Forgiving the Text

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It’s a strange phenomenon, but I can attest to its existence—holding a grudge against a Biblical text because of the way it has been misused, abused, or misinterpreted. Most thoughtful believers could jot down half a dozen pericopes that have become the object of pet peeves.

  • Philippians 4:13
  • 1 Corinthians 10:13
  • Joel 2:25
  • the entire Song of Solomon
  • Psalm 91
  • most of Romans

That’s my list. Sometimes it’s a single verse used out of context to support a desire to feel affirmed by some sort of vague religious endorsement. Philippians 4:13 and 1 Corinthians 10:13 don’t give us all superpowers, and Joel 2:25 in context has nothing to do with teenagers losing their virginity and later trying to “get it back.”

For the longer passages, even as we read them in context, the distortions hang over our heads and seep in. We can’t see what is on the page in front of us for what has been pressed upon us.

I’m pretty sure Song of Solomon is not just a guide to “Biblical marriage.” After all, why would I take advice on monogamy from one of the most profligate polygamists in history? The Church Fathers all approach this book as allegory, and obviously there are strong sexual currents in it. If we are the bride of Christ, does not our bridegroom have conjugal rights? I don’t want to go too far down that trail since the danger of any allegory is that it can get weird.

Psalm 91 has been pushed as the “Soldier’s Psalm” for a long time. There are plenty of books that will call it “God’s shield of protection.” There is a story about a WWI regiment who recited it every day and all came home in one piece. The Bible, however, is not a spell book we choose incantations from in order to receive the desired results in the spiritual realm. Such a thing was seen in pretty unflattering light in both the Old and New Testaments.

Psalm 91 is coming up in the Sunday lectionary, though, so I’ve been reading through it daily and am starting to shed my baggage and engage the words for what they are, instead of what they are not.

I’d still rather take soldiering advice from a guy who took out the enemy’s main effort with a sling and a stone while he was still a raw recruit. Psalm 144 makes a much better “Soldier’s Psalm.”

Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle;
he is my steadfast love and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
who subdues peoples under me.

Psalm 144:1-2 (ESV)

What about Romans? Romans is the Mount Everest of New Testament scholarship. You can dig into Revelation if you want and Hebrews has some tough bits, but everyone knows that if you’re going to be a “real scholar,” you have to tackle Romans.

Wading into Romans is fine, but because so many are doing so, there’s bound to be a whole bunch of people who get it wrong. Unfortunately, this includes a few from the past with pretty big names and followings—Martin Luther and John Calvin, for instance.

It takes a lot of effort to work through Romans without being tainted by Luther’s sola fide and Calvin’s predestination. Not because they are so obviously there—if that was the case, some of the really smart guys in the 1,500 years before them may have seen it. No, the bits Luther and Calvin used for those theories are in there, but so are the contrary views and the contrary views are also rampant in the other books of the Bible.

So, when I read these “pet peeve” texts, I find myself praying for God to let me merely read what the author wrote and understand what he meant by it. I pray God will help me forgive the text for being misused.

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Filed under Bible, Evangelicalism, Hermeneutics, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Words

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