Can’t you make the Bible say whatever you want?

Q. Over the last couple of years of reading different Bible interpretations it seems to me that there are 2 major distinct views. 1. Although Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants have slightly differing opinions, they are basically are the same. 2. The other group, those that consider the Sabbath to be Saturday, that there is no immortal soul thus no eternal Hell, that the whole above Church Hierarchy is actually a fake Christianity + more. Now I have been reading some of your views about how you can reconcile the differences within the #1 group, which I can understand, but how would you reconcile the #2 group when they basically are saying that the larger group you belong to, #1, is Satan’s false Church. Like you they also quote the Bible to back up their claims. I am not a Christian of any group so I find the whole thing very confusing as it seems to me that really you can make the Bible say whatever you want, it is just a matter of interpretation. I look forward to your reply.

Thank you for your question. Yes, you can make the Bible say whatever you want—if you take individual statements out of context and select and arrange them to support your prior commitments. But this is not a responsible way to read or teach the Bible. We would not handle any other book that way, and we shouldn’t accept it when people do it with the Bible.

As I have shown in my books The Beauty Behind the Mask and After Chapters and Verses, unfortunately the division of the Bible into chapters and especially verses, which happened many centuries after it was written, allows and even encourages this disintegrative approach. That is why I have helped to develop editions of the Bible that do not have the chapter and verse numbers in the text.

The proper way to understand and interpret any work of literature (and that is ultimately what the Bible is, a collection of literary works of different types) is to understand first what it was saying to its original audience. That requires an appreciation for the historical context in which the work was written and what issues it was intended to address (circumstances and occasion of composition); what kind of literature it is (literary genre); how it is put together on its own terms (literary structure); and what strong ideas run all the way through it (thematic development).

Interestingly, the large Christian communions that you describe as Group #1 essentially reflect a formation that took place before the Bible was divided into verses. Almost of necessity, their understanding of the Bible and its teaching was grounded in the disciplines I have just described. And I am fascinated and grateful to hear someone who is not a Christian say that they find the three main branches (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) to be “basically the same.” That is certainly what we believe about one another: that we agree on the essentials, and differ only on discretionary matters.

So when it comes to understanding and teaching the Bible, the difference between Group #1 and Group #2 is not a matter of interpretation, but of method. Of course someone who is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant could also follow the “pick and choose” method, but if they did that, they would likely soon start to have differences with the large, historic tradition to which they belong, and hopefully that tradition would help correct the mistakes that are nearly inevitable with that method. Group #2, I should note, actually got its start within the broad Christian tradition, but when its method led it to have different views, it went off on its own and declared the whole broad tradition wrong, instead of trusting in the consensus that Christian believers have had down through the centuries.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that I have Bible study guides available for free download. They approach the Bible as a collection of literary works, without chapters and verses, in terms of their circumstances of composition, literary genre and structure, and thematic development. Have a look at this page and see if there is a guide you might want to look at. (I’d particularly recommend the one to John for someone who is trying to find out more about the Christian faith.)

Thanks again for your question, and I hope this response has been helpful.


Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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