As a theologian I do my best to study the Bible daily and regularly listen to other teachers, preachers, and theologians as well as read challenging books and articles in an attempt to continue learning and not think I have reached the pinnacle of spiritual perfection. I realized after graduating from Seminary that I still had a great deal of learning left to do and challenged myself not to become content with where I am. Knowledge is like personal fitness; if you don’t use what you’ve gained then you’ll eventually lose it.
With this in mind, I wanted to write down some of my thoughts on what I have observed in the current teachings of late in the American Church. There are a great many others who have written on these topics but I felt the need to write on these topics as well. It is my hope that this mini-series will be something that challenges myself and you to dig deeper into God’s word, figure out where the land mines of theology are, and how to properly navigate the tenuous minefield of the Faith.
One of the greatest struggles for me of late are people who, whether for ill or not, have spread false teachings to the Church. This age of information and technology we are in is both wonderful and terrible at the same time because just as it is amazing to be able to hear pastors and teachers from all over the world it also opens the door for that many false teachings to be heard. I believe most false teachers do not believe they are teaching false ideas that the Bible does not convey; instead, they are propagating beliefs that are tilted towards what they personally want to believe and what keeps them inside their own comfort zones. I too have this inclination and must stay away from it.
Consider what Peter wrote almost 2,000 years ago to the early Church:
 But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves.  Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of truth will be slandered.  In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money. But God condemned them long ago, and their destruction will not be delayed. (2 Peter 2: 1-3 NLT)
You may then say, “James, if you have this personal inclination towards spiritual comfort yourself, how do you know that you are teaching truth when others are teaching falsehoods?” The answer is very simple; as my friend, Jackie Watts, has often said, “We must twist our beliefs to fit the Scriptures and not twist the Scriptures to fit our beliefs.” By studying the Bible and reading it in context (historically, contextually, culturally, and in regard to the writer of the text) we can rightly divide truth from lie.
If we are not careful, here is what can happen so easily: I grow up in a certain style (or as I like to call them ‘flavors’) of the Christian faith and because of that I have a preference for a certain style or presentation of the Gospel message to the world. Because of that preference I then begin to believe that any church community that portrays a different flavor of presenting the Gospel is wrong. In this regard, I then become blind to the errors that may be contained in the teachings of those who are teachers and pastors in my preferred style of worship and I accept whatever they teach without studying it for myself.
This is a dangerous problem that I too have struggled to get past. Different does not necessarily mean wrong and doing something different can challenge a person to get out of their comfort zone and see things from a different perspective. Think of it like personal fitness. I used to be a distance runner who ran many half marathons and one full marathon. I was in great health and was content with where my fitness level was. Yet when I was invited to come to a different style of gym that focused on functional fitness, I realized I had a lot of areas I could improve in.
This is what happens when we take time to listen, study, and learn from other teachers that come from different flavors of the Christian faith. I study from teachers who are liturgical, charismatic, contemporary, seeker-sensitive, full-gospel, and even good ol’ southern gospel. Variety truly is the spice of life. I do this to keep from getting caught up in my comfort zone. It also exposes me to a variety of cultural thought patterns and theological traps that I could easily fall into.
This brings me to the Big Truth of this entry: Proper Context Prevents Improper Pretexts
Make sure you read that a few times. Go ahead; it’s okay.
Now, before we get too deep into this I need to throw a crazy word you may not be familiar with at you: hermeneutics (her·me·neu·tics). Hermeneutics is “the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts.” (Audi, Robert (1999). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 377. ISBN 0521637228.) Simply put, hermeneutics is reading the Bible in such a way that you don’t misunderstand what the original writer(s) wanted you to get from the text.
This whole idea is why hermeneutics is such an important thing; if we study the Bible properly we, as Paul wrote to the church community in Ephesus:  … will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.  Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. (Ephesians 4:14b-15 NLT)
This will get to be deep water really fast so I will begin to wrap up this first entry on the topic. We must study the Bible in its context. This is like looking at the many sides of a beautiful diamond. It has a great many facets and each one reflects the light a little differently. When they are viewed in their entirety then you can see the remarkable fire that the light reflects inside of the precious stone. The Bible is similar; when we view all of the aspects of context properly the Bible comes to life in a new and fiery way inside our hearts and minds.
Let me conclude this entry with two examples. Let’s say I was walking down the street and I saw a crumpled up piece of paper on the ground. When I smoothed it out I saw it was a letter. It read, “My dearest love, I cannot wait to see you tonight. I have longed to be with you and to hear the sound of your voice again. Meet me at 7pm tonight at the corner of 5th Street and Long Avenue and we will have a wonderful night on the town.” This sounds really good, right?
What if, after reading that letter, I go to the appointed meeting place, stand on the corner with flowers in my hand, making sure it was at exactly 7pm, and no one ever shows? Was something wrong? Did I misread the letter? You are hopefully chuckling at this idea because you saw how I took the letter out of its context. It was not written to me and its specific directions were not intended for me to follow. If I did, I would have a long and lonely night ahead of me. The letter was worth reading and learning from but, since it was not written specifically for me, there were certain aspects that did not apply to me.
Let me give you a second example. Let’s say I’m walking down the street again and I pick up a newspaper off the ground (it’s a messy street, what can I say?) and read the weather forecast. It tells me that on Thursday a massive hurricane is coming my way and that I need to prepare. So, I take off work for Thursday and Friday, nail plywood over my windows, stock up on prepackaged meals, buy tons of water and batteries, and then sit back and wait. To my surprise, the hurricane never comes. Instead, I have wasted time and resources and have also managed to look foolish to everyone I know. Why? Because I did not look at the date of the newspaper to see that it was from 4 years ago and that event had already occurred.
In both of these examples with literature (a letter and a newspaper) context provided the key to understanding what was written down. An improper context (not reading that date or considering the author) made me read the writings with an improper pretext (a reason for action that is not real). Both of these scenarios are things that people who study the Bible do very easily if they are not careful.
After all, not many people think they can pick up a 2,000 year old piece of historical literature and understand it all at first glance. Why do we then think we can do the same with the Bible? Instead, we must be careful to study the Bible like the amazing work of literature it is alongside remembering that it is the very word of God. Let me conclude by giving you five areas to consider when you read any piece of literature but especially so of the Bible:
- Author (who wrote it and why did they feel the need to write it?)
- Audience (who was it written to and why did they need to receive it?)
- Atmosphere (what was the historical and cultural setting it was written in?)
- Accuracy (how does what I am reading align with other parts of the Bible?)
- Application (what can I learn from the passage to apply to my own life?)
My challenge to you this week is to study the Bible daily and examine what you are reading through the lens of these five areas. You may not read as much in quantity as you normally may have but you will read much more in quality than you had before. Be willing to use the internet and study tools (more to come on these in later entries) to help you get the information you need for these five areas. I promise that if you do this, you will not be disappointed.
Until next time I challenge you to remember this entry’s Big Truth: Proper Context Prevents Improper Pretexts