Theology

not every verse in the Bible is about you

bible

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

If your religious experience was anything like mine, you might have had this verse memorized since the time you were about six years old. Verses like “And you know you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of human hearts” were used to encourage fundamentalist and evangelical children to memorize as much Scripture as possible. You might have even gone to something like AWANAS, were you were rewarded with fake money and tiny plastic toys for every page of verses you could memorize.

The idea was that the more Scripture we had “written on our hearts,” the more easily we would be able to stand up to the wiles of the devil. After all, that’s how Jesus defeated the temptations he faced in the wilderness– he quoted Bible verses at Satan. It was all tied back to II Timothy 3:16– all Scripture is profitable. None of his words can return void. We couldn’t predict how these verses would protect us, or how we could eventually use them, but it was just a good idea to be prepared.

But, one of the results of this idea– that all Scripture is profitable– is that every single last verse in the Bible can be specifically applied to the circumstances of my life. I’ve owned Bibles that had lists of Bible verses for every occasion, divided up by category. I’ve heard preachers shout from the pulpit, over and over again, the words rumbling in the ceiling rafters, that “if my people who are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray…then I will hear from heaven, and forgive their sin, and heal their land,” and we never talked about how that verse shows up in the middle of II Chronicles and it might not apply to America becoming a theocracy. No, all Scripture is profitable.

Yesterday, Tamara left a comment highlighting this, and it’s what got me started thinking about this idea again:

I saw you speaking of two lies that get fed in too many faith circles here:

2) Every passage of Scripture has an easy application for the average person. (I don’t know why that stood out to me, but when you said the pastor made that passage about a crazy, abusive evil person to be about “problem people” it just made me shudder. Not every passage needs a quick and easy application.)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the middle of a two-year theology program. I’m almost finished with it, actually (although, I’m going to need your thoughts and prayers this Sunday, as we’re covering Egalitarianism in the lesson for our course on “Humanity & Sin,” and the video teachers have had “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Waye Grudem” up on the board all past seven lessons). The course has had its ups and downs (obviously), but if nothing else it’s given me to the tools to go do more research on my own. One of the classes was “Bibliology and Hermeneutics,” and  one of the things they emphasizes was how vitally important it is to keep context and genre in mind, and make sure that we’re not forcing something that isn’t about us to be about us.

One of the more frustrating examples, in my opinion, is the homeschool and “fundiegelical” (<–new favorite word) reference to “The Joshua Generation,” their word for millennials. Our parents were Aaron and Moses, leaving the “Egypt” of the God-forsaken public school, and now my generation– the first crop of adult homeschoolers– was supposed to go out and “take back America for Jesus.” It hasn’t worked out in quite the way they expected. But it was an idea that I grew up believing in– I was supposed to be like Joshua.

Except… Joshua was a violent warlord who conquered Palestine one bloody battle after another. Making his story of death and destruction some sort of noble narrative about getting involved in right-wing politics doesn’t quite fit.

But I see this happen pretty often in evangelicalism. We reduce many of the stories in the Old and New Testaments into metaphors and metanarratives that we’re supposed to somehow directly apply to our lives. And, in a way, that isn’t entirely wrong. Stories are there for us to learn from them. But the way it typically gets handled in evangelical contexts is to ignore where the story belongs, how the story is told, and to many times ignore why the story was recorded in the first place. We frequently bend and twist these Bible stories to fit into American evangelicalism and our political and religious ideals that have more to do with being Republican than they do with being a Christian.

I don’t think the Bible works that way, and forcing it to be all about us, “us” being conservative American evangelicals– I think it’s doing incredible damage to the value of Scripture and its ability to work in people’s lives in an organic way. When we insist that individual verses must have a specific application in a modern setting, that Romans 1 must be about LGBTQ people when Paul had absolutely zero examples of what gay and lesbian relationships look like today… we narrow the Bible. We limit it.

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  • So much yes.

    But try suggesting any of this. The entirety of fundamentalist theology is rooted in the way they view Scripture. They claim that anyone that reads the Bible differently is a heretic/sinner/Satan, then they cement their beliefs to the Bible. Changing their beliefs means changing the way they read the Bible and they’re not going to do that.

    I’ve had people completely convinced that the church’s treatment of and approach to LGBTQ people is wrong. And then they end with “But I just have to believe what the Bible says.” Convincing them that the Bible doesn’t actually say what they think it does is impossible because that would shatter their entire belief structure (that’s happened to me). They’re so fixated on being “right” and “certain” about their beliefs.

    And not reading the Bible their way is equated with not believing the Bible at all. And if you don’t believe the Bible, that makes you inferior to them and not worth listening.

    This shit is frustrating.

    • Lindsey

      Jason,

      “They claim that anyone that reads the Bible differently is a heretic/sinner/Satan, then they cement their beliefs to the Bible. Changing their beliefs means changing the way they read the Bible and they’re not going to do that.”

