Beware biblical interpretations that can bring harm

Our neighbor George commented on a bumper sticker that he had recently seen that read "God said it — I believe it — and that's the end of it!"

It would be more accurate, he responded, to say "Men, inspired by God and desiring to be faithful to their understanding of God, wrote the Scriptures." We need to always remember that our Holy Scriptures come to us in human form.


An interesting passage of Scripture found in the New Testament is "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (NRSV I Peter 1.20-21).

Interpretation of the text always follows the reading of the text. What did the author have in mind when it was written? What was the original intention of the author? What was the culture of the time? What type of literature is the text? Three things are always intertwined in interpretation: the author, the text and the reader.

I have always found helpful the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Faith questions and Biblical interpretation can be approached through four basic questions: What do the Holy Scriptures say about it? What does church tradition through the ages say about it? What does reason — your brain — say about it? What does your experience — your heart — say about it?

We must always be aware of the use and abuse of Scripture. Often we have interpreted Scripture to further our own personal and social needs. The justification of the institution of slavery in America, for example, was done by some who chose selected verses found in the Bible. We need to remember that Scripture always points beyond itself to God. The trap some of us fall into is the idolatry of Scripture or making the Bible, rather than God, the focus of worship.

Jewish history begins with the account of God's call to Abram and Sari in Chapter 12 of the Book of Beginnings. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are often called "primeval history." They are faith stories designed to tell a religious truth or answer some serious human questions. We need to take these stories seriously, but to interpret these stories literally is to destroy the meaning of the text and does an injustice to the various writers.

Here are five stories that we are invited to interpret and struggle with:

•The origin of the universe and human life — two back-to-back accounts of creation from different sources are found in Genesis 1-2.

•The story of disobedience, the Garden of Eden, and the account of Adam and Eve.

•Violence and murder in the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel.

•The destruction of an evil generation, Noah, the flood and the promise of the Creator to start over.

•The tower of Babel, the confusion of languages and the dispersal of post-flood people.

The interpretation of Holy Scripture can often lead to life-and-death issues. In the Islamic faith, for example, some have interpreted selected verses in the Koran as saying "convert, pay a price or die." Others less violent in their interpretation call for all humans to live together but still interpret their faith as the true faith and others as apostasy to the truth of God. Still others living in more democratic places tend to interpret verses in the Koran as calling for all people to live and work together in peace and harmony with one another while respecting other religious faiths.

If a Christian was elected to be president of the U.S. would he or she in their interpretation of Scripture put the emphasis on the literal teaching of Jesus? As followers of Jesus how would you reconcile the command of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us while at the same time taking an oath to defend the nation against all enemies foreign and domestic? Would that person's interpretation of the words of Jesus — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and care for the sick — result in congressional legislation to carry these faith commands out in daily life?

Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.


The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis "Lou" Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.