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If you’ve been around evangelicals for long, you’ve probably heard the phrase “That’s what the Bible says.” This is generally said to justify or defend an unpopular position the person holds when he or she is speaking during Bible study or debating a friend or preaching. It’s used as a trump card, a last resort, and as an implicit statement saying, “Don’t blame me, blame God.” In many cases, its use is motivated by intellectual laziness. In other cases, its use is based off of a genuine desire to adhere to God’s truth. In most cases, if not all, it’s a terrible thing to say.
One of the problems with the phrase is that it doesn’t take the relevant verses in context. By nature, the phrase simply plucks up a statement or a few words or a sentence and highlights that at the expense of everything else in the passage and perhaps even the rest of the Bible. This tactic doesn’t consider other passages to shed light on what that one verse means, nor does it take potentially contradictory passages into consideration. The phrase implies that this is what the text says and that there’s no other way to interpret it because this is literally what it says. In general, it shoots down any other attempt to understand the text because any other attempt would be failing to take the Bible seriously or to take God at His word. And if you’re not taking God at His word, you must be creating your own god and your own doctrines.
This is a non sequitur and a false dilemma. It’s a non sequitur because it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because one verse or passage of scripture says to do or don’t do something or to believe or don’t believe something means that should be the case at all times. It’s a false dilemma because there is another option besides believe what one verse literally says or reject the Bible.
For example, let’s look at anxiety. Some Christians say it’s a sin to be anxious because Jesus and Paul say not to be anxious (in Matthew 6 and in Philippians 4, respectively). In Matthew 6, Jesus is talking to a crowd that is probably filled with poor people who are obviously concerned about how they will provide for themselves (hence “do not worry about…what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear”). He wants them to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” and trust that “all these things will be given to you as well.” In Philippians 4, Paul gives exhortations to the Philippian church about how to live, knowing that they may face imminent persecution of some sort.
We can take away from both passages that God wants us to trust in Him through all life’s circumstances. He doesn’t want us choosing to sit around and fret instead of pursuing His kingdom. But we run into a problem when reading about Jesus the night before His crucifixion. Luke 22 says Jesus was “in anguish”; that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”; and that he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” Jesus never sinned, but He was clearly anxious the night before His death. What do we make of this?
There is obviously a kind of anxiety God doesn’t want us to have, and there is obviously a kind of anxiety that He is okay with. I think God doesn’t want us to willfully choose to worry about the future, our provisions, or our circumstances. But I think there is a natural, neuro-chemical type of anxiety that we don’t have much—or any—control over. We can choose to fight through it or succumb to it, but it’s there regardless. That kind of anxiety isn’t a sin. How could it be? We didn’t choose to have it.
Or take addiction. I once talked to a woman about joining my website as a writer. I had read an article on her website about addiction and I told her I disagreed with her position that addiction is entirely a spiritual issue. She pointed me to Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” She then told me that this verse shows that all sin begins in the heart, and so all other attempts to deal with addiction are vain.
I don’t disagree that there are spiritual elements to addiction. But research shows there are significant physical elements to it as well, and an effective approach to fighting addiction includes both. Nor do I think this verse implies that there is nothing else that affects behavior except the heart.
For one, this verse is a proverb. By definition, proverbs are instructive statements that are generally true. They aren’t meant to say that whatever the proverb states is literally always going to be true. For instance, is it always true that a “troublemaker and a villain…who plots evil with deceit in his heart” will have “disaster…overtake him in an instant”? Will every bad person “suddenly be destroyed—without remedy” (Proverbs 6:12, 14, 15)? No. We all know that bad people sometimes get away with their actions, and if they don’t they still aren’t immediately blotted from the face of the earth. Some bad people repent and end up living holy lives, which is the opposite of being destroyed “without remedy.” If we take Proverbs literally, we will end up very confused—because we’re not reading it the way it was meant to be read.
So yes, in general everything you do flows from the heart. Our moral choices come from our heart, which is why Jesus says we know people by their fruit. But someone with brain damage can’t always control his or her actions. If we read this verse literally, then it means that person is choosing these actions and that he or she is completely responsible for them. This is the kind of interpretation that defies common sense and makes Christians look hopelessly ignorant. In regards to addiction, yes, we need to address the heart, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to address. There are external and biological factors that influence our behavior, and these factors may give us a propensity towards a certain sin, which is why they need to be addressed. Again, the woman I talked to about being a writer for my site committed a non sequitur (and a false dilemma and some sort of argument from exclusion): just because the text only says “heart” doesn’t mean there’s nothing else involved.
If the Bible was just a one-by-one list of rules, perhaps we wouldn’t have this problem, perhaps we could say, “That’s what the Bible says.” But that’s not what the Bible is. The Bible is made up of several different genres that all have different expectations about how they’re supposed to be read. The Bible was written 2000+ years ago, and if we don’t consider each book’s cultural and historical context then we run the risk of misunderstanding what the text is saying. We simply can’t read one verse or passage and say, “Look! That’s what it says!” We have to consider the rest of the Bible, especially the contradictory verses (like in my example with anxiety and Jesus the night before His death). We have to let scripture interpret scripture, and from there try to draw conclusions. The Bible is hard work. As C.S. Lewis said in his book Reflections on the Psalms: “No net less wide than a man’s whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish”[i].
I think we need to ditch “That’s the Bible says.” The phrase has done a lot of harm. It shuts people in cages and can discourage them from digging deeper to really understand the Bible. Even for those who genuinely want to uphold truth and don’t quite understand why the Bible says what it does, something gentler like, “I’m trying to uphold God’s truth and this is what I take it to mean” would be better.
I’m not saying the Bible never means what it says. I’m not saying we can make up our own version of truth. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take the Bible seriously (in fact, I’m saying we should take the Bible more seriously through deeper study). What I’m saying is we need to take the Bible on its own terms (for example, reading each book with its genre in mind) and sometimes do further study to truly understand its meaning. When we do that, the Bible will make a lot more sense—including some of its most baffling passages. I’m suggesting we think twice before uttering, “That’s what it says.”
[i] Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms. Inspirational Press, 1958, p. 192.