February 18, 2006

The Misuse of Scripture

Scripture has often been mangled, twisted, and abused to support positions in debates on many issues. The current debate on sexual morality that is raging in the Church offers many sad examples. Here are some of the commonest misuses of Scripture, and suggested ways to counteract them. Many of these errors are honest and unintentional; others are deliberate.


The first errors involve the text itself.

Misquote and misattribute: a constant abuse. You can’t possibly interpret the Scripture if the text is corrupted by faulty memory. And check the origin: was it John the Baptist or Saint Paul? or was it Isaiah? Don’t trust your memory: look it up; and read, mark, and inwardly digest!

Translations: Always using one translation can give you a very narrow view. All translation involves a degree of interpretation. Check different versions and, when possible, study the text in the original language.

Reading: Sadly, clergy often leave regular intensive Scripture reading behind once they graduate from seminary. If your only contact with the Bible is through the lectionary, you will miss two things: 1) You will completely miss any text not in the lectionary. Important portions of the Old Testament will remain unread (The Song of Songs, for example). 2) You will also be reading most texts in half-chapter or smaller chunks. Besides losing the context, this destroys, for example, the sense of urgency in Mark’s Gospel, and renders much of Paul’s writing incomprehensible. His point-counterpoint technique of argument sometimes spreads over several chapters, and if you read in smaller sections, you can easily lose track. Look at the first eight chapters of Romans, for example. So, in addition to any liturgical reading, read through entire books, or at least read several chapters at a sitting.


The next errors involve context.

Prooftexting: using isolated quotations which seem to support a point of view. This is a technique used by both conservatives and liberals. It is this abuse that causes people to believe “you can prove anything from Scripture.” Several correctives need to be applied: examine the textual and situational placement of a statement, and never build a case on an isolated quote.

Anthologizing: This is an editorial process in which everything you don’t like about the Scriptures is excised, or everything that appeals to you is gathered into a neat little packet. It’s another form of prooftexting. This produces the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” half-gospel. Just don’t do it!

Ignoring the Old Testament and the synoptic references: Many New Testament texts are in fact quotations from or allusions to Old Testament sources. For example, using “You always have the poor with you” (Matt. 26:11) as a defense for lack of charitable outreach ignores the fact that it is an allusion to a text in Deuteronomy (15:11) which ends, “you shall open wide your hand...to the poor.” Use a version with good cross references, and make use of concordances and harmonies of the Gospels.

Failing to take the spiritual / emotional context into account: One often hears people discount a passage on the grounds of what they call “social context.” They will say, “Paul was writing in a different sort of world.” While this may be true, the social context is less important than the spiritual and emotional context. For example, the Pauline statements on marriage and celibacy must be seen in the context of Paul’s belief in the impending eschaton (see 1 Cor. 7:25-40). Think of Paul as rather like a father driving home after a day’s outing with his children: they’re about a mile from home, and the kids start complaining that they have to go to the bathroom. What does he say? “Can’t you hold it! We’re almost there!” So, keep the spiritual world view in mind.


The last set of abuses are brought about by tradition.

Tunnel vision: This happens when a tradition is so set in concrete that it is difficult to see a given text in any other light. Tradition is meant to illuminate, not to blind. This narrowing is especially dangerous when it is enshrined in the translations. The text is then, in effect, conditioned by the tradition, rather than the tradition being informed by a fresh look at the texts. Translations are usually done by committees, and committees are usually conservative by virtue of the need to compromise. Be open to alternative interpretations, and again, return to the original texts whenever possible.

Dominicalizing: This happens when a traditional teaching or view is placed into the mouth of our Lord. It may be a teaching which is in itself sound, but the attempt to bolster its authority by attributing it to Jesus should be avoided. Watch out for statements beginning, “Our Lord taught that...” or “Jesus said that...” when they can’t be supported with citations.

Phantom Scripture: This is similar to dominicalizing. A tradition is imputed to be of biblical antiquity and authority when it is in fact completely postscriptural. Much of what we think of as “traditional” is in fact rather late; much of it doesn’t predate the Reformation, and some of it is pure nineteenth century! Be wary of “The biblical tradition of...” when it isn’t supported by biblical references.


