5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Say Anything About the Bible

Op-Ed for Thursday, December 11 (’14)


Everybody has an opinion on the Bible.  Before you say anything about the Bible, however, you should ask yourself these five questions.  Doing so will ensure you don’t look like an idiot (at best) or (at worst) deeply dishonor God by misrepresenting what he says in print.  I stress the “in print” because it’s not like we’re playing that kids’ game “telephone” where you whisper in someone’s ear, they do the same, and after 100 kids do this, what you end up with is bizarre and nonsensical.  If it’s in print, there is a reasonable expectation of certainty and meaning.

These five questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are meant to be basic.  The kind of basic that is so easy, a caveman could do it (Yikes!  I just got in trouble with Ken Ham!).

Ken Ham

Asking the questions over time will create a habit of thought which will cause you to not look like an idiot or misrepresent and dishonor God.  With you now appropriately convinced (right?), here you go:

Five Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before You Say Anything About the Bible

1) Is what I'm saying actually in the Bible?

I know.  It seems so obvious.

But you have no idea (or maybe you do).  I’m a pastor’s son and have listened to many conversations about personal “journeys” and theological debates, some with high-profile, internationally known theologians and pastors.  I’ve taken more seminary classes than most seminarians (going on ten years of classes….).  I use Hebrew and Greek in my typical Bible study.  I say all this not to brag or hold myself on a pedestal (seriously), but simply to point out you may not realize how often people say something is in the Bible when I know quite certainly it is not, or use a biblical text in a way that destroys its meaning.  Biblical inaccuracy is a plague upon good Christians.  The only cure is the pure spiritual milk of the word (cf. 1 Pet 2:2).

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Since my full-time job is working in a local church with all sorts of people—some far more mature than I and some far less—I hear this kind of thing all the time at “home” and in other churches.  Where there’s people, there’s intellectual vice and confusion masquerading as heart-felt wisdom.  Most often, at least, they do mean well. 

Nowadays in the United States, people like Matthew Vines are continually claiming the Bible does not condemn monogamous homosexual love but does condemn homosexual looseness or fornication.  I won’t touch that here, but I will point to Robert Gagnon’s work which brilliantly refutes every opinion I’ve ever read or heard that makes a Vines-like claim (Gagnon’s website where he frequently posts on this subject and Gagnon at the bookstore where you can pour over his painstakingly careful arguments).  In short, what they say is in the Bible really.  is.  not. 

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Joking aside, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Strive for truth.

Now, there are some—a precious few—who refute “scholars” who claim the “Bible’s OK with Gay!” even while agreeing that being gay is OK.  What makes these so remarkable is they are unbelievers or, with some, believers who know the Bible condemns homosexuality.  They just don’t care and admit it.  They have a higher authority than the Bible by which they judge homosexuality is right.  I deeply value such intellectual honesty even while rejecting their decision, for it refuses to make the Bible claim what the Bible does not claim.

Don’t make this mistake.  At least start out with this thought, “Hmm.  I’m about to say something about the Bible.  Do I know—with absolute certainty—this is even in there?”  If you’re not sure if you know or not, or just kind of think you remember it being in there, ask yourself this followup:

2) Can I point to a specific verse for proof?

If you can’t, you have two options.  First, you can choose to say what you think anyway, no caveats.  Unfortunately, this will make you look stupid if the internet Facebook debate you’re in person you’re talking to knows it ain’t in the Good Book or if they ask you, “Where’s that in the Bible?”  Uh-Oh!  Zing!  You’re caught.  You’ll have to fall back in full retreat, looking stupid, or double-down only to have them press full-court and…oops again, now you look like an idiot.

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#1 and 2 are so closely related I thought about making them one question, but we all need the reminder.  So there.

3) Am I confusing personal experience with God?  

Are you?  Do you?  Do you confuse that quiet, internal “peace” with God giving you peace?  Because they’re not the same.  Plenty of sin happened when people were at peace.  Pragmatism, too, is not God.  Just because something works doesn’t mean it came from God or that God approves.

Time to let them go...

Time to let them go…

Don’t laugh.  Don’t brush this one off.  Key words that should send a “Red Alert!” signal that you might just be spitting out opinions and your “personal journey” the same way my 3 year-old spits out cookies when he chews with his mouth open:

  • “I feel that…”
  • “I believe that…”
  • “That makes me feel that…”
  • “I don’t like…”
  • “I don’t agree with…”
  • “If it were me…”
  • “IMHO” or “IMO”
  • “Not telling you what to think, but…”
  • “To me…”
  • “I think this means…”
  • “I would suggest that…”
  • And while it doesn’t really fit the mold above, I have to add in the postmodern nonsense of “Jesus wants a relationship, not a religion,” which means nothing until you define each of those terms extremely carefully.  Oh, and it’s usually followed up with this, “Jesus wants a relationship, not a religion, so I don’t think that….”

There’s a whole bunch more.  The common theme is what one introductory book on logic for middle schoolers calls “self-report” words.  They’re subjective.  They change, sometimes like a fart in the wind. They report what you believe rather than what really is for all time and places and people.

