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How to Explain Away the Bible

1.Explain that the passage is to be taken figuratively, not literally.

Obvious: “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 18:9)

Less Obvious: “If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)

2.Explain that the passage is to be taken in a relative sense, not an absolute sense. We should relate the passage to our own times without taking it exactly as it is written.

Obvious: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but. . . with good works.” (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart.” (1 Peter 3:3)

Less Obvious: “Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” (Titus 2:4-5)

3.Explain that the passage applies to a first-century historical situation rather than for all time.

Obvious: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:27)

“Abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols.” (Acts 15:29)

Less Obvious: “The women should keep silent in the churches. . . For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 11:34-35)

4.Explain that the passage pertains to the old covenant at Sinai rather than to the new covenant at Calvary.

Obvious: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths.” (Deuteronomy 16:16)

“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 21:12)

Less Obvious: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord.” (Leviticus 27:30)

5.Explain that the passage pertains to one individual or group rather than to everyone for all time.

Obvious: “Use a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” (Luke 10:19)

Less Obvious: “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22)

6.Explain that the passage applies to individuals but not to societies or to governments.

Obvious: “I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” (Matthew 5:39)

Less obvious: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20)

7.Explain that what is commanded has been superceded by another command or principle.

Obvious: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” (Matthew 10:5)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ. . .” (Ephesians 6:5)

Less Obvious: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church. . .” (Ephesians 5:22)

8.Explain that what is referred to is a miraculous gift no longer available to Christians today.

Obvious: “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them.” (Mark 16:18)

Less Obvious: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)

“The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. . . . Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:15-16)

9.Explain that the command is an ideal to be taken seriously but not a firm obligation to be taken literally.

Obvious: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)

“Give to whomever begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)

“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.” (Luke 12:33)

Less Obvious: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other. . .” (Romans 13:8)

10.Explain that the passage reflects the cultural standards and practices of the ancient Jewish or Roman world and therefore does not specifically apply to our culture today.

Obvious: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Romans 16:16)

“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14)

“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.” (1 Corinthians 11:5)

Less Obvious: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

Conclusion: One basic reason there are so many divisions in Christianity is that some religious groups explain away more scriptures than others do. Furthermore, even within certain churches, some members are willing to explain away the “obvious” but not the “less obvious.”

As the church historian Everett Ferguson has written, explaining away scripture “leaves our theology or our interpretation as the authority, not the words of scripture.” He further warns that, “The text itself is our authority, not our reconstruction of the context” (Women in the Church. Yeomen Press, 2003, pp. 39-40).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to understand the meaning of many texts without choosing either a literal or figurative reading. Our task is to read the scriptures as intelligently as possible using logic, reason, knowledge, and understanding. Sometimes this amounts to “reconstructing” the text using linguistic, literary, cultural, and historical insights in order to clarify what the text actually meant to its original readers.

Beyond that, however, lies the question of what significance certain biblical texts have for us today. Sometimes it is difficult to obey commands that seem arbitrary or anachronistic. Are we to live and worship exactly as Christians did in the first century or do we have some latitude? What we choose to ignore or retain about first-century Christian faith and practice will have profound implications for our Christianity.

Whatever the case, whenever we study the Bible, we would be wise to begin by reading each text literally, as if for the very first time, so that we feel the full force of its words. Only after meditating on the literal meaning of a text should we ever proceed to explain it away, domesticate it, discount it, or allow it to lose the power to amaze, disturb, and convict us.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 26, 2007 11:50 AM.

The previous post in this blog was The Wisdom of the New Testament.

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