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The Versified Church

You have probably read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman of NYU. If you haven't, you really ought to. I just finished another book by Postman: Technopoly.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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You have probably read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman of NYU. If you haven't, you really ought to. I just finished another book by Postman: Technopoly. My thinking was greatly stimulated by Postman's insights into how personal and social patterns of thought are influenced, even shaped, by technologies (though his bag is empty when it comes to suggesting a cure for the ailments he so accurately diagnoses).

On a basic level, Christians can easily grasp (once they apply themselves to do so) the profound differences between an image-oriented culture and a word-oriented culture. Each produces a different kind of man. But Postman helps us see how, on more subtle levels, "hidden technologies" can profoundly touch or alter our very thought structures and our perception of reality.

Mr. Postman provides many examples (he alludes "time" and again to Lewis Mumford's great example, the clock), but one he did not mention is of particular concern to us: chapters and verses in the Bible. These most definitely qualify as helpful technologies. But they should never have been blithely accepted. Our acceptance ought to have been accompanied by a healthy awareness of what chapters and verses demand of readers. We should have employed them only with warnings that readers must ever have a permanent, transcendent distrust of chapters and verses, for they can and do impact our very hearing of God's Word. Unqualified acceptance of the technology of chapters and verses has had a seismic impact on the church of Jesus Christ.

I have a theory: that chapters and verses all the good they've done notwithstanding became the technology which helped create Baptistic theology and thus hastened the eradication of covenant from our collective Christian consciousness. The Word and the covenant became divided. We have come to think, "And God created verses, and there was one and there was two, and it was so." I sometimes fear that the whole Christian world has become Baptistic! I know I overstate. But have we not actually come to think that God has given us His Word in verses? Do we not respond to do we not demand prooftexting as if it were actual proof? Do we not approach the Bible as if it were composed of thousands of discrete propositions? Has not the technology of chapters and verses altered our very approach to God's Word? Form very often determines function; minimally, the medium massages the message.

Proof-texting as a Presupposition

When we look at the Word of God as a collection of verses, we have already made a determination about its power and its place in our lives and thought. Chapter and verse divisions have facilitated a particular approach to Scripture wherein its message is manipulated to conform to our structural expectations. One theologian, though drawing no connection between the technology of verses and the consciousness of readers, nevertheless came close to articulating the problem I am concerned with here. Speaking of differences between Jewish and Christian conceptions of the Word of God, he noted that pious Jews in the Biblical era heard the Word of God in a covenantal context: they heard it as a Word coming with active power from the God who had entered into a sui generis (unique) relationship with His people. For many modern Christians, however, "The Word of God seems to interest them only to the extent that it reveals certain truths: "These 'truths' themselves are conceived as separate doctrinal statements, and the Word of God finally is reduced to a collection of formulas. Whether we realize it or not, the result is that the Word of God appears as a sort of nondescript hodgepodge from which the professional theologian extracts, like a mineral out of its matrix, small but precious bits of knowledge which it is his job to clarify and systematize."

So pervasive is this approach to Scripture among us that when it is pointed out, a standard response is, "So? What's wrong with that? Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" But entertain in your mind for a moment a picture of Christians in 60 A.D. hearing a letter from St. Paul read to them in sacred assembly. Does anyone imagine that the letter was "handled" as it later came to be, or is now, handled? Was it not read in its entirety? I do not mean to suggest that we must publicly read Paul's letters only in their entirety today. Not at all. I understand the task and obligation of connecting, as John Stott put it, two worlds. But it is frustrating to discover that most earnest Christians have a hard time grasping the fact that Paul never wrote a verse. He wrote letters. To churches. For reasons.

But we, with the help of chapters and verses, have turned the whole Word of God into the Book of Proverbs a collection of sayings. The end of this line is bumper-sticker theology, sound-bit doctrine, the triumph of the platitude, and a church that can't see the forest for the trees. I mention all this only to begin to approach the subject of how a human technology, designed to help, by being taken uncritically and for granted, has taken advantage of our trust and altered our understanding of the very character of God's Word.

The Reformed Error

The temptation for Reformed people is to think of this as a fundamentalist's foible, the sort of thing you see in a Four-Point tract. The fact is, however, that the Reformed are not foreigners to this phenomenon.

