It is estimated that over 100 million Bibles are printed annually, which means over 11 000 per hour, or about 3 every second. These numbers show the huge impact the Bible has on people’s lives.
But what about humanity’s impact on the Bible? Is it possible for it to become a weapon in current ideological or political confrontations? Can Scripture go from God’s Word of eternal truth, to man’s words to serve their immediate interests?
People fighting against human trafficking originating in Nigeria, with Italy as the destination, are now confronted with a new problem: the use of African religions as a way to manipulate victims, as pointed out in the renowned publication The Economist on 22 June 2018. This practically comes down to voodoo rituals used to make human trafficking victims swear that they will live up to the deals they made with those who “helped” them get to Europe. They are told that the most terrible curses will come upon them if they do not.
For many Christians, such a story could make them proud of their own religion, where biblical texts are seen as not being used to manipulate or make people support things they usually would not agree with. Unfortunately, this would be misguided. The Bible is often used to justify any number of political, economic, social, or personal actions. The trusting public often takes these actions to be acceptable, without analysing them, often justifying things that they would otherwise reject without apparent biblical backing.
Such inappropriate use of the Bible can seem like a trend limited to the Middle Ages, but a few contemporary examples will prove that such a perception is wrong. The most recent notorious case is that of Jeff Sessions, the general prosecutor of the US from the 15th of June 2018, where he quoted Romans 13 to support President Trump’s anti-migration policies. Sessions said: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
Similar examples include the advice that Israeli Prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave to French president, Emmanuel Macron, in December 2017, in support of the idea that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel: “You can read it in a very fine book – it’s called the Bible”. Donald Trump, when he was running for office, also made the famous statement, “The Bible is my favourite book!” suggesting that the Bible guides his actions, although, when asked to mention a beloved verse he did not manage to correctly quote a single biblical text from memory.
This is precisely why an honest analysis of the way in which the Bible has been opportunistically used in various situations, and a knowledge of the basic principles of its interpretation, can help us correctly evaluate the public speeches where the Bible is abusively quoted, as well as our own perceptions of biblical texts. If the Bible is what it says it is—that is, the universal standard of truth—then it would be wise to not leave its understanding up to a handful of people, regardless of how honest or concerned for our lives they might be.
The fight for authority, and loyalty towards the Bible
One of the oldest problems related to the interpretation of the biblical text is obviously that of authority. Who has final authority over its interpretation? The answer is neither simple nor easy to accept, especially in a society where Christianity is growing and developing. Since the end of the first century of Christianity, we find examples of an increase in the authority of the local bishop or elder to the detriment of other sources recognized as authoritative. Instances of this happening would only multiply in the centuries to come. The apostle John, in one of the shorter books of the Bible, talks precisely about such a case; that of Diotrephes, who did not want to listen to the apostles and who banished those who did not agree with him out of the church.
The development of certain principles of Christian interpretation would impose, in time, a new centre of authority in the church: tradition, or ‘the holy tradition’, that gathers together the teachings and practices of the church fathers and which clerics use to support their views. This tradition can sometimes differ from those of the biblical text. If, during the first church council (described in Acts 15), decisions were made exclusively on the basis of what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” based on the biblical text and the interpretation received through revelation, the other ecumenical councils summoned after the year 325 would add to this the arguments of tradition and episcopal authority. The Roman Emperor, who for centuries had been honoured like a god on earth, also felt the need to be an authority within the church. Therefore, Emperor Constantine the Great summoned the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, which he also presided over, although he was not yet baptised as a Christian.
Unfortunately, all these new authorities—the clergy, tradition, and political authorities—felt the need to justify their position by quoting scripture, which was the first source of authority for the church and the only one that could justify the others. This is on top of the fact that scripture was still relatively inaccessible to the common Christian, not just because the only copies of the Bible were handwritten and thus expensive to produce, but also because those who knew how to read and write were very few. What resulted from this is a society where the Bible was no longer important for what it actually said, but for how it was used to support people or institutions in realizing their earthly objectives. The religion of Jesus and the apostles fell further and further behind the popular Christianity of the Middle Ages, precisely by the use of scripture as a means of substantiating one’s own authority, and not as God’s total and normative revelation to man.
