On the Use and Misuse of Scripture

      Holy scripture is the most dangerous of literature.  It is dynamite which can either clear a spacious path to aid your journey or, if misapplied, can blow you up (along with others who may be standing nearby).  Tragically, it is often used as a weapon and is engaged in the service of prejudice, ignorance, and untruth.  While there are many warnings which can be given, chief among them is to be wary of anyone who presumes to tell you what God (or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit) wants, needs, is like, will do, et., etc.  Run quickly as far away as you can.

     Real discernment is necessary here.  We must be prudent, humble, open to finding the answer, and wide awake, “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  Only by a diligent searching of the scriptures will the answer(s) come to you.  More likely than not, a single verse will not avail—multiple passages must be weighed to encounter what lies among—and between—them.  It is serious business and no task for the weak at heart.    

     But you shouldn’t take my word for it alone.  To begin, here is a lengthy passage from J.P. Love’s How to Read the Bible (New York, Macmillan, 1940):

     “….a reader often misleads himself, for he will take a verse from the Psalms and then turn over to Paul, putting two things together that have no immediate connection.  Some striking similarity may lead him to think he sees a relationship, but he tends to combine two quite different subjects.  Before long he may be off on a tangent.  Many of the sects and isms that beset American Christianity have come about just in this way.  The principle that ‘scripture is to be interpreted by scripture’ is no more a blanket rule to apply to all thinking about the Bible than it would be to interpret a sentence from the editorial column of the morning newspaper by an account on the sports page….The complacent doctrine of the guidance of the Spirit [in the creation of the Bible] may become Protestantism’s tool for keeping people in ignorance as much as Catholicism’s dictum of the Church’s word that must be taken without reason….You leaf here and there through the Bible and read whatever you happen to open to, or whatever strikes your fancy.  And sometimes you get a good thought that way.  You are in a certain mood and the message of a Bible passage strikes you directly.  You catch a thought as it soars on the wing, and it is evermore memorable in connection with the occasion on which you read it.”

     I must offer a correction.  The fallacy, I feel, is not “scripture interpreted by scripture” but “scripture interpreted by any scripture”.  Biblical cross-references are not and do not have to be haphazard.  There are well-researched linguistic and textual guides to lead our search.  Nor is it necessary that there be an inseparable gulf between the Old and New Testaments.  Any Bible with a descent system of cross-references will include both testaments. Much in the Judeo-Christian tradition speaks to both, and New Testament writing has often cited the Hebrew prophets, Psalms or other scripture.  Jesus on the cross, when uttering “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” was quoting Psalm 22.  The longer I walk this path, the more I am drawn to the rich Judaic roots of our interconnected faiths.  As much as some would like to call Jesus the first Christian, he was born, lived, and died a Jew.  His disciples created the church, or more correctly, the churches, depending on their different beliefs.

     Scripture is one thing and scriptural interpretation is another.  We should not be so confident in our ability to interpret precisely and fully.  This is not to say that we should not make the effort.  We “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  Our knowledge and perceptions change over time, as variable as our moods.  There is an emotional as well as an intellectual component.  Consider that a poem you write on a blustery winter day will probably be different in theme and emphasis than one written at the peak of spring.  Interpretation can never be a purely intellectual process.

     Themes must be considered, but not all themes are equal.  There are broad, overarching ones such as grace, faith, God, the Spirit, the lordship of Christ, and many more.  They may be divided into sub-themes, with much scriptural background and support.  There are likewise minor themes, some of note and some of such questionable value they should scarcely be regarded.  Discernment as to relative importance as well as thematic classification should guide scriptural citation.

     The scriptures have a divine component but a human one as well.  Inerrancy is a hard position to support in view of the reality that these writings come from traditions (and often conflicting ones at that).  Take for example, the books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, who themselves were assembled from the “J” (Jahvist or Yahwist), “E” (Elohist), “D” (Deuteronomist) and “P” (Priestly) sources interwoven through the texts.  Take the Gospels themselves.  The varying accounts of their writers do not detract from one another but help us to get a more in-depth view as the individual impressions of the gospel writers are revealed.

     Linguistic study, too, has much to offer.  Words mean things, and a word or related words in a scriptural context can reveal relationship and relevancy.  We should avail ourselves of concordances, dictionaries (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, and others), and linguistic research to aid us in our study.

