Deuteronomy 23:12-14 NRSV
“You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your tools you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.
Given the scripture for today, I promise to do my best to keep the toilet humor to a minimum… This short excerpt from Deuteronomy is probably not a part of scripture that most of us are familiar with, and I doubt there have been many sermons on the subject today. However, back in the 1880’s pastors did use this passage to argue that scripture makes it clear that churches should not have bathrooms in them! At that point in history, indoor plumbing had become widespread, and so many church folks were angling to move the outhouse in-house. Pastors took up arms at the idea of a toilet inside, convinced that this would surely cause God to abandon the church. Now, we all see how well this argument worked, as nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find a church built in the last 75 years that does not have at least a whole set of restrooms. If “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” is true, why are we ignoring this command from God? Well, the truth is this obscure bit of Bible and church history does an excellent job of illustrating the problem of the half-truth: “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” Namely, we all interpret scripture, and in fact, it is our responsibility to interpret scripture in order to hear what God is saying to us today.
You see when we say, “God said it,” what we usually mean is that “the Bible says it,” but that in turn oversimplifies and overburdens scripture. Another byword for this half-truth is that scripture is from God so it must be inerrant and infallible. If we looked at the whole of the Bible in this way, we would end up with some unusual limits on our behavior and some out-there practices like using outhouses rather than going with the flow of indoor plumbing. Some other examples include, not wearing blended fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), not eating pork or shrimp (Leviticus 11:7-12), not cleaning your house or mowing your lawn on Saturdays (the Sabbath) or face being put to death (Exodus 35:2). On the whole opposite end, we would also have all the facets of our lives that the Bible does not explicitly address at all like social media, the internet, automobiles, democracy, and space travel. At the same time, I can tell you that you can find Christian theological positions on all of these subjects. How is this possible? It is simple: we all interpret scripture.
This is not a new thing either, as ancient Judaism and even Christ and Paul interpreted scripture. The Jewish people have a long history of debating, arguing, and seeking to apply scripture in new ways to new situations, something they call Midrash. All of this oral tradition was collected and later written down in the Mishnah. In addition to these, there is also the Talmud, which collected famous writings and teachings from well-known rabbis about the Mishnah. What’s fascinating is that no debates about scripture were ever settled, the Jewish writers preserved everything, including disagreements, majority opinions, and even minor opposing opinions. Jesus comes out of this tradition, and we even have him offering an interpretation of scripture in the Sermon on the Mount. There in Matthew 5:21, he says, “You have heard that it was said” before quoting pieces of Torah, the law. Now, he doesn’t then say, “That’s it, whether you like it or not, so now go and obey.” Instead, Jesus adds, “But I say…” before going to add his own interpretation, his own view that was often against the prevailing theological opinion of the time.
Paul and the other apostles do this all the time as well. In our Tuesday Bible Study, we have been studying Romans where Paul quotes, interprets, and even mashes together various parts of the Hebrew scriptures to get his point across. He takes scripture seriously, but he also does the work of interpretation to meet the challenges and situations his churches are facing. What’s most notable about Paul is that he also never claims “that his words and thoughts are synonymous with God’s words and thoughts,” instead he usually says he is offering his opinions that he feels are led by the Spirit. Paul wrestles with and interprets scripture.
The Bible is written by people, defined and shaped by the contexts that they find themselves in at the time of their writing. Prophets and poets struggled to interpret what they felt God was saying about the problems of their day. Histories recorded fallible people who weren’t always perfect as they sought to live as God’s children. All the authors of the Bible wrote for particular purposes and for specific audiences. Now, maybe you are thinking, “But Pastor Paul, doesn’t the Bible also say, ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work’” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and I would say, “Yes, it does, but which scripture?” This passage from 2 Timothy would only be referring to the Old Testament as there was no New Testament at the time. Even then, the Protestant Bible has a different Old Testament than the Catholic Old Testament which is again different from the Orthodox Old Testament. Beyond all that, the word “inspired” comes from a tricky Greek word theopneustos (literally God-breathed). It’s tricky because this word appears nowhere else in the Bible or in ancient literature, so its exact meaning alludes us. Obviously, there is this idea that God has influenced our sacred writings, but exactly how, we cannot say for sure. What we can say for sure is that somehow through these vast and various writings, we time and time again throughout the ages have found God’s presence there. There’s nothing new about the people of God struggling to understand and interpret what God is saying to us in contexts ancient and modern.
What is new, relatively speaking, is this position that “the Bible says it, that settles it.” Do any of you want to take a guess on how old the position that scripture is infallible and inerrant is? While many Christians had assumed something like inerrancy, the belief that the Bible is “‘absolutely errorless” as a central doctrine has only been around since the 1870s. This half-truth has only been around for about 150 years, and it largely emerged as a Southern reaction to the Christian anti-slavery movement. After all, the Bible mentions slavery over 200 times without condemning it, so if we say that “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” because the scripture is infallible and inerrant, then why do we no longer have slavery in the United States today? Indeed, many pastors prior to the American Civil War cited the letter of the Bible as God approving their practice of slavery. Meanwhile, those Christians committed to anti-slavery said that such practices, while adhering to maybe the letter, certainly violated the spirit of the scripture, to love God and to love neighbor.
You see, interpretation is not saying that God cannot be found in scripture, but it says that we should not confuse the Word of God for the letters on the page. Jesus is the Word of God, the logos, and even our logos applied an overarching interpretation of scripture. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he answers that “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” and “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” as “‘On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’” (Matthew 22:37-40 NRSV). Jesus tells an expert in the law that this is the lens through which all scripture should be filtered and viewed.
When we seek to make a half-truth like the “Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it,” the full truth, we kill scripture, we make it fixed in meaning and thus dead. If the scripture says what it says and that is it, then it cannot speak to the continually evolving world we find ourselves in today. What can scripture say to today's youth struggling with their identity in the midst of TikTok, Snapchat, and Youtube? What can scripture say to people wrestling with inflation, retirement, and supply chain shortages? What can it say to adults struggling to buy homes, have children, and find sustainable careers? What about our struggles and debates about sexuality, gender, racism, power, and economics? If scripture’s meaning is fixed, it has little to say about the problems the writers did not face. However, if we hold that God can speak through these words to give us what we need to answer all the important questions of today, scripture will never lose its relevance in our faith lives. When we let Christ Jesus be our lens for reading and wrestling with the words on the page, God’s truth is never settled. It lives and grows with us even as we struggle with it and interpret it to see how God continues to answer a world in need of love, grace, mercy, and wisdom. Amen.
 Adam Hamilton, Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016),128.
 George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 36-38.
 Hamilton 2016, 118.
Pastor Paul Grossman