Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Are We Reading the Bible Too Narrowly or Not Narrowly Enough?

You might think that those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God would interpret it pretty much the same way. After all, believing, as we do, that the Bible does not contradict itself (a corollary of the truth stated in the first sentence) severely limits how one can interpret most passages. You may be led to a pacifist position regarding warfare by reading the commandment "You shall not kill (murder)", but you should be dissuaded from that interpretation by considering the fact that God actually commanded the Israelites to go to war at various times and authorized the death penalty for a wide variety of offenses against His Law.

So there are limits as to how far we Bible-believing Christians ought go in our explanations of Bible passages. But that hardly stops us from disagreeing about practically any Bible verse. We all have different approaches as to how we interpret the Bible, and one way in which we differ is in how narrowly or broadly we apply certain truths.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the well-known passage in Philippians 4:13 which reads, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." It is usually taken to mean that Jesus Christ will give us strength and ability for whatever task we have in front of us. If we have to do something that seems beyond our normal capability, God will gives the strength and power to do it, especially if God has called us to do that very thing.

There are some, though, that disagree with this view of what Paul is saying here. They argue that this verse of scripture does not mean that at all. Rather they think that the above view takes the verse out of context and gives it a meaning that the context does not support. And I partially agree. Here is the part that I agree with: The text in its context says:

"Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."

In other words, Paul is not talking about God giving him the ability to do something that he is called to do by Him. Instead, he is saying that God has given him the ability to be either in a state of prosperity or in a state of need. It has to do with his material condition, not anything else. Paul could handle life when his needs were not met and he could handle life when things were going great.

Those who say this, who read the passage in its narrowest sense, have a good point here. By simply quoting verse 13 we are lifting the verse out of context and applying well beyond that context. It seems to take on a different meaning.

That's a pretty fair point. We always must be careful to interpret things in their context. Take a simple example. A man pushes an old woman, knocking her to the ground. Another man does the same thing. Are these bad men? Before we can say for sure, we must consider the context. The first man pushed an old woman off a bus. He is a bad man. The second pushed an old woman out of the way of a bus that was going to hit her. He is a good man. We must consider the context to judge what has happened.

Let's get back to our disagreement about the Bible passage. Is it right to take Philippians 4:13 and apply it to all kinds of situations that were not referred to in the rest of the passage? Many would say that we should not. We should only apply the verse to a person's material circumstances. This would be the narrowest reading of the text.

And we must take the passage in its context to determine its meaning. After all, if one lifts the verse out of context and applies it absolutely, it could be meant to say about anything. What if I quoted this verse and said that I was now going to leap over the Empire State Building because Christ will give my strength for ANYTHING. You would be right to say that I have interpreted the passage far beyond the original intention of the author. That is taking this scripture way too broadly.

My take: I do not want to take Bible passages out of context and make them mean something that was not intended. But this does not mean that I will only apply them exactly the way that the author of the passage does. We must always remember that there is a divine author above the human author and a divine intention above the human intention.

Despite my assertion that we must interpret scripture in its context and not isolated from the verses around it, I also know that God is the author of the whole Bible and He has put principles in the Bible that we can use that may go beyond the immediate context. This is especially true when there are other scriptures that back up our application of a principle beyond the context.

So I do not have a problem with using the principle of Phil 4:13 "I can do all things through Christ" and applying it to things like God helping us in difficult circumstances of different kinds and God giving us the ability to do the things that He has called us to do. I think that is legitimate. There is an abundance of evidence in the Bible that God does give His people strength and ability for whatever they are called to do.

So - we do not want to be too narrow in our reading of the Bible, though we must understand the context of the passage. We do not want to absolutize it and make it say something way beyond the Bible. We can apply the principles of the Bible in the context of the whole Bible and not just the immediate context.