Fear-Driven Biblical Interpretation

Jonah and the Whale Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1887Evangelicals are passionate about Scripture. It’s foundational to who we are. Well, first and foremost, evangelicals are called to be passionate about the evangel (or gospel) of Christ and his kingdom. But Scripture is still of utmost importance, a strong bedrock in our theological and life formation.

So, it would follow that how we interpret Scripture must become crucial as well. However, biblical interpretation is no easy task…AT ALL. And to champion the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture, as most evangelicals do, could cause a bit of confusion if you simply read Scripture itself, as well as the multiplicity of interpretive approaches across the broad scope of 2000 years of Christian church history (I, of course, am referring to the non-heretical interpretations).

I’m currently thinking about this topic (well, I think about it often, though I’m considering it a bit more today) because of some interaction I came across from an acquaintance and his study of the book of Jonah – here’s a Facebook conversation and here’s his blog article.

The big question surrounding the 4-chapter work, Jonah, becomes this: Is Jonah literal or figurative?

Is it straight-up historical narrative or does it fall within another literary genre where Jonah is representative of Israel at the time of writing (is it written as satire to shock the people of Israel)?

But here’s the biggie for me.

When questions like these arise, it can easily be argued: “Well, if we can’t confirm that Jonah is literal and historical, how can we confirm that Jesus literally rose from the dead?” Or it comes with the imperative angle – “Well, if we deny the literal historicity of Jonah, then we are likely to deny the literal historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.” Something of that nature.

And the question can be formulated around a plethora of other interpretive challenges with passages such as the early chapters of Genesis, the exodus, Job, etc.

This approach – the italicized question/statement above – is a fallacious argument properly known as the slippery slope. If you believe A, then you’ll believe B. Or, more practically in this regard, if you believe A, then you’ll believe H (something way down the line that is essential to the Christian faith, such as affecting Christ’s resurrection).

The problem is that slippery slopes can’t be proven. They can be undergirded anecdotally, encompassing stories of folk who have denied the literal resurrection of Jesus (moving from point A to, say, point H). But then you’ve got plenty of theologians, pastors and Christians-in-general that are willing to consider a non-literal, historical journalistic reporting for the early chapters of Genesis or Jonah or the exodus or Job and still truly believe that Jesus, the Son of God, was raised from the dead by the power of God.

And if we aren’t aware of this, we need to read wider than our own theological tradition.

Another argument that might come forth and, if I’m honest, it feels quite manipulative, is when certain evangelical leaders make everything a”gospel issue.” You have to believe A because it’s a “gospel issue.” I’m not saying I hear that much with discussions surrounding the literary genre of Jonah. But you definitely hear it within discussions on the historicity of early chapters of Genesis (and other issues like women in leadership, for goodness sake!).

Believe that Genesis is not a literal journalistic report of history, then you’ll put the gospel at stake – because you won’t believe in original sin and compromise about an historical Adam, which means you’ll believe Christ’s death and resurrection were not real nor necessary.

Again, the problem is that most arguments fall under the slippery slope fallacy or the anecdotal story. Both are worth pondering, but they don’t produce any solid confirmation that if you believe A (Jonah/early chapters of Genesis are not literal, journalistic reporting) then you’ll believe H (Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead).

Ladies and gentlemen – we have a problem here, or multiple problems, at least from my assessment. We are extremely prone to over-react towards those who fall outside of our own ilk and we are fear-driven in our approaches, which leads people to use emotional manipulation in keeping people in line – “If you believe this, then you’re gonna believe that – oh, and you’ll compromise the gospel!” No, that’s not a solid conclusion, and there’s evidence to the contrary!

This is very unhealthy. And this shines brightest amongst varying groups of people who have self-assigned themselves the mantle of evangelical law officers, policing the theological world of what is and isn’t acceptable. No rock unturned, searching every nook and cranny.

Listen, I don’t even think they have ignoble hearts in this approach. They are doing the best they can. I did the best I could pastoring, and I still failed miserably at times. I do the best I can as a theological educator, and I still fail miserably at times. We are all doing the best we can with the gifts God has imparted to us.

But I am wary of the reality that things can be done out of fear, maybe fear of losing control of our parishioners (in the old days, it was, “If we don’t proclaim drinking alcohol as sin, they’re liable to get drunk.”)

