WATCH HOW YOU HANDLE SCRIPTURE
by Marilyn Kunz
Have you ever been approached by a member of a cult? Have
you seen such a person at your neighbor's door or accosting
someone in an airport?
As Christians, we believe the Bible is God's Word, and we
want to study it and to help others find God's truth. Many of us
are distressed when we observe cult members "proving" their
doctrines by using selected quotations from the Bible, but we
should consider that we may be using cultic methods when we
present the gospel message by picking out verses here and there
throughout the Bible
Our materials may be sound and orthodox and our Scripture
verses selected within a framework of sound doctrine. However, it
is difficult for a person who is new to the Bible to judge
between the cult message and the Christian doctrine when they are
presented to him in a similar way. He asks, "Which selection of
Scripture verses is valid?" Faced with this dilemma, the listener
often responds more to the personality of the speaker than to the
message that's given.
The great increase in false cults during the past 20 years
makes it imperative that Christians guard against using an
approach to the Bible which parallels that of the cults. In his
Book of Cults, Bob Larson lists 13 "pseudo-Christian cults" that
are reaching men and women in alarming numbers. All these cults
use the Bible, selecting verses to substantiate their beliefs.
Unhappily, cult groups are often successful in persuading people
to accept their presentation.
(We also need to be careful how we use the word "cult" for Lason
would never say the Roman Catholic Church is a cult, yet she is
the largest Christian cult in the world, and many of her
daughter, that came out of her, in protest against certain cultic
teaching and practices, are themselves part of their mother's
cult - Keith Hunt).
In this light, how should a church or a concerned Christian
present the message of the Bible to people who are unfamiliar
with it? Sometimes such people are within the church. In many
churches, few members have studied, or even read, any one book of
the Bible from first verse to last.
Some congregations may even emphasize that they are "Bible
believing," but they always study the Bible by topics rather than
by its component books. They study "the nature of God" rather
than the whole book of Genesis. Instead of studying the Psalms,
they study "prayer." Using selected verses from Genesis to
Revelation, they study "what Christians believe," instead of
studying the books that emphasize belief, such as Paul's letter
to the Romans or the Gospel of John.
If we study only the themes of the Bible, we imply, "Lord,
you made a mistake! The Bible should have been a book of
doctrines, and that's the way we're going to study it."
It is easy to understand how people may slip into a topical
approach to the Bible. When leaders of a church are familiar with
the whole Bible, it is easy to get into the habit of referring to
selected verses, but only the mature Christians in a congregation
are able to draw lines of thought throughout the Bible.
(One should study by "topic" at times - and one should study book
by book at times - both are needed to be done in order to become
a mature Christian - Keith Hunt).
In the story described in Mark 12:28-34, when the scribe
asks, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answers this
Old Testament expert by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4,5 and Leviticus
19:18: "The first is,'Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord
is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your
strength.' The second is this,'You shall love your neighbor as
yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
In contrast, however, Jesus did not quote Old Testament
selections when He spoke to the woman in Samaria (John 4:4-42).
This doesn't mean that we should not use the Bible when we share
the gospel. It does mean that we ought to consider carefully how
we introduce someone to Bible study. If, like the cults, we use a
patten of selecting verses out of many different settings, we run
the risk of confusing both the non-Christian and the immature
(This is very true, and using the Bible this way has given some
to say, "Well, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to
say." There is a difference between "topic" study and just
selective quoting or certain verses to try and prove your
theology view - Keith Hunt).
It is not necessary to begin with the first book in the
library we call the Bible, but it is important to study
individual books of the Bible from beginning to end to discover
the unique message of each book. Out of the many books of the
Bible, where should we start if we want to introduce men and
women to Christ?
Since missionary translators usually begin with the Gospel
of Mark, their reasons for doing so may help us to answer this
question. Mark moves swiftly to present who Jesus Christ is and
what He said and did. Shorter than the other Gospels, Mark uses
more narrative and fewer difficult figures of speech. His account
doesn't require that we understand the Old Testament and Jewish
culture in order to read it, and he presents the Good News of
Jesus in simple and direct terms.
If you are in touch with people who are new to the Bible,
study the book of Mark with them, rather than trying to
indoctrinate them with a series of verses from many parts of the
Bible. Invite your colleagues at work or your neighbors at home
to a weekly discussion study. Let them meet Jesus for themselves
as you study the Gospel account together.
Each of the Gospel writers presents the life of Jesus as an
unfolding story. An old hymn says, "We've a story to tell to the
nations." Let's tell the story!