As Anglicans, we accept the Scriptures as a source of authority. But, if we are truly to embrace the Word of God as it comes to us through fallible human minds and hearts, we should make every effort to have as clear and accurate a vision of it as possible. The final question must be, Will we be able to accept the authority of Scripture if it turns out that it doesn’t say what we always thought it did?

Tobias S Haller BSG

This article was originally published in The Servant #111 (June 1987) and in Spanish translation in Anglicanos 17 (Enero-Marzo de 1988).


Caelius said...

This is excellent. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias,

I suspect you could guess that I would take exception to your last paragraph. I believe that the Word of God is inerrant, and that the apostles certainly believed so.

I am, to some extent, going to do exactly what you said not to do because I am tired. But I will offer two passages, and more tomorrow that I think partly make the case for inerrancy.

The first is 2 Tim. 3:16, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate. eqiupped for every good work."

The second is 2 Peter 1:20-21, "But know this first of all, that no Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."

There is more that I will offer, and I will look at the context in which these verses were written. I suppose I have just as hard a time understanding how you think the Bible is not inerrant as you have understanding why I think it is inerrant.

I do appreciate the post. As one who is trying to learn proper biblical interpretation it is very useful.

Anonymous said...

Dear Belinda,

I am not Tobias, nor shall I presume to speak for him, but I was brought up in a Bible-centered (I am inclined to say bibliolatrous, but I know I ought to be more charitable) tradition.

First, just what do you imagine that the writers of 2 Timothy and 2 Peter regarded as "Scripture?" Their own writings? The Septuagint? Does the NT contain any reference to *any part of **itself*** as scripture?

Second, "inspired by God," "profitable," "not a matter of one's own interpretation" are quite a leap from "inerrant." Nor does the statement that "no prophecy was ever made of human will" prove that human imperfection has not entered into it.

I, too, believe that the Word of God is inerrant, I just trust the testimony of St John that the Word of God was/is Jesus, and find no reason to shift that identification to the writings of his followers.

Indeed, given the testimony of the Gospels as to how often they "got it"...

Keep studying, please, Belinda, as must I.

in Christ

Anonymous said...

Dear Belinda,

I am not Tobias either, nor am I oriscus. I do agree with what they have said here, however.

I believe that "scripture" means exactly what God intends it to mean. But knowing what it says and what it means are two different things.

Grace and peace in your quest for truth.

Anonymous said...


In fact Peter refers to the letters of Paul as Scripture. he says in 2 Peter 3:15-16, "Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction."

Peter is clearly identifying Paul's letters as as Scripture here. Additionally, with regard to the previous verses I shared, "inspired by God" and "inerrant" are generally linked together.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

If one wishes to adopt a belief in Biblical inerrancy, that is all well and good; but to try to use Scripture itself to prove that it is inerrant is an error in self-reference -- like believing a man is never wrong because he says, "I am never wrong." You can believe that if you wish, but it is not proof by any meaningful criterion.

So to say that the verse from 2 Timothy "proves" that Scripture is inerrant (even if that is what the verse said -- since "inspired" doesn't necessarily mean "inerrant") is just arguing in circles. What proves that 2 Timothy 3:16 is inerrant?

More importantly, the text itself is a problem, because it can be understood in many ways, particularly if you look at the Greek in which it is written. Paul is referring to the "scriptures" that he speaks of in the preceding verse -- the ones Timothy grew up with, which is to say, the Old Testament.

Most importantly, there is no verb in the verse you cite, so it may be read as a continuation of what went before. (If you've got an older KJV handy, you'll notice that both of the iss in this verse are in italics, indicating that the translators inserted them.) One could translate verses 14 through 17, then, as a single logical thought:

"But continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing of whom you learned them; and that from youth you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus -- every God-breathed scripture profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness -- so that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works."

(Note as well that I choose to translate "pasa" as "every" (or "each" here rather than "all" -- which is the normal meaning. So Paul is NOT talking about the Old Testament as a whole, but of the portions of it which, as Jesus himself said, "spoke of him.")

Thus, the verse you are taking as a complete statement (to which two verbs have to be supplied to give it the meaning you read, and in which the first word often means the opposite of how you read it) can better be seen as a parenthetical expansion to help clarify WHICH writings Paul is referring to: the ones that speak of God, and build up the believer.

