Some of the most popular Christian preachers proclaim loudly that the Bible is the Word of God as they use it as a club to attack people who don’t agree with them. For them, the Bible is a weapon in a war against evil. Others treat the Bible as a rule book that contains clear instructions for how we should behave in every life situation. Many teachers in churches assume that it’s a history text telling us exactly what happened from ancient times till now. Some people find favorite Bible verses to be a comfort and a calming force in their turbulent lives, kind of like a tranquilizer.

One thing all these people have in common is that, as much as they emphasize the authority of the Holy Book, they don’t accept the whole Bible as the Word of God to the same degree. They select certain portions that support their purposes, but they virtually ignore the rest. If you try to embrace the whole of it as equally a message from God, your mind has trouble expanding enough to take it all in. But it’s still a good exercise to stretch your understanding to the point that you feel you’re “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”* That’s when the Bible begins to be God’s Word to you.

Two cautions to keep in mind as you enter into your own journey of exploring the Bible:

Don’t fall into the trap of believing you have to accept every word as equally inspired and equally inspiring. Some people go beyond seeing the Bible as the Word of God and treat it as the very words of God. This idea is sometimes expressed as the “Dictation Theory,” that the individual authors of portions of the Bible wrote down what God dictated to them, word for word, in some magical way. Others hold a less extreme position, that the authors wrote through their own personalities, in a variety of languages, times and cultures, but that the final words put down on paper were exactly the ones God wanted there. This approach is still vulnerable to questions about apparent contradictions, differences in numbers and genealogies and other criticisms raised by questioning minds. Arguing for such a narrow position can obscure the true function of the Bible as living and sharp (Hebrews 4:13).

When someone uses a prooftext, always ask about the context. Preachers and teachers seem to have no trouble lifting a verse out of the Bible to support a point they’re trying to make without regard to the context around it. There’s an old story about a confused young man who was hoping for guidance from the Bible but didn’t know where to look. He thought, “I’m going to trust God to tell me what to do through the first verse I look at.” He opened his old family Bible randomly and, with his eyes closed, let his finger fall on the page. He was pointing to Matthew 27:5 — “Judas went out and hung himself.” He knew that couldn’t be the right message, so he tried again. This time his finger landed on Luke 10:37 — “You go and do likewise.” Wrong again; one more try. His finger fell on John 13:37 — “What you’re going to do, do quickly.” By ignoring the context of these three Bible phrases, he was putting himself at risk of disaster.** This story is humorous, but there are many more serious, sometimes even sinister, ways in which Christian leaders misuse the Bible by lifting prooftexts out of their contexts. Extreme cult leaders often build their whole bizarre system on one Bible verse or theme lifted out of its context.

These complications cause some people to give up on reading and studying the Bible for themselves, deciding instead to trust an authority, such as their pastor or a TV evangelist. But by making this choice, they’re missing out on a great spiritual adventure. That prospector who had left his home in the Midwest to seek his fortune during the 1849 gold rush found himself up in a narrow canyon sifting sand in a stream bed, and then, one day, it happened! The sun reflecting off a small gold nugget made him feel like the richest man in the world. That’s how you’ll feel when you make your first personal discovery through studying the Bible.

— Pastor George Van Alstine

* This is actually a quote from Johannes Keppler (1575-1630), who used it in reference to his scientific inquiry: reading the “Book of Nature” was a way of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

**Watch a group of young people having fun with this misuse of prooftexts from the Bible on this video