The Dangerous Idea of Protestant Christianity: Temptations That Lead One to Misinterpret Scripture

Recently, I read a book by Alister McGrath titled Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. McGrath’s thesis was that Protestantism is based upon “The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves” (McGrath 2007, 2). Referring to this “dangerous idea,” McGrath writes,

“But how was the Bible to be interpreted—for example, on the contentious issue of homosexuality, a major cause of friction within Anglicanism at the moment? Despite the best efforts of the Conference, reflecting multiple tensions between religious liberals and conservatives, modern and post-modern worldviews, and the very different cultural context of the West and emerging world” (McGrath 2007, 1).

It appears that McGrath is spot-on with his assessment. In 2011, the Presbyterian USA approved a controversial change in their Book of Order. Their website states,

“A majority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 173 presbyteries have ratified an amendment to the church’s constitution that removes a provision flatly prohibiting the ordination of sexually active unmarried Presbyterians as church officers.

The 87th vote in favor of the measure ― dubbed Amendment 10-A after it was approved by the PC(USA)’s 219thGeneral Assembly last summer ― was cast today (May 10) by the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area.

The unofficial tally now stands at 87-62, with 24 presbyteries still to vote. The change takes effect July 10 ― one year from the adjournment of the 219th Assembly.

The action replaces the current G-6.0106b in The Book of Order with new language. That provision, which was placed in the constitution following the 1996 Assembly, requires of church officers “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”

As a result of the vote, ordaining bodies ― local church sessions for elders and deacons and presbyteries for ministers ― will have more flexibility in determining individual candidates’ fitness for ordained office in the denomination” (Marter 2011, www.pcusa.org).

Even more recently the Presbyterian USA (PCUSA), the largest Presbyterian denominations in America took the issue a step farther. David Roach of Baptist Press reports,

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became one of the largest Christian denominations in America to endorse gay marriage when its General Assembly voted in Detroit yesterday (June 19) to allow pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a man and a woman.”
The authorization for pastors to perform gay weddings takes effect immediately and applies only to ministers in the 19 states where the practice is legal. The measure passed by a vote of 317 (61 percent) to 238 (39 percent) and was classified as an “Authoritative Interpretation” of the PCUSA constitution.
A commissioner at a meeting of the General Assembly’s Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee raised a point of order regarding the Authoritative Interpretation, noting that it appeared to contradict the constitution it purported to interpret, the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC) reported on its website. Currently the PCUSA constitution states, “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man” as well as a “covenant” between “a man and a women” for Christians. The point of order, in parliamentary rules, was “not well taken.”
Also in the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee meeting, a motion to read Scripture for 20 minutes before starting discussion of same-sex marriage was defeated 39-22, the PLC reported”
(Roach 2014, http://www.bpnews.net).

Protestantism is a wonderful, glorious gift. The gift is that all individuals have the opportunity to read and interpret the Word of God. The Word of God is meant to be read by all and translated so that all can understand its meaning. However, there are also dangers to biblical interpretation when it is abused. As mentioned in the article Biblical Exegesis vs. Eisegesis: Practicing Good Hermeneutics here on pastorbrianchilton.wordpress.com, exegesis is the practice of allowing the Bible to speak for itself. Eisegesis is the practice of making the Bible state what one desires it to say. Is it not ironic that the Bible was not allowed to be read before a vote was taken in this year’s PCUSA assembly? The following are some of the common temptations that seek to thwart one into the dangerous practice of biblical eisegesis:

bible_interpretation

Societal Temptation

When society dictates something that is contrary to the Bible’s teachings, it is tempting for one to give in to the pressure. Such was the case with the Roman persecution of Christians. It would have been easy for a Christian to accept emperor worship and avoid the wrath of the Empire. Crucifixions, hangings, beheadings, and being food for wild animals have never been appealing to anyone of right mind. However, Christians stood firm. For instance, take Stephen in the book of Acts: he could have given in to the pressure placed upon him by his persecutors. Instead, Stephen said,

 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet that your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:51-53, NIV).

The Christian must ask oneself, “Who am I trying to please by my interpretation of Scripture…people or God?”

 biblical-interpretation-cloud

Sinful Temptation

If one is engaged in a particular sin, it is easy to justify it by using eisegetical practices instead of exegetical practices. Consider the slave-owners of American colonial times. McGrath states that the slave-owners use of the Bible to promote slavery “represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions on the text” (McGrath 2007, 324). In other words, the ends justify the means. The interpreters were going to force the Bible to say what they wanted it to say. Is this a healthy way of biblical interpretation?

