The Bible is Useful
The question we should be asking is, “What does that mean?”
Growing up in churches, we would regularly have sermons and lessons on defending our faith. The leader of these sessions would give us tips and verses from the Bible to use when we were inevitably going to be confronted by nonbelievers who had it as their goal to turn us away from God.
Needless to say, it is incredibly hard to tell someone who does not believe in the Bible that the Bible says something and therefore that makes it true. Ultimately, these classes existed, I have come to believe, to help those who already embraced Christianity to feel more confident in their own beliefs. There is nothing wrong with this. Atheists, Mormons, Republicans, Democrats, it does not matter who you are, the group you are a part of has its own form of this. Every group has its own set of core beliefs, and affirming those beliefs for the adherents is a way to make sure people do not lose sight of what the group exists for.
In Christianity, one of the core doctrines centers around the Bible. It is the central text for the Christian religion, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. About the Bible, Christians unanimously agree that the Bible is inspired by God and, in some way, the very words of God Himself.
When discussing the Bible, Christians will speak of the words of the book as being divinely inspired and as being completely authoritative for the life of the Christian. This whole doctrine is summed up completely in one passage, really just one section of a longer sentence, from the Bible itself, 2 Timothy 3:16.
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness…
For the sake of discussion, we are not going to dispute the validity of the Bible, that is for an entirely different discussion. For my non-religious readers, I would like you, for a moment, to set aside your prejudice and just follow along within the framework that the Bible is a divinely inspired religious text. Because what I am going to discuss today is what that means and how we are supposed to read it. To do so, I am going to be breaking down this one small piece of text.
For starters, the Bible is “profitable”. This does not mean that the Bible is a moneymaker. Rather, the word rendered “profitable” here carries the connotations of being of benefit or useful. This word is actually the linchpin of the entire passage. Because how we interpret what it means for the Bible to be “useful” has a huge impact on how we read every single verse and story.
The way this word ends up interpreted, more often than not, is to make the passage read, “All scripture is inspired by God and therefore timeless and therefore relevant to our day and age in the same way it was relevant when it was written.” So when reading further and we see that it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, etc, we are to handle each passage as a timeless command to be used to teach us how to be a good Christian. Every passage is as relevant today as it was back then. It does not matter how culture has changed or shifted. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” As the bumper sticker says.
The problem with this interpretation, though, is that there is not any real context for the Christian to read it that way. Let me explain.
It started with Jesus.
Up until the time Jesus began his teaching, Jews distanced themselves from those around them by way of their laws. Everything from how they dressed to what they ate to when they could and could not work. The irony is that they failed miserably and yet still tried to enforce it amongst themselves. The priests in the temple were profiting from their relationship with the government by using their laws to keep the Jewish people in control by way of taxes and authoritarianism. Jesus comes along and, in the tradition of other prophets throughout the Biblical story, calls out their hypocrisy. He exposes the corruption within the church. He confronts their misuse of God’s laws to take advantage of the less fortunate. He does so using a teaching method of saying, “You have heard it said…but I say…” In doing so, he called into question not only interpretations of the law but even some of the very laws themselves.
In other words, he takes those ancient rules and places them squarely in his current cultural context. He uses the law to teach the people of his day how to live a righteous life. But notice what he does not do: he does not read every single law as a timeless command. Here are a couple of examples.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also…”
Or, immediately following,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…”
In the second case, Jesus is calling out a flaw in their interpretation of the law. People were hearing love your neighbor and immediately assuming the reverse was also true. Hate your enemies. Jesus tells them that the law does not actually say that, no matter how long they have been hearing it.
In the first case, he literally tells the people that the law of “eye for an eye” is no longer applicable. He in fact tells the people to do the exact opposite of that law.
But that is just the start. After the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven, there are numerous stories of people who adhered faithfully to the law only to be told that it did not work that way anymore. The laws were struck down or their interpretations adjusted to reflect the cultures with which the Jesus message was being shared. A prime example is when Peter is on his way to a city and he has gone up on a roof to pray while also being hungry. God shows him a vision where a sheet comes down from heaven loaded with animals and God tells him to pick something to eat. All of the animals are “unclean” and not allowed to be eaten according to the Law. Peter argues and says, “I can’t eat those.” To which a voice replies, “Do not call anything unclean that God has made.” The Law regarding what can and can’t be eaten has literally been rendered irrelevant here.
Then come along the letters written by a guy named Paul. These letters have become, for most, especially of the Protestant flavor, the interpretive framework under which the Bible is read. The 2 Timothy passage above is from one such letter. But even Paul’s extensive collection of writings in the Bible do not lend credibility to interpreting the whole Bible as being a direct timeless command.
A strong example of this is when Paul is addressing some teachers who came along telling the Christians that God wanted them to be circumcised in order to be accepted by God. Circumcision was a law by Old Testament standards and at no point did Jesus or anyone else say this law no longer applied or that it only applied to some people and not others. So these people came saying that the Christians needed to have their foreskins removed. Because the Bible tells us so.
Paul says no. He says it does not work like that. He says that you are not saved by following the letter of the law, but rather through faith. In a longer, drawn-out manner, he follows the same interpretive structure as Jesus. “You have heard it said that you need to be circumcised, but I tell you, no you do not.”
Which brings us right back to 2 Timothy.
What does it mean for Scripture to be useful? In context, it means something completely different than the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” mentality. Here’s the proof, using Paul’s own words and his discussion of the Law in Galatians 3:
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.
Paul takes the story of Abraham and reinterprets it into the current cultural context and uses this interpretation to say that things have changed and the law of circumcision no longer applies. He then gives a sort of history lesson as proof of his interpretive framework. The Bible was useful for teaching, as in he could teach the people about how things were. The Bible was useful for persuading (another connotation for the Greek word rendered “rebuking” in the translation of the 2 Timothy passage) the people of the validity of his position. The Bible was useful for correcting the errors in their thinking. In this case, he was showing them how the Law no longer applied and how they were wrong in their interpretation.
In this interpretive context, we can look at things like Science and mental health and genetics and physics and say that certain ideas in the Bible are no longer applicable in light of new knowledge. That does not undermine their usefulness, but rather simply changes the manner in which they are useful, which has real-world implications for the Christian, which is a discussion for another day.