So this is actually a very good example of exactly what I'm talking about in this essay: the intepretation and understanding of Scripture after careful study may lead to very different conclusions than may be apparent in a translation, or when taken out of context. I realize this is a common text much used in argument -- but this is in fact part of the problem. Few people take the time to go back to the text and look at its context, and question the work of the translators, especially when they find it necessary to add words for "clarity" -- clarity, that is, that supports their understanding of what they think the text ought to say rather than what it may actually have been intended to mean, if read without the "additional" words.

I say this not to undermine your own understanding of the implications of this text for you -- but I hope you can see that other faithful Christians may reach conclusions that differ from yours -- and that even if this text did say and mean what you claim it does, it would not "prove" that Scripture is inerrant -- since the text in question is itself part of the Scripture you are trying to prove.

Ultimately, the doctrine of "inerrancy" is a matter of faith: one can believe it, but it cannot be proven.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias,

Well, I think that a good argument using Scripture can be made. For example, doesn't the extensive quoting of the OT by Jesus, particularly in Matthew, hold any relevance? Why would Jesus quote the Scriptures if they were simply words written by fallible humans?

And if he quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures because it was the inerrant Word of God, doesn't the fact that he foresaw the writing of the NT, indeed granted the apostles's the right to teach and preach His message, His word carry any weight?

Finally, can those who believe in inerrancy have a good debate with those who hold the Scriptures in less esteem? I am not suggesting that those of you who do not believe in inerrancy do not highly value Scripture, but it must be less so than one who believes in inerrancy. Perhaps I am wrong. Bonhoeffer, who I do not think believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, said, "I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions and that to receive an anser from it, we only need to ask with persistence and a little courage." He obviously held the Bible in high esteem.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Belinda,

I don't find that either of these responses really answer the question of inerrancy. There is a big difference, I think, between claiming inerrancy for all of Scripture, and acknowledging that there is much truth in Scripture -- indeed necessary truth which could not be recieved otherwise. So the fact that Jesus referred to some of the Scriptures that foretold his coming, is not proof that all Scripture has equal weight.

In addition, the texts of Scripture we have were all written "by fallible humans." This is part of what makes attributing infallibility to them so problematical. After all, Scripture records any number of human errors -- one of my favorites comes up this week in our Old Testament reading, in which Elijah, on the run and hiding in the cave, tells God he is the only faithful servant left -- only to be told by God that there are over 7 thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal. Scripture records ample evidence that prophets sometimes make mistakes, or do not get things quite right.

When it comes to the NT, Saint Paul clearly believed the coming of Christ was going to happen in his lifetime; his later letters show he is beginning to understand this is not likely to be the case. (Look at 1 Thess 4, for example, and compare with his later correspondance.)

Now, perhaps I am misunderstanding what you mean by inerrancy. I am taking this to mean "containing no error." While you appear to believe that attributing this status to all of Scripture is a form or honor for it, Anglicans have always taken a contrary view. As Mr. Hooker put it, "And as incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation, so we must likewise take great heed, lest in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly to be less reverently esteemed. (Laws, II.8)"

From my perspective (admitting I may be misunderstanding what you mean by it) the idea that Scripture is inerrant is "incredible" (that is, I cannot believe it, as it seems evidently wrong) -- nor do I see the need to believe it. I do not see it as an "honor" to Scripture to make claims for it that are unnecessary and unprovable, for the very reason Hooker suggests. It is enough to say that the Scripture contains all that is necessary for salvation, and reliably delivers the Good News of Christ. Ultimately it comes down to faith that God works through fallible means for his perfect ends.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias,

Your understanding regarding what I mean by inerrancy is correct. Interestingly, I find it just as incredible that you do NOT see Scripture as inerrant. Perhaps it is denominational. I have always been taught as a conservative evangelical (Southern Baptist in particular) that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. That all Scripture is "God breathed". Perhaps it is a question of faith, meaning I have faith that Scripture is inerrant.

You seem to think that it does not have, nor does it need, this "honor". But I respectfully disagree. If it does not have this honor, then what distinguishes it from any other religious book? If the only thing that distinguishes it from other religious texts is the Gospel, then I think that is sad indeed. Don't misunderstand me, the Gospel is what the whole of Scripture is ultimately about, but you miss so much without inerrancy. To me, in fact, it seems that Anglicans miss the Power of the Word of God.