Amaziah was at least honest in the fact that he did not want to hear a word of warning from the actual prophet Amos. In fact, he told Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of his kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13, NIV). Amos’ response will be given later. But suffice it to say, it is important that one is willing to actually hear the voice of God instead of hearing what one desires to hear.

 

Familial Temptation

If one has a family member that is engaging in a sinful practice, one may be tempted to justify that member’s actions. In the book of Acts, there is a story about two dishonest individuals named Ananias and Sapphira. They lied to God and to the congregation about the money they gave. Ananias, the husband died, for his lie. The wife, Sapphira, went along with her husband’s lie and suffered the same fate (see Acts 5). In other words, let the truth be the truth. For this is part of what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine” (Matthew 10:37, NLT). Whose love do you cherish the most? If we are honest, God is the one who is responsible for our existence…and our eternity.

 

Ecclesiastical Temptation

Often, one will use the Scripture to justify one’s church’s or denomination’s position on a certain issue. It is often humorous to read and/or hear of the theological gymnastics that hyper-Calvinists use when reading John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9 and that hyper-Arminians use when reading Romans 9 and Jeremiah 1. While one should support one’s church and denomination, it may be that one finds him/herself standing in opposition to the decisions of one’s denomination. For instance, I am a Southern Baptist. However, this writer would disagree with some decisions made during the SBC conferences. Nonetheless, having a disagreement is one thing. But when one’s denomination practices or endorses practices that do not coincide with the clear teachings of Scripture, then more serious matters are at hand. One then must ask whether it is worth staying with such a group. The question must be asked: who does one serve…God or one’s church and/or denomination?

Conclusion

The main point is that Protestantism brings with it an intense responsibility. Peter Parker was told in the Spiderman comics that “With great power, comes great responsibility.” This is true of biblical interpretation. There is a great responsibility that every interpreter holds. There will always be points of difference within one’s interpretation, but one needs to ensure themselves that they allow the Holy Spirit to speak to them through the Scriptures instead of forcing one’s views onto the pages of Scripture. Amos’ conflict with Amaziah was mentioned earlier. After Amaziah asked Amos replied, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14-15, NIV). Will we read and hear the Word of the Lord or will we fall into the temptation of forcing our views onto the pages of Scripture? Will we be found to be more like Amos or Amaziah in our biblical interpretations?

 

Bibliography

Roach, David. “PCUSA endorses gay marriage.” Baptist Press. (June 20, 2014). http://www.bpnews.net/42832/pcusa-endorses-gay-marriage. (accessed June 23, 2014).

Marter, Jerry van. “PC(USA) relaxes constitutional prohibition of gay and lesbian ordination: change reaffirms historical practice of ordaining bodies determining fitness for office.” PCUSA.org. (May 11, 2011). http://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/5/11/pcusa-relaxes-constitutional-prohibition-gay-and-l/ (accessed June 23, 2014).

McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Scripture noted as NIV comes from the New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Scripture noted as NLT comes from the New Living Translation. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2007.

 

© Pastor Brian Chilton. 2014.

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9 thoughts on “The Dangerous Idea of Protestant Christianity: Temptations That Lead One to Misinterpret Scripture”

  1. The Bible is open to a number of interpretations and anyone who thinks that they have the correct interpretation is making a very bold claim indeed. What Christians don’t like to admit is that whatever way you interpret the Bible, you’re going to come across passages that seem to contradict your view because it’s not a brilliantly coherent piece of work. Case in point – according to the Bible, can killing ever be justified?

    1. There are things in the Bible that are difficult to interpret. If one holds to the belief in God, which obviously I do, then one would expect there to be elements which would be difficult to understand. This does not mean however that one cannot find the direct meaning of Scripture. However, this takes work. Obviously, there are areas where there will be disagreements in interpretation…undoubtedly. But this does not mean that one cannot discover the meaning of the Scripture. This is the practice of “Hermeneutics.” But, I agree that one cannot claim to have all the answers.

  2. I don’t think any Christian can really provide a comprehensive Biblical interpretation that says killing is always right, or always wrong, or right in circumstances x, y and z. I also believe that what goes for killing goes for many other moral issues as well. All that Christians can do is give their version and then state boldly that theirs is right because God said so. I find this particularly interesting given that most Christians are absolutely sure that their religion comes with an in-built objective moral code. It’s a code that they’ll never be able to agree on.