Marilyn Kunz is co-founder and associate director of
Neighborhood Bible Studies, Inc., Dobbs Ferry, New York 10512,
For information on "How to Start a Neighborhood Bible Study" and
for a listing of study materials, write or the above address.
MY EXPERIENCE OR GOD'S REVELATION:
WHERE SHOULD BIBLE STUDY BEGIN?
Second Timothy 3:16,17 says, "All Scripture is inspired by
God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for
training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate,
equipped for every good work."
What a promise! What an opportunity! If a man of God wishes
to be taught, wishes to be trained in righteousness, wishes to be
"equipped for every good work," then all he has to do is read and
obey the Scriptures. And if we all would agree to read and obey
God's written Word, then, of course, we'd all believe and
practice our faith alike. We'd finally find agreement, unity, and
That's the way it ought to work, but experience tells us
different. The Scriptures remain constant, but those who come to
the study of the Scriptures bring with them many and varied
presuppositions concerning God's revelation and the correct
interpretation of that revelation.
Two extreme, but not all that unusual, examples are provided
by Joseph Dillow in his insightful book, "Speaking in Tongues:
Seven Crucial Questions." The first example is of a woman who
decided Bible study was not important at all; God would speak to
her direct and completely apart from the Scriptures:
A number of years ago this tendency was illustrated to me
vividly in the life of a dear lady in the Northeast. I was in the
process at the time of raising some funds for my personal
financial needs as a missionary. This lady expressed interest and
invited me to come see her. It was an hour and a half drive, but
I hoped the Lord could give me a ministry in her life. From the
moment I walked in the door she never asked me about my work but
apparently had wanted me to come so she could tell me about the
baptism of the Spirit. We talked for several hours.
Finally, after listening politely for a long time, I began
to share some passages of Scripture with her to evaluate whether
or not her tongues experience was really what the New Testament
talked about. We discussed the ten criteria of valid New
Testament tongues speaking, and then I asked her to compare her
experience with the Word on each point. To her amazement, there
wasn't one point of similarity except the tongue itself. I asked
her to seriously evaluate her experience after l left, by going
back through the Scriptures and making up her own mind.
Four hours later I drove back home Several days passed and I
received a phone call. She told me on the phone how much she
appreciated our discussion, but the Lord had showed her that she
didn't need to study the Bible to find out if her gift was from
God. She said right after I left she turned and walked toward the
refrigerator of her house. Half way there she had some kind of
experience, and the Lord told her that her gift was truly from
Him and that she now had peace.
Thus, the desire to believe she was experiencing something
supernatural was so strong that she avoided subjecting her
experience to the test of Scripture for fear that it might prove
invalid. She lived her life on feelings. My four hours with her
revealed a woman struggling with depression because of a husband
who greatly resented her mystical, spiritual experiences.
The second example is similar, but at least the following
individual did not entirely divorce himself from God's written
When I was a new Christian I met man I'll call Bill. Bill
was given to seeing visions and regularly claimed he received
direct revelation from God. He saw the Lord working in every
conceivable circumstance of life. Every inner impression was
examined as to the Lord's leading.
One night he called me at midnight because he had a
message from the Lord that he had to share with me. Bill was in
his forties and lived alone about an hour's drive from my house,
but he still wanted to come and deliver the message in person. I
was touched by his concern but told him it would be all right
with me if he waited until tomorrow. He insisted, so I invited
When he arrived he was visibly shaken. At the time I had
just decided to go to seminary. Bill was very upset about this
"The letter kills," he said, "but the spirit gives life', and now
he had a message from the Lord warning me not to take this step.
He had been reading in Isaiah, and the Lord gave him a special
revelation that said "If you go to seminary, your wife will be
eaten by lions and you will lose your eternal salvation!"
Bill was rather frightening, but I didn't buy it. He lived
in a world of superstition which his theology of tongues had
fostered. The centrality of the Word had been lost in his life.
The last I heard of Bill he was in jail because the "Lord had
told him" that he was to disobey constituted authority and not
comply with a zoning ordinance!
The woman and the man have this in common: they gave their
personal experiences and preferences precedence over God's
written revelation. When they found themselves in disagreement
with Mr.Dillow's understanding of God's word and will, the woman
decided the Bible was totally unimportant and the man found a way
to begin with the Bible yet wind up with the conclusion he
preferred from the start. Rather than conforming to God, each
found a way to conform God to himself.