I am not saying that you do not highly value Scripture, because I know that you do. But how am I to know -- without inerrancy -- which parts of Scripture are true and which can be simply tossed aside? It seems as though it takes academic gymnastics to figure out what is right.

I am honestly trying to understand.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Belinda,

I think I'm beginning to understand at last. This is a "denominational thing" after all.

You ask "...how am I to know -- without inerrancy -- which parts of Scripture are true and which can be simply tossed aside?" The answer, for Anglicans, is: the Church will tell you, the Church which has authority to set aside (if not toss aside, which sounds disrespectful) those portions of the Scripture it feels no longer to be binding upon the faithful, a power committed to the Church by Christ (Matt 18:18).

Anglicans distinguish between those portions of the Scripture that are doctrinal, legal, and historical. To try to take a historical passage and make it into a legal requirement is rejected as inappropriate. It is the church's judgment (and that doesn't just mean the hierarchy) that comes into play to determine the meaning and application and relevance of Scripture. This is why, for example, we can have women in ministry -- we regard St Paul's teaching on women in ministry as a matter of cultural and historical reality, but no longer binding on the faithful.

Scripture itself testifies to this process in the early days of the church: Saint Paul declared the rules concerning circumcision no longer to be in effect, and the Council of the Apostles agreed.

Anglicans see the Scripture, then, as having a hierarchy of truths: some are unassailable and knowable only through the Scripture ("that Jesus is Son of God") and others are congruent with what we learn from the law of nature ("murder is bad"); but some things are held to be, as Hooker put it, "but of temporary ordinance" -- including much of the Law of Moses, and even some of the early law of the church.

For example, very few Christians these days continue to eat only koshered meat (meat from which all blood has been extracted) even though this was part of the requirement of the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Scripture --- that Gentile converts to Christ must abstain from blood. This ruling was overturned for most Christians by the middle ages, though it was still a "hot topic" for some folks in the 18th century, and there are probably some sects today who try to hold by this biblical principle. But I imagine most contemporary Christians no longer observe this rule and are happy to enjoy a rare steak now and again!

Now, some might say this is a trivial example, but that's just the problem with a claim of total inerrancy. Who is to determine which of the Scriptural laws apply and which don't -- once you start setting aside any of them at all?

Anonymous said...

I've been abstaining from this conversation, as my temperment would tend to muck it up (and because anything I could say, other have/will, and better than I could!)

But it is tremendously encouraging, to see that we seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough: "it's a denominational thing". ;-)

[On the other hand: you said all this so well, Tobias, close to 20 years ago. :-0 If only your wise words had been profitably adopted by many, many more Christians!]

Anonymous said...

I feel I am being mocked, and don't appreciate it, J.C. If you have something to actually offer besides insulting me that would be nice.

Many believe as I do, and it is not a position to be scoffed at. I do not believe Tobias is doing that, as he is always thoughtful in his remarks. I try to be thoughtful in mine as well.

I believe all Scripture is "God breathed", that is inspired by God. How can God's inspiration be errant? Should we believe the prophets, who spoke at the inspiration of the Spirit? Only believe part of what they say? Only believe what pertains to Christ?

Anonymous said...


I hate it when people mock folks who offer arguments like yours, so -- "You go girl!"

But, allow me to say, I tend to agree with Tobias. The first question which is still open in my mind is about what is meant by "Scripture"? As others have said, when Paul was writing, he was most certainly not referring to his own letters! He would presumably have been referring to the Scriptures as he had received them -- which would have been the Old Testament plus the Apocrypha. Protestants today do not accept the Apocrypha as - "Scripture." Paul and his colleagues did, as do the Roman Catholics today, and a great many other ancient churches. Even unto the late fourth century some books of the New Testament were disputed as to their "Scripture"-ness. So, if this is all true, which it is historically quite proven to be, then one must say "Scripture" is not as clearly defined a thing as you might think. Another question, very important as well, is what did Paul actually say about the Scriptures. The Greek really says, "all God-breathed writings are...". This is not quite the same in my mind. Of course if a writing is God-breathed it is profitable!

Anonymous said...