The Inquisition, the Crusades, or the prohibition of reading scripture in the Middle Ages found justification by the abusive quotation of biblical texts that seemed to support such practices. The mixture of tradition and text from the church’s sermons and masses of that time was so common that often those who participated in mass did not know what came from the apostles and what came from the church fathers. In this context, the bishop’s authority became complete, precisely because he pretended to be the full source of authority on earth and in heaven.
Even if the Protestant Reformation would bring people the translated Bible, thus making it accessible, and even if the printing press would help to spread it, the fight for the authority to interpret it continued. The state felt the need to refer to the Bible to support its policies or even to modify the text according to its needs. On the other hand, pastors and theologians often tried to show that they are the only ones who know how to correctly explain the meaning of the biblical text. This led to ignoring or even denying scripture as a source of authority and to it being regarded in the same way as any other historical document. On the other hand, the church, in need of help from the state, often rushed to biblically justify the unbiblical actions of both the church and the state, so it would not lose its support and favours. At the same time, realizing it was losing parishioners, the church deemed it suitable, on certain occasions, to adapt its speech to their expectations, gradually giving up biblical loyalty for the fig leaves of popularity and financial success.
Abusing scripture to everyone’s understanding
Perhaps you are wondering what means are used to convince the text to say what its users want it to say, and what techniques are used to force it to obey human limits. Manfred Brauch, former president and theology professor at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, published the book Abusing Scripture, The Consequences of Misreading the Bible  in 2009. In it, he presents a few ways in which the text of the scriptures has been used abusively over time. When we say “abusively” we mean using the biblical text in a different context and with a different application than the one intended by the authors.
Brauch speaks about the abusive use of the Gospel as a whole, about the abuse of selectivity, the abuse of balance, the abuse of words, and the abuse of cultural context. This division might seem strange, but upon closer analysis things become clear. Let’s look at each one of them.
Turning the Gospel into a social or personal gospel, where all that matters is the personal good is, in Brauch’s view, the first way in which the sacred text is forced to correspond to certain patterns that were not intended by the authors. This is an abuse of the Gospel as a whole. The problems of such “gospels” lie in the fact that they change the centre of the Gospel, replacing Christ with selfish humans. Even if Jesus’ death and resurrection were meant for human salvation, the Gospel requires humans to enter into a saving relationship with their God, not being in and of themselves a guarantee for prosperity or welfare. Accepting God’s gift in the life of the individual means change, such a dramatic change that it’s called being born again, not just a mere chiselling of the old lifestyle. The gospels that centre on humans and their welfare willingly eliminate from their content the idea of suffering and self-denial. Other modern “gospels” can be included here, like the prosperity gospel, that promises all believers material blessings while mentioning almost nothing about self-denial or suffering.
The abuse of selectivity is, in the author’s view, “more subtle than any other form listed so far,”  and represents, as its name suggests, selective reading and using of the Bible to underline certain aspects that are not necessarily present or underlined in the holy text. The examples Brauch gives here are those related to the famous Christian debates regarding obedience towards governmental authorities, the relationship between man and woman, and the relationship between God’s blessings and personal faith.
Abuses of selectivity were often committed in the Middle Ages or even in the time of the Reformation, but, probably of more interest to the reader, are those instances closer to the time we live in. Hitler’s political rise was justified by many German pastors and apologists using scripture. The segregation between white and black people in the United States was debated using the Bible, in Christian churches or in institutions under its patronage. It is not only in the political realm where we can find selective quoting of scripture, but also in the social and domestic realms. Brauch mentions two examples: the abuse against women, regarded as inferior to men (because the Bible says that “the husband is the head of the wife,” doesn’t it?) The other example is the idea that being a believer necessarily means being rich, because even in Psalm 23 we are promised that we will “lack nothing.”
