In this series of posts, we are exploring some of the dangerous approaches to Bible study that David Platt identifies in this “Radical Together” podcast. In this post we are looking at an approach to Bible study that David calls the “superficial approach,” but you might just as easily call it the “relative approach” because it comes out of a worldview often referred to as postmodernism.
The fundamental truth of postmodernism is that there is no truth (think over that for a second!). Postmodernism’s mantra is, “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.” And it is out of this basic thought pattern that the “superficial approach” arises.
Asking the Wrong Question
You know that your Bible study employs this approach when you hear someone ask the question, “What does this verse mean to you?” Now this seems like a perfectly good question to ask, so what’s the harm in asking it? Well it is a good question, but not in the way that it is normally asked. You see, the underlying thought of that question tends to leave room in everyone’s mind for different, if not opposing, meanings to the passage at hand. David gives the example in a recent podcast in which a group reads a chapter like Genesis 22, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, and then God provides a ram for the sacrifice, with the group discussion being something like this:
Leader: “Okay, what does this mean to you?
Bob: “Well, I think this chapter means I need to go hiking with my son more, just like Abraham went hiking in the mountains with Isaac.”
Leader: “Ah, okay Bob, anybody else?”
Joe: “Well I think it’s clear from this passage that it’s okay to sacrifice animals, which means that no one should be a vegetarian.”
Mary (a vegetarian): “Well that’s not what this passage means to me Joe. Maybe this passage means I need to sacrifice you!”
The obvious problem that arises out of asking this question is that it takes the authority out of the Word of God, and puts it into the opinion of man. Rather than asking what God meant when he inspired this passage, people are increasingly concerned with what they think this passage means to them, despite any obvious contradictions with other people’s interpretations, let alone the rest of the Bible.
Now, you might object and say, “Well isn’t every interpretation just someone’s opinion about what a passage means? And aren’t there countless interpretations of the Bible even within historic Christianity? If so, then the Bible really is relative to what people think!” And this is partly true. People all over the church have differences in their theological positions that they derive from Scripture. The difference, however, is in how they arrive at their particular view. Rather than asking, “What does this passage mean to me?” as their starting point, they ask, “What did God mean in this passage?” And by asking the latter question, the interpreter employs an entirely different set of tools to answer that question.
Not only that, but when people object on the basis of there not being theological consensus throughout the church, they often paint the picture so as to suggest that there is almost no agreement whatsoever. This is where Andrew Wilson’s recent comments are really helpful:
All Christians, everywhere, believe in one church, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one baptism, one God. Whenever I feel discouraged about the confusions and debates within the global church, I go and read the Nicene Creed, and it reminds me just how much we agree on.
….There are all sorts of things on our end—ignorance, hard-heartedness, sin, rebellion, unbelief—that might prevent us from understanding what Scripture says quite clearly. In fact, when Jesus interacted with people who had misunderstood something he’d said, either in Scripture or in person, he never blamed the Word of God for being unclear, confusing, or obscure. Instead, he always said it was something to do with the readers or hearers…
… Ignorance. Traditionalism. Naïveté. Dullness, deafness, foolishness. Opposition to God. Fear. Sin. Stubbornness. When people don’t understand something God has said, Jesus assumes that the Scriptures are clear—“Haven’t you read in the Scriptures?!”—and the people are muddled.
Frequently, in our arrogance, we assume it’s the other way round.
Asking the Right Question
The difference between the right question and the wrong question is not a matter of wording, per se, but of intent. The difference is the difference between hermeneutics and homiletics; between interpretation and application. So, if by asking “What does this verse mean to you?”, I am really asking, “How does this verse apply to you?”, then we are asking the right question.
For instance, 1 Peter 1:14-15 says, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct…” The meaning is that we should live lives that are morally different than non-Christians, and even morally different than what are own desires sometimes tell us. More specifically, this moral difference should imitate our Father in heaven (see context). At the same time, the application of this meaning will look different for different people. For some, it means not watching TV because it causes them to waste time and ignore God. For others, it means putting in internet filters and blocks so they will not view pornography. In both cases, the vice is something the world does, and something the believer needs to change. But, the first person doesn’t struggle with pornography, and the second person doesn’t neglect his relationship with God because of TV. Yet they both pursued the command to be holy.
So the real question for each of us is: what are we looking for when we study the Bible? A mirror to reflect our own opinions? Or a window to see God’s truth?