Of the many instances of this abuse of Scripture in our own history, I will select but one: Romans 3:10-19. (Please read the passage right now!) Before I demonstrate how we Reformed have fallen prey to what we think is not our problem, I must issue a disclaimer: I am not here contending that the Reformed doctrine of man's depravity is anything but correct! What I will contend indeed, what appears beyond contention is that our tradition, too, has sometimes lifted "verses" from their contexts, without honest regard for the place of these verses in the original, inspired author's polemic. That is, we have tended to treat portions of Scripture as if they are "on-demand" separable from the body of Scripture. We've often "selected out" those dainties which seem so conveniently to state what we wish to have God say, whether or not that is where He might have actually said it.

Now there is no great harm to this method if all are fully aware that we are practicing a sort of Scripture-based shorthand when we do it. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be the case. By citing contextless verses, we often think we are stating God's entire mind on a subject. We then return to the Bible and read the verses there as if the meaning we assigned them when we "selected them out" really exhausts, or at least firmly establishes, their proper interpretation and application. We Reformed have not been immune to that technology which has created what might be called "Versified Christianity."

An Example
First, let us see how the section from Romans 3 has typically been employed in Reformed Symbols, then let us see if that "fast food" use is fully justified. The French Confession (IV) says that man, meaning each and every man, is "wholly inclined to all evil" and then cites Rom. 3:10-12. At XI, the same Confession says that our evil nature is truly sin, "sufficient for the condemnation of the whole human race, even of little children in the mother's womb," and God Himself considers it as such. ROM 3:9-13 is cited as "proof." The Westminster Larger Catechism (A.149) uses ROM 3:9-19 as support for its teaching that every man daily breaks God's commandments "in thought, word, and deed." The Shorter Catechism (A. 25) refers to ROM 3:10-19 when it speaks of every man as "utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually." And the Westminster Confession (VI:ii) tells us that the Romans passage backs up the truth that every man is "wholly defiled in all parts and faculties of soul and body."

The problem I am treating is not the teachings of these Symbols concerning man in his sin; the problem is the casualness with which a section of Holy Scripture is (mis)employed. The divines were clearly of the mind that the mere assertions found in these verses constituted a denouncement of the sinfulness of each and every individual on the planet. But when the section is taken in context, the passage does not support such a use.

Am I being clear? I am not arguing that the Scriptures, taken as a whole, teach anything different concerning man in his sin than what is taught here in our Confessions. It is here asserted only that the enlistment of these "verses" from Romans is atomistic, reductionistic and untrue to their setting. It is really just fundamentalism with a sterner face. The problem becomes compounded, worsened, when devotees of our faith return to the Scripture portions cited and don't even bother to ask contextual questions; they think Paul himself must have had in mind what the authors of the Standards seem clearly to claim he had in mind, or else, why would Paul have written it? Well, that's the $64,000 question. So let's attempt an answer.

Paul, by the Spirit, had argued in Chapter 1 that Gentiles are, as a group, hopelessly plunged into sinful patterns and behaviors. In Chapter 2 he turns his sights upon the Jews. Paul is laboring to prove something particular, viz., that mere possession of the Law, mere possession of covenant privilege, ought never to be an occasion for presumptuousness, yet it frequently had become just that (he warns the Gentiles against this in 11:20-22). The opponents, against whom he very clearly is arguing, thought that the mere fact that a man was Jew was adequate to justify him before God. It is against this mindset that Paul brings that splendid arsenal in Chapters 2 and 3. He is demonstrating that it is impossible to read the Jewish Scriptures and then claim that being Jewish, ipso facto, makes you right with God.

Paul begins his wrap-up of the subject by reminding us that he has "charged" (NIV), or "proved" (KJV), that both Jews, as a group, and Gentiles, as a group, are alike under sin. He is not, in these passages, asserting the absolute universality of the reign of sin in regard to every individual. He is simply proving that the Jewish Scriptures bear abundant witness to the fact of wicked Jews, thus proving that merely being numbered among the covenant people, with all its external privileges, never meant automatic justification. As incontrovertible proof that Jews, as a group, had their fair share of wicked sinners, he lets loose a plethora of Old Testament Scripture citations.

