How do we know which parts of the Bible to follow? And how do we answer critics on this issue?
Christians are often criticized (and sometimes rightfully so), for cherry picking from the Bible and ignoring the difficult passages that embarrass us. Kind of like scandalous family members whom we’d rather not acknowledge or talk about. And why not, since they seem to provide so much ammunition for “popular” cynics like Bill Maher. Or more scholarly critics like Sam Harris, who writes,
We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God’s teachings on morality: “if a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
Responding to mocking cynics and genuine questioners
I don’t think critics like Maher or Harris desire any explanation. Their questions are rhetorical pot shots, not genuine attempts to understand.
For the sincere questioner, however, and even for our own sakes, Christians need to provide an answer.
Consider the following challenge I received from an anonymous online critic as an example:
“I’d like to hear you preach a sermon concerning the morality of this story and how we can apply it to modern life.”
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof (Genesis 19:6-8).
The gauntlet had been thrown down. How could I uphold the Bible as God’s righteous word, all the while knowing that it contains so much that’s morally repugnant and revolting?
Do Christians pick and choose Bible passages to follow?
Do we really pick and choose to obey some passages and not others? Or, to put the question another way, “How do we choose which teachings we’ll follow and which ones we won’t?”
Well, first we need to clarify that in fact we don’t “pick and choose” (or at least we shouldn’t). The historic and orthodox Christian belief about the Bible is reflected in Paul’s words:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,…” (2 Timothy 3:16)
So, to be clear, when others question us about living according to what the Bible teaches, our answer should be that we believe the whole Bible is God’s Word and we live according to all that it teaches. We must be quick to point out, however, that all parts of the Bible don’t all teach the same way.
Even a child can read “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and have a pretty good idea of what that implies. But much, if not most, of the Bible requires more than just reading it and doing what it says. Careful thought is required in determining what exactly it says, to whom it says it, what it means, what it teaches, and how or if it applies to us.
The process or technique in making such determinations is called “hermeneutics.”
Interpreting the Bible: Doing “hermeneutics”
While the word “hermeneutics” (pronounced “her-men-oo-tiks”) is unfamiliar to most, we all do “hermeneutics” every day without even realizing it. Without it, we could never communicate.
Simply put, hermeneutics means “method of interpretation.” In effect our hermeneutic acts like a “grid” or “filter” that all communication passes through, allowing us to correctly interpret the communication.
For example, the following headline appeared in an article encouraging parents to include children in household activities such as baking: “Include Your Children When Baking Cookies – Kids Make Nutritious Snacks.”
While this is a humorous double entendre, no one would seriously believe that the article suggests using children as baking ingredients. That’s because when we read newspapers or article headlines, we run them through an interpretive grid (a hermeneutic) that includes considering rules of language, grammar, literary genres, cultural norms and mores, etc.
How we develop these interpretive skills is a complex process that really takes a lifetime to fully develop. We use them almost without even knowing it and are rarely even aware that we’re doing so until we encounter another culture that is drastically different than our own. It’s these vast differences that lead to “culture shock” when people move to a new country and find themselves no longer familiar with the subconscious social cues of communication that we take for granted every day.
Interpreting the Bible: Cultural considerations
We must realize then that when reading the Bible we are entering another culture. The Bible wasn’t written in a vacuum, but within a particular culture at a particular time. God has communicated his unchanging and eternal word to us in human language with the expectation that we will be able to comprehend its message. His word doesn’t change, but the way human beings use and understand language does. Cultural differences and changes over time, therefore, need to be taken into account when interpreting Scripture.
A cultural example: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16)
We don’t practice kissing one another at my church. Does this mean we’re being disobedient to Scripture? My answer is “no,” and here’s why.
The context of Paul’s command is the proper fellowship among Christian churches of the 1st Century Mediterranean. The community of Christians was to reflect Christ’s command that “love for one another” be their highest priority (John 13:34). Within ancient Near East cultures, as with many eastern cultures today, kissing is used as a common and acceptable form of greeting among friends and family, even notably among men. Greeting with a kiss in this context, therefore, was meant to fulfill the unchanging principle of “showing love to one another”.
Now, in most North American social contexts, especially among men, it’s not culturally acceptable to kiss as a way of greeting one another. Most men in my circles would not feel loved by me if I walked up to them and gave them a kiss. They’d likely take offense.
Even more, with the realities of COVID-19, it would arguably be dangerous to literally enforce this command. So you see, while the unchanging truth that Christians ought to love one another remains, how it finds expression and application in our own cultural context has changed.
Interpreting the Bible: Understanding it as literature
Common sense, then, shows us that there’s more to obeying the Bible as God’s word than woodenly applying a verse or passage from the Bible onto our contemporary settings. Cultural considerations must be taken into account.
