How NOT to Read Scripture

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A discussion in the comments box at Disputations reminds me of one of my favorite subjects as detailed in the title above. And I will take as my example the subject of Just War.

The Church teaches that Just War is a revelation of God. Thus, as Catholics, we may accept Just War Theory as Holy Truth. Now, I'm not terribly keen on the theory myself, and I have some serious questions about it; however, it serves as the perfect example because it seems the middle ground between the Old Testament and dogmatic pacifism; and therefore a test case.

Now, if we were to read the Bible as some seem to do, a verse at a time out of context, we would stumble upon something like this in the Old Testament:

" Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' " (Samuel 15:3)

I'm sure you all have stumbled upon this and other quotations like this and have puzzled for a moment wondering what God ordered this. If the Lord truly revealed "just war" or if pacifism has any hope of being true, what does one do with revelations such as these? Just war tells us that we must limit the damage done to combatants alone--I doubt infants, children, cattle, sheep, camels, or donkey qualify under these rules. Is the Church then teaching something that flies in the face of scripture?

No. Not when scripture is regarded in its fullness and not verse by verse. I think there is hardly a doctrine of any sect of Christianity that a verse by verse reading of the Bible would not confound. But when all of the Bible is understood in the context of the fullness of revelation, only then can our doctrinal pronouncements begin to make sense.

So, how NOT to read the Bible? Verse by verse, one snippet at a time, seeking our will and our agenda whereever we go. Whenever we encounter a scripture, one must always bring it into the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ and ask how it stands up in that light--is this the fullness of the understanding of God.

I won't say that the words in Samuel are wrong or that divine inspiration fails in encountering them. I will say rather human understanding fails in dealing with them. They are not in accord with the revelation of Jesus, nor even with the fullness of the revelation of the Old Testament. I don't know what they mean separately--but I do know for certain that they reaffirm the strong bond God has forged with the chosen people--they make clear that the chosen ones are God's favored. They do not give us license to commit these atrocities ourselves. More, are they like the words of God to Abraham without the retraction of the later angel? The question must be asked because Israel failed to wipe out the Amalekites. There was no love lost between the two nations, so something else must have intervened--perhaps something lost to history which, by its nature was not nearly so important as the revelation of God's love for his people.

I don't know for certain. But what I do know is that reading any book of the Bible, any verse, any passage, any word outside the fullness of the complete revelation is a recipe for private interpretation and religious disaster. If one is to accept the truth of revelation, one must also understand that here below we will see and understand only a small fragment of that truth. So, when reading the Bible, do not cling too closely to that which makes you comfortable, but carry everything out into the light of Christ.

I know that I am chief among those who tend to focus on a verse or a piece and lose the sense of the whole. I need to remember even more than anyone else what I've written here. Scripture only makes sense in the context of the whole, so we must seek the whole to begin to understand.

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Dear Steven,
This meshes nicely with an article I just read about Genre. Literalists (and those of us tempted to be) recognize various genres in our other reading, but not in the Bible. When I thought about it, it made a great deal of sense. Did the original listeners of these stories see them as history? thriller? romance? adventure? science fiction (think Jonah)? It's an idea that appeals to me, and I have been thinking about the Old Testament in its light, lately. The article is here at Bible and Interpretation.

I just thought it was an idea I hadn't heard expressed this way before.

Dear Talmida,

Thank you for the reference. I'm going to look it up soonest.



The Church teaches that Just War is a revelation of God.

Where, precisely, and in which Ecumenical Council or Papal statement is this "revelation" revealed ?

As far as I can tell, the Church does not claim there is any such thing as a Just War.

The Church stands on the deposit of faith and the notion that war can ever be just simply isn't in that deposit or in apostolic tradition. Christ never taught it.

God Bless

The verse "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them" is consistent within the context of the book of Genesis, particularly the Flood story. The Flood wiped out everybody, children, infants, cattle & sheep. In both cases it is God doing the killing, even if he is using the Israelites in the second example. Because he commanded them to kill the Amalekites, it was as if he did it himself.

Why would God do it? Perhaps to get through to us of His sovereignty. Perhaps as an example to teach us how bad sin is. Most of us tend to look upon physical violence with horror while looking on moral violence (i.e. sin) with much, much less horror. Centuries ago people were more concerned about moral health than physical, so we naturally consider them barbarians and we the enlightened. Since we all die, it's so much more interesting to me whether these people went to Heaven or not, than why God killed them. If we had a Divine perspective we'd see that this time on earth is, comparatively speaking, a joke.

Violence is not unique to the OT of course. In the chapter 5 of Acts Ananias and Saphira were killed because they were holding back money from the community. And personally I don't think it's tragic UNLESS they went to Hell. That is what is unimaginable. And St. Augustine thinks they didn't. From Orchard's Commentary: "The grave punishment was exemplary, to show the respect due to the Church, and preserve discipline, both so necessary for the persecuted infant community. Ananias and Saphira had received the Holy Spirit and many graces, 'yet it is to be believed that after this life God spared them, for his mercy is great'. (St. Aug. Sermon. 148)



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