The point is, as one commentary from 1888 put it (and those numbers are so symmetrical it just feels right…), “Subjective confidence is no guarantee of objective truth”.  That’s exactly right, even when I don’t feel like it is. 

I don’t care how much you prayed about it (and this video is a mixed-bag of truth and twisted truth).

I don’t care how it makes you feel.

Neither should you.

You should care whether it is true or not, and rearrange your feelings around the truth.  Is. It. In. The. Book?

4) Is my translation accurate?

Ok.  This might be a cheap shot.  If you haven’t guessed, I’m basically wondering if you’re reading The Message or a legitimate translation, and by “legitimate” I mean almost anything other than The Message.  I’m a staunch Protestant, and I think I would prefer the Catholic Bible (with it’s extra books) to The Message.  I grant that Eugene Peterson did not intend to translate the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible.  However, this is most certainly the way many users treat his paraphrase.  As Christians, we ought to know better.  We often don’t.

Leadership with education

Some translations go more for a thought-for-thought / idea-for-idea rendering of Greek and Hebrew.  In some instances, this doesn’t matter so much.  “Paul went to Damascus,” for instance.  Doesn’t really matter if you say, “To Damascus, Paul went,” or “Paul traveled to Damascus.”  Here, it kinda is the thought that counts.  But there are many places where you can’t do Bible translation like this without, at least partially, obscuring the point.

Psalm 1:1 is an interesting example.  Notice the difference in my 3rd grade daughter’s Bible, which is a NIRV Bible tailored specifically for a particular age bracket.  Says the NIRV:

Blessed is the one who obeys the law of the LORD.
He doesn’t follow the advice of evil people.
He doesn’t make a habit of doing what sinners do.
He doesn’t join those who make fun of the LORD and his law.

Not bad.  But definitely thought-for-thought compared to the Hebrew.  Here’s the ESV, which is a newcomer (2001, with revisions in 2008):

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers…

In the ESV’s version, which is not so much thought-for-thought as it is word-for-word from the Hebrew, the progression is crystal clear: the blessed man is one who doesn’t walk, nor stand, nor sit with evil.  He does not begin moving, then stand around admiring, then (finally) set up shop with the evil, fully identifying himself with them.  Walk/Stand/Sit.  The NIRV does not make the picture of the text as clear.  It’s there, but the pattern and verb choice of the original isn’t as punctuated as it is with the ESV.  That ought to matter to us.

Yes. Translations really do matter.  I bet, like most of us, you haven’t seriously considered yours.  I often still don’t.  It’s easy to simply accept what you have or assume that, because it’s sold on the shelf of the Christian store or the “Bibles” section of Barnes & Noble, it must be good enough.

good to greatBut not all Bibles are created equal.  At some level, you’re trusting world-class linguists and theologians to make decisions for you that you can never make for yourself.  This is good.  But like everything, there’s good, then there’s great.

Just one question:  don’t you want your Bible to be as closely worded to the original as possible so you can see how God intentionally worded his text?  I do.  The more thought-for-thought you go, the more a Translator is making decisions for you about the text.

So ask yourself next time you want to say anything about the Bible, “What kind of Bible do I even have?”  Here are some more thought-for-thought Bibles and, following them, word-for-word Bibles:

Thought-for-Thought:

  • NIV
  • TNIV
  • NRSV
  • and, of course, the King of all Thought-for-Thought, The Message
    (which shouldn’t be with the Bibles anyway but perhaps ought to have its own little time-out room in the guest house)

More Word-for-Word:

  • ESV
  • RSV
  • KJV
  • NKJV
  • NASB

Then there are attempts at hybridization of the species in versions like:

  • Holman Christian Standard Bible
  • and, to some extent, the ESV (though it’s still more word-for-word than middle-of-the-road)
5) What motivates what I'm saying?  

While not quite the same as saying, “Your motivation should be love,” it’s kinda saying, “You’re motivation should be love.”  But it’s more specific.  Your motivation shouldn’t be this amorphous, blobby, undefined “love.”

Your motivation should include, in no particular order:

  • the knowledge of the MotivationFather, Son, and Spirit spread across the world as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:4);
  • the salvation of the elect from all corners of the globe (2 Tim 2:10 with Mt 28:18-20);
  • the encouragement of the saints (Heb 3:13);
  • the destruction of the kingdom of Satan (James 4:7);
  • obedience to the commands of God (John 15:14);
  • the transformation (in sanctification) of yourself and those who hear (2 Cor 3:16-18);
  • knowing (which implies correct doctrine) the Father, and Jesus Christ, sent by the Father (John 17:3)

These are five basic questions anyone in middle school through retirement can memorize, ask, and build a life-time of habit asking.

  1. Is what I’m saying actually in the Bible?
  2. Can I point to a specific verse for proof?
  3. Am I confusing personal experience and God?
  4. Is my translation accurate?
  5. What motivates what I’m saying?

Asking these questions will keep you from looking stupid and from misrepresenting what the Bible actually says.  Moreover, they will also protect people around you.  We all have a circle of influence.  Some of us have much bigger circles than others.  To whom much is given, much will be required.  Take care, then, how your thoughts and words about the Bible teach others.  We each will give account (2 Cor 5:10).

 

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