A practice I picked up when I was much younger was to open my Bible up, place my finger on a verse, and take it as God’s personal word for me for that day (something not too uncommon in some Pentecostal circles). I have long since abandoned this practice, but it does remind me of what is known in evangelical circles as the “verse of the day;” you’ll hear it on Christian radio as well as see it on various Bible apps. The main issue is an obvious one: we don’t read anything else this way. It would be arrogant for us to read 1-2 lines of an article and then assume we know the gist of what the author is saying. Or to listen to a quick sound bite of an hour-long lecture and think we’ve captured the speaker’s main idea.
And yet we do that very thing with God’s word when we read it in a scattered fashion, ripping verses from the surrounding verses and context.
The Bible wasn’t written to be read in a fragmented or atomized fashion; it was written without chapters or verses. The Bible as a whole cannot be understood by reading a verse here or even a chapter here while ignoring the surrounding chapters and verses; no book can be understood in this way! Any author would be offended if you summarized his/her book by reading it in such a fragmented way mainly because you will inevitably put words in that authors mouth, making them say things they aren’t actually saying.
As Evangelicals we generally have a high view of Scripture, affirming God as the ultimate Author behind Scripture. I am enthusiastic about this since I don’t think that it is too much to ask that Christians affirm the Bible did not come together by accident. And yet far too many of us who maintain a high view of the Bible strangely maintain a low view of context, ultimately leading to a deficient understanding of what the Bible says. If we read the Bible in chunks rather than as a whole, we become guilty of putting words in God’s mouth, making him say things he is not actually saying.
Another main issue is that if you stick to a “verse of the day” theology then it becomes far too easy for you to create a theology to your own personal palate and liking. The argument is made though that even those who stick with exegesis are themselves guilty of this practice. This is true to a point, but what we must understand is that it is much harder to mold the text to your liking when you stick with exegesis and context. Exegesis acts as a safeguard against the forming of the text into our image, even if we unwittingly may twist some texts into what we’d like them to say in the process. (Either that, or we end up emphasizing some verses to the neglect of others.)
NT scholar Gordon Fee has said that he’s been on a crusade to get Christians to read their Bibles “well” rather than “poorly” with his How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth (coauthored with Douglas Stuart) being a classic in this regard. The Bible Project, something that is gaining more and more traction, is also on a roll to combat biblical illiteracy, and many churches and local ministries are enthusiastic to utilize this fresh resource. While their emphasis is on understanding the Bible as a whole (story), they are clear that you cannot view the Bible as narrative until you respect the various parts of Scripture on their own terms.
I have been to my fair share of Christian conferences which decide to build the whole conference around a Bible verse. There really is nothing wrong with this, except that the verse they are centering on rarely is treated with exegetical respect, the context and argument of the chapter and/or book being left in the dust; thousands of dollars are going into these events while individual verses are twisted left and right, and we are thus teaching our congregants how not to read their Bibles. As Kevin J. Vanhoozer said in a recent interview, “The church has nothing to gain when its membership is biblically illiterate.”
Context adds flesh to the skeleton of the narrative of Scripture. Stripping verses of context ultimately leaves us with an impoverished understanding of God’s Word, and therefore an impoverished view of God. And this is why I cringe when I hear of a “verse of the day.”
April 29, 2018 at 1:04 pm
I often see you quoting Mr. Fee. I used to not like him very much, but I actually like him now! Thank you Pahl!