    1. I’m not sure that I follow your thought pertaining to an objective moral code. I would agree that some Christians do follow that kind of thinking in which every opinion is taken as gospel fact…especially those in the more hyper-fundamentalist camp. But so do some atheists especially the likes of Richard Dawkins. Bottom line: just because Christians cannot agree on some issues does not indicate that the Bible cannot be understood on core issues. However, this does come with a disclaimer: certain portions of the Bible are indeed more difficult than others especially pertaining to apocalyptic literature. Nonetheless, one can still find the objective meaning behind the text and find multiple applications.

  3. My point on the objective moral code is that I’ve often heard Christians (including the rather brilliant apologist William Lane Craig) assert that without the God of the Bible there can be no objective definition of ‘wrong’ or ‘right’. For them, the Bible is the foundation of a morality which says some things are always good and other things are always bad.

    My question is, if Christians are so confident that the Bible provides a moral code, can they spell out exactly what this moral code is? Can one draw up a list of morals from the Bible that is fully consistent with all of its teachings?

    When I talk about killing, I mean killing in any circumstance that you can think of. According to the Bible, can there ever be ANY circumstances in which killing is justified?

    1. Very good question!!! Let me first define the parameters set forth in my last two articles. The Bible consists of 66 individual books. It is very reasonable to purport that the meaning of the each book in the Bible can be understood objectively. Hence, one can know with a good deal of certainty what the text meant to the individuals to whom it was written…generally speaking. Undoubtedly, there are indeed passages of the Bible which are more difficult to interpret than other passages. It would be foolish indeed to claim that such passages do not exist. However, when taken in context, one can find a good amount of evidence pointing to a particular meaning.

      Next, the main differences come when the Bible is systematized. In reality, within the scope of mainstream Christians, there are actually far more similarities than differences especially on the fundamentals of the faith. Certain groups of Christians focus on certain elements of the faith. For instance, Calvin focused on the power of God whereas Wesley focused on the love of God. Both are important.

      Finally, to address your question: progressive revelation must be understood. This is to say that there are certain things in the New Testament that overruled particulars in the Old Testament. For instance, dietary restrictions were lifted in the book of Acts. Jesus directed individuals to focus not so much on an “eye for an eye” philosophy rather to love everyone…even one’s enemies (a difficult task indeed). Christians understand Jesus to be the human embodiment of God. So, particular things, especially cultural practices, in the Old Testament may not apply to modern Christians. But, that is not to say that the general standards of right and wrong still do not apply.

      On the note of “killing,” I would say that there is evidence to support the defense of one’s family, capital punishment for severe crimes, and following orders of military command when in wartime conditions. This would make a good topic for a future article. To be honest, I will need to do a little more digging into this topic. But, “killing” should NEVER be a focal point for any Christian. Unfortunately, people have allowed political influences and the hunger for power to alter this perception. The main general theme of the Bible is not based on “killing” and the like. The main general theme of the Bible is based upon the love of God for humanity and the redemption brought forth by God’s grace. For in fact, Jesus himself said that the two greatest commandments of all the law are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV). I think both of us would probably agree in that all of us would be much better off if we would learn to genuinely love each other.

      Blessings to you my friend. Great question!

      Pastor Brian

  4. I wouldn’t want to start a long debate here, but it’s worth noting that the examples you gave of justification for killing as punishment for severe crimes and also in war are highly contentious. Obviously the death penalty is a controversy in itself and of course there have been thousands of Christian pacifists and conscientious objectors over the years who’ve based their position on the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, one might wonder whether Jesus really thought any resistance could ever be justified (even defending one’s family).

    All I’m saying is that when you start digging into it, Biblical morality becomes just as slippery as any sort.

    1. There are controversies surrounding these issues, undoubtedly. But, that does not detract from the issue that there are objective standards in the Bible. There is a particular truth to a passage. Yet, it is important to get an overall gist of the message of Scripture. As mentioned in the article, there are indeed those who take different views of Scripture due to political, personal, and social inclinations. One would expect there to be differences because of said temptations.

      There are clear cut objective morals laid forth in the Bible (e.g. the problems of adultery, murder…as opposed to killing, slander, and the love of money and power). While it is agreed that some issues can become controversial (sometimes due to societal pressures), it is disagreed that the Bible does not present any objective moral standards. I would argue that those standards are knowable and can be attained from an exegetical rendering of Scripture.

      Great discussion! You’ve given me some ideas for future articles. 🙂

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