The abuse of biblical balance is represented, in Brauch’s opinion, by the use of certain doctrines or biblical teachings and ignoring or diminishing the importance of other complementary doctrines or teachings. The examples offered here target the focus on some sins while others, which are equally serious, are ignored. It suffices to say that, to some, stealing, murder, or adultery are more serious than lying, pride, or selfishness. Sometimes, Christian churches tend to underline doctrinal correctness but forget the lesson of humility and the importance of a practical application of dogmas.
In the discussion on the abuse of words, Brauch analyzes the concepts of “submission” and “head” in the relationship between a man and a woman. He shows the way in which these can be wrongly used to justify some forms of abuse in the family, like we mentioned before.
The cultural context points to other recent examples, where pastors and Christian leaders have analysed contemporary events in the light of the biblical text, without proper cultural contextualization, which is absolutely necessary. Therefore, killing the members of terrorist groups by the US army in Iraq represented, for some, a fulfilment of the text “…all who draw the sword will die by the sword” or Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti as a divine punishment for voodoo practices by the inhabitants of Haiti.
The phenomenon of abusive quotation of the Bible is, however, not limited to political people or religious rulers. A lot of fragments of scriptural expressions can be seen on decorative objects or accumulating thousands of views and likes in the virtual environment, mentioned in motivational speeches or in feature films, often unrelated to the context in which they were written or to the author’s intentions. All this with the sole motivation of generating a good mood, of saying what we want to hear, but in the Bible’s words.
Examples of biblical texts used incorrectly
Titus 2:9—“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them”.
This text was used to justify slavery. In reality, the text speaks about a status quo, not about an ideal, that was the same for that time too. The ideal is liberation, not perpetuating slavery (see 1 Corinthians 7:21). David Jefferson claimed during the Civil War that slavery, that was established “by decree of the Almighty God, is presented in the Bible in both testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.”
Genesis 9:25—”[Noah] said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
Based on this biblical verse, the theory of the curse of Ham (Canaan’s father) was developed. The pastor of a Protestant church in Texas wrote on his personal blog in 2013 that “the proof of God’s presence among the Israelites was the absence of black-skinned Canaanites among the Jews.” In reality, there is no directly affirmed connection between the colour of the skin and Ham’s curse. It seems that even Moses’ wife had darker skin than everyone else’s.
1 Samuel 15:3—“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
This text has been used to justify wars and even genocide (for example the one in Rwanda, in 1994). A close analysis of the Bible shows that blessed are “the peacemakers” (see Matthew 5:9), not those who “draw the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Matthew 27:25—”All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!'”
This has been used as a justification for antisemitism. It is absolutely amazing how those who pretend the Bible speaks against the Jews have overlooked other passages in the New Testament which say that the advantage of being a Jew is “much in every way” (see Romans 3:2; Romans 9-11, etc.).
Romans 13:1—“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
This is the most common argument used for unconditional submission to the state’s requests. Those who require blind obedience forget, however, that the rule of scripture is formulated very clearly by Jesus and the apostles: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25) and “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)
Matthew 21:12—“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.”
This was used in the Middle Ages to justify the wars to free Jerusalem, known as the Crusades. This text, however, is not even a command or an urging to keep Jerusalem clean, and not even an injunction to consider it a holier place than others. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever said such a thing.
Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”
This is a favourite verse of athletes and other top achievers. Paul, however, is talking about his lack, and the dire need he got used to, thanking the Philippians that they still thought of him and sent him a little help. The text is not a blank check that God offers humans to do whatever they please with it.
