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Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Out of Context" (Richard L. Schultz)

TITLE: Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible
AUTHOR: Richard L. Schultz
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (160 pages).

How will you feel when the powerful book of biblical promises, or the highly encouraging book about marriage, or the beautiful applications of biblical principles by your favourite Christian authors, are good on the outside, but on the inside, have quoted Scriptures out of context? Shocked? Surprised? According to Richard L Schultz, far too many popular Christian authors are misinterpreting the Bible when they write their books. Schultz begins his crusade by first dismantling the interpretive paradigms of Bruce Wilkinson's "The Prayer of Jabez," questioning the way Wilkinson picks and chooses translations, adding material that was not originally there, and turning a descriptive verse into a prescriptive application. Wilkinson spiritualizes what should not be spiritualized, and implements the prayer in a way that is simply out of the Bible's original context. Schultz studies the six reasons for bad hermeneutics based on erroneous assumptions. Some authors believe that there is a 'hidden message' in all the Bible. Others claim that individuals are free to take a general verse and turn it into a specific application. Some turn all the Bible into a giant command manual. After listing down some of the erroneous hermenuetics, Schultz highlights some popular authors who have unwittingly committed the error of quoting the Bible out of context. Schultz questions,

  • Henry Cloud and John Townsend's use of Isaiah 1:18, that fails to appreciate that the verse is not about a father wanting to hear the reasoning of a son, but God's call to Israel to repent;
  • Anne Ortlund's use of Scriptures to justify cosmetics and beautifying oneself, instead of explaining what the original contexts of Psalm 3:3, 2 Sam 15 says;
  • Larry Crabb's use of Ezekiel 24 on marital communications instead of explaining the mourning practices of ancient Israel;
  • James and Shirley Dobson's use of the book of Esther to depict a loving wife to a husband, and pays little attention to that of a queen being subjected to a king;
  • Jay Adams's use of Numbers 14, reading modern development to add meaning to an ancient context;
  • Frank Minirth and Paul Meier's use of Isaiah 43:8 to talk about depression;
  • Richard Young's using the Scriptures to find out whether God is himself a vegetarian!
Schultz also lists some common mistakes made with words. "Anachronism" is how modern readers read a "later meaning" into an ancient word, like the use of Proverbs 29:18 to talk about church vision and mission statements, instead of understanding that the context is about a nation's future, not individual guidance. "Root fallacy" goes deep into word studies and its etymology, to the point that the word itself becomes more important than the way it was used. "Overloaded meaning" is when people packs too much meaning into a word. The lack of contextual understanding, of literary genres, of cultural usage, etc, often lead to misuse.

Schultz boldly critiques many other well-known authors like Gary Smalley, John Trent, John Eldredge, Joshua Harris, Rick Warren, and many more. Even well respected authors like Eugene Peterson and James Houston are not spared. He points out the five common fallacies of failing to respect the contexts of narrative texts.  He speaks out against the fallacy of people trying to find "Christ everywhere in the Old Testament." He also accuses authors of either misinterpreting the Bible or misapplying the lessons. He warns against "prooftexting," the art of finding a verse in the Bible to prove our own purposes. He cautions readers against "textjacking" that lifts verses out of their original contexts. 

Schultz knows that by his wide critiques of many popular authors, he himself will be criticized for one or more of the following.

  1. That he is judgmental;
  2. That he is promoting professional scholarship 
  3. That he is quenching the Holy Spirit
  4. That he is ignoring the diversity of interpretation
  5. That he is letting "interpretive correctness" replace things that edify
Schultz is prepared for all of the above accusations, saying that it is important to be skilled and wise interpreters of God's Word, and that those who teach must be examined more sharply, and for the sake of upholding truth, he needs to speak out against all kinds of biblical misinterpretations. He suggests that all readers of the Bible need to:
  • Care about understanding
  • Catch nuance
  • Clarify context
  • Check terms
  • Consider genre
  • Consult experts
  • Correlate application.
My Thoughts

Christians often say that they believe and revere the Bible. For various reasons, people do misinterpret and misunderstand what the Bible is actually saying. Personally, this book is meant for two groups of people. The harshest critiques are for those in positions of influence, whether he is a popular author, writer, blogger, teacher, professor, or any position of teaching authority. This is because God's Word needs to be studied and researched well. There is no excuse for shoddiness, plagiarism, or utter misuse of the Bible. These acts do not bring honour to God.

The second group of people are the rest of us. For that, there are questions at the end of each chapter to think more critically about, followed by additional tips for further research. This books should not be an end in itself. Instead, it ought to spur others to do their own critical reading and not swallow wholesale what popular authors are saying. Sometimes, due to time pressure or publishing constraints, authors can fail to do the adequate research to help them understand the original texts and contexts. Here, this is where good biblical scholars and theological resources are helpful. Sometimes, I feel like Schultz is more sympathetic to the academia and less so for the writers of popular literature. It makes me feel like Schultz himself may be a little too harsh on popular writers and less critical on his fellow scholars and theologians.

Having said that, this book is not meant to belittle Christian authors or popular Christian books. It is a challenge to authors to do their homework properly. It is a call for Christians to read their books with a Bible in hand. It is written by one who cares about right teaching, good biblical understanding, and hard work that honours God. Read in this light, there are more positives to remember in this book. Read this book with an open mind, and if you are a casual Bible interpreter, I warmly recommend this book for you to take time to learn with scholars and research more before you turn anything in the Bible into an application. Good application must come from good interpretation. Good interpretation comes from good guidance. This book is a good guide.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Books in exchange for an honest review.

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