The Bible Can Be Hard to Interpret

Because often the principles deduced from it involve more than just one “proof text” but synthesizing a number of different texts to produce a harmonious result. See here for Joseph Farah’s article entitled Should Christians always obey government? And then he proceeds to try to refute the claim of Bible believing Christians who teach Romans 13 demands this.

But he knocks down a straw man. Even the thinkers who have the most fundamentalist approach on Romans 13 (Drs. John MacArthur and Gregg Frazer) don’t claim this. Rather they claim SUBMISSION to the civil legitimacy of government is absolute. (That means rebellion is categorically forbidden).

Of course, they understand the competing verses and chapters of scripture like Acts 5:29 that say when the two conflict obey God not man. And the principle they deduce from putting the verses and chapters together is if government is ordering you to do something that the believer in good conscience thinks “sin,” then disobey government. BUT, accept the civil legitimacy of the process when government comes along and punishes you for it.

Don’t rebel or try to overthrow it. Rather work within the confines of the positive law for a solution, if you can get one. If not, then you’ll just have to accept your punishment like a good martyr.

I did note when I presented at Gordon College on Dr. Frazer’s book (which holds, among other things, that the American Revolution — as all revolutions do — violated Romans 13 and the rest of the Bible), that if objective truth can be found outside the four corners of the Bible, that could change the understanding. (New principles need to be synthesized in with the competing verses and chapters of scripture.)

Among others, the “Patriotic Preachers” (many of them unitarians and natural law believing rationalists) discovered a right to revolt against tyrants in nature via the use of reason. These preachers believed in a theistic natural law. That is, the God who authored scripture also authored the principles of nature discovered by reason. So after finding a right in nature through the use of reason to rebel against tyrants, they then went to the competing verses and chapters of scripture with that truth and added a new element into the equation. This resulted in an understanding of Romans 13 where rebellion against tyrants was permitted.

Samuel West for instance, addressing the claim that the ruler St. Paul instructed believers to submit to was the pagan psychopath Nero, asserted that the right to rebel against tyrants was so clear a teaching that Paul might actually have meant Romans 13 to be satire.

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19 thoughts on “The Bible Can Be Hard to Interpret

  1. I have oft argued that much of what allows a religious text to stand the test of different eras is its ambiguity, and the Bible is the clearest example of this that I am aware. It’s meaning and interpretation are continually shaped by people’s needs and desires as much as it shapes those same needs and desires.


    • #TheConstitution

      I actually disagree with this, though. The Bible couldn’t be clearer about a lot of things that we simply refuse to do now (female subservience, the numerous restrictions in the Old Testament, slavery, etc.) but because it is entrenched we simply “interpret” those unambiguous passages to fit our needs while pretending we are biblical literalists.

      I mean, could the Bible be any clearer on the role it assigns women than Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:21-24, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and Titus 2:4-9?

      (important disclaimer: I’m not saying people should behave that way. I don’t, and they shouldn’t. I’m pushing back on the idea that the Bible survives by being ambiguous.)


      • There is ample ambiguity to be found. All those Old Testament restrictions are the low-hanging fruit, seeing as how Paul drones on endlessly about their no longer applying, and what with Peter’s vision prior to his meet-up with Cornelius. Yet at the same time most (though not all) people agree that this wasn’t meant as carte blanche for going on killing and fornicating spree. Ambiguity abounds.


        • I’m sorry, which of my citations there are to Old Testament passages?

          I understand the point about Old Testament requirements being countermanded, but there’s plenty of clarity in the New Testament too (and clarity that was meant to be read literally at the time!). We just abstract away BECAUSE we like the book, rather than liking the book BECAUSE it is abstract.


            • I mean, could the Bible be any clearer on the role it assigns women than Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:21-24, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and Titus 2:4-9?

              But if you don’t want to engage with that, it’s certainly your prerogative. And, of course, the Old Testament took hold with those other clearly-defined rules in place, not ambiguous ones.


            • If you want to stick to the role of women, yes, there are the standard proof texts. There also are the numerous examples of women taking prominent roles. The announcement of the resurrection is a classic example. If you read some of the less quotable bits of Paul’s letters it comes through that women were doing more than baking cookies for the menfolk–even apart from the Junia(s) travesty.


              • I’m not sure how that’s inconsistent with the clear, oft-repeated mandate that wives are inferior to husbands.

                I totally get how it provides some pretext for modern (and right!) attitudes about gender equality but which of those examples has a wife defying her husband?

                I’m not (just) being pedantic here. I think makes an interesting historical argument but that in fact precisely the reverse is true. I think what’s remarkable is that once something becomes entrenched in a large enough number of people’s lives, those people are able to convince themselves that it supports their desires no matter how clearly contrary those desires are.


  2. So much for sola scriptura. It should be scarce wonder to the contemplative theist that skeptics sometimes aver that theologians can render the Bible into a mandate to do whatever it was that they wanted to do anyway. (Either with or without the Aquinan averrance that reason, as a gift from God, is the equivalent of scripture itself.)

    Also, does scripture offer guidance on distinguishing a “tyrant” from a “unpleasant-to-Christians but still fundamentally fair ruler”?


  3. “if objective truth can be found outside the four corners of the Bible”

    What a crazy hypothetical. We all know only the Bible makes true statements.


  4. Yeah, Kim Davis is a total hypocrite, fleeing from the police and hiding to try and avoid going to jail. The worst part is how she locked the office doors and shredded all the marriage license forms to stop them being issued.

    Oh wait, none of that happened. In fact, she calmly and reasonably went to jail for as long as they said she had to, and when she went back to work she didn’t interfere with what was going on.


  5. Less flippantly: It is utter foolishness to cite anything from Paul’s letters without understanding the historical context. Paul’s writings against homosexuality, for example, in a modern context, would be Tumblr posts about Rape Culture.


  6. But he knocks down a straw man. Even the thinkers who have the most fundamentalist approach on Romans 13 (Drs. John MacArthur and Gregg Frazer) don’t claim this.

    Yabbut… Most of the discussion out in the wild is not between “thinkers.” Lots of people proof text from the Bible to bolster whatever it is that they wanted to do anyway. And the people who want to do something else dredge up proof texts of their own. Mutual denunciation follows, and a good time is had by all. People with anything like a plausible claim to being a thinker play the game differently, but they are in the minority.


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