Friday, May 26, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Snakes, Mistakes and Better Takes

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

According to Infogalactic, the late George Went Hensley, a mover and shaker in the Holiness movement, argued that believers who truly have the Holy Spirit within them should be able to handle rattlesnakes and any number of other venomous serpents. David Kimbrough writes that Hensley even insisted his congregation in rural Tennessee prove their salvation by holding a snake.

He also died after one of his snakes bit him during a revival meeting in Florida one afternoon in July 1955. His death was understandably ruled a suicide since he picked up the snake voluntarily and refused treatment after the bite.

Tom: I suppose one could attribute that to a temporary failure of faith. What do you think, IC?

Immanuel Can: Ha. I’d say that’s the problem when a person has faith in his own faith, instead of having faith in God. What would you say happened there, Tom?

Interpretation Fail

Tom: Well, problem one is that he picked the whole “snake” idea out of a single verse in the book of Mark.

Problem two is that he took a specific prophecy that had already been fulfilled at least once from a period in the early church’s history when miraculous signs were common as a general principle applicable to all believers in the church age.

Problem three is that he understood it as a command directed at him personally rather than simply an observation about the sorts of miraculous things that would occur after the Lord ascended.

Problem four is that he wrongly interpreted the ability to survive serpent bites without harm as a reliable indicator of salvation.

Is that enough for you or should I keep going?

IC: I wondered if you were also going to point out that the verses used to advocate snake-handling are also from one of those few sections of scripture for which we do not have great confidence of authenticity. But let’s set that point aside, since a great many Christians would be uncomfortable simply dismissing what many other experts have seen fit to leave in the Bible.

Tom: I thought about it, but came to the same conclusion you did.

A Crisis of Confidence

IC: So let’s grant that the passage belongs there. Even if it does, I think you’ve hit the key point: that one text, taken in isolation, is often difficult to interpret correctly. But does this mean we are losing confidence about the whole meaning of the Bible? Are we doubting God?

Tom: Oh, not at all. If our confidence in the Bible or in God depends on whether we can grab proof texts from this book or that one and apply them to our lives willy-nilly, then we are in pretty sad shape. But the Bible was never intended to be a bunch of unrelated pithy sayings that could be applied any old way. It ought to be approached as we would approach any other book. That is to say, we need to read each statement in its context, observing to whom it was originally addressed and whether it still applies at all before we try to apply it to ourselves. Something addressed to David or to Israel may have no connection whatsoever to my life personally or as a member of the church today. Or it may be very relevant. But we can’t assume that.

IC: Now, something that would surely worry some people is this: if I cannot just grab a proof text out of scripture and use it to guide my life, have I lost all ability to obey God? After all, doesn’t “obey” imply “do right away whatever you happen to have read?” Maybe you, Tom, are guilty of “leaning to your own understanding” and thus of discouraging people from simply obeying the plain words of scripture … and worse, of leaving us without the guidance of scripture for our lives …

Confusing Joe Christian

Tom: I’m not sure sound exegetical principles ever dragged anyone down the road to ruin, to be honest. People are, of course, free to understand scripture in whatever way they like. But if God gives a command to Jews over 2,500 years ago, and the New Testament makes it clear that the Law which formed the basis for that command no longer applies to me as a Gentile believer today, I’d be kinda silly to insist on burdening myself with it when I already fail to properly observe more than a few of the principles and commands that DO apply to me. And the apostles did recognize that outside of its proper setting the Law is, in their words, a “burden” and “trouble”.

To put it another way, I’m not looking to handle any unnecessary snakes.

IC: You speak of “sound exegetical principles”. That can sound pretty intimidating to Joe Christian. He’d likely ask, “Well, if I can’t just read my Bible and understand it for what it says, how do you expect me to get on?” Now maybe he’s not down with the serpent-juggling thing. But at the same time, maybe he’s also not down with using some arcane formula in order to be able to read his Bible for himself. So can you help him see what you mean by “sound exegetical principles”, Tom? Can you unconfuse him?

Shelving the High-Fallutin’ Spiritual Lingo

Tom: I hear you. “Exegetical principles” is a mouthful, but it’s just a pretentious way of saying “how do I interpret this?” It’s not terribly complicated, and there’s nothing “arcane” about it. But neither is it as simple as opening a page and stabbing your finger on a verse and hoping for the best. That’s just playing the lottery. Or Googling “Bible verses about fear” when you’re anxious about something. You can do that, and you might even find it helpful, but it’s not the way the Bible was intended to be used.

IC: Give us a few pointers, Tom. What will help us interpret better? Tell us without the high-fallutin’ spiritual lingo, if you can.

Tom: Aw, c’mon, you’re spoiling all my fun. Well, to begin with, the Bible is like any book in that the end explains the beginning. And the beginning is the entire Old Testament, which is about three quarters of the Bible. So if you grab things from that first section, watch out: they’re not going to apply real well to life today. Will you learn lessons about the character of God and the wickedness of man, and many other things from the Old Testament? Absolutely. But — and this is a bit of a spoiler here — if you leave out the part about Jesus Christ you will have totally lost the plot.

