August 28, 2016.
Today I am posting on something that I have actually been thinking about for a while, but it has the potential to step on some toes, so I have been somewhat avoiding the topic. However, I am going to try to approach the topic in a way that is humble and gentle, and I ask for your grace if I am unsuccessful in this. I do think this is an important topic to talk about, as we fall into this trap all too often. I fully include myself when I say that, as I have said each of these things that we are going to contemplate for the next few minutes more than once when discussing the bible. We aren’t going to be as textually focused today as we are in my typical posts, but rather we are going to think about how we talk and think about the bible.
Over the years, I have had a good share of biblical discussions. I have found that we, particularly those in my fellowship, use certain phrases or ideas when we are trying to persuade (or in worse contexts, win arguments) others of our way of thinking about the bible. Much of this rhetoric, I fear, comes from a mindset of assuming that our own interpretations and those that have been handed down to us over the years are absolutely correct. Let’s face it- most, if not all, of those who claim to be biblical students believe that we are right about what the bible says. Or at least we believe that we are right with God in whatever we are doing. Often our own pride can get in the way of seeing truth, for we think that we already see the truth (cf. John 9). In this mindset, it is easy to fall into using the rhetoric that we will discuss below without any basis for doing so. Sometimes I fear that we have begun to worship our own rhetoric more than we worship God by learning from His word.
What do I mean by this? There are several phrases/concepts that I have heard (and said) time and again over the years that are aimed to make our argument so much stronger, but in reality, they have little meaning. However, since we can be blind to our own blindness, the phrases/concepts make us feel better and sound smarter. But they actually do nothing for our argument, nor for our understanding of scripture. I am going to try to highlight what I think this rhetoric is by using five phrases that I think exemplify what is too often our way of approaching biblical discussion, and how we can avoid saying things that are meaningless in terms of truth. I hope you stick with me to the end, and take an honest look inside to see if you have used any of this rhetoric to win an argument. I know that I have. It’s time for introspection.
1. “The bible clearly says…”
This phrase has become on of my biggest pet peeves. I actually hear this one all the time, and have admittedly used it myself. When we are making a point, or trying to win an argument, this is one of the first pieces of rhetoric we use. “Well, the bible clearly says [insert thing that I know I am right about].” Too often, however, the bible actually doesn’t clearly say what we are trying say it does.
Think about it, if the bible truly did clearly say what you are claiming it does, why would you be having the argument in the first place? Sure, some will argue with the bible and simply dismiss what it has to say out right, but I would venture to guess that that’s not the majority of people who hold a high view of scripture.
I’ve heard this phrase used too much in the place of biblical evidence. It’s almost goes like this: If I don’t actually much biblical proof of what I am trying to say, then I just need to say “the bible clearly says…” This ought not to be so.
I was going to give examples of phrases that I have heard in the past, but I decided that they would distract from my overall point because they could be points of contention. If you would like to know some examples of what I’m talking about, then we can discuss it one on one.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are things that the bible does in fact clearly say. I’m not saying that this phrase is even inherently bad. The bible does clearly say that Jesus is the Son of God. The bible does clearly say that murder is a sin. The bible does clearly say “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If the bible does clearly say something, then use the phrase. But don’t use an empty phrase.
How can we avoid this? Always have the biblical references to back up the statement. If you say “the bible clearly says,” then simply show me where the bible clearly says. If you can’t point to a verse, then you probably shouldn’t use the phrase.
2. “There are many examples…”
This phrase is similar to the rhetoric in point one, but it often has a little more basis. Not that it is better than the first, but at least this phrase is not often used without biblical evidence. Often when we see one or two examples of something, we try to enhance our argument by saying, “There are so many examples of [insert thing that really I only have one or two examples of]…” One or two examples does not warrant ‘many’. That’s not to say that one or two examples of something can’t teach us a lesson. It certainly can. But when we are using this phrase, it is typically because the more examples of something we have, the stronger our argument becomes (and consequently, the fewer examples of something, the less our argument becomes).
Again, let me say that I do believe that we can learn from just one or two examples of something. However, we need to be careful not to blow it out of proportion, especially when there are more examples of the opposite (see last point). If we are going to be serious students of the bible, then we need to be honest with ourselves, our positions, and our arguments.
Avoiding this one is pretty simple. Instead of saying there are plenty of examples, just cite the examples. Use words like “several”, “some” or a “few” if appropriate. If you do believe you have sufficient examples to warrant ‘many’, reference them. This indeed takes a bit more work, but we cannot afford to be lazy when we are searching for the truth.
3. “The word in Hebrew/Greek…”
This one isn’t used quite as often, but it can be just as detrimental. Again, I think I have used this kind of rhetoric selectively, only pulling it out when it backs up my point. But the fact of the matter is, most of us do not speak Hebrew or Greek. Thus, whenever we try to make an argument from the Hebrew or Greek, we really have no credentials to base our argument on. And often we are completely wrong.
This is again where I have to make my disclaimer. It is not wrong to study the Hebrew/Greek of the original passage. I have a huge respect for those who dedicate their lives to this study so that we can read the bible in our own language. However, if we haven’t spent our lives studying it, then we probably don’t know what we are talking about. Further, if we have just taken a few semesters of Hebrew/Greek at a bible college, then we probably know just enough to make ourselves look very foolish.
