How NOT to Read Scripture—Part I (with an Agenda)


I have to admit to being a bit nonplussed over some recent discussions regarding judgment and the licitity of participating therein. This issue is very near and dear to me for any number of reasons, perhaps both good and bad. And I do intend to make a non-scriptural argument for my position later. But right now is confession time.

As I read through scripture, I’m certain this issue was stuck in the back of my head. I was certain that folks who argued for the propriety of judgment were wrong. Well, lo and behold, as I was reading Romans, I stumbled upon this passage:

Romans 2: 1-4

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
[2] We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.
[3] Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
[4] Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Isn’t it amazing how the Lord comes to your rescue if only you are paying attention? And while I’d like to leave it there, it wouldn’t be entirely honest of me. I clung to these verses awhile and relished what they were saying TO ME. And I think that is a key issue here. Scripture speaks to us where we are and informs us of the thing God requires of us individually. If you read scripture with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, you will find with billions of others, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Psalms 119.)

And I do believe that this passage reconfirms my mission and my message. However, to claim that it was written in support of my contention that one should never judge a person is patently false. This I discovered as I researched exegetes throughout time and how they viewed this passage from Romans. First, they took it with the next seven verses. Secondly the read the whole probably as Paul originally intended it, to be a blast against the cultic Jews who regarded their salvation as assured even as the pagans of the time were condemned. Paul was excoriating those Jews who pointed out the faults of the pagans while participating in them themselves. They were, in fact, doing what they were condemning in others. And the laws they cited against the pagan were, in fact, reflecting back on them.

Now, scripture is both in time and timeless. This passage was written to Roman Jews and Christians at a certain moment in time to address certain issues that had arise in that society. But the meaning of scripture is not confined to that time, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit speaks through all of time to individuals and to the collective Church.

Nevertheless, while I would contend that the message provides support for my contention, proper study and interpretation of the literal meaning and intent of the passage certainly indicates that it was not what Paul originally meant nor intended.

This is the danger of citing scripture for your own purposes. It isn’t so much that you might be wrong in what you are saying (although that is certainly true) but there is always the possibility that what you are saying was meant for you alone or you in the execution of the task God has given you. Scripture has definitive universal meaning, which the Church preserves and helps to convey to all peoples and all generations. But scripture also has personal application and intent, revealed to an individual by the Holy Spirit. One must discern carefully in interpreting scripture that even the personal application does not fly in the face of Church teaching and the preserved revelation of the fullness of Scripture and Tradition handed down by the Church. Nevertheless, one must read and understand scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is intended to give life to our faith.

For a while, I was tempted to post this as a unilateral endorsement of my general theory of human conduct. I was tempted even after I knew the truth of what the passage intended. This temptation reflects Shakespeare’s contention (was it in Othello?) that , “The Devil can cite scripture for his own purposes.” To use scripture as a weapon, a bludgeon, or even as support for a good argument in defiance of the revelation of the Holy Spirit is a work of the devil. We must be honest and careful about how we use Scripture. It isn’t ever licit to use it as a trump card or as “the winning hand” in an argument. On the other hand, it is perfectly appropriate to present scriptural support for an argument.

I suppose I must admit that sometimes the desire to “win” an argument or sway opinion can overcome better judgment. It didn’t in this case. Scripture is a love-letter not a cudgel or a bludgeon to be wielded as we see fit.

Always beware scripture citations in support of an agenda or an argument. They may well be valid, but they may reflect a selective culling and consideration of the Holy Writ for the support of some cause. Any good cause so supported is diminished by such an irresponsible use. Any other cause simply proceeds from that which would always confound the Church given the opportunity.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 28, 2004 8:23 AM.

The Plight of Sodom was the previous entry in this blog.

More on Judging Others is the next entry in this blog.

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