photo taken from ardentplumbing.com
By trade, I am a certified gas utility operator and a licensed gasfitter, I have also completed half of a plumbing apprenticeship. In the trades we have documents that we call code books, they are a set of legally binding minimum standards and we are obligated to know and follow them.
When a plumber needs to find out what the regulations are for a particular implementation of a plumbing system they look it up in the National Plumbing Code of Canada. If, for example, they want to know the maximum length of a trap arm for a lavatory they only have to find the relevant clause, interpret it and apply it. It couldn’t be easier.
So, the other day I was looking for something in the B149 gas code book and it occurred to me that sometimes I read the Bible this way. I don't want to speak for anyone else but I suspect a lot of people do it this way too.
The codes are produced by people in authority: engineers, experienced tradespeople, scientists, and technicians. We accept their rules because we understand that their collective knowledge and experience is greater than our own. I think there are times that we want someone that is better than us to direct us, and, sometimes even tell us what to do. It makes us less liable for our own actions if we can rely on someone else. If things go wrong we can always point to that authority and say “they told us to do it that way”. It makes interpretation of the rules easier.
The same applies to the Bible because it is also hard to read. At times it can seem impossible to interpret properly. It would be great if it were as simple to understand as we sometimes claim; That correct biblical exegesis is as easy as looking up the relevant verses to obtain our answers. As misplaced as I believe that is, we do it all the time.
The Problem With Proof Texting
This method of biblical interpretation leads us naturally to proof texting. Let's say that we need to look up the nature of predestination: first open the code book to Ephesians. Next look up the relevant clause number, in this case, chapter 1 verse 4-5. There, that settles it. Right there in the Bible is proof of unconditional individual election!
Or, maybe, we need to prove that women shouldn’t lead in ministry: turn to 1 Timothy 2:11. It's simple, the Apostle Paul says it, it’s right there in black and white. Women should always be quiet and submissive.
Or does it? Could the free will exercised by ancient Hebrews inform our decision about predestination? Should we consider the female leaders mentioned in both the old and new testaments when discussing 1 Timothy 2:11?
It is probably clear what I think about these particular doctrines but, in reality we all pick and choose what we like from the Bible. Truthfully, I have been guilty of doing so to “prove” Arminianism or Egalitarianism. The truth is that we all have clauses or "proof texts" that we use to prove our own point. We cannot divorce ourselves from our own bias, but the problem lies in whether we ever reconsider what our biases are and change the way we think accordingly. It is important that we do not use our bias to find the easy answers because questions worth asking rarely have easy answers.
The Problem With Verses
Just like a legal document, the pipe trades code books are split up into sections, subsections, clauses and sub-clauses. The clauses are organized into sections that are related but may or may not be directly related to the preceding clause. Most can be read individually.
Bible verses are not clauses in a legal document.
It is common to view the Bible as a large book of proverbs; that each verse is an entity unto itself and can be interpreted individually. This is what we do when we rattle off a list of verses that we assume supports our argument. We've all seen it done, the type of shotgun hermeneutics Christians like to do when discussing doctrine and dogma. “My point is true because I have referenced more verses, thus giving it more biblical support".
We need to be aware that the verse divisions in the Bible are man made, and, just like our code books, are not divinely inspired. While they can, and do, help us locate specific passages they can also undermine our ability to read the Bible as an entire package. We tend to create islands of doctrine within the vast ocean of the Bible.
So, while this method may satisfy our need for structure we should consider what the rest of scripture says, even if it seems to disagree (especially if it seems to disagree!). Let us embrace those difficulties because only when we honestly work through them do we come to a better understanding of truth.
The Problem Is With Us
I don't believe we are meant to read the Bible in this isolated way. The Bible is the story of God; as such, needs to be read as a story. We need to remember that verses in the Bible have to be read in the context of the chapter and book — and their historical and cultural nuances. Not only that, they absolutely need to be read in the context of the Bible as a whole. I know that few would disagree with me, but it is an easy trap to fall into.
I am not advocating a position of indifference towards the importance of the Bible. I don't mean to say that truth cannot be found in the words of scripture, or that we cannot use biblical references to support our claims. I only mean to say that our usage of the Bible should be deeper than quoting a legion of verses to seemingly prove our point. If we are to use the Bible as proof of our position we better make sure that our position lines up with the narrative arc of scripture. I am only trying to point out a method of weaponizing scripture that twists it's intended purpose.
Let’s face it, there are many things we don’t understand about God. Whether they are logical paradoxes or the limits of our finite minds we must admit that we just don’t know everything. Maybe it is because of our limitations that we insist on distilling the Bible into memory verses. Maybe it is because we just don’t understand the complexities of God so we want to simplify the Bible by individualizing sections of the narrative.
Anyway, I’m not a Biblical scholar. I don’t have any answers, but this is just something that I have been thinking about lately. What do you think? Do we do this to scripture? Does this method damage our ability to see the whole narrative?
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