Dear Belinda -

You wrote:

"I believe all Scripture is 'God breathed', that is inspired by God. How can God's inspiration be errant?"

God's inspiration is inerrant. Human beings, who write scripture, though they be inspired by God, are subject to error.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Belinda,

I don't think there's anything I can add to what Anonymous and Oriscus. The "canonical" question is by no means insignificant. Saint Paul's "Scriptures" included things that most Protestants, including Baptists, do not consider to be part of Scripture. In spite of the reliance on Romans 1 in the sexuality debate, few protestants are even aware of how much this chapter depends on the Wisdom of Solomon, chapters 12-16, from which Paul quotes or paraphrases extensively. So the canonical question to some extent demonstrates that it is the Church that determines what is Scripture and what isn't. The Church is, as the Anglican Articles of Religion put it, the Scriptures "keeper."

The denomination difference to which I point is, I think, crucial. Anglicans live with, and affirm, the Pauline principle that "we know in part." Our knowledge is incomplete, as is our understanding. Even if the Scripture were a complete guide to every aspect of human life, we would still face the reality that people would interpret it differently. So it is that Anglicans regard the Scripture as a "mixture" of the eternal and the temporal -- just like the Church itself. The parts of the Scripture that speak of Christ are held, by the Church, to be unchanging and eternal truths. But we do not attribute the same quality to the passages dealing with the natural world (which we know to be either fables or metaphors, or simply the Bronze and Iron Ages' limited efforts at understanding of the nature of the world), or to the historical passages, which may well represent an idealized story of God's people rather than an actual or literal history. Anglicans do not feel that this in any way undercuts the authority of "the eternal gospel."

I understand this is a position with which you will not agree; but I hope that you too can respect that it is a position that has been held by Anglicans for hundreds of years, and I hope you can understand it even as you don't adopt it.

Anonymous said...


What you say raises a question for me. "Anglicans regard..." "Anglicans do not feel..." etc.

I would have thought growing up in the Episcopal Church, attending an Episcopal seminary, and serving as a layman, deacon and priest in over a half dozen dioceses around the world that I knew what it meant to be an Anglican.

Until sometime this past year, I thought I could say that Anglicans were commonly bound enough to say things like "Anglicans regard..." etc. I now seriously doubt we think as one on the matter of the Scriptures, just as we do not think as one on a host of issues. I have come to believe (and know?) that our classical divisions between Latin Catholic, Celtic Catholic, Reformed Evangelical, and Modernist Latitudinarian are starker now than ever.

What say you?

(Oh, I'm Greg Jones.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Hi Greg,

I would agree that there are certainly broad divisions among and between Anglicans on many different issues; however, I'm trying here to limit myself to the "official" position (such as it is!) laid out in the Articles and the Ordinal: that the Scripture is "sufficient" rather than "inerrant." Even given the variety of opinion within Anglicanism, I don't think you would find many who support the doctrine of inerrancy, though you might find a few. (I know there are a few Anglicans who somewhat paradoxically embrace the similar doctrine of Papal infallibility -- but I would put that down to a personal belief rather than an Anglican "doctrine").

Anonymous said...

Good googly-moogly: I have new appreciation of that old Richard Pryor album (which cover shows, IIRC, him about to be burned at the stake): "Was it something I said?"

[Or was it just my emoticon-wink, ala ;-) ? I use them, just to try to keep things light!]

Belinda, I don't appreciate it when someone takes their own emotional state, and then projects it onto someone else (and I'm as guilty of this as any, so I've been there): I was not mocking you.

I was, instead, admiring the clarity (AND good-will) on all sides on this thread, which revealed that there may have been an unexamined apriori going on the whole time: the importance of our individual traditions/denominations, in the way that they FORM US (making everyone else who doesn't share that upbringing, in that particular tradition, appear strange---even heretical).

Pardon if my own comment lacked sufficient clarity...

Anonymous said...

Dear all of you,
We hear in part, so we prophesy in part!! God's inspiration is inerrant, but in the time it takes for that inspiration to get from our hearts/minds to either our tounge or pen it has to pass through us, and what does the word say? For all have sinned and fallen short, we are inerrent and there fore anything we speak or write is subject to errancey. We hear in part so we prophesy in part...
19 year old marc