Another key element to biblical hermeneutics is understanding the Bible as literature. Yes, the Bible is God’s word, but its God’s word transmitted to us through human authors using literary styles and conventions particular to (among other things) their own personalities, historical contexts, cultural literary conventions, and theological objectives or emphases.
In short, the Bible is literature and should be treated accordingly when interpreting it. So, where the Bible includes poetry, we interpret it as poetry. Where the Bible uses narrative, we interpret it as narrative, etc.
Responding when challenged with an obscure Bible passage
Examining the larger story
Back to the challenge from my online critic at the start of the article and the passage from Genesis 19:6-8:
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
The challenge from him was, “How do you apply the morality of that text to modern life?”
My answer was and is, “You don’t” because there’s no moral lesson or ethical ideal being taught here. At least not in any direct sense. That was never the purpose or message of the text.
The story of Lot in Genesis 19 is a part of a much larger story about Abraham and God’s plan to establish a holy nation for himself amid a world full of wickedness. Lot’s actions and behaviours weren’t intended to teach ethical principles (i.e. how we should treat our daughters in similar situations). Rather, they merely confirm God’s judgment that Sodom and Gomorrah’s wickedness was beyond hope of redeeming. So much so, that even those ostensibly identified as “righteous” were incapable of modelling or even being an influence for righteousness in that place. No “seed” of righteousness could be “planted” in Sodom and Gomorrah that could offer hope to redeem that city from sin (see Abraham’s appeal to God in Genesis 18:16 and following). And in so confirming this discovery through his angelic messengers, God exacts his judgment and destroys the city while graciously sparing Lot for Abraham’s sake.
Considering God’s role in the story
Unfortunately my critic, like even so many Christians, assumed that this Bible story like others was about the human characters and the lessons we can learn from their lives (i.e. “Trust God even when things don’t make sense like Noah”, “Stand up to the ‘giants’ of life like David”, “Dare to be a Daniel”, etc.). This is rarely if ever the case; in fact, it’s usually the opposite.
What we find in the stories of Bible characters isn’t what we should be like, but what God is like, and how he graciously deals with and redeems sinful people, even sometimes leveraging their sin to accomplish his righteous purposes. As my Old Testament professor used to say, “God is the hero of every Bible story.”
What we learn from Lot in Genesis 19 is that while God is patient in giving people time to turn from their sin to him, there’s in fact a limit to his patience. He won’t contend with human wickedness forever. There’s a day of judgment that will come.
Helping a questioner to see what the Bible is actually saying doesn’t mean that they’ll, therefore, like what it’s saying. But if they choose to do so, it’s better that they reject the Bible for what it is teaching than for what it isn’t.
Responding with gentleness and respect
It’s not uncommon to get honest questions about the Bible from people who find it confusing and to whom it seems like Christians just pick and choose what they want to follow. We serve them and God best when we help alleviate their confusion by representing the Bible accurately. Even God’s own words must be accurately represented to be properly understood.
So what could you say?
Consider the following possible responses when dealing with objections to the Bible:
- “I’ll admit that many things in the Bible sound bizarre and even offensive to our 21st century ears. But wouldn’t it be fair to say that given that the Bible was written within an ancient and foreign culture to an audience who viewed the world much differently than we do, that there’s more involved in understanding the Bible’s message than just reading the “plain” words on the page? After all, if you moved to live in a foreign country, wouldn’t you expect to face some challenges in understanding the people and how they lived? Isn’t it reasonable, then, to expect the same of an ancient text written originally to an ancient and foreign people like the Bible is?”
- “Do you read a cookbook the same way you read a newspaper? How about reading your computer’s operating manual the way that you read poetry? Isn’t it true that we read different literature in different ways? Why then would we not expect to do the same with the Bible? Could it be that your confusion about passage ‘X’ is due to not understanding it in the light of its context, which includes what kind of literature it is, and what is happening in the text surrounding it?”
- “I have to admit that I’m still learning, too, how to understand all that God teaches in the Bible. It could be that your confusion or objection to this passage is due to not understanding what it’s really teaching. Would you be interested in learning together what this passage is really saying, and what God intends for us to learn from it?”
We should never judge people because they misunderstand or even misrepresent the Bible and then are critical of it. Let’s face it, even with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom he gives, Christians fail at understanding it all the time.
Instead, we should be honest to admit that we don’t know everything, but graciously offer the suggestion that confusions and misunderstandings can be greatly alleviated by taking the time to properly understand what the Bible says.
Then humbly suggest that this book that has indisputably shaped the course of world history may just have something very important to say to them, if they take the time to discover what it’s really saying. Offer yourself as a help and fellow student along the way.
Originally published Jun 6, 2013, updated Oct 21, 2020.