How can we tell when the Bible condones what it records?
We often get questions about how to interpret the Bible. John R., US, writes:
Who is ‘right’ in the Bible? That is to say, when there is a speaker of dialogue in the Bible, how is one to know that the speaker is correct? Of course, when God refutes the speaker (ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures), that is obvious, as is the case when God is the speaker, or when context refutes the speaker (like that Amalekite who said that he killed Saul in 2 Samuel 1, but we know was lying because of what 1 Samuel earlier says), but how is one otherwise to know that a speaker is trustworthy?
Lita Sanders responds:
Great question! The Bible does record some things that it doesn’t endorse. People doing and saying ungodly things is a sort of negative example—i.e. “Don’t be like Cain/Esau/Absalom.” There are a couple rules of thumb that you can use to discern whether the Bible condones a certain statement it records.
- Who said it? To give extreme examples, if Jesus said it, the Bible endorses it. If Satan says it, the Bible doesn’t. But most things are a little less black and white than that. But as a rule of thumb, it matters whether a statement is in the mouth of a very righteous person, like Abraham or Moses, or in the mouth of someone like Rehoboam or the stereotypical fool of Proverbs.
- What’s the context? Sometimes even a righteous person will be recorded sinning or making an error. For instance, Peter denied Jesus. If the person later is rebuked or repents, of course the Bible didn’t condone that action or statement. Also, it is helpful to know what the rest of Scripture would say regarding a specific principle. Also, there are times when the Bible tells us that society was largely unrighteous, e.g. in the time of Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25), which implicitly condemns many of the actions taken in those times.
- When did it happen? It used to be a righteous act to take a bull to the Temple to be slaughtered on the Day of Atonement, because that is what God prescribed for Israel to cover over their sins until Jesus died and took them away (Hebrews 10:4–10). But Christians today are forbidden to offer animal sacrifices for sin, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice to deal with sin once and for all. Also, some commands God gave to the nation of Israel do not apply today, such as the prohibition on wearing mixed fabrics. Biblical history matters—the Bible is God’s progressive propositional revelation of His messianic program working out through history.
- How does the description of the action line up with what the Bible commands us to do prescriptively? There are examples of where Scripture tells about theft, for instance. But Scripture tells us not to steal. So we can’t look at Rachel stealing Laban’s idols and say, “theft is biblical”, because Scripture tells us specifically that theft is wrong. The general principle here is: we interpret descriptive passages by prescriptive passages.
- Finally, God has given us a brain and a conscience, and in most cases those should be sufficient to discern whether the Bible condones or condemns the actions it records. When those are not sufficient, He has also given us local churches, pastors (Ephesians 4:11), and you can ask your pastor for guidance with a passage if it is confusing to you.
I hope this is helpful.