Some of the most popular biblical stories are frequently misappropriated in pastors' sermons, according to a theology professor whose new book explores how key aspects of these stories are often misunderstood.
In The Most Misused Stories in The Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories Are Misunderstood, Eric J. Bargerhuff, who teaches in the Department of Bible and Theology at Trinity College in Trinity, Florida, unpacks 14 stories that are often not fully understood, such as the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis, Jonah and the big fish, and why Jesus couldn't perform miracles in His hometown. He highlights how many well-meaning Christian pastors have misapplied these texts in order to teach otherwise noble life lessons.
"I'm trying reclaim a literal, grammatical, historical, cultural hermeneutic that seeks a plain-sense meaning of Scripture following the rules of grammar, with attention to the genre and literature we are seeking to interpret," Bargerhuff explained in an interview with The Christian Post on Tuesday.
For instance, as he describes in the book, the biblical account of David and Goliath is often used as an inspirational story to minister to people to help them overcome their fears and large obstacles in life. This appears to make sense given how David was much smaller than the Philistine giant and was armed with just a few stones and a slingshot.
Yet, a closer review of the whole story reveals that he was not afraid of Goliath at all, and the story is not about conquering obstacles and fear. David rebukes the giant boldly in 1 Samuel 17:45–47 because David had cultivated a long history with God whereby God had empowered him in the past to overcome lions and bears in defense of his father's sheep, and therefore he was able to face the giant without fear because he trusted in God.
"So the main point of the story is not about overcoming fear and facing your giants as much as it is about trusting in the power and character of God to deliver," the author explains in the book.
"When God's reputation is on the line, and a man or woman of faith seeks to defend His honor, you can rest assured that God will be there," he writes.
Within evangelicalism more broadly, Bargerhuff told CP that many "have fallen prey to a lot of the whims of our current culture that press in on us to interpret the Bible in a way that meets more of a felt-needs approach."
"And, as a result, we come to the text seeking to master it instead of allowing the text to master us."
The nature of God's Word, used by the Holy Spirit, is built to correct, rebuke, and encourage us, he stressed, and it is essential for Christians to approach interpreting the Bible with the utmost humility. And that process involves going into these ancient texts to speak to us in their own language, in their own day, and as best as we possibly can seek to enter into the text in that day to ascertain the original intent of the author.
"And it is out of that, that we can extract principles they applied that are timeless which can then be brought into our culture. And the great challenge is to take those timeless principles and apply them faithfully to us today."
"Even in our preaching, the Church has sometimes failed to model an expository exegetical approach in handling Scripture which helps the listener learn how to interpret Scripture in context," he added.
In Chapter 11, Bargerhuff explores the Samaritan Pentecost in the book of Acts so as to clarify some of the language which certain streams of the Church employ when speaking of the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" as some kind of necessary second experience after their water baptism.
Some Pentecostals and Charismatics have made this "baptism" a second necessary experience following the baptism one receives at conversion, the author argues. Yet all believers in Christ receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, he contends, and using the language of baptism when referring to a subsequent experience after water baptism can unfairly create two different classes of Christians, and invites theological confusion.
Bargerhuff, who earned his Ph.D. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, refers in the book to the work of renowned theologian Wayne Grudem in whose Systematic Theology points out that the phrase "baptism of the Holy Spirit" is directly linked with the unique transitional event in the timeline of biblical history that was Pentecost, which occurred 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus.
"According to Scripture, all of us who are believers in Christ receive immersion into the Holy Spirit," Bargerhuff said, referencing the Apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12:13.
He is quick to add, however, that "there can be additional moments of unique empowerment for a particular ministry. But we can't necessarily label that as a 'second baptism', because the entire baptism of the Holy Spirit already happened at conversion."
But these times of clear empowerment by the Spirit, these "fresh fillings," Bargerhuff explained, do not mean that Christians did not have the Holy Spirit before.
"I'm just saying that He has more of you in a special way for a particular calling or particular ministry that the Spirit of God has assigned you for," he emphasized.
He further noted that Christians too often talk past each other because they are not using the same terms in the same ways when in truth there is much more theological agreement than they realize.
"My heart in this book is to challenge people to take a closer look at these stories and to interpret them from a biblical, theological foundation. The tendency is to only look at them from the more pragmatic approach, and if that's the only way we see them, then we have a tendency to miss the profound truths God wants to teach us about concerning himself and his will for our lives," he said.
Much like his 2012 book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, Bargerhuff said his new work has a similar aim.
"I'm trying to get people to look into these texts and let God speak on God's terms without us trying to manipulate the text to make it say what we want it to say for our own personal felt needs," he said.
One of the ways in which some Christians appropriate biblical stories to meet such felt needs is when they take a page from Gideon in Judges 6 and "put a fleece out."
"Often what we have done is taken this story and hijacked that idea," Bargerhuff said. "And we have misused it in such a way that we actually believe that it is a pattern for discerning God's will for us today."
Upon closer review of the actual story of Gideon and his experiences, God appears to him in the form of an angel and gives him instructions as to what He was to do, revealing His plan and will to him, Bargerhuff explains. Yet it was in his weak faith Gideon wanted to understand more deeply and for God to prove Himself.
"So, God in His mercy and grace, was willing to allow Gideon to put out these tests but it was because of Gideon's weakness, not because it was the command of God to do the fleece," he continued.
"When we pursue God as our number one priority, he shapes the desires of our hearts. And if He shapes the desires of our hearts then the desires that we have are going to be along the right path."
Christians who order their lives as such are not going to need the circumstantial outside tests and "fleeces" that attempt to read the signs around them to know God's Will for them.
"It becomes a guessing game for us and we begin to try to manipulate even the results, so to speak, of these kinds of outside testing, guessing games that fleeces can sometimes bring. And I don't think that's how God intended us to discern His will today. He wants us to seek Him and seek His glory," Bargerhuff said.
"And as we do that and prioritize that He shapes the desires of our heart and will lead us along the path we should walk."