So it is very significant which part of the Bible you are looking at. You can’t just grab a verse from the Psalms or the Prophets and apply it to the Christian life. God was doing a completely different thing during the Old Testament in calling out an earthly people for himself. In the New Testament he calls out a heavenly people.

IC: Okay, so you’ve got to know what Testament you’re in. After that, can we just go ahead and grab individual verses out and apply them as they seem?

Taking Literal Things Literally

Tom: Well, in the Bible, words mean what they mean anywhere else. “Promised land”, for instance, means an actual, earthly land that was promised, in this particular case by God. It means the land where the nation of Israel currently resides. It does not mean “heaven” just because that is the meaning that fanciful people put on it. Unless there is a good reason to assume something is a metaphor or allegory (like finding it in a book of poetry, or in the middle of a prophecy, or in one of the Lord’s parables or even a figure of speech such as people commonly use in conversation), we should take it as literally as you would, say, a letter from a friend. You’re not going to find much allegory in the middle of historical books or doctrinal letters unless it’s illustrative.

In other words, normal rules of interpretation apply to the Bible just like they do to anything else.

Context and Thought Flow

IC: I thought perhaps you’d point us to the importance of things like the immediate context of a particular verse, and to the context of the book in which it’s found, and to the larger context of the Bible as a whole. All three have to be taken into consideration in interpretation of a verse; for if we are thinking rightly, we’re not looking for confirmation of our views, nor for particular instructions, but rather to catch what master exegete Dr. David Gooding calls “thought flow”, which he says is the first consideration. “Thought flow” means we’re looking to catch hold of the mind of God as he leads us from topic to topic, to see where he shifts focus for us and how he places one passage in conversation with another. It’s to know what HE thinks, not to confirm what WE think that is our task.

How Would the Original Reader Understand It?

Tom: Agreed. There is also what Bible students call the “Historical Principle”, which simply means that to understand what something means, we need to try to read it the way it would have been understood by its original audience. That may sound like a lot of research, but it’s not actually that difficult. What it does require, though, is not grabbing a verse here and there, but soaking up the Bible as a whole, making it a regular part of your life. If you do that, coming to conclusions about how the original audience would have understood scripture is much more intuitive. And of course there are other huge benefits in the daily reading of scripture anyway.

Knowledge and Obedience

IC: Yeah, that’s good. There’s also a feedback loop between obedience and knowledge. When you know something, you need to obey or apply it, as the case may require, in order to receive the experience to ask the next question. That next question leads you deeper into knowledge of the particular issue, which then gives you a new opportunity for obedience and application. It’s almost like the Lord doesn’t want us to be able to acquire wisdom in the absence of action ...

Familiarity with the Entire Bible

Tom: Very true. I don’t see a whole lot of value, to be honest, in using the Bible like a medicine cabinet. It’s easier to do these days than ever: just pick your subject of choice and key it in to Google and you’ll get a long list of verses that might be helpful, maybe one or two that even address your particular problem. If you live your Christian life like that, you will probably put out one or two spiritual fires along the way, but you will never get to know the Lord in a deeper way, which it seems to me is the entire purpose of revelation. Making it a lifetime habit to familiarize yourself with the entire word of God is harder than using Google, and it takes a lot longer, but the rewards are immense.

It’s incidental, but George Went Hensley was actually illiterate according to his bio, which may go some way in explaining any difficulties he had with reading in context and other principles of Bible interpretation.

IC: I wonder if there’s any reason ...

Tom: ... other than illiteracy or blindness of course ...

IC: Right. I wonder if there’s any reason why every Christian shouldn’t read through the whole Bible at least once in their entire lifetime. At a chapter a day, it takes three years; at three chapters, you’re done in a year. And then we’d all have a proper context for the individual verses we read.

Tom: Can’t argue with that.

The Principle of Synthesis

My last principle relates back to the taking of verses in isolation. Context is one fix, but another is comparison (some Bible students call it ‘synthesis’). The idea is that if we really believe the Holy Spirit is the author of scripture, the author behind the human authors, we know that because God cannot lie and his character does not “evolve” over time, he therefore will never contradict himself. Because of that, scripture interprets scripture. If you can’t understand this verse or that, there will generally be another two or three that will help clear up the confusion.

But as you point out, it takes regular reading to become familiar enough with scripture to make all the possible connections. Concordances and online tools only go so far.

IC: Yep. At the end of the day, interpretation of scripture is a matter of obedience. It’s about putting the Lord’s intentions, not your preferences first. It’s about reading the Word because the Lord told us we need it — it’s the thing we need to sustain our spiritual lives — not because it’s always easy. And it’s about doing what you read, not merely reading in what you already do.

No comments :

Post a Comment