October 22, 2020

Sundays with Michael