how NOT to read your Bible
The parable of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes- read the whole story- the entire story- first, you know the disciples and Jesus have been all day in a desert place, comes the evening, nobody's starving to death, but the question is going to be, 'what to do about this?' The disciples have their solution- 'send them away!' Its not unreasonable- 'send them away so they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.' That's their solution. Jesus answers them, 'You give them something to eat: well, now we have two possibilities- two solutions.' And they almost laugh at him, 'Here's two hundred denarii- you couldn't do it!' Now as I read this story, I watch Jesus pulling the disciples almost kicking and screaming into the middle of everything he does. And usually when Jesus performs a miracle, they are standing there rather like the Greek chorus in admiration. This time, they're in the middle. He says to them, 'How many loaves have you- go and see.' (I'm using Mark.) When they found out, (they had to go and see- he makes them find out- this worries John a little bit as he tells the story, 'cause Jesus should have known all that sort of stuff- Mark has them go and see) then- once again they're pulled into the next thing- he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups. They have to find out how much food is there, they have to set the people down. Then taking the loaves, looked up to heaven, blest, broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples to set before the people. Once again, finally, as you all know, of course, they are told, 'Take up what's left over.'
Now, when I read that, when I read that, it screams at me, 'Parable!' It screams at me, 'I'm a parable, dummy!' I take it for granted that when Mark writes this story he thinks Jesus could do anything he wants. He could take the stones and turn them into bread, he could bring manna down from heaven, but he doesn't do it. What he does in the story is take the food that's there already and when it passes through the hands of Jesus, as divine justice incarnate, there's more than enough food for anyone. I think its a parable. But I think something else is even more important. If you want to take this story historically- 'it actually happened, if you were there in the desert, you would have seen it'- or you want to take it parabolically- that is, similar to the good Samaritan story, something that Mark, let us say, made up to express Jesus' mission identity- either way you take it, be it as history or parable, you're going to come out with the same conclusion, namely, that Jesus says, 'it is up to the leadership of the church (if you think of the Twelve as the leadership of the church) to take care of poverty in this world- to make certain that everyone has enough food. And they don't want that job. They love this teaching all day business- that was just fine, comes the evening, send them away. And Jesus insists, 'Its your job to feed them,' and he forces them step by step to participate. It is more important for me not to get into a debate on whether that really happened, or it is a parable, that to make certain that we do it. And I do not want to get into a debate (like the one after the good Samaritan) that gets us off the hook too easy. I don't use any other language than parable for it and I do that deliberately because parable, as we know, is one of the major teaching forms of Jesus and I suspect his disciples and the evangelists picked up the 'bad habit' of fiction from their Master.
One other example- one other example: You all know the story of the road to Emmaus. Jesus, after the resurrection appears, but totally (how shall I put it?) in the guise of a stranger. There's no flashing lights, no- nothing like Paul on the Damascus road. Jesus is simply a stranger. As the story goes on, he gives them an almost graduate course in how to read the Scriptures. And they concede later that their heart was warmed as he was doing that. Let me hesitate for a second. I wonder if I'd asked you all before I began talking to imagine in your mind, if you could, run through real fast, the story of the Emmaus road incident in Luke 24. Just to kind of close your eyes and- yeah. Would you all have remembered that what I think is the most important line in there is that when they come, the two people (possibly a man and his wife- we don't know- the man is identified- male- the female is not identified, presumably his wife- in Mediterranean courtesy or chauvinism)- Jesus is going to pass by when they get to (presumably) their home. They have to invite him in. I think that's almost the most important line in there. They have to invite him in. And when they invite him in, of course, he takes the bread, and the classic lines, 'takes, bless, broke, give,' and they immediately recognize Jesus, and he is gone. They don't go looking under the table, behind the chairs, it's as if they know immediately that Jesus has come in the guise of a stranger and you have invited the stranger in to eat in your home and that is Jesus. Now, if I take that literally, if I were to take that literally, I think I would be well on my way to concluding that Jesus really- the resurrected body of Jesus can take off/on any form it wants. That he is rather like one of those gods in ancient Greek or Roman mythology who come down from heaven and could put on any guise or body that they want. Can Jesus really appear literally as a stranger? Do we have to go round watching just in case? If I were to invoke divine consistency, maybe Jesus is still doing it as a stranger. No, I think it is clear, once again, at least to me, that this screams out to me, 'Parable, dummy! I'm a parable!' And I don't mean to say, 'Well they really wanted it literally, but I'm going to take it metaphorically.' I think that's the way it was written. I think this was written to tell us that Jesus is present, Jesus is still present, among us, when we study the Scriptures about him and when we invite the stranger in to eat with us. And of course it is important that all you get, all you get, when you study the Scriptures alone is your heart warmed. Its not nothing. But you don't recognize Jesus until you bring the stranger in to eat. Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that I've all sorts of presuppositions and we could talk about presuppositions tonight, but what I have done in my opening statements is to focus on the gospel texts themselves...
