Critical Thinking: Fallacies in Biblical Interpretation
If you study the history of Christianity, you will very quickly see that interpretation of the Bible has varied greatly over the centuries. Things that were once accepted one way are now interpreted in the opposite way. What governs the methods used to interpret scripture?
It appears that the general beliefs of society dictate how Christians interpret it. Let me explain.
For example, for most of human history women have been seen as less than men. If you read the Bible without taking culture and history into account, it says that women should not teach, can be bought and sold, must not speak out loud in church, must obey their husbands, and much more. However, our modern society does not agree with these ideas, so people now find other parts of scripture that fit the current belief that women can do anything men can do. Many of these verses are regarded as cultural, and are not applied to Christianity today. Most churches now accept women ministers and strong female figures in society.
Slavery is another issue. Not so long ago, the church as a whole taught that slavery was condoned by God and was perfectly acceptable. And if you read the Bible at face value, that’s exactly what it says. The Bible does not state anywhere that slavery is wrong; in fact, it clearly spells out how slavery is to be conducted, and God even commands the Israelites to enslave other nations. (Do a study on slavery in the Bible sometime- it’s a bit shocking!!) Even the new Testament orders slaves to obey their masters. Yet today, Christians teaches that slavery is wrong. Christians believe a doctrine which appears to completely contradict what the Bible clearly states.
Why? Because people want to believe it. Slavery is not acceptable in our civilized society, so the Bible is scoured for themes and ideas that would support a different interpretation. People ignore the clear verses that state how slavery is to be conducted and instead embrace more vague concepts that could support a more tolerable idea of God’s character.
The Crusades are another example. Although we now shudder at the thought of the things the Crusaders did in the name of God, the Old Testament is not a walk in the park either. The Israelites were often commanded to wipe out heathen nations, killing women and children and taking lands that belonged to other people- all in the name of God. It is easy to see how someone reading the Old Testament could believe that the Bible condoned similar actions in another setting. It seems pretty straightforward- but of course the Bible is not interpreted that way today because no one wants to believe that genocide is acceptable.
Christians also teaches that abortion is wrong. However, the Old Testament shows God ordering infants and children to be put to death when the Israelites wiped out other nations, and he drowned countless pregnant mothers in the flood. Pregnant women were also put to the sword in some cases. If God truly values the lives of infants so highly, why would he do these things? To reconcile this inconsistency, other verses are found that appear to support a more socially acceptable belief.
But another fallacy occurs too. When a scripture comes up that condemns a practice that is already accepted as being wrong, people don’t look any further- they just accept it. People don’t bother to interpret it the same way they would interpret these other issues because they don’t feel it’s needed- they have already decided that they like the current interpretation, so it doesn’t warrant further scrutiny.
For example, the Bible appears to strongly condemn homosexuality. Christianity teaches that this interpretation is correct and unquestionable, so most people do not push it further. Many Christian societies agree with this belief. However, this is a double standard; these other issues show things that at first glance appear to clearly say something shocking, and yet they are interpreted very differently than what a straightforward reading would suggest.
Why are all scriptures not interpreted the same way? Why is it ok to find vague reasons to prove slavery and abortion wrong and women’s rights ok, but it’s not ok to study the gay issue in the same manner? Why is it ok to accept a straightforward interpretation in some scriptures but reject them in others? It is said that the Bible must be taken at face value and people should not read into it things that are not there, but people do that all the time- when it fits what they want to believe.
I am not trying to tell you what to think on these issues; that decision is up to you. My point is that Biblical interpretation is not as cut and dried as modern Christianity would have you believe. It is largely dependent on what you personally believe to be good or bad, or what society says. It is an aspect of humanism that has been a part of the church for a very long time.
My challenge is simple: Use critical thinking skills when you read the Bible. Are you reading things into the Bible that aren’t really there? Do you choose what to study deeper based on your preconceived ideas of what is right and wrong? The definitions of right and wrong have changed drastically over the centuries… usually with supposed scriptural backing. Don’t take someone else’s word for what the Bible really says. Find out for yourself.