The thing is with languages, you really need to know a language fully to understand its nuances and true meaning. The english translations we have are not simple word for word translations. If I were to translate the Spanish phrase “hace frío” into english word for word, it would say “it does cold.” But what the phrase means is “It’s cold.” But think about the errors I could make if this was a passage that I was trying to interpret. “Yes, in the english translation, this is a passive statement, saying that the weather was cold. But if you look at the original language [in this case, Spanish], then we find that the word for ‘it is’ actually originally meant ‘it does.’ Thus, we should conclude that someone was actively making the weather cold.” Perhaps this isn’t the best example, but I think you get my point.
So, how can we use Hebrew/Greek? I do believe that studying the original languages to see what a text truly means can be very beneficial at times. But when we do, we should always cite someone who actually knows what they are talking about (aka, someone who speaks Greek/Hebrew fluently and has done much study in the languages), showing the logic and credentials behind the argument. If we don’t have that, well I would say that we would do well to trust our English translations. They aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good for the most part.
4. “Scholars say say/agree….”
This one is similar to the last one, but it is even broader. I have heard this phrase in biblical discussions to back up this point or to refute another. There are several problems that can be associated with this phrase.
First, sometimes when this phrase is used, there has been little to no research done to back up the phrase, similar to point one. We might remember something we heard someone say once or read somewhere claiming that this is what scholars say on the matter, but we did no research to find the literature or scholars that actually make the claim. Again, we cannot afford to be lazy.
Secondly, and this point will be short, scholars hardly ever fully agree on anything. Which leads well into the next point.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to really gauge how much importance we place on a scholar’s statement. Don’t get me wrong, scholarly work has done wonders for biblical understanding and teaching, and I think it can be very useful. However, when it comes to a controversial issue, typically I can line up just as many scholars on one side of the issue as you can line up on the other. Or at the very least, there is almost always scholars on both sides of an issue, even when there is a consensus. There comes a point in time where we have to make our own decision about what a passage says, based on the evidence we see, not if there are more scholars on our side or not.
Perhaps I’m a bit biased on this issue since I spend my time in the peer-reviewed scientific literature in graduate school. However, I believe that if we are going to use this phrase, then we need to back it up with the article or reference from which we obtained the thing we are trying to say. If scholars do agree, show me. If there has been deep study done on the issue, give me the article. If there is evidence for your position, please lead me through the logic instead of simply appealing to the scholar. If you can’t produce the original source, you probably shouldn’t use the phrase.
5. Missing context, culture or the full picture.
Finally, I’ll end with our tendency to cherry pick. Though it’s not necessarily rhetoric, we all do this. And we all get mad at other people for doing this. We tend to pull out verses that seem to fit our argument well and ignore the context. Or worse, fit the context into what we are trying to argue. I see this done all the time with the Old Testament. People from all different backgrounds pick verses out of the Old Testament and use them in ways that they were never meant to be used. We do this because we read the bible though our own cultural lense. It’s only natural- that’s all we naturally know. But the bible was not written in our culture or our time. It was not written with our ideas or knowledge. Often, the context and setting, especially in the Old Testament, is completely foreign to us.
Further, we also tend to have selective memory, or only highly one side of an issue. The most obvious example I can think of for this is when someone says “The wrath of God is very evident in the Old Testament.” Whereas this may be true, it leaves out the bigger picture. The love and mercy of God is also very evident in the Old Testament (read the book of Hosea to see both the wrath and love of God). It also implies that the New Testament is without its share of the wrath of God, which is untrue (see Acts 5 and the end of Acts 12 for examples). But sometimes we conveniently forget all the instances that show the opposite of the point we are making.
This one is probably the hardest to avoid, because it takes the most study. We need to make sure that the context of any passage we are using actually fits the context we are using it for, at least in a general sense. If nothing else, if the context doesn’t exactly fit the point we are making, we need to make this point clear so we give full disclosure to our audience. As a rule of thumb, if you are just referencing a string of verses, one or two verses each, you are in danger of using verses out of context. I used to do this all the time, but I have tried to really counter this in my teaching now, using full passages (and consequently less passages) to make points. Yes, sometimes it is okay to reference single verses- if and only if you can show that they fit in context. Really, we should give our audience as much information as they need to make a truly objective decision about our argument.
I believe I will stop there for now. Certainly these are not the only rhetorical devices that we employ to falsely enhance our arguments. However, I think these are a good place to start for honest introspection. Our search for truth cannot be hindered because of our need to be right on an issue, or by our spiritual blindness and stubbornness. Let us always seek to find truth and evaluate/reevaluate our positions, for we are fallible human beings. Let us be open to hearing what others have to say about an issue, and truly evaluate their claims based on evidence and reasoning. I guarantee you that you are wrong about something biblical right now. I guarantee you that I am wrong about something biblical right now. That is why there is always room for growth. Blessed are those who are ever growing in faith and understanding.
It is important to seek truth on the issues. But that is a lifelong journey. We will change our ideas about certain issues as we mature. What’s more important than knowing the exact truth on every issue is having a relationship with the one who is called the Truth and the Life.
May we ever seek wisdom from Him.
Suggested Reading: Matthew 23, John 9, I Corinthians 2, James 1.
Grace and peace.