An example that should make us think
The history of the misguided use of scripture has a moment that is worth lingering on, even if we briefly touched upon it previously: the Bible in Nazi Germany. One of the obvious obstacles in the oppression of Jews for the German authorities was the fact that the Bible was full of positive references to the Jewish people. Therefore, the Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life was established, obviously led by a theologian, Walter Grundmann, born in 1906. He was fairly young when he was appointed to this position, in 1939. In 1940, the institute published a modified version of the New Testament, entitled God’s Message, which lacked the gospel of John and all references to Jesus as the Servant or Lamb of God. The Old Testament was intentionally set aside because of its references to the Jewish people. Another surprising detail was that the blessing for the merciful was left out of the Sermon on the Mount. The institute operated in Eisenach, not far from where Martin Luther had worked on his own translation. This version of the text was printed out in many copies and sent to the battlefield, to the soldiers, being a powerful means of spreading and consolidating the ideas of Hitler and his associates.
In 1942, Grundmann would even declare that “a German faith cannot be based upon Paul, because it would be deformed by his Jewish system of coordinates” The fall of Hitler and his regime would cause Grundmann to move into other areas of theological research, this episode in his life being almost forgotten. Still, the fact that many Christian communities, even conservative ones, chose to exclude members of Jewish origin, and the fact that many Christians supported Hitler’s military and political actions, shows that these ideas were more widespread than we have probably imagined.
How should we read the Bible?
This is probably the most pressing question of the hour. Before answering it, we should establish why we read the Bible. The motivation we have for reading the Bible directly influences the way in which we relate to it and its authority. The modern reader of scripture must decide whether he regards the Bible as the unique source of divine revelation, as it claims to be, or as one of many sources, as might seem more convenient. If we accept it is just one of many other sources, we implicitly accept that we are the final source of authority, which is, for many reasons, too great of a burden for the human being to bear. If, however, we accept God’s existence, we must accept that He wants to give our life a purpose and an end, that He is the supreme source of authority and that our peace, joy, and happiness, and that of those with whom we interact, depend on the way we relate to Him.
When it comes to the rules for reading and interpreting it, those who are concerned with discovering the right teaching of the Bible should take into consideration the immediate context of the text they wish to interpret, the primary message, but also the original one—that is, what the direct recipients understood. A correct interpretation will also take into account the general context of the Bible and the literary genre of the respective book. As a universal rule: we must not forget that the main message is that which the direct recipients understood and that only that message is the one we can apply to our situation, without ignoring the situation back then.
Moreover, despite an impressive number of authors (almost 40) the scriptures must be seen as a unitary book (because that is what it claims about itself), where every claim must be understood in the general context of similar claims. This principle is expressed through the phrase “The Bible is its own interpreter.” This implies the fact that, each time we do not understand an idea or a concept, we should look for the way in which the respective idea or concept is found in other places of scripture and what explanation that gives to those truths that are hard for us to understand.
The Bible, however, is not only understood pen in hand and using the concordance, but is also understood practically, because it challenges us to apply it, to “taste and see” in order to be convinced of the authenticity of its declarations. To be convinced by the power of its affirmations we must practice what we read, personally test its claims, and then, if they motivated us, go on and share them with others.
Last but not least, practicing Christians understand the need for prayer and God’s guidance to move past a superficial understanding of the text, and, secondly, to accept its challenge to transform one’s life.
On the other hand, using scripture to justify political or spiritual aspects that are strictly connected to one’s personal agenda weakens people’s trust in its authenticity, and turns it into an oracle that always says only what we want it to say. This is precisely why we must not be surprised that, although the inscription on every dollar reads “In God we trust,” a Gallup survey revealed that only 24% of Americans still believe that the Bible is literally God’s word. After all, it is not only political people who use the Bible to justify their actions, but each of us, at a personal level, is tempted to do the same. Quoting God’s promises in parallel with a life lived according to our own will is as inappropriate as the possible pretence that God should split the Red Sea while we are still in Egypt. It’s not for nothing that Jesus asked the Jewish scholar: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” These are two questions that are consistently important for each and every one of us.