There's four differing versions of the gospel. And it is not true, I think it is simply not true, that it is, as it were, four people each trying to tell exactly what happened. That is not gospel. That might be history- its not gospel. The gospel is good news. And, yes, it has to be updated- I'd use the term, it might be sound a little bit crude- Mark is talking to one community, and John is talking to another, and so is Luke, and so is Matthew... What I get from this is that it is never enough simply to tell the historical story. I am convinced that if Mark had in front of him everything Jesus ever said, everything Jesus ever did- DVDs and all the rest of it, of what he had done- Mark would still have said things like, 'Well, that might have been all right Jesus, to say to those fishers in Galilee, but that doesn't speak to my people now, and I will rephrase you, Jesus, or if you prefer, your spirit is with me, and I will trust that when I do rephrase you, or even when I invent a story about you, I have still got it right- still got it authentic- still got it authentic, even when it might not be historical. Thank you." (John Dominic Crossan, "Is the Bible True?" debate with James White, 08/27/2005)
Having previously posted on "rightly understanding God's Word", I would now like to point out several errors that people commonly fall into when studying the Bible- errors that we all must be careful to avoid any time that we approach the Scriptures.
The above lengthy quote from John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar is given to demonstrate how an extremely intelligent bible scholar can come to entirely bogus conclusions about God's Word by the application of these errors to his reading of Scripture.
how NOT to read your Bible:
1. Bring in philosophies from outside of God's Word that are not based on Scripture and change the meaning of whatever you read in the Bible to fit these philosophies. It is only by God's grace that we avoid any of the errors that I am mentioning now. This first one is especially hard to fight because it is so subtle. Naturally, due to sin, we are all hostile in mind toward God (cf. Col. 1:21). Even after our minds have been changed by God through spiritual re-birth, we must be diligent in keeping the command to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (cf. Rom. 12:2) and to test all things, holding on to what is good and abstaining from every form of evil (cf. I Thess. 5:21-22). When we get lazy in exploring our beliefs and fail to pray for God's wisdom while weighing our thoughts by the whole cousel of God's Word, we quickly stray into the error of judging Scripture by our own sin-tainted philosophies rather than submitting to the doctrines clearly taught in the Bible. John Dominic Crossan, whose words nowhere reflect a belief-system that has been transformed by biblical faith, imposes the philosophy of "divine consistency" on the teaching of Scripture. “Divine consistency” (mentioned in the quote above) refers to Crossan’s belief that “what God does now is what God always did- God intervened no more and no less in the world of the early first century than that of the late twentieth century.” Crossan uses this philosophy to justify his rejection of the miracles recorded in the Bible. But it is obvious that Crossan did not come to his version of “divine consistency” through a straightforward reading of the Bible. Reading through the New Testament, though it is clear that God’s essential character never changes (cf. Jas. 1:17), it is also clear that He worked in a unique way in the life of Christ and in the lives of the apostles and that His special work in the apostolic age was accompanied by miracles.
