Avoiding silly mistakes
People who claim to believe the Bible can still manage to draw false deductions from it. Over the centuries there have been some strange efforts in this regard.
Sometimes the result is almost amusing — except that it is God’s Word that is being mishandled. At times an argument which contains a fair measure of truth can lose much of its cogency because of the misapplication of Scripture.
In telling us not to worry, Christ points out that we cannot add a cubit to our stature, which is usually taken as a proverbial saying meaning that we cannot add an hour to our lifespan (Matthew 6:27). Tertullian, however, felt so strongly against the stage and elaborate apparel that he used the text to argue against an actor wearing high shoes or a woman wearing a wig.
Proverbs 16:33 tells us that, ‘the lot is cast into the lap but its every decision is from the Lord’. That has sometimes been used as an argument against the playing of games of chance, which seems to be a somewhat heavy-handed application of the Scripture.
The lesson would surely be that there is no such thing as chance — that child who wins the snakes and ladders game does so under the sovereign will of the God who ordains all things, even the apparent trivialities of this world such as the death of a sparrow (Matthew 10:29)! In any case, the apostles cast lots to choose Judas’ successor (Acts 1:23-26).
Salome’s dance in Mark 6:22 is sometimes used as an argument against all dancing, but Luke 15:25 might then be used as an argument in its favour. In reality, the context determines much of the morality or otherwise of dancing.
In early nineteenth-century England, the Duchess of Beaufort was suffering in her conscience from having to go to balls, the theatre and the races with the Duke.
She discussed this with Charles Simeon who advised her: ‘What would be wrong in one person would not be so in another; and what would be wrong under some circumstances, would not be so under other circumstances.
‘What would be wrong if done from choice, might not be wrong if done for fear of offending others, or of casting a stumbling-block before them, or with a view to win them’. The Duchess decided not to go to the theatre and the races but to go to balls if the Duke wished it.
Sometimes a rather silly literalism is the problem. During the Reformation, a fringe group of Anabaptists at St Gallen took to playing with toys and babbling like babies because the gospel says that we must become as little children to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:30).
Perhaps the most intellectual of the early Church Fathers was Origen of Alexandria. However, when he read what Christ said about being a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 19:12) — meaning, of course, to remain single (see 1 Corinthians 7:7) — he, who was prone to interpret Scripture allegorically, took this verse too literally and castrated himself.
Bishop Reginald Pecock was imprisoned as a heretic in 1457, partly because he debated with the Lollards in English, not Latin. Pecock had told the Lollards that ‘thou shalt not find expressly in Holy Scripture, that the New Testament should be written in English to laymen’.
On one level the argument is incontrovertible, but is making a demand that is rather more specific than the Scripture can be expected to meet. The Bible does set out the principle that only what we can comprehend has the capacity to edify us (1 Corinthians 14:1-19) — which would necessitate translations of the Scripture into the vernacular.
The effects of a false deduction can be far-reaching. The fact that mothers will suffer pain in childbearing (Genesis 3:16) is no more an argument against the use of chloroform than the battle with thorns and thistles is an argument against the use of weed-killers (Genesis 3:18).
The fact that Canaan is cursed as the lowest of slaves (Genesis 9:25) is a curse on the Canaanites — not the Negroes, as was claimed in circles with a vested interest in the slave trade.
In nineteenth-century Germany, Julius Wellhausen interpreted Jeremiah 7:22 — ‘For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices’ — to mean that there were no offerings in the days of Moses.
He then went on to propound the so-called Graf-Wellhausen theory that the prophets came before the law and that the Old Testament got this backwards. This theory is so bizarre that only academia could take it seriously.
The list goes on. When Paul says that the overseer must be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2) he is probably not saying that he must be married, but if he is married, he is only to be married to one woman.
The ‘whoever’ passages — for example, in John 3:16 — do not disprove the doctrine of election. God knows who the ‘whoever’ are, but we are to call all and sundry to repent and believe the gospel.
A popular one these days is the claim that because we are unsure what Paul means when he says that the woman will be ‘saved’ through the birth of a child (1 Timothy 2:15), we are unsure what he means when he says that a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:11-12). If you don’t like the reflection in the pool, I suppose the obvious thing to do is muddy the waters.
The Scripture is as a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19). By comparing Scripture with Scripture, we can hopefully avoid false deductions that we might be prone to make.
By permission of Australian Presbyterian