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This is my Bible reading guide for those who want to learn more about Christianity. This is not so much an overview of the Bible's content, but a guide on how to discern various sources about the Bible or derived from the Bible. This guide came about because, over the course of time, I encountered several heresies where the authors made arguments contradicting the Bible, even though the authors might have meant well. It is my hope to equip new and seasoned Christians to recognize misreadings of the Bible as they grow spiritually and not make the same mistake.
To study the Christian belief, the Bible is the primary source. Several kinds of secondary sources are available to also help understand the Bible:
- Supplemental: These are the usual Bible study guides just to understand the Bible as is, providing systematic overview, historical context, and language translation notes. This type of source is not supposed to introduce its own interpretation of the Bible but it may slip, so beware.
- i.e. "who wrote this book in the Bible, why was it written, and who were the intended audiences?"
- Topical: They summarize the teachings in the Bible by topic, e.g. GotQuestions, Topical Bible. They occasionally introduce some interpretations of the Bible, but mostly understand the Bible text with its literal meaning and in context.
- i.e. "what does the Bible say about _______?"
- Propositional: Numerous authors have also written books and articles explaining how to apply the teachings in the Bible to our lives in practice, such as Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, and 9Marks. This type of source makes a point and quotes the Bible (and sometimes other sources) to support its view. This is often where interpretation can get problematic.
- i.e. "the Bible says ____, which supports what I'm saying (about something else)."
Regardless of what kind the secondary source is, they all need to be scrutinized carefully. If the source is trying to make an argument, is the argument logically sound? Are the citations referenced by the source accurate and reliable?
Quoting a verse from the Bible is the most common form of citation. It is important to see if the quote is really from the Bible, is it a reputable translation (e.g. NIV, ESV, (N)KJV), and what the verse actually says. All new Christians should read the whole Bible straight-through once. Even though you might not fully understand the text, the goal is to develop an impression for the content of the Bible, so you can quickly tell whether a verse quotation is genuine. If someone fabricates a verse, then it should immediately ring a red flag, "what a minute, the Bible never says that!"
Citations to material outside of the Bible are sometimes hard to verify, so they must be taken with a caveat. The best way to understand the Bible is to accept everything it says by faith, and scrutinize everything else outside of the Bible. Some people don't want to accept the Bible by faith, which is understandable, but some people instead accept everything else outside of the Bible by faith yet scrutinize the Bible, which is foolish.
Here are some examples of heresy, and how they could be avoided.
Islamic scholars typically hold the belief that the Bible is corrupt, and they believe that the Quran is supposed to clarify the will of God through citation to Muhammad. However, the accusation that the Bible is corrupt is not substantiated either by Quran itself or by historical account. The books of the Bible were written in many languages throughout the ages, and those who compiled the Textus Receptus went through great lengths to reconcile the text variations in its sources, but the textual criticism of the variations is well studied. There are also well-studied textual variations in the Quran. In the Quran, there are references to the scripture which is the Bible, so the Quran can be seen as a commentary to the Christian Bible. But the Quran is also a propositional source, so many of its interpretations of the Bible should be scrutinized. I urge all Muslims to read the Bible so they would gain an understanding where the Quran drew its inspiration.
Some time ago, I talked to a self-proclaimed homeless prophet. I don't dismiss someone just because he's homeless (after all, Jesus was also homeless, "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."——Matthew 8:20). But the homeless man also denied that Jesus is the Messiah and claimed that the true God is both male and female, like the Taoism Yin-Yang symbol he wore on his ring. He made up verses from the Bible but at the same time questioned Bible inerrancy, so his arguments are self-contradictory. Knowing what the Bible actually says and its historical context will allow someone to dispel this kind of heresy immediately.