     Many highly developed chain reference systems exist, and time taken to pursue them in a course of detailed Biblical study is time well spent.  Not all of them are of equal scholarly development or thematic emphasis; discernment is necessary.  It is all grist for the mill.  The Jerusalem Bible is, to a common reader like me with no advanced theological or linguistic training, an invaluable asset.  Its chain reference system is complemented with scholarly notes to passages in the text.  Its chain references provide multiple perceptions which, as they are followed, suggest a theme or themes running from more specific to more inclusive.  Scholarly notes, combined with the chain references, bring with them a linguistic knowledge of Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin and Greek which is necessary to explore the meaning of key words.  In addition, the notes provide summaries of the teaching of the church fathers [and mothers?] as well as frequent textual comparison to the Vulgate, so that we may learn from those who have gone before us.  Finally, commentary is provided on the placement which certain scriptural passages have in the context of the liturgy, enabling scriptural worship of the Divine.

     I would not be very helpful if I didn’t tell you how I do it.  First, I need a lot of scratch paper.  I rarely throw paper away—I just cut it up into small pieces to use as markers.  When you use any decent chain reference, you jump down the rabbit hole.  It is the pre-digital version of  hyperlinks, with one leading to many, which lead to many more.  As long as I can detect relevance, I continue to mark.  My internal radar will tell me when the relevance begins to fade, when to stop the particular chain, or when a link simply does not apply.  But if it does, I leave a marker, writing chapter and verse(s) on it so I know where to look when I turn to that page again.  I keep marking until I feel that I have satisfied my search, and then trace the references which have been keyed by each marker.  This will surely lead to more markers, but if I am faithful to the search, it’s what I need to do.  Eventually, the search ends.  In the process of so doing, I use a separate (large) piece of scrap paper to record each relevant verse citation.  For those with Bibles having commentaries (such as my Jerusalem Bible, the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha,, or others) I record the letter or number of the note(s) which shed additional light.   As a guide to relative importance, I underline what I feel to be key verses, those which guide the process.  When relevance fades, or when all or most references begin to occur in another related theme, the chain stops.  At this point the decision could be made to combine the themes, although it is good practice to have a number of well-developed specific themes along with general ones. The fact that several of them cross is an asset: it is better to have multiple “looks” where the same passage can serve as a window to other themes than it would be to have a more consolidated, restricted reference.  A theme is not an outline.  It is a gathering of elements which have mutually supporting relations.  These are considered holistically; an outline might arbitrarily limit the ability of the Divine to speak and cannot be so neatly contained.  Finally, additional major themes may be suggested by word study (because words mean things) using concordances, commentaries and dictionaries.  If used, these are added to the chain reference links.  This is especially useful to gather the supporting reference for terms which are basic, extensively used, and essential to spiritual vocabulary.  Once the search has (at last) been concluded, I transfer my scrap paper notes to 3×5 cards in order of the sequence of the books in the Bible (Apocryphal books included).  The underlined key verses may be included in the sequence, or may appear at the top of the card (I have done both).  A diligent search may take much time, but for me it is time well spent.  So there you have it.  Thanks for hanging with the explanation.     

     There are references within the Judeo-Christian scriptures and there are references outside of them as well.  An informed study of, for example, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, or the texts of Shin (Pure Land) Buddhism with its unique emphasis on grace, can, with discernment, shed light on Judeo-Christian themes.  They may, in my view, not be so separate as we might suppose.  Divine inspiration has the ability to do this across diverse spiritual, cultural and scriptural traditions.  It should not be underestimated   We may be called to consider how they might support one another and be drawn more closely into each other’s orbits.  A prime example is Bede Griffith’s River of Compassion: A Christian Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.  Some interesting research in Hindu-Christian thought revealing Christ as the Purusha, or Divine Person, have recently appeared from such writers as M. M. Ninan, Joseph Padinjarekara, and Raimundo Panikkar.  The common core is greater than we might suppose, and further research promises to reveal the “firm foundation” upon which many holy scriptures rest.

     A lifetime of scripture reading is a labor of love, a joyous burden.  As we proceed, it should open to us the greater life, full of inward joy, but also compassion for our world.  This should be a touchstone.  Misguided and non-contextual interpretation of scripture has been the basis for any number of widespread injustices and untruths, especially antisemitic and anti-Muslim prejudice which is making a regrettable resurgence.  Some of what has been written and said is dross which should be burnt away—it bears with it the marks of human prejudice and anger.  In it resides misogyny, grasping at power, falsehood, and, most evident of all, the representation of an angry and vengeful God which largely represents the anger of the culture of our time.  It has served as a refuge for those who with a madness for power, sexual predation, racism, and more.  It is a shameful legacy indeed, and the inevitable fruit of aberration.  But if we are honest there is an antidote: critical study and reflection on scripture and its interrelationships, guided by diligent study, will sharpen our view, restore our judgment, and give us focus.  It will show us the way through the jungle of misinterpretation.  Do you dare to walk this path?  Both the effort and the rewards are great.

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