In the days before I became a priest, I had many interesting discussions with various Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (for some strange reason they seem to avoid me now). Among the many things this taught me was how easy it is to fall into the trap of making the Bible mean what you want it to mean. Allow me to clarify.
There are two ways to approach the Bible. One is to read it with an open mind and let it educate you; and the other is to come to the Bible with a fixed idea already in your mind, and then selectively read it in order to find support for that idea.
I shouldn’t just blame the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. At university I had a rather difficult dialogue with a homosexual Christian. I could not for the life of me see how one could profess Christianity yet openly flout a very clearly stated tenet of Christianity. His arguments were masterpieces of Bible twisting.
And just in case you’re starting to feel a bit smug about it all at this stage, I am afraid that we in the Coptic Church are sometimes guilty of a bit of clever Bible twisting ourselves. How often have I heard a disgruntled husband sulkily pointing to St Paul’s command that wives must submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22)? Somehow, the verse before it (“submitting to one another”) seems to be invisible to these guys. People use Bible passages to accuse and discredit their enemies, forgetting that the same Bible exhorts them to love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them.
In fact, the Bible itself warns us not to twist its words: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter1:20). History is replete with sad examples of Christians reading into the Bible support for their own agendas that in reality have nothing to do with God’s Word. The medieval Crusaders killed and pillaged and raped in the name of Christ. The European Catholic Church of the early Renaissance put people to death as heretics for believing that the earth orbits around the sun. In each of these cases, selected Bible verses interpreted in a certain way were used to back up these actions; actions that we now see are clearly the opposite of what the Bible stands for and teaches.
The Protestant Reformation reacted to this particular form of Bible twisting by creating its own. Martin Luther himself is notorious for calling the Epistle of St James a “book of straw” and dismissing its teachings. Why? Because St James insists that “faith without works is dead”, whereas Luther espoused the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone without works. Thus does HH Pope Shenouda III often warn us to beware the danger of the “single verse”; the use of a Bible passage taken out of context, and without reference to all the other passages in the Bible that touch upon the topic.
You can be more confident in your interpretation of a Bible passage if no other Bible passage contradicts that interpretation (of course, you must also beware of mangling the meaning of other passages so you can squeeze them into your interpretation). As Orthodox Christians, we have another check on our interpretation: Holy Tradition. This consists of the interpretation of the Bible by the Fathers of the Church, the generations who lived in the centuries immediately after Christ, including Fathers who knew the Apostles personally, who sat and learned at their feet.
Christianity is a living tradition, not a monument of granite. The basic truths of Christianity will always be the same in every age and in every society, but of course it is the application of those truths that can often be most challenging. How much harder that challenge is if those truths themselves are vague or misinterpreted because we haven’t been diligent and honest in our reading of the Bible!
Like building a house on a foundation of sand.