Another example of bad interpretation came from an article arguing that self-pity is a sin and should be repented. It makes the argument "self-pity is a dangerous, deceitful, heart-deadening sin" by quoting Hebrews 3:13 which says "none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" but has nothing to do with self-pity. Then he would quote other verses about repentance that again has nothing to do with self-pity. The argument is made in the style "my point X implies Bible verse Y, therefore X is true" which is a logical fallacy known as "affirming the consequent." This is an example where the quotes are genuine, but the argument is not logically sound. To be fair, this article is not really a heresy; the Bible does have an extensive treatment of self-pity in the Book of Job, and provides a solution "The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?" in Psalm 27. However, suggesting that self-pity is a sin deprives the notion that the LORD is righteous but He can be on our side as well.
Also around the same time, I attended an author talk for her book about Good Christian Sex, advocating that it is okay to have sex for pleasure before and outside of marriage (in the form of masturbation). In her talk, she blatantly dismissed proof-texting (i.e. quoting Bible verses out of context), but instead showed examples from the Bible that she argues must be interpreted in a different way. The combination of "don't tell me other places in the Bible that all say X is wrong" and "did the Bible really mean to say X is wrong here?" together with her personal anecdotes that "I think X is right," allowed her to say "X is right" in direct contradiction to what the Bible says about lust. Again, knowing what the Bible actually says about something and to have confidence in this knowledge would allow one to recognize heresy of this nature. Also, when someone argues that her personal anecdote surpasses the Bible, she is really inventing her own religion.
(At this point, you might have to take it by faith that the Bible is revelation from God, not an invention of men. The more you know about the Bible, and the more you know about human nature, the more you can understand that the Bible cannot be man-made because it is counter-intuitive to human nature.)
In conclusion, every new Christian should read the Bible straight-through at least once. Although reading in this manner will result in gaps of understanding, the purpose is to equip you enough in order to tell what the Bible really says about something. Over time, you'll meditate in prayer, or listen to someone's testimony, or read books or articles that give you new understandings to fill in those gaps, but you'll also occasionally find heresies that introduce a false belief. Hopefully this guide will help you tell them apart.
Appendix: Sound Interpretations
Some Bible verses need a deeper understanding than others because a shallow understanding could misinterpret the verse. This is the main reason some believers have relaxed from Sola Scriptura (Bible is the single infallible source of authority) to Prima Scriptura (Bible is the first but not the only divine inspiration), or worse, started to doubt the infallibility of the Bible. Such relaxation is a slippery slope because it puts the interpretation of the scripture at the whim of the reader, allowing them to invent their own religion.
Nonetheless, there are logically sound interpretation techniques that avoid the slippery slope, while still following the scripture at its full fidelity.
From Specialized Application to the General Truth
Some parts of the Bible describe a special application of a general truth to the historical context. This is done to appeal to the reader at the time the scripture is being written, but we can still learn from the general truth. However, a naïve interpretation could abuse the scripture and derive a false message. An example is 1 Peter 2 pledging slaves to submit to their masters, and 1 Peter 3 pledging wives to submit to their husbands. Some unsavory heretics have abused these passages to justify slavery and patriarchy, which is unbiblical.
A closer look of 1 Peter 2-3 reveals that the general truth is that we must submit to God’s will first, and secondary to that, submit to one another in the freedom of Christ. The general truth for submission to God’s will can be found in Matthew 22:37 which references Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The general truth for submission to one another can be found in Matthew 22:39, “Love your neighbor as yourself”; also Matthew 23:11-12, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Submission to God is the overarching framework for submission under an authority.
Having first established the general truth, we can then understand that 1 Peter 2-3 is a specialized application of the general truth to the societal structures of that time rather than an endorsement of that structure. It would be incorrect to dismiss a passage for being archaic because it was specialized to the historical context. Doing so would blind us from the general truth we could still learn from the passage. An example that demonstrates a good use of this interpretation technique from specialized application to the general truth can be found in this sermon by Mark Booker, Senior Minister at Park Street Church.
Furthermore, 1 Peter 2-3 was a pledge to slaves and wives only because these were roles in that society in a humbled position just as Christ was humbled. We must also understand that as Christ was also lifted in glory (Philippians 2), so will slaves and wives and whoever humbled themselves for the sake of Christ be exalted. When the heretics attempt to justify the subordination of slaves and wives, they are effectively denying that Christ has risen to glory after He conquered death. That is why such subordination is unbiblical.