Of course, part of shepherding involves the ministry of protecting the sheep from false teaching (see Acts 20:28-31; 1 Pet 5:1-4). This is important, I do not deny. I’ve had to engage in this in specific situations, but also find myself doing it in a general sense on a regular basis. But, at times, I find the necessary call that we protect against over-protection. I’ve seen too many pastors lead out of fear – fear someone might read a Rob Bell book or listen to a TD Jakes sermon or attend a Benny Hinn gathering. This is not good, my friends.

So how do we get past fear-driven interpretation of Scripture and pastoral leadership with regards to theological formation. There’s no easy answer, but I’ll  simply offer two thoughts.

1) Recognize the fear-driven focus. It’s hard – we don’t like to see our brokenness, frailty and sin. And we don’t like to see our obsession with control. Only God can help us see such. But we’ve got to be aware of our tendencies. Of course, many will say I need to recognize my lack of true commitment to Scripture. Perhaps. I need to be open to that, really I do. But if people are not denying central tenets of the faith (as highlighted in statements like the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds), let’s be careful in how we approach those with varying views from us.

Can you recognize the possibility of fear-driven leadership and interpretive measures?

2) Appreciate the height, depth and breadth of interpretive efforts in the 2000 years of the Christian faith. I’m not asking for one to celebrate Arianism or Docetism or Marcionism. But the wider, well-trodden Christian faith. How does one develop an appreciation for the broader Christian church and faith? By reading folks outside of your own background. If you’re Calvinist, read an Arminian (and not just around the topic of soteriology, the theology of salvation). If you’re Pentecostal, read a cessationist (and not just around the topic of baptism in the Holy Spirit). As we take up this spiritual discipline (yes, discipline), we might find ourselves appreciating Mennonites and Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Anglicans and Pentecostals – all at the same time.

And what I hope is that the appreciation will lead to celebration.

I have no eggs in the basket for whether Jonah is historical or non-historical. I’m happy either way. I know the arguments both ways. But I will say that I’m open to the non-historicity of Jonah. And, remember, just because Jesus speaks of Jonah in the gospels, this does not necessarily mandate that “Jonah must be history.”

Or let us not forget the theological impact of non-historical parables. Has anyone ever questioned the theological impact of the parable of the Good Samaritan, even though it’s not “literally historical”? Could Jonah impact our lives even if it is not literal history (though Jonah was most likely a Hebrew prophet of old)?

I say the answer to that question is a resounding, “YES!” The little book found in the minor prophets has, is and will continue to affect people’s lives, shaping people in the ways of Jesus for compassion, mission, mercy, justice and grace.

So, might we recognize where we are fear-driven and could we appreciate a wider theological interpretive grid? I do hope so.

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69 thoughts on “Fear-Driven Biblical Interpretation

  1. Well said. Sharing this today.

    I tend to lean toward the literal in Scripture, and certainly in Jonah (I don’t see where it doesn’t seem plausible). But I’m not AFRAID of the allegorical. It doesn’t ‘mess up my faith” to believe that God used STORIES to get His points across. This doesn’t make Him less of a God. In fact, maybe it makes Him MORE impressive, that He could get people to agree and pass down these stories SO accurately from generation to generation, such that His true nature and work shines out through them.

    In the past three years, I have done exactly what you suggested. Started reading the viewpoints that are the EXACT opposite of mine. On some issues, I was persuaded to “switch sides” (not that I’m dogmatic on ANY issue save Christ). On others, reading the other side strengthened my belief that what I believed was true..

    We need to stop being afraid of views that aren’t our own. One can only learn if one reads about NEW ideas. Not that “new” = “right”, but new can be an eye-opener to things you never considered before. It sure has been for me.

  2. Wow, what a mess, such are often ad hoc statements about the Holy Scripture! No fear here for me, the Holy Scripture is its own presupposition, statement and revelation!

    “So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 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.” (2 Peter 1:19-21) And note this follows Peter’s remembrance, which is surely “revelation” of the great Transfiguration, which Peter calls “the Majestic Glory”! (2 Peter 1:1-17-18)…”And we ourselves heard this utterance (voice) made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” (Verse 18)

    • Btw, our only real “fear-driven” aspect should be the reality of Him Who is Totally-Other! And this is seen in “Spirit and Truth”! Thank God too the “fear” is awe of Him Who is: the pneuma Theou, and also the pneuma Christou… “God is pneuma” (John 4: 24).

  3. Amen and amen, Scott. We can maintain a high view of Scripture without making Scripture what we think it needs to be for it to be Scripture. While it is good to be cautious in our reading of Scripture to some extent it is just as good to be critical, because the uncritical reader is often the one who blindly and dogmatically confuses their reading of the text, or their desire for a certain type of text, for the text itself. As Daniel Kirk has said (using diff. words): we need to appreciate the Bible that God actually gave us, not the one we wish he did.

