I’m one of those weird people who actually enjoy listening to lectures. Not just any lectures, mind you, but things that interest me. I probably wouldn’t enjoy lectures over 19th century British poetry, or lectures over the social influences found in different world cultures. Those things sound pretty boring to me. But one thing that interests me greatly is theology, and anything related to the Bible. Lately I’ve been listening to lectures from Reformed Theological Seminary on iTunesU, specifically from a course called The History of Philosophy and Christian Thought. Doesn’t sound very interesting, does it? Well, it’s actually not that bad.
One of the things that really baffles me as I listen to Dr. Frame talk about the philosophies projected by the early Church fathers is how so many of them totally misinterpret the Bible. Granted, not much time had passed since the New Testament had actually been adopted as God-inspired Scripture. But it’s not hard to see that some of these men clearly injected their own ideas, or perhaps worse, the ideas of Greek philosophy, into their theological arguments. For instance, the early Church father Origen speculated that salvation may be universal, and that even the devil may have a shot at redemption at some point in the future. Many of the early Church fathers proposed ideas that weakened Scripture or made Christ less significant. Most of these ideas are easily refuted under the light of ALL of Scripture.
Scriptural misinterpretation isn’t something that only affected the early Church. In fact, just this morning I read an article about a pastor in West Virginia who died after being bitten by a rattlesnake. And yes, he was handling the snake in a faith-proving church ritual. The Scripture people use to justify this odd ritual is Mark 16:17-18:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Emphasis added)
If you read the whole article (I highly recommend that you do…it’s short), you also find out that this pastor’s father was also killed from a snake bite in a similar ceremony. So what we have here is a gross misinterpretation of Scripture, and an incredible failure to learn from past mistakes.
The misinterpretation of Scripture is the part that bothers me the most. Most Bible scholars question whether Mark 16:9-20 is even supposed to be a part of the Bible to begin with. The earliest copies of the Gospel of Mark don’t have these verses, and many of the later ones that do have them set them apart from the rest of the book. So it isn’t wise to set up a doctrine solely on this one passage (nor is it wise to set up any doctrine based on only one passage of Scripture). On top of that, even if you do consider these verses to be a part of Scripture, there is no imperative from Jesus to go and pick up snakes to prove your faith. As one article I read put it, “It is describing something that will occur, not commanding that something should occur.” For instance, in Acts 28 it describes Paul as getting bitten by a snake, and just shaking it off. Paul didn’t seek out a snake and say, “Look everyone! Look how much faith I have! I picked up this snake and got bit! And I’m not dead!” No, God protected Paul from any bad effects from the snake bite. That is the meaning of Mark 16:17-18 – that God can provide for and protect those who are serving Him.
So, what’s the big deal, you ask? Why can’t we just leave these people alone and let them continue to misinterpret Scripture and get bit. Isn’t this just God’s way of weeding out the idiots? Well, first of all, that’s a very unloving thing to say. I’m ashamed of you for asking such a question. But secondly, I think we have to consider how this mishandling of the words of the Bible affects the world around us. For instance, can you imagine what the world thinks when they see people like this pastor saying things like, “I am looking for a great time this Sunday…It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ‘ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.” This statement, within itself, would drive an English teacher crazy. But when it’s then followed by the death of the man who said it, it makes you question the God who supposedly fills these “sign believers.” And when that same pastor says, “I know it’s real; it is the power of God…If I didn’t do it, if I’d never gotten back involved, it’d be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real,” and then gets killed, it makes people question the power of God.
This mishandling of the Bible is a dangerous thing. Just ask the pastor who died from the snake bite. But it can be much, much worse. Consider those who follow the speculations of Origen and teach that, in the end, we’ll all be saved. How dangerous is that!?!? It promotes apathy by making people think they can do whatever they want. Heck…in the end, they’ll go to heaven anyway, right? We can’t allow things like this to happen. We may not be able to stop those who would pick up snakes to prove their faith, but we can outright deny that what they are doing is Biblical. And we can promote a healthy interpretation of Scripture that leads to sound doctrine. We can do this by:
- Making true disciples – 1 Corinthians 2:14 says “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Unfortunately, we have non-Christian scholars influencing theological thought, and these people can’t understand the Bible to begin with, because they don’t have the Spirit of God within them. Instead, we should make true disciples who then lead us in our pursuit of truth.
- Making well-trained disciples – In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul tells Timothy “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (emphasis added). The only way to know the Bible is to study the Bible. Proper Biblical interpretation doesn’t come overnight – it requires diligent study and training.
- Teaching the WHOLE Word of God – Too many modern doctrines are based on small passages (to the exclusion of others). In other words, they fail to interpret Scripture with Scripture. If we consider all of Scripture when we read certain passages, our interpretations are less likely to have errors.
- Relying somewhat on tradition, but not too much – There are those who have come before us who have diligently searched the Scriptures and have sought to know them well. We should consider their interpretations when we come across a passage that brings us trouble. This is where a good commentary comes in. On that same note, we should not over-rely on traditional interpretation, as this too leads to trouble. Consider the traditions of the Catholic church that sparked the Protestant Reformation.