While these two examples may be extreme, the practice of
giving personal experience or preference precedence over God's
Word is widespread. In an article, which appeared in the Fall
1979 issue of Katallagele magazine, Mrs. Fleming Rutledge took
issue with those people, especially feminists, who would
interpret God's revelation to support their own personal
experience. She wrote:
"What is theology, in the first place? Is it reflection on
human experience in light of God's revelation? or is it
reflection on God's revelation in light of contemporary
experience? The way we answer this question will determine
where we go from here. In Paul's most abrupt letter, that to
the Galatians, the apostle lays out his position on the
matter in the very first sentence - 'Paul an apostle, not
from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God
the Father...' (Galatians 1:1) and again, 'The gospel which
was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not
receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came
through a revelation of Jesus Christ' (1:11). One would
think that seminary graduates, presumably well-educated in
Scripture, would at least be aware of, even if they do not
agree with, the substantial body of opinion that believes
personal religious experience to be strictly subordinate to
God's self revelation throughout the Old and New Testaments
It is true that women are studying the Bible, and in some
cases quite exhaustively. But in what way are they studying
it? My observation is that all too often the texts are
dismembered and rearranged at will, in order to serve the
needs and experiences of the one who is doing the
examination. Take for example the story of Abraham and Isaac
on Mount Moriah (Genesis 11); this text has been repeatedly
misused by feminists who want to turn it into a commentary
on the oppression of Sarah the mother of Isaac. The fact
that the figure of Sarah does not appear in the story
seems to these interpreters to be an example of the cruel
indifference of a patriarchal society. Their own experience
of anger and deprivation overrules their interpretation, so
that they do not even pause to ask themselves if, in fact,
the story is not about something altogether different."
Well, we might expect someone with what we may consider a
radical political cause to twist Scripture, to read it in such a
way that it supports her personal feelings and perspectives. But
certainly we would never try to press God's revelation into our
own private mold. We would never be guilty of "dismembering" and
"rearranging" God's Word in order "to serve [our] needs and
experiences." Or would we? How often we hear people begin their
discussion of a passage of Scripture with the words, "Well, to me
this passage means ... "
John Stott points out that each and every passage of
Scripture means exactly what God intended it to mean! No more. No
The problem is that almost everyone would agree with that
statement. Few, if any, realize that they are allowing their
personal experience to overshadow God's revelation, and fewer
still would admit it if they did. But far too many go to God's
Word already convinced of a certain point of view. They study the
Bible looking not so much for truth as for confirmation that
their personal viewpoint is truth. Texts which support their
viewpoint are stockpiled like ammunition. Texts which call their
viewpoint into question are ignored or explained away.
Of course, "explained away" is my evaluation of what people
do when I disagree with their conclusions and their use of
Scripture. Their evaluation of the situation probably would be
that they are correctly interpreting the Scriptures and I am the
one explaining things away.
Thus being the case, how can we all arrive at the truth of
what God's Word is saying? Second Peter 1:20,21 says, "But know
this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of
one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act
of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."
The word "prophecy" in this passage is speaking not so much
of foretelling the future as of forth-telling the will of God.
These verses, then, are saying that the Scriptures did not
originate with men but with God. Furthermore, when God spoke
through these "men moved by the Holy Spirit," He had definite
things He meant to say.
Therefore, as we study the Bible, our task is not to search
for support for our idea, but to discover, understand, and
conform to God's idea. How can we remain objective? How can we
set aside our own preconceptions long enough to discover God's
John MacArthur, Jr. offers direction. In his book, "The
Charismatic: A Doctrinal Perspective," MacArthur suggests three
errors to avoid and five principles to follow in order to
interpret the Bible correctly.
THREE ERRORS TO AVOID
1. Don't make a point at the price of proper interpretation. The
error addressed here is that of forcing a passage of Scripture to
say what it obviously doesn't say. All too often, a verse or a
passage of verses will be pulled out of context and incorrectly
applied. Out of context, a verse or verses my be applied to
subjects or situations God and the human author never intended
that specific passage to address. Out of context, the forced
interpretation might even sound plausible. The point being made
might even be biblically correct. But when the verse or verses
are studied within their original context, it becomes obvious
that they were not originally intended to say what they are being
used to say.
If a point we are trying to make is biblical, there will be
a passage of Scripture specifically addressing our point. Let's
use the appropriate passage! Let's say only what Scripture says -
No more. No less. If we must pay the price of forced or improper
interpretation to make our point, our point is not worth making.
