In this final post we look at the pragmatic approach to Bible study. This is the last of four dangerous approaches to Bible study we’ve been looking at based on this Radical Together podcast with David Platt.
Pragmatism can be a particularly unwise approach to almost any area of life. The reason is because pragmatism always has an eye towards results, regardless of what is right or wrong. This has marked evangelical church culture for some time now. Too often the church’s starting point when beginning a ministry program has been to ask questions like, “What will draw the crowds?” or, “What is most effective?” or, “What is the simplest?” rather than addressing those questions after being informed by a more fundamental question: “What does God’s Word say about this matter?”
As a result of this, and many other factors, many churches have lost their distinctive witness. Now, this post is not about the decline of the church in America, but this point serves to illustrate why we cannot afford to approach Bible study pragmatically. In Secret Church 3, “How to Study the Bible,” David Platt says the following about this approach to Bible study:
This is a self-centered, arrogant way to study the Bible, and it misses the whole point of discovering God’s truth. We have to avoid a pragmatic approach that says, “It’s my life. I am going to live how I want, and I am going to use the Bible to justify what I want.” That is an extremely dangerous way to live Christianity, and it is happening all across our country today.
The underlying motivation of this kind of approach to the Bible is “self.” When you approach the Bible in this way, you dethrone God, and crown yourself king or queen over your life. To use a phrase coined by New Testament Scholar D. A. Carson, this kind of approach serves as the “De-goding of God.”
Pragmatism ≠ Wisdom
Those who approach the Bible pragmatically tend to do so under the guise of wisdom. But the irony is that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Rather than approaching the Bible in such a way that we cherry-pick verses to suit our lifestyle, the Bible demands that we approach it in such a way so as to submit our lives to every jot and tittle (Matthew 5:18). One reason Christians regularly and consistently read their Bibles is because Jesus’ lordship over our lives is worked out through our submission to his Word.
This point is seen most clearly in Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Mark 7, where Mark writes,
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:9-13)
One of the things we notice in this text is that the Pharisees’ approach to Scripture was such that they developed a tradition to fulfill a certain purpose that was not only disobedient, but unconcerned with the Word of God. They only had an eye toward results, toward what they wanted, regardless of what was right or wrong.
The notes in the ESV Study Bible help us understand the core issue at stake in the Pharisees’ disregard for the law:
No one questions the importance of this law in the Ten Commandments; disregarding it was punishable with death in ancient Israel. Part of honoring father and mother is to care for them, both financially and personally, in their old age. However, Jewish tradition allowed that funds originally dedicated to the care of parents could be declared Corban (Hebrew/Aramaic for legally “dedicated to God”; cf. Lev. 1:2; 2:1; etc.), meaning that the person would no longer be required to do anything for … father or mother. These funds could now be given to the temple, if so desired. Such human traditions thus allow room for the depravity of the human heart, directly opposing the Law of Moses which so often serves to protect the weak and helpless, in this case, parents in their feeble old age (making void the word of God). The “Corban” tradition is an example (along with many such things you do) of disregarding and rejecting the more important aspects of the Mosaic law.
What seemed wise in the Pharisees’ minds, namely, finding an alternative way to financially support the temple (one of the most important institutions in Jewish worship), was actually a pragmatic solution that disregarded God’s commands rather than fearing him by obeying his Word.
Ultimately, Scripture was never given to cater to our lives, our desires, or to be convenient. Scripture was given to govern our lives, to change our desires, and to be a means of finding life through Jesus Christ.