      Yes! It is so frustrating! You have expressed the reality of talking with people who hold these beliefs. My family is like this and sharing with them seems circular and futile. But I used to be that way so I know it is possible to change. Coming to the realization that reading the Bible in context didn’t make me evil, lazy, looking for an easy route, succumbing to liberal ideals (oh no!), etc…it was surprisingly difficult.

      Thank you for sharing!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        “They claim that anyone that reads the Bible differently is a heretic/sinner/Satan, then they cement their beliefs to the Bible.”

        Has anyone heard about Reconstructionist/Theonomy guru types who are claiming that in the Future Christian Nation, Christians(TM) have the God-given right to Enslave the Heathen?
        1) Combine the two above statements. Anyone who reads the Bible differently is the definition of Heathen and/or Heretic.
        2) Said Theonomy gurus also speak of drawing up “200-year plans” for Believers’ descendants including “estates” and “house servants”. Estates/plantations require cheap labor.

        • I found out about this movement via links which started with an internet article about Kirk Cameron. Apparently this movement is for real. Those in it follow OT laws, such as not eating pork. Very bizarre.

  • peddiebill

    It may also help to remember that the word Bible refers to a library of writings written for all sorts of purposes and addressed to all sorts of people. Some of it is clearly contrary to the teachings we attribute to Jesus – so just because it is written it doesn’t make it helpful to we who live in a different world. If this were not the case I suspect that many people would be stoned to death every day for their so called sins against the law eg eating shellfish or bacon, getting their sideboards trimmed, working on the Sabbath and eating with Egyptians.

  • You know what has always bothered me about that “all scripture verse” is that Paul was writing a letter referencing what he knew as scripture which would have been the Old Testament. None of the New Testament writers knew that they were writing scripture or that the Bible would be canonized in the way it is.
    It is like when people quote the verse in Revelations about not adding to or taking away from “this book”. John was not talking about the canonized bible which did not exist…he was talking about the book he was writing – the Revelation.
    Not only does not everything apply, but not every Bible character is an example of good and none of the verses about Israel apply to America. I have so many pet peeves in this area. But the “if my people” is by far the most annoying.

    Great post

  • In my ordination vows, I stated that, “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”

    I did NOT state that all Scripture is necessary to salvation.

    Context is important. Location is important. Words change meaning. Interpretations vary. The Bible, at its core, is (as one person said) a love story; and we do it and ourselves a great disservice if we use that love story as nothing more than a rules book.

    I don’t think the Bible works that way, and forcing it to be all about us … we narrow the Bible. We limit it.

    One way to combat this “all about us” reading is to read the Bible as “all about them.” Because it looks a lot different if we treat the Others in our lives like we think God wants to treat us.

  • I agree with chialphagirl: that verse “if my people will humble themselves…” was written to the Israelites at a specific time in its history. To extrapolate it to mean America makes me nutty. Oh, and the verse says “All Scripture” not “only Scripture.” Sacred Tradition has also been a vehicle by which God communicates with us. After all, the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible…we infer it by reading the Bible in context. This “Bible alone” way of thinking is destructive, IMHO.

  • Yep

  • I have been thinking along these lines for a few years now. My childhood too was filled with this idea of the Bible primarily as a sourcebook for theonomy, and the idea that growing in faith was simply a process of teasing out more rules to follow – or to use to look down on others who did not follow those newly discovered rules.

    I very much agree with Jason above that it isn’t just about what the Bible says, but very detailed and specific interpretations and implementations of the words of the Bible. As I learned in law school, when someone says “clearly” he is either simply clearing his throat, or hoping that no one notices that the thing isn’t clear at all.

    • Funny! That’s why I love the law. Words definitely have meaning, and lawyers can parse all day long!

  • Alice

    I remember one time in my youth group days, the leader split us into small groups, and gave each group random chapters of a narrative book of the Bible (I think 1 Samuel?)
    and we had to explain how that chapter applied to our lives.

    As you can imagine, we had to be very “creative.” Even back then as a sheltered fundiegelical kid, I was thinking “This is nuts. We are completely making this crap up.”

  • Tim

    Heh, this blog post is so true. Not only is “not every verse in the bible about you”; not every verse in the bible is about anyone alive today. We would do well to remember this!

  • I was taught to read the Bible specifically in this way. I mean, not exactly, but I can remember specifically pushing past texts which should have been problematic by asking what lesson does this hold for me? or what does God intend to teach me through this story?
    I’d read about a man and his family getting stoned to death for stealing some plunder from Jericho, and I’d find a lesson about God’s righteousness and holiness. I’d read about Joshua attacking cities, and find a lesson about listening to God in every situation. I’d read about horrible things and try to put some kind of spin on things. Because, after all, All Scripture Is Useful.
    I actually question that very concept now. I have begun to think that maybe all scripture is not useful. Some stories don’t help me grow, don’t apply to my faith walk. Some stores in the Bible are just there. I’ve also entertained the thought that, what if, just maybe, some of these stories don’t have some good in them under the bad? What if they are just as bad as they appear on the surface? And that has made a profound difference in how I think about the Bible.