For the last few months I’ve been exploring the topic of human origins looking to solve challenges that skeptics hold about Cain’s wife, Cain’s city, and his parents, Adam and Eve. I’m not going to spell out here the details that I was uncovering, suffice it to say that my exploration of this topic ended up with me an inch away from the status of a heretic. I might be a little hard on myself, but, considering how much I hate to be wrong, it’s a big deal for me.
I was exploring the topic of origins looking for evidence in the Bible to support the idea that God created humans other than and in addition to Adam and Eve. I was exploring this because I was looking for answers to some interpretive challenges in Genesis 1-3 and found that the idea of God creating other people who were not in special relationship with him, solved some problems that we encounter in the text. For instance, how many kids did Adam and Eve have? Who occupied Cain’s city? If incest is forbidden, who did Cain marry? And other questions.
I found myself developing a theology about origins where these questions were easily answered by an interpretation of Genesis 1:27 that, “Them,” in that passage referred to many people and not simply the first couple of Adam and Eve. Starting there I found it was also easy to build a theological model based upon what scripture didn’t say as well as what it did say. Which is essentially to make scripture say something that it never really said at all, just through silence. And my solution to these interpretive challenges made everything very easy. And that, right there, should have been a warning to me. Scripture can be simple, but it’s not always easy.
Basically, I did six things. As you read this list, ask yourself, have you done these in your reading of scripture?
- I explored an issue rather than exegeting scripture.
- I didn’t examine all that scripture said on my topic, thus I was filling in the cracks of what was theologically missing with my own ideas, which were not derived from scripture.
- I was carried away by my own desires to find and tell something new, rather than let the scripture guide my thinking.
- I was coming to a conclusion that was different than what a careful examination of scripture actually revealed.
- I was looking for an answer I wanted, that I thought was easier.
- I wanted to tickle my own ears.
Now, I don’t want to be boastful, but let me share something to put this into perspective.
I love scripture. I read it everyday. I don’t read just a little, I read a lot. I read through all of the Bible at least twice to three times a year. I often read the New Testament more than that. I not only constantly read scripture, but I read books about scripture looking for deeper nuggets of truth in scripture that I may have never considered before. I constantly look in scripture for things to share. I’m thinking through scripture all the time. I keep a long list of over 40 topics I want to study and write about from scripture. I can teach and when I do I focus heavily on scripture. I have friends who are experts at interpretation and I rely on them and bounce my ideas off them from time to time to make sure I’m getting things right. I love scripture, I mean, I really love it. And though all of this is true the following is also true.
I put my own ideas ahead of and overlaid them on top of scripture and because of that I almost made a catastrophic interpretive mistake.
Now, if you have found yourself having the same problem from time to time, or you wonder why people tend not to agree with your interpretations, allow me to offer you three principles that will help you stay focused on what scripture actually says, rather than your own ideas. Here they are:
- Don’t explore, exegete.
- Don’t circumvent, accept.
- Don’t sublimate, submit.
Don’t Explore, Exegete
By explore I mean that we should be careful about what contemporary issues or challenges we bring to the text. It one sense this is noble. We want to live by scripture so we want to know that God speaks to the difficulties we face. But approaching scripture this way means we are looking at using scripture for own own intellectual or emotional ends rather than allowing the Lord to illuminate what he wants us to see. Inspiration is when God turns on the light. Illumination is when he shines that light on something he wants us to see.
To exegete is to allow the scripture to reveal its truth on the issues that it reveals and let that guide our thinking or discussion about that issue. Meaning in scripture is usually univalent, but its application can be many. Don’t let the many make up your meaning.
Don’t Circumvent, Accept
We circumvent scripture when we try to look for multiple or alternate meaning in the text so that we can apply its words to justify what we are already thinking. For instance, we go online and look up the Hebrew or Greek for something so that we can find some root meaning that we can take to justify what we’ve already decided we want the text to mean. We try and use one scripture to nullify another.
To accept is to do just what the word means; we accept what the scripture says in its original context and meaning instead of looking for a way to turn it around and make us look smarter or wiser than we really are.
Don’t Sublimate, Submit
To sublimate is similar to circumventing scripture. We use one scripture, or multiple passages to deny what another passage says in an attempt to gain a higher truth that we want scripture to say. One problem. It’s not a higher truth, it’s a made up truth and isn’t true at all. Rather, once we realize what the scripture actually says, we must go one more step beyond accepting it, we must submit to it. To submit to scripture is to submit to the Holy Spirit who is scripture’s author. But if we insist on our own meaning, then we are not in submission to the Spirit, but are in rebellion, in sin.
How is your Bible reading and Bible study going? Do you find yourself exploring, circumventing, and sublimating? It’s really easy to do. I’m in scripture and contemplating scripture all the time. Not that I’m a shining example. I just say that to drive home the point that any of us can make interpretive errors, even major ones, even though we saturate ourselves with the divine text. So, be careful. Do a self-check on your ideas and ask the Holy Spirit to help you in your understanding, meaning, and application. It may take a little time, but you will find that he will answer that prayer if you truly want his ideas over your own.