June 5, 2007
High Fructose Scripture
Is verse-by-verse bible teaching nutritious?
There are many dangers in ministry. Jesus warned about the yeast of the Pharisees. Paul warned about engaging foolish controversies. But what about enumerated chapters and verses in the Bible-are those numbers added by editors a threat to sound teaching? John Dunham from the International Bible Society addresses their unexpected impact.
What was the last thing you ate? If it came from a package, you could probably scan down the list of ingredients and find high fructose corn syrup. What is that stuff anyway? Suffice it to say, it's a readily available, cheap substance that makes food taste good. A manufacturer's dream. But is it good for you? Does it harm you? Think for a moment how ubiquitous this stuff is. We take for granted that our food will have high fructose corn syrup, so we eat it without a second thought.
You know what else is like that? The chapters and verses in the Bible. What was the last Scripture passage you read? While you were reading, you probably encountered various numbers strewn throughout. If you had seen those numbers in any other book, it would have seemed odd. But chapter and verse numbers have become part of the fabric of the Bible over the last few centuries. Are these numbers good for you? Will they harm your Bible reading? Chapter and verse markings have become ubiquitous, and people rarely stop to question the ramifications of their inclusion in the sacred text.
So why do we have them anyway? Chapter numbers were first added to the Bible in the 1200s to facilitate the process of reading Scripture publicly. The breaks were inserted to make the readings approximately the same length. Verse numbers entered in the 1500s in order to help scholars locate specific phrases as they worked in the burgeoning field of biblical commentary.
These additions to the text came from good motives, and were undoubtedly helpful to the people who used them for the reasons above. But are they helpful in all the ways we use them today? It's not like they are an inspired part of the text. There were, in fact, various number systems developed for Scripture. (Did you know that one version of Matthew had 68 chapters?) But once a particular system became standardized, we never looked back. Chapters and verses were here to stay.
Some people have recognized the deleterious effects of these numbers over the last few generations. (See for instance The Message or The Bible to Be Read as Living Literature.) Sometimes sentences are broken in unnatural places. Verse numbers cause oral readers to insert breaks where none was intended. And perhaps worst of all, the story of God and his creation becomes chopped into little bits as "God's Owner's Manual for Life" or "Bible Promises for Expectant Mothers Named Cathy." People naturally look to their favorite verses to provide comfort or instruction without regard to the author's point in the surrounding context. Similarly, chapters tell me where to stop reading, sometimes at the most inopportune times.
Verse jacking, taking verses and using them for something other than what was intended, is endemic to our culture.
I hear people quote from Isaiah (55:11, for those keeping score at home) all the time saying, "God says his word won't return to him empty." I too have used that sentence to assure people that their quoting a Bible "verse" will surely be effective given this promise. But what happens if we look at the context? When you read the surrounding stanzas of the oracle, it emerges that God is foretelling his people's return from exile, and further, even the removal of the curse from the creation. From Genesis and John we see that the very word of God is effective in creation. Isaiah says that God's word will bring about re-creation, restoration and renewal.
Think about the storied approach to the Bible versus the spoon-fed bits approach in the context of discipleship. When you started ministering in your current church, did you sit a staff member down and ask them to list all the inside jokes you might encounter? More than likely, you let the jokes happen, and as they did, someone explained to you why they were funny. They told a story. They discipled you in the story of your staff. Similarly, as you lead your church in seeing what God is doing in the Bible, help them to engage the story organically, not as a laundry list of anecdotes.
While a smaller understanding of a phrase of Scripture may be technically correct, it is tremendously helpful, actually necessary, to see it within the context of God's bigger story. In our bumper sticker culture, that's a tall order, but it's like choosing a natural sweetener over a cheap substitute. It's just better in the long run.
John Dunham is a WordWright at International Bible Society. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Susan and learned recently that whitewater kayaking is really hard work if you paddle improperly.