2. Be Man-centered rather than Christ-centered in your understanding of and explanation of Scripture. The Bible teaches that people are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) in desperate need of salvation by Jesus. And in an earlier post, I have explored the concept that the subject of all of Scripture is the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:17, Luke 24:27, John 5:39). Based on these truths, it becomes obvious that any system of Bible-reading that takes the focus off of Christ and places it on people is an erroneous system, leading to a bogus understanding of Scripture. In our example above, notice how Crossan consistently shifts the focus from Christ to people. In this case, Crossan takes our focus off of Jesus as the Son of God and the resurrected Savior by focusing on the activity of the disciples, repeating phrases like, "They have to find out how much food is there, they have to set the people down...They have to invite him in. I think that's almost the most important line in there." Crossan even goes so far as to give a hypothetical conversation between a disciple and Jesus in which the disciple asserts, "Well, that might have been all right Jesus, to say to those fishers in Galilee, but that doesn't speak to my people now, and I will rephrase you, Jesus." If we fall into the trap of becoming Man-centered rather than Christ-centered in our reading of Scripture, we exalt sinful people, belittle Christ, and utterly obscure the Gospel message.
3. Ignore the type of literature to which a particular book of the Bible or passage from the Bible belongs. Discerning the type of literature or literary genre to which a particular Bible passage belongs is a vital part of rightly understanding God's Word. As I quoted from Thomas A. Howe in a previous post:
Literary genre simply means different kinds of literature. Poetry, for example, is a different kind of literature than historical narrative, and there are different principles for understanding it. Since the Bible contains different kinds of literature, we must take into consideration how meaning is expressed differently in each kind.
In the quote from John Dominic Crossan that is currently under scrutiny, it is clear that Crossan is treating all passages in the Gospel accounts as if they are parables, interpreting all Gospel passages figuratively and failing to see where the writers transition from parable into historical narrative. Crossan takes this view despite the fact that the Gospel narratives themselves are clear about when parables are being given and when history is being recorded. In places, the Gospel writers transition into the use of parables so clearly as to write, "Then [Jesus] told them many things in parables" (Matt. 13:3a), "Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables" (Matt. 22:1), "Jesus summoned them and spoke to them in parables" (Mark 3:23), and, "Then [Jesus] began to speak to them in parables" (Mark 12:1). In other places, the transition into and out of the use of parables is understood from the context. Taking Crossan's position- that everything, from the Virgin birth to the Cross to the Resurrection, is all given in parable- makes the Gospel narratives to be nonsensical- for then even Jesus' recorded explanations of His parables must themselves somehow be understood as being parables. And this position makes the proclamation of Truth impossible, for anyone can apparently, like Crossan, give their personal interpretation as to what the Gospel "parable" really means.
4. Ignore passages of Scripture that do not fit in with your already-held beliefs. This is an error that is frequently practiced in traditional churches that do not want to deal with topics that they consider difficult, such as predestination, and so many Bible passages such as Ephesians chapter 1, Romans chapter 9, and the last section of John chapter 6 are either entirely ignored or only touched very lightly. (For a specific example of this error, see the responsive reading selection # 603 of the 1975 edition of the Baptist Hymnal published by Convention Press in which Romans 8:29-30 is systematically skipped over.) In the quote currently under examination, Crossan speaks about a historical passage in Luke and then asserts, "This screams out to me, 'Parable, dummy! I'm a parable!' And I don't mean to say, 'Well they really wanted it literally, but I'm going to take it metaphorically.' I think that's the way it was written." By this statement and others like it, Crossan ignores passages in which the gospel records claim to be based upon eyewitness historical accounts; passages such as the preamble to Luke's gospel account:
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us, it also seemed good to me, having carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4 HCSB)
And John's gospel account contains the following assertions:
He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. (John 19:35 ESV)
This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24 ESV)
And so Crossan's position is simply not a viable option. Either he should come out and assert that he does not believe in the Bible or he should take all of the verses into account. When people pick and choose certain verses to read while willfully passing over other verses, when they ignore literary genres in the Bible, when they are Man-centered rather than Christ-centered in their understanding of the Bible, or when they impose their own philosophies on the text of the Bible, they proudly place themselves as judges over God's Word rather than humbly submitting to the Word of God. And this is a very dangerous position in which to find oneself for,
"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6b NIV)