On Bible Verse Shopping

I am going to make a broad statement that I think is universally true for Christians: It is very tempting to do salad bar theology (take what you want, leave the rest) with the Bible. Too easy.

What do I mean by that? I mean that when you have a particular topic, often the guidance is “go to the Bible and see what it says.” Hard to argue with that if you have a high view of Scripture (which you should, cause Jesus did).

But here’s the problem: there are a lot of verses in the Bible. So doing the google search on things like “what does the Bible say about judgment?” will turn up a ton of verses that you can pick and choose from. Let’s stick with that example, and just pull the most famous verses ones to take a look at:

"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. - Matthew 7
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." - Matthew 18
“'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.' And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She said, “No one, Lord.' And Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.'" - John 8
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.“Purge the evil person from among you.”” - 1 Corinthians 5
"He one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?" - James 4
"Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you" - Titus 2

As you can see, one could pick and choose whichever verse one wants as a proof text for either the “judging is totally Biblical” and the “you shouldn’t judge people” position. What are we to do with this?

This is where the principle of “interpret Scripture with Scripture” comes in to play. One shouldn’t simply look up verses, sans context, and run with it. Further, one shouldn’t even look up a particular contextualized section of Scripture and interpret it more broadly without a larger view of what Scripture says on a particular topic. Finally, one shouldn’t separate even a 360 degree view of all the Scripture on a particular topic from the wider narrative of Scripture and the gospel. Otherwise, you’re reading in to the text (eisegesis) instead of extracting the meaning from the text (exegesis). The former is using Scripture for your own purposes, the latter is submitting to it.

Let me be clear, we *all* do this. I do it *all the time*. There isn’t a foolproof way to keep from doing it, in fact, because there is always a potential wider theological point that we’re missing. (That said, if what you’re doing is simply googling “what does the Bible say about X” and skimming for the verses that agree with you, without actually delving in to the Scripture in its full context and attempting to harmonize all the verses, you’re *definitely* doing it wrong).

But even if you’re not doing that, it’s hard to tell when you’re still guilty of it. For instance, if you have memorized a lot of Scripture, verses will often come to mind when talking about a topic. But are all of them coming up, or just the ones that support your position? How do you know when you’re guilty of salad bar theology?

I don’t think there’s a foolproof way to make sure you’re never guilty of this, but one safety net is to be in constant dialogue with the church and mature, well read, thoughtful Christians you believe to be in submission to God (and are willing to tell you things that you do not want to hear). Run your interpretation and thoughts by them. A lot of them. Avoid putting it only in front of people who have a low view of Scripture, as they’re not likely to care all that much about salad bar theology or submission. They may even encourage you to engage in it.

The other safety nets that come to mind are prayer and humility. Those last two are particularly convicting for me, because that’s not how my heart is naturally bent. But it should be, and if you judged me for it, I wouldn’t blame you.

2 thoughts on “On Bible Verse Shopping”

  1. Solid.
    Thanks for bringing this up and sharing it. I’m in that same boat.
    I’ve been reading through Psalms and Prophets and it is striking how there’s the human thought process captured and corrected as well as the direct word of the Lord. The Psalms especially remind me how often we can be on a nearly right track and then dip in to vengeance or be high on the horse and then flat on our backs so very quickly.
    In the same line of coalescence of theology/philosophy/sociology/etc ala PVK’s discussion, the depth we delve into seems to indeed boil down into the 2 greatest commandments, inextricably ordered and linked. The foundation of that seems to be:
    – Can I know anything with as much assurance as that I am utterly reliant on the provision of my Creator?
    – I exist in a preexisting world, did not create myself, and am provided for.
    – Our faults and limitations, as well as the world’s structure resonates with recorded human experience as outlined cohesively in Scripture as well as history, and lived experiences across the globe.
    – Any posture that fails to recognize the Lord as pure and ourselves as fallible, along with the accompanying humility among humanity is probably faulty.

    Thanks for this thought-prompt!

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