Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword

[Written as my July contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on “Evangelicals and the Modern Study of Scripture.“]

My fellow essayists this month have raised some interesting questions. What are the logical limitations of inerrancy? Are these important? What makes many evangelicals skittish about modern biblical scholarship? Are there valuable lessons to learn? What does it mean to “stand under” the text? Why is understanding original language important? How do we recognize the role of culture in biblical text while guarding against the tendency to read scripture only through our own cultural lenses?

This essay will explore the ways in which many evangelicals use scripture as a rhetorical weapon. In short, scripture is too often used as a conversation-ender and not a means of hearing God speak to all listeners. This rhetorical stance is relatively new in Church history and has distorted the meaning of scriptural authority. In the process, the scripture has become a tool to use on behalf of a position rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to deeper understandings.

The title of my post comes from Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (NASB).” This verse, along with others I’ll explore, provides insights into how evangelicals USE the scripture. I have often heard people quote this verse as a declaration of the Bible’s authority. Never mind that commentaries describe the broader Hebrews 4 passage as being about sabbath-keeping as instructed in the Law. The phase “word of God” becomes synonymous with the Bible and any verse is then a tool used to divide soul and spirit or judge hearts.

Yesterday, Christianity Today posted this story announcing that YouVersion had achieved the 100 million mark in downloads of this popular bible-based mobile app. They also released their newest list of the most popular verses sent via text or twitter or posted as a Facebook status. CT expressed concern that John 3:16 didn’t make the list. The most popular verses were Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

First of all, the very idea of something called YouVersion is the absolute epitome of the Extreme Individualism which has so colored American Evangelicalism. The scriptures thereby become MY possession, readily available for me to use as necessary. It is just that much easier for my to take these verses and make them about promises TO ME.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future (NIV).”  In spite of all the gifts we give to high school graduates anticipating college and beyond, this verse is written to the people of Israel collectively. Too often, we take the verse as a stand-alone tool to give comfort in anxiety or to somehow make prosper into a guarantee of riches to those who are obedient.

Biblical scholarship would have us recognize the specific role Jeremiah’s words of comfort played to the exiled Israelites. It’s a promise to God’s people collectively not to me individually. As Andre the Giant says in The Princess Bride, “I do not think that means what you think it means.

The YouVersion list illustrates something very important about evangelicals’ use of scripture. We really don’t know much about the Bible at all. That has been regularly demonstrated in research by Stephen Prothero and many others. Modern biblical scholarship that looks for the context of the biblical narrative isn’t particularly interesting to the folks who’d be attracted to YouVersion.

I’ve often joked that it would be interesting to put together the list of verses most often repeated by evangelicals (so I guess I should thank the YouVersion people). It’s an easy list — Proverbs 3:4-5 (used by Nic Wallenda in walking across the Grand Canyon), Psalm 139:13, Romans 8:28, Romans 5:23, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 5:22, Isaiah 6, Revelation 3:20, and many others including the verses mentioned above. I figure I could publish the Real Evangelical Version is about 22 pages!

So where does this approach to scripture come from? I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of biblical authority combined with a utilitarian view of evangelistic argument.

The latter is a direct expression of enlightenment era rationality. It’s caught up in the phrases”evidence that demands a verdict” and “God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” In this sense, scripture is a tool to use. Because it’s God’s Word, it automatically trumps any other appeals. A sword is valuable when it is used, either offensively or defensively.

Fundamentalism has reset definitions so that the only view of biblical authority seems to require a belief in inerrancy. This was a point of conflict at one of my colleges when we thought we’d done a good thing by emphasizing the commitment to the authority of scripture as core institutional values. The immediate response from students and other conservative critics was that we ought to immediately fire the non-creationist faculty members because that’s what authority demands.

Justin Barnard’s post makes great use of C. S. Lewis. I was already thinking about how different Lewis’ rhetorical style in Mere Christianity is from the style of modern apologists. How many scriptures are cited in MC? Why doesn’t his argument include the obvious top ten list from YouVersion?

Not to make C.S. Lewis the model for evangelical rhetoric. Many others have observed his own limitations. But it’s striking that we use that sword as a tool that makes folks in Game of Thrones seem passive.

John’s gospel recounts how Peter responded at the point of Jesus’s arrest. Peter draws a sword and attacks the guard. Jesus rebukes Peter and restores the ear. Shortly thereafter, as he is being interrogated by Pilate, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place (John 1:36 NIV).

As Amos Young observes, maybe attentiveness to the Spirit can lead to a new rhetorical style, one that seeks to engage the other rather than winning argument. I’m reminded of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. They knew their scriptures and had a means of understanding them leading them to believe their side was winning. Now Jesus was dead and their understanding was shattered. When they encounter Jesus on the road, they stop worrying about what they thought. He leads them to understand all of scripture in a new way. Not only are they restored, but they reverse course and return to the scary place that was Jerusalem.

As they follow the Spirit’s lead, the wind up not needing a sword after all. Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, they don’t have a need to fight. Modern biblical scholarship, in this view, is not a threat but another means through which the Holy Spirit bears witness.

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