      • @Scott: My shot was not so much at the Book of Jonah, but the full trustworthiness of the essence of Holy Scripture! Though the Intro. for Jonah is well stated in the notes of the ESV Study Bible… “prophetic narrative”… and the historical nature… “especially clear when Jesus declared that “the men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah (Matt. 12: 41).” Not to mention the Salvation History aspect and Jonah’s analogy of his rescue from death for the resurrection of Christ (Matt. 12: 39-40). But we cannot miss either the satirical vehicle or nature in the narrative. Here is great spiritual and theological truth, both didactic and the again satire, but again the essence is the great Doctrine of God through and in Christ!

  4. I agree with what you’ve written Scott. it’s good. i echo Brian’s and TC’s statements. I would argue that Jonah is true but not necessarily historical (it may be to some extent. As i said to TC when Jesus mentioned Jonah he was invoking a story not necessarily a history lesson.

    • Indeed the Word of God does humble us, and even sometimes makes us silent! As St. Paul writes: “For we do not preach ourselves [or our theories] but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus sake.” (2 Cor. 4: 5) Not always an easy road, btw! WE like to see ourselves as “something” as servants of Christ, but in reality we are quite “nothing” before HIM! He could easily do without us, and find another to shepherd His flock!

    • Btw, McKnight, a onetime said “Anabaptist”, was I hear going to become some kind of Anglican, in so-called ‘holy orders’. Has any heard further on this? And one has to wonder these days, whether its High or Low Church also? I would assume something Low Church?

      • And one does not have to be Anglican to believe in the Nicene Creed, as Luther was most fully one who believed in the Nicene “homoousios”! But Anabaptist and Nicene? Well that is not of course a historical line for the former, per se; though of course there are Reformed Baptists who would believe here. I am delighted to hear if McKnight has become an Anglican deacon? The classic Anglican Faith is however always something close to the Thirty-Nine Articles! Which are always something Reformed, but with a church closer to the via-media, both “catholic” and “reformed”…Reformational and a church “Cranmeric”, the Book of Common Prayer. 🙂

  5. Scott boldly proclaims: “The problem is that slippery slopes can’t be proven.”
    Did you really just say this? 😀 The entire apostate emergent WESTERN CHURCH is proof. YOU are proof. The stuff you preach on this website was almost universally denounced as damnable heresy just a couple generations ago. You call it “progress”, but it’s a trip down a slippery slope from THE truth as it is in Christ Jesus to this blurry crayon box disaster you revel in here.

    Gravity is harder to prove.

    • Trib –

      You’re doing exactly what this article points out. And I think most reasonable evangelicals would think it silly that holding to women in leadership, being open to evolutionary creation and not committed to the one Scriptural adjective, mainly inerrancy. As I pointed to earlier, check out McKnight’s article today: Who Is A Heretic?.

      • It seems McKnight must re-address his whole past ministry as an “Anabaptist”, with this question… “Can the non-denominational or independent church use the term appropriately?” Again, is he now an Anglican? Then he must address what sort of Anglican he is? And quoting Timothy Ware, is not helpful here btw. And I am somewhat friendly with the EO as to the Trinity and Christology in general, but on soteriology there are major differences for Anglican’s who believe and follow the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles, which are simply Reformed and Reformational! And his article on ‘Who Is A Heretic?’ Is too general in my opinion!

      • And I can’t help be wonder if McKnight knows the great “Calvinist” history in Anglicanism? Noting and remembering people like the old Irishman T.C. Hammond, as his effect on the diocese of Sydney, and Moore College in Australia?

  6. I think for me it HAS been a “slippery slope”, not to say that this happens to everyone or that, e.g., believing in a literal resurrection requires believing in a literal Jonah in the belly of a fish for three days. But I do think a literal resurrection has become less important to me since I’ve started seeing the Bible as a set of literary works of various genres rather than a direct reporting of facts. The message that, through God, life triumphs over death, or the message that God cannot be taken away from us, or any lesson you take from the resurrection story is valuable even if it didn’t happen. I’m not saying it didn’t or that it couldn’t, but I don’t feel confident in our ability to know that as people 2000 years removed from the events (collectively, we have trouble remembering what things were like 20 or 30 years ago, even things directly experienced by people alive today!) What I do know is that trusting in the resurrection (if not its historicity, then at least its message) makes a difference for people in modern times, and I know that it has given me life. It leaves me in an awkward in-between space, but it’s that space where I feel most honest.