2. Avoid superficial study. Little need be said concerning this
error. If one is unwilling to "be diligent to present [himself]
approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed,
handling accurately the word of truth," he may as well count on
arriving at wrong understandings of God's Word. It's much easier
to rely on personal experience, tradition, and feelings than to
do the work of Bible study. But if we want to know what God meant
by what He said we're going to have to roll up our sleeves and go
3. Spiritualizing or allegorizing from Scripture is to be
avoided at all costs. MacArthur writes:
"Instead of our discovering what the Bible is really saying,
we sometimes put our imaginations in high gear and use a
Scripture passage as a gimmick to reach a certain point we
want to put across. Instead of getting something out of
Scripture, we read what we want into it.
An extreme example of the perils in allegorizing was the
young couple that came to one of our assistant pastors to
get counselling about their marital problems. He began
talking with them, and after about thirty minutes he said
"Why did you ever get married? You are miles apart!"
"Oh," said the husband "It was the sermon the pastor
preached in our church "
"And what was it?"
"Well, he preached on Jericho."
"Jericho! What does that have to do with you?"
"Well, he said that God's people claimed the city, marched
around it seven times and the walls fell down. He said if a
young man believed God had given him a certain young girl,
he could claim her, march around her seven times, and the
walls of her heart would fall down. So that's what I did,
and we got married"
"That isn't really true," said our assistant pastor. "You
are just kidding aren't you?"
No, it's true," said the husband "And there were many other
couples who got married because of the same sermon."
They say marriages are made in heaven. Here was a marriage
made in an allegory and a silly one at that!"
FIVE PRINCIPLES TO FOLLOW
1. The Literal Principle. This principle simply states that we
ought to understand Scripture in its natural and normal sense. If
a statement of Scripture is obviously a figure of speech (for
example, Isaiah 55:12 - "and all the trees of the field will clap
their hands," we should understand it as a figure of speech. If a
statement of Scripture is obviously a statement of literal fact
(for example, 2 Kings 11:12 - "and they clapped their hands and
said, 'Long live the king!'" - we should understand it as meaning
just what it sounds like it means. Before we ask ourselves, "What
does it mean," we need to ask ourselves, "What does it say?" Most
often, Scripture literally means what it says.
2. The Historical Principle. This principle recognizes that each
passage of Scripture was written by a specific human author, to a
specific audience, at a specific time in history, to address a
specific question or situation, and to communicate a specific
message. To understand what God's Word means here and now, we
must first learn what God's Word meant there and then.
3. The Grammatical Principle. God's Word was written in known
languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. These languages are made
up of words which carry specific meanings. They are organized
according to specific grammatical rules which affect the specific
meanings. To understand what God's Word means, we must understand
and apply the proper rules of grammar. Whether we are dealing
with the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek in which the Scriptures were
originally written or with our English or Spanish (etc.)
translations of the original languages, we need to know, for
instance, the difference between subject and verb, and past,
present, and future tenses.
4. The Synthesis Principle. This principle simply states that,
when properly understood, no part of Scripture contradicts
another part of Scripture. While the Bible was written by many
different human authors, it is altogether and in each of its
parts the Word of God. Second Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture
is inspired by God." Second Peter 1:21 says, "Men moved by the
Holy Spirit spoke from God." God himself is the single, overall
author of Scripture, and God does not disagree with Himself.
MacArthur quotes in "God Has Spoken" in which J.I.Packer writes:
"The Bible appears like a symphony orchestra, with the Holy
Ghost as its Toscanini; each instrument has been brought
willingly, spontaneously, creatively, to play his notes just
as the great conductor desired though none of them could
ever hear the music as a whole ... The point of each part
only becomes fully clear when seen in relation to all the
5. The Practical Principle. This principle has to do with
application. We are to be doers of the Word, not just hearers.
The Word of God is to be correctly interpreted and learned, not
just to add knowledge to knowledge, not just to win games of
Trivial Pursuit, but to change our lives.
And that brings us back to our original question: My
experience or God's revelation - where should Bible study begin?
Am I going to the Bible to learn God's will, or am I going
to find support for my will? Am I willing to conform to God, or
am I trying to conform God to me? Is it possible my present
understanding of God's Word is at least partially incorrect or
incomplete? Is it possible there is more for me to learn? Will I
allow God through His Word to change my life?
"And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the
renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God
is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).
Scripture quotations were taken from the New American Standard
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