What we are arguing is that Paul's argument in Romans 3 is not intended to be understood as referring to all individuals without exception. A very good analogy can be found in Titus 1. There Paul says plainly that "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons," agreeing with what "one of their own writers" had said. Does Paul mean for us to apply this judgment to each and every individual Cretan? Obviously not, for he had just said in verses 5 and 6 that Titus was to select as elders Cretans who were blameless men. It is quite evident that he was simply referring to a characteristic known to be found among Cretans. In Romans 3, this is precisely the case also. And it would be as injudicious and illegitimate to use Titus 1:12,13 as support for an assertion that each and every individual Cretan is a liar, as it would be for anyone to use Romans 3:9-19 to affirm that every individual is unrighteous. True or not, it is not what that passage teaches. Rather, Paul in Romans 3 wants the Jews to know that their Book provided abundant testimony to Jewish waywardness. It's very nearly as if he had written, "Several of your own writers have said . . . ," referring this time to Jews, not Cretans. See Romans 3:19.

As proof that this understanding is correct, let us look at the texts Paul cites. "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one." How is it possible for any Bible student, let alone scholar, to make Paul offer by this a universal, invariant rule? For in the very Psalm (14) in which these sweeping assertions are made, it says of evildoers, "There they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company of the righteous." If there is, absolutely, no one righteous, not even one, then where did the company of the righteous come from?!

Similarly, when Paul quotes a portion of Psalm 5, he wants to remind his readers of those whose "throats are open graves," whose "tongues practice deceit." Is this his summary judgment upon all human beings? Hardly; at least, not here. For just a couple of verses later the Psalmist speaks of those who in bold contrast to the wicked just mentioned "take refuge in" God, those over whom the LORD has spread His protection, the ones who, in fact, love God's name.

In Psalm 140, quoted at Romans 3:13, we have the same case. David asks to be delivered from wicked men: "the poison of vipers is on their lips." Yet these are very clearly contrasted with "the righteous [who] will praise Your name, and the upright [who] will live before Thee."

Surely no one believes that Paul was unaware of these Psalms in their entirety, right? Yet they would have him making a selective use of their teaching that is strangely like unto their own in arbitrariness. The simple truth is that Paul does not here suggest that evil was a universal, invariant condition, impacting each of us in such a way that each of us manifests the characteristics cited. The verses appealed to by Paul did not, do not, describe righteous, believing, obedient Jews. They describe the wicked among the Jews. And if there were wicked among them, how can you claim that being a Jew makes you righteous. (In Chapter 4 he will prove that being a Gentile doesn't mean you are necessarily unrighteous!)

Consider Paul's concluding citation at Romans 3:18. Using the words of Psalm 36:1, he describes the evil men of whom he speaks: "There is no fear of God before their eyes." Yet in verse 10 of the same Psalm there is a plea to God: "O continue thy lovingkindness unto them that know thee; and thy righteousness to the upright in heart." If verse 1 was a universal condition, where did the upright of verse 10 come from?

I trust you can see that Paul, being neither ignorant nor crazy, is selecting these portions, not to teach that there are no righteous people on earth, but rather to teach this point: that the wicked herein mentioned were Jewish. That is why we read in verse 19, at his conclusion, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law," i.e., Jews. "If Jews are made right with God merely by being Jews, merely by possessing the Law, merely seeking to establish their own righteousness apart from the obedience of faith, if that is the case," Paul says, "how do you account for all these wicked Jews mentioned throughout the Jewish Book?"

The message for Paul's readers, and for us, is very clear: the Bible is not to be interpreted by "verse"; much less is it to be interpreted racially. It is to be interpreted covenantally, and that means in terms of righteousness and wickedness, in terms of faith and unbelief. The Jewish attempt to make these equal to racial categories the Jews being encompassed in the former, Gentiles in the latter is utterly shattered by Paul in Romans 2-3.

If the above is the proper understanding of Paul's argument in Romans 3:9-19 (and the presence of "the righteous" who, in the sources he cites, praise and trust the true God, certainly suggests that it is), then to use these verses as both fundamentalists and even some Reformed tend to do is illegitimate, except, as we said, as a sort of shorthand: "I'm not saying that the truth I'm affirming is actually taught in these locations I'm listing, but the truth is so well stated there that I'm listing them for that reason." That would be perfectly legitimate, and, in fact, is one of the ways in which the New Testament writers sometimes quote the Old! That is not, however, the way the Confessions above appeal to Romans 3:9-19. They follow indeed, in some ways, they helped to establish! Versified Christianity. That's something we need to be aware of. If we would handle God's Word honorably and correctly, we must handle it covenantally.

We'll leave the matter here for now.

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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