    • I will go with St. Paul here, the good old Jewish Pharisee and believer in the literal resurrection! (Acts 23: 6-8) “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor. 15: 13-17, noting too verses 18-19)

  7. Reblogged this on efcgraceblog and commented:
    Sometimes I read something that makes me wonder if this guy has been inside my head. If he has,he expresses himself more clearly than I do. I’ve written before about the dangers of overplaying the “slippery slope.” This is what I mean.

    • @Eric: And “once upon a time”, you were created, and lived and died (or will). Thank God Job can say by “revelation”, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God.” (Job. 19: 25-26)

      • “Once upon a time”, is not the way Job begins, but, “There WAS a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” (Job 1: 1) Btw, see the long subscription, in the Septuagint ending of the Book of Job! And Abraham’s brother Nahor has eight sons, and two among them named Uz and Buz. Uz gives his name to the land. Buz and Aram are connected with Elihu, (Job 32: 2). “Buzite”, descended from Buz, the second son of Nahor, the brother of Abraham (Gen. 22: 20-21).

      • “Once upon a time” is a legit way to translate אִ֛ישׁ הָיָ֥ה בְאֶֽרֶץ־ע֖וּץ אִיּ֣וֹב שְׁמ֑וֹ Job 1:1a. In fact, the NRSV sort of approaches that with its “1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.”

      • And let’s not forget the NT Genealogy of Jesus/Yehsua the Messiah, both Matthew and Luke! Eric, your pressing a modern/postmodern spin on Job 1:1! The Land of Uz, is simply among the people of the East, speaking generally (verse 3), or perhaps tribesmen of Kedem? But simply our Book of Job is a Hebraic ‘righteous suffer’! But the “literary artistry” is surely the Jewish Wisdom Literature, and I think we can all (or should) abide here!

      • Fiction writers sometimes/often set their stories in real places.

        The setting of Job doesn’t prove its historicalness or factualness.

      • There are no “fiction writers” in the Judeo-Christian Canon and Witness. This is a modern and now postmodern myth and idea. Note, the Protestant fight against the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. I myself certainly stand with the Reformation Creeds here!

      • So who and how deciphers this? Give us an example! Where does the Church itself decipher Gen. 1: 2 for example? And how about the Ancient Hebrew Cosmology? Myself without rejecting somewhat the latter, we still must see the biblical cosmos within the Text itself, and not from the pagans! “And the earth was waste and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1: 2) Note we must factor here: Creation, Fall, and Redemption, but creationally, and in both chapters of Genesis, 1& 2. Yes, I am myself something “Framework”, but within the whole Thematic of the two chapters. A Old Earth Creation!

  8. Reading outside our theological grid is healthy as long as we do not simply read with an opponent’s mindset. Better to hold our convictions with open hands and understand the needs for our theology to evolve.

  9. As long as we can pull the gospel out of the text, and not just the text off the page, I think we will be on the course.

    God uses earthen vessels. So we really don’t have to be quite so concerned (obsessed) with literalism.

    The finite contains the infinite. As it was with the man Jesus himself.

    Thanks.

    • @TOA: The grammatical historical is surely important however! “Church doctrines are primarily rules for speech about God, rather than actual assertions about the divine reality.” Doctrines are true primarily as parts of a whole or total pattern, which reveals a truth-claim towards the systematic framework of God and His revelation. But they are surely only revelations seen in the Holy Scripture itself, and the true Christian wants nothing to do with any modern idea of any “crisis of the Scripture principle.” But hermeneutics is always the press into the human, but discipline of seeing or hearing the voice of the living Word of God, who is Himself the ground of truth, but always “in spirit and truth.” And here Jesus Christ is Himself both the “Logos” and the “Rhema”, as the Word of God. So without the Incarnation we not only don’t have the voice of God, but we don’t have the reality and ground of the Atonement, itself! But thankfully with the Incarnation we have both! John 1: 14 ; 18; 29…”the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

  10. I appreciated this article, Scott. I agree that we evangelicals often tend to make essentials out of non-essential issues, and then use them as a kind of litmus test for whether someone is a True Believer.

    • @Greg: Amen here! Though old Pink surely had feet of clay like even the best “theolog’s”! Note, however now how so many so-called “evangelical churches” play fast and loose with the Holy Scripture! I.e. Emergents! Surely we are seeing more and more of the great Gentile Apostasy!

