Saturday, March 28, 2009

Problems with Proper Context And Misreading the Bible

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the problems of context when an author uses a common term but applies and uses the term with a different definition than is commonly understood. Redefining a term and clearly communicating your new definition (without changing the term) does not constitute an informal logical fallacy in itself, but it does set one up for slipping into a linguistic booby trap and sets up a high probability for falling into an error of equivocation and ambiguity. The listener tends to slip back into a common understanding of the term. James Sire touches on this issue in his book "Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible," though Orthodox or Evangelical Christians with the highest view of Scripture can also fall prey to these same pitfalls and errors as well.

This is a general principle of hermeneutics wherein to understand a particular piece of literature properly, we must understand the terminology used. When we read the Bible, we must make sure that we have not redefined terms, and we must also understand the type of literature. For instance, when we read poetic books, we do not interpret those poetic terms literally. If examining an historical book, we take into account that what has been written refers to actual events in time and space. When we read about Paul’s missionary journeys in the Book of Acts, we understand that these places existed, we can look at a map to see his route, and we can thus read the Epistles and how they corresponded with his missionary journeys. We can also lay out a timeline and trace Paul’s ministry. Secular writings such as Josephus, for example, can also be considered and reviewed to confirm and expand upon our understanding of the culture in which Paul ministered. All these pieces of information expand upon and deepen our understanding and appreciation of the text because they all broaden our perspective of the author's experience.

When we pull a passage of Scripture away from it’s original context, we must be sure that we apply it in a way that is faithful to how the passage was used in the original text. The cults in particular make a hay day of misquoting the poetic books of the Bible, tearing them out of context and misapplying them, as to many Christian groups. For instance, James Sire points out in his book that Eastern cults often quote verses like “Be still and know that I am God,” as a support of pantheistic ideas, implying that *Jesus* indicates that every human being is also God. But he makes two errors here because Jesus did not state this. It is contained in a Psalm that speaks of Israel. It does not and cannot possibly refer to any individual human being in context of the entire Psalm.

Sometimes completely unrelated texts are taken and put together to build a doctrine. I remember a Jehovah’s Witness asking me to explain to them what was meant by Ezekiel 18:4, and must have repeated this verse about 20 times, asking me to explain what was meant by “all the souls are mine.” She tried to link this up to John 1:1, saying that the Ezekiel verse supported her misinterpretation of John, stating that Jesus was a god and had a separate soul. The two verses had nothing to do with one another. My other favorites from my shepherding days came from “Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm” which was used as a doctrine that stated that no pastor could ever be criticized because Romans 11 states that “the gifts and callings of God were irrevocable.” So a particular pastor who was caught in sin many times over could never be called to account for his very terrible sins because God would not relinquish that pastoral calling and as God’s anointed, it was wrong to “touch him” with accusation. But neither of these verses speak to the issue of pastors who are found to be in sin in any way, while other Scriptures that directly address repentance of sin are completely ignored.

Another error that can be made involves eisegesis or reading presuppositions into a text when there is just not enough information to support the conclusions that individuals draw from a text. I heard Ken Copland once extrapolate how tall Jesus was, the representation of God in human form. Based upon the Isaiah 40:12 or 48:13, Copeland speculated that he could figure out how tall Jesus was in His physical body because of his hand size, extrapolating about the size of a span and a cubit or something. That may not be the right verse, and I heard this more than 20 years ago but distinctly remember his presentation. It seemed lovely to think about Divine Three setting the stars in the sky and dressing the landscape, like a Van Gogh in front of his canvas, painting “Starry Night.” I stand in awe at the wonder of the artistry of God, but this amounts to little more than poetic speculation using much artistic license. It might be an academic musing, but it is not doctrine. This is anthropomorphization – ascribing human qualities to God, seeing the creator as a mere creature, though I believe it is likely a natural human curiosity to wonder about what Jesus looked like.

Another example of eisegesis or a presuming of things about a text that are not clear to us has been woven into the meaning of Numbers Chapter 30 by the patriocentrics concerning their doctrine and practice related to unmarried women. The group that promotes their views cite no other Scripture, save for the Proverbs 7 reference to the prostitute whose feet never want to stay at home which delineates nothing related to the Numbers 30 material. Jewish tradition, some portions of the Talmud, statements made by Rabbis like Maimonides and Hebrew words that define marriage as well as the status of women before and after marriage bear witness against the patriocentric paradigm concerning women. Yet this text is used to openly promote a rigid doctrine, one that holds serious implications regarding major life decisions for young women. The presuppositions of those who crafted the doctrine have read Numbers Chapter 30, inserting their own presuppositions into that text. We can certainly speculate about contingencies as an impression or even hold a personal belief based upon our interpretation, but we cannot claim that those matters are expressly Biblical if they are not clear and obvious in the Scriptures. Many religious doctrines are not definitive, and some teachings can be little more than wishful thinking about what one desires to find there.

Another error in language that can cause much confusion in interpretation can stem from mixing language meanings in one language with meanings from another can create much confusion. An atheist for whom I have tremendous respect for his scientific knowledge once explained to me that the words “God” and “dog” were not similar by any accident. I happened to know that God was “El,” “Elohim” or “YHWH,” and that dog was “kelev” (because a friend of mine considered this as a name for his dog). Another person told me with the utmost seriousness that they were taught that hell did not exist, a place of eternal, firey death, because “live” spelled backwards spelled out “evil.” So evil was lived out in our mortal lives, and we would all go to heaven. Many variations in words, mitigating languages and from poor exegesis result in these types of doctrinal error. Sire points out several more examples in “Scripture Twisting,” including several occasions where Mary Baker Eddy makes this same type of error of mitigating the meanings of language in a wishful causality, but it seems scholarly if you do not examine it too closely.

In his discussion of different ways that the Bible can be misinterpreted, James Sire identifies what he calls the figurative fallacy. It occurs whenever a passage speaks of literal terms, but those terms are interpreted as figurative. It can also represent the opposite, where figurative language such as those in poetic literature is interpreted as literal. In John Chapter 3, Jesus refers to the Spirit as like the wind, but is the wind itself actually the Holy Spirit? Do living waters literally flow from our bellies under the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, using language that also typically describes the overflowing of water? When Jesus speaks of being born again, as Nicodemus tries to discern and Jesus explains, a man does not enter his mother’s womb again but is born of the Spirit. The figurative fallacy can also work from the other perspective, describing factual and literal events as ones that were only intended as poetic or figurative. I once took a class with a Rabbi who stated that, personally, he believed that the creation account in Genesis was just a narrative that was figurative, written by wise old men who wanted to establish some general concepts. There were no literal trees in the Garden of Eden, and there was no man and woman. The story of original sin was just a construct created by very wise rabbi sages who used their work of fiction to communicate basic ethical concepts.

Following the descriptions of contextual problems that Sire outlines in his book, I’ve added some contemporary examples and some from my own experience, but “Scripture Twisting” contains far more examples of how many Bible-based cults and Eastern cults distort the Scriptures. A very large portion of the book can be read online, though the helpful appendices and index are not shown there. It is an excellent resource, particularly for study and preparation for witnessing to Mormons, New Thought followers, and many Eastern-oriented cultists, though the principles he teaches throughout build discernment that is quite relevant within Evangelical churches. The sound hermeneutics and the revealing of how some of these rhetorical fallacies and errors originate prove relevant for every discerning believer.