The Bible can be understood in two ways:
Every sentence is assumed to be literally true. For this to be the case, then it must be possible to pull out any two verses without them giving different accounts or contradicting each other. However, there are counterexamples such as:
These are the names of the warriors whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite; he was chief of the Three;[a] he wielded his spear[b] against eight hundred whom he killed at one time. (2 Samuel 23:8)
This is an account of David’s mighty warriors: Jashobeam, son of Hachmoni,[a] was chief of the Three;[b] he wielded his spear against three hundred whom he killed at one time. (1 Chronicles 11:11)
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
We observe that the Christian holy book is not a diary of historical events, but could we treat it as a verbatim record of theological doctrine?
Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
Prepare slaughter for his sons because of the guilt of their father. (Isaiah 14:21)
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (Romans 4:2)
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (James 2:21)
The Father and I are one. (John 10:30)
If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. (John 14:28)
The limitations of this method are evident as it cannot reconcile these apparent discrepancies. If Scripture could be fully appreciated with this technique, then it would be so obvious as to leave no room for uncertainty or doubt. It would have the same implications as God appearing in all his majesty: faith would be rendered obsolete and free will would cease.
A common trap
A further temptation of this strategy is that we choose individual sentences that at face value support our values and lifestyle. We may pick others to malign those outside our social and family circles in an effort to diminish or hide our own deficiencies. Frequently, the people close to us will have performed the same contortions assuring us that together we must be on the right track. By our own measurement, our failings are so minor that they can be ignored and we can celebrate our moral superiority over others.
...Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)
Some people go much further. On successfully delving for verses that appear to justify their political views, they insist both that the Bible is inerrant and that their interpretation of it is literal. This enables them to claim Divine backing for living out their prejudices and discriminating against those who are different to or don't agree with them. The resulting stain on Christianity polarises the church, drives potential worshippers away and arms those who want to discredit the religion. Reading passages according to the letter will conflict with the opinions, habits or employment of even the most fastidious rule follower eg.
...nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. (Leviticus 19:19)
If a man is righteous — if he ... does not take advance or accrued interest... (Ezekiel 18:5-8)
but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head... (1 Corinthians 11:5)
...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)
There is perhaps some value in treating the Bible like a rule book for those with underdeveloped critical thinking skills such as children. The reality is that everyone else comprehends it as outlined next (even if they say otherwise).
Here, factors like genre, historical situation, cultural background, audience and author's intent are taken into consideration. It is important that this analysis be done rigorously and impartially, otherwise we risk moulding the words to suit our own desires.
The correct use of this approach comes from Jesus when he cures a sick woman rather than upholding an uncompromising law:
...whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:15)
His priestly opponents challenge him and he responds:
a man was there with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked him, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:10-12)
It is hard to imagine how bewildering and shocking it must have been for those present to witness this reinventing of the rules, let alone the subsequent miraculous healing. The lesson for us today is that if we are able to read the sacred book without ever feeling challenged then we are certainly missing something.
It might at first glance appear logical to use the factual approach for some passages but not others. Since It is not clear how to do this, we risk making arbitrary decisions, jeopardising our objectivity. One seemingly obvious route would be to treat the two Testamants differently, but the following pronouncement from Christ shows that this is erroneous:
"‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19)
In other words, if we want to take the New Testament literally, we must do the same with the Old. Perhaps the only community whose lifestyle comes remotely close to what this entails are the Amish. However, while their piety is admirable, inconsistencies such as those in verses outlined earlier strongly point towards the validity of studying context. Religious (as opposed to personal) conviction can be helpful in guiding our understanding.
What part does Conviction play in our life?
There are two types: religious and personal. The former, which we receive from God, guides us towards virtues and away from sins. The latter can also do this, but the danger is it can be misdirected so that we firmly believe we are right when in fact we are not. At its worst, we can mistake our own bigotry for Divine inspiration, which at various times throughout history has led to great wrongs being perpetrated in the name of the Almighty.
Hence, distinguishing between the two is very important, but not easy. How do we do so? One approach for Christians is to imagine what Jesus would do in the same situation. We must be careful not to confuse what we wish he would do which might only strengthen our prejudices with what we honestly expect him to do.