  11. Good points.
    However, since the historicity or literalism of the stories named specifically (and those implied) are deemed ‘non-essential’ and ‘unprovable’, caution should be taken to avoid becoming the antithetical twin to those you see as evangelical “chicken littles”.

    • Dwayne – Good to hear from you. I’m not sure I called anyone “chicken little.” That might be more of a term with discussions of eschatology or those deeming culture as completely evil.

      And, yes, these are all non-essentials. However, you find plenty stating their essential nature, even some saying the gospel is at stake with them. I find that personally troubling.

      Thanks again for stopping by and interacting.

      • Yes, one wonders too how much life experience many have had also? Over 20 years in military service and experience (broken time), with at least two wars, has been my own personal road, of course besides my theological education. And living and teaching in Israel after Gulf War 1, in the latter 90’s was simply providential! So my eschatological position is surely NOT a non-essential! Indeed I am unashamedly pro-Israel, and a “Biblical” Zionist! So you are speaking for yourself Scott, as to whatever is your eschatology?

      • “Chicken Little” was my term – my way of summing up the people you describe; sorry for attributing it to you.
        C.S. Lewis wrote a great chapter/essay titled “Horrid Red Things” which touches on this subject and, I think, places the onus of loving response on the enlightened. Now, if both parties in this passionate ballet of biblical belief and skepticism believe that they are the enlightened ones and follow Mr. Lewis’ lead – then we should all get along swimmingly. 🙂
        It is good talking with you as well, perhaps our paths will cross soon.
        It would be good to see you again.

      • Btw, C.S. Lewis was a brilliant guy for sure! But he is not always the best orthodox Christian. His own personal rector and so-called confessor, was of course Austin Farrer, so for all you former, or present Lewis junky’s, check out the Anglican presbyter: Austin Farrer (1904-1968). He is quite considered by some to be one of the greatest theological minds the Anglican Communion has seen, certainly in the mid 20th century! A nice place to start is, the edited book: Captured by the Crucified, The Practical Theology Of Austin Farrer, (T&T Clark, 2004)

        And believe me there is life after seminary! Even both the theological, but more important perhaps is the pastoral. I am 64 (almost 5), and both retired and semi-retired, towards so-called ministry.

  12. Pingback: Appreciating the Humanity of the Bible | New Leaven

  13. A few hotheads denouncing your views, I see! You’re in good company! Are you familiar with Greg Boyd’s ‘house of cards’ analogy—his equivalent of your ‘slippery slope’? I find both illustrations helpful.

    • No Open Theism for me! I was raised Irish Roman Catholic in the 1950’s, and even there, at least in my time, Molinism was not that accepted, save with some Jesuits. The efficacy of grace is there always conditional upon human cooperation. But Aquinas as the Dominicans, knew it detracted from the quite all sufficient divine grace! Talk about a “house of cards”!

      • Why ya gotta do this!! Don’t even get me started on open theism or molinism. Though not always the case they do make splendid partners don’t they?

      • I would at least agree that Open Theism, as a theological system is very close to “anathema”! And of course in the NT Paul uses the Greek word to denote being accursed and separated from the Christian Church for the sin of preaching a different gospel! It is strange how this so-called really “Molinist” doctrine has taken hold with some Protestant and so-called Evangelical’s?

    • Another apostate homo-emergent homeboy Scott . You are NOT in good company. It is a serious statement when I say I beg God that you are not a living object lesson in Hebrews 6:4-8.

      I actually mean that. I fully expect this godless beguiling emergent apostasy to grow and quicker all the time. The very scriptures you guys are whizzing all over all the time tells me to expect it.

      • Trib and Robert –

        Guys, we need a little more moderation on the commenting or I will have to ban you from commenting.

        Trib – Please discuss the issues at hand, not throwing out ad hominem, “Another apostate homo-emergent homeboy.” You have no idea what David Matthew gave to evangelical Christianity for the past 40-50 years.

        Robert – Please try and stop commenting over & over & over, not necessarily to anyone in particular, followed up by continual “BTW” comments. It’s better to engage on the topics at hand & actually engage with what people say.

        Thanks, brothers. I am happy for your engagement, but be Christlike and try to refrain from tooting one’s own horn.

      • @Scott: Awe, I have been here way too long, and there is simply not enough biblical & theological common ground (btw), since I have a true pastoral desire, I have no doubt been pitching hard, but its time to go, so I will pull my plug myself! And Amos 3: 3 comes to mind!

        Best to all who are ‘In Christ’,
        Fr. Robert

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