On Using & Misusing Scripture

I’m enjoying John Coffey’s new book, Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a study of the use of biblical language and imagery in political movements of revolution and liberation.

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The use and misuse of biblical language fascinates me because interpreting life Scripturally is at once absolutely necessary for faithful Christian discipleship and extremely precarious, always running the risk of idolatry. Christian leaders must orient and constantly reshape their communities’ imaginations so that they see the world through biblical eyes.

The trouble, however, is that agendas, motivations, and ideologies from elsewhere creep in so subtly that we sometimes find ourselves co-opting biblical language to advance personal, tribal, or nationalistic causes.

As just one example, Coffey cites Eusebius’ use of exodus imagery, moving beyond inner-biblical typology to biblical-political typology:

Eusebius was aware that Hellenistic Jewish writers had long presented Moses as a great legislator, and it was to Moses that he turned to legitimize the Constantinian revolution. The exodus demonstrated that God intervened in political history to liberate his oppressed people from bondage, and the deliverance of the Christians in the fourth century was a stunning confirmation of this. In chapter 9 of the Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius compared the pivotal battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 to the exodus of the children of Israel. The parallel was too clear to miss: the pagan Emperor Maxentius and his shield-bearers had drowned in the Tiber just as Pharaoh and his chariots had sunk in the Red Sea. In his Life of Constantine, Eusebius drew numerous parallels between the careers of the Emperor and Moses, just as traditional Christian biblical exegesis had traced a parallelism between the type (Moses) and the anti-type (Christ) (p. 5).

In The City of God, Augustine would caution against reading the will of God in secular history. But down the centuries Christians have found the Eusebian temptation quite irresistible. Political typology had undeniable power. It did more than provide religious legitimation; it reframed political history, placing it in biblical time. By scripturalizing events, Eusebius had made contemporaries see them through different eyes and invested them with providential meaning. Fourth-century Christians were not simply living through another imperial power struggle; they were reenacting Israel’s exodus. God had come down to deliver them, and Constantine was their new Moses (p. 6).

Discerning legitimate and illegitimate uses of Scripture to interpret personal, corporate, and political narratives requires constant vigilance on the part of the people of God, and works like Coffey’s can be a great help in this task.

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4 responses to “On Using & Misusing Scripture

  • Ben Snyder

    Tim, thanks for sharing this. I’m about to write a paper on the Exodus “Red” Sea crossing and how the “pre-critical” interpreters found “baptism” foreshadowed in this event. This book looks very interesting.

  • Andrew

    I find the emphasis here interesting – interpreting life in “The use and misuse of biblical language fascinates me because interpreting life Scripturally is at once absolutely necessary for faithful Christian discipleship and extremely precarious …

    I understand the point you are making but what do you think of something to the effect ” … interpreting scripture correctly so that we can conform our life to Christ which is absolutely necessary for faithful Christian discipleship …”

    When we shifted focus off of ‘interpreting life’ onto ‘altering our lives to be in conformance with’ .. and re-associate interpretation with scripture rather than the living it makes both interpretation and right living important.

    In Piper’s debate with N.T. Wright, Piper as a popular and well known pastor presents an argument that all but ignores exegesis in favour of the preservation of tradition. (The debate was all about whether or not man can in any sense be righteous (right living) before God. Piper says at judgement Christ’s righteousness pours into us as thought it were some liquid, while Wright says this is not what the words say, righteousness being ‘right living’ means we obtain a status of righteousness by believing God and doing what he says, remembering that we were created righteous [Ecc 7:29])

    This shows us how much the Reformation has become in need of a Reformation. Nevertheless, at the heart of this debate was a fundamental shift in focus away from questions about understanding words contained in scripture to influence how we live our lives, towards simply taking those words according to some tradition without question believing that ultimately how we live our lives is of no consequence (since it will be Christ’s right living that will be judged).

    In the former case, interpretation of scripture and right living are supremely important (and constantly re-examined) while in the second case interpretation of life against an established tradition (with little re-examination) is key.

    Finally, you or Coffey notes that sometimes we find ourselves co-opting biblical language to advance personal, tribal, or nationalistic causes, but how about theological ones? I’m personally keenly interested in how the patristics replaced the Hebrew sense of scripture with the veneer of Greek philosophy, Latin linguistics and anti-Israelite sentiment. This does no less violent to the text as the national, tribal or personal motivations that subsume it. perhaps more so because they are more difficult to detect (or convince others of).

    • timgombis

      I won’t deny that interpreting Scripture is important, and doing so faithfully, but I’m trying to get how Scripture shapes the manner in which we look out at the world. There’s no “neutral” rendering of reality, so any language set we use to talk about it is value-laden and comes from somewhere. I think that being Christian means getting our world-describing language set from Scripture. So, we interpret Scripture, but we also interpret life Scripturally.

  • Andrew

    You do actually make this point clear (that we ‘interpret’ life through our world view). Offering a minor critique was not meant to suggest otherwise.

    With respect to that that, two largest influences a Christian world view has on our view of the world (I would argue) are:

    1. Man is not God
    2. The world and its influence are not something to be enamoured of; in fact the opposite, we should be wary.

    I suppose this falls out of ‘There’s no neutral rendering of reality‘.

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