something we see in scripture, we need to make sure that it isn’t simply the case that the Greeks sometimes agreed with scripture.
Strategy #4 – Find another passage that, in reality, could easily be harmonized with the teaching you are trying to undermine but use it to overthrow the clear teaching of passages you don’t like.
One of the best examples of this is when people use 1 John 4:8, which says that God is love, to cancel out any passage that, for them, seems incompatible with saying that God is love.
Another example is when people use Galatians 3:28, which says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (NIV) to overthrow everything else that Paul has to say about gender. Sticking with this last example, it is interesting to note that the same Paul who said that there is neither slave nor free in Galatians 3:28 also told Christian slaves to obey their masters and never told Christian masters to set their slaves free: clearly he didn’t think that being “one in Christ” erased these distinctions. We can deal with the issue of Paul’s attitude toward slavery in another post.
I even heard one theologian say on a program on the BBC that Matthew 7:21 teaches that people will be judged exclusively by the good they do in this world and that what they believe about Jesus will have zero relevance on the Day of Judgment. Now that clearly doesn’t match up with the overall teaching of scripture and, I would argue, doesn’t match up with the theology of Matthew either.
I could give many more examples. The problem in each of these cases is that the interpreter is drawing conclusions from these verses that the authors themselves would not have drawn and, in some cases, that go against what the author explicitly teaches elsewhere. We can’t simply pick and choose the passages that we like, draw whatever conclusions we want from them, and then use them to overthrow what the Bible teaches in other passages of scripture.
Strategy #5 – Find as many reasons as you possibly can for why the text doesn’t mean what people usually think it means – even if those reasons aren’t compatible with each other.
I’ve seen this one quite a bit. Simply list as many arguments as you possibly can, even if these arguments are mutually incompatible, and try to overwhelm people with the amount of arguments you can find. Chances are most people won’t even realize that these arguments are mutually incompatible anyway – but who cares because the whole point is to win the argument, right?
Let me just give one example. In one blog post I reviewed awhile back, they said that in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul was only giving a temporary injunction against women teaching and having authority over men in the church. But in that same post they also said that the word that is normally translated as “have authority” or something along those lines really means “to domineer” with violent overtones. So which one is it? Is Paul only giving a temporary injunction against women domineering men in a violent way? Will that somehow be acceptable in the future? Both arguments can’t be right and it is very misleading to present these arguments as though they can actually work together.
Well, our main goal when it comes to interpreting a text shouldn’t be to win an argument. The main point should be to be honest with the text and to be honest with the evidence. We should be honest enough to point out when the arguments we are using are incompatible with each other so that we won’t give the false impression that there are ten cumulative arguments in favour of our position rather than maybe one or two. Pick the argument you think is right and then stick with it. But don’t present arguments that are incompatible with each other and make it seem like they help your case.
In the end, regardless of what theological position we come from and regardless of where we might want to come out on certain issues, we need to be honest with what the text says. If we have to do some kind of crazy interpretive gymnastics to get out of what the text seems to be saying, we might need to consider the possibility that the text is actually saying exactly what we think it is saying. And if at the end of the day we don’t agree with what the text says, we should have the courage to say that we don’t agree with it, rather than trying to make the text say something that it doesn’t.
But if we do believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture, we need to have the kind of attitude that is reflected in Isaiah 66:2b. In Isaiah 66:2b, God says:
Isaiah 66:2b – This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (NIV)
This is the kind of attitude we need to have when it comes to scripture, especially if we find something in it that we might naturally want to disagree with. We shouldn’t be trying to find loopholes or use whatever strategy we can find to try to get out of what the Bible is saying. When we’ve done all of our hard work in interpreting the text and we’re convinced that we understand the Bible’s final teaching on a subject, we need to make sure that we listen to what it says. And that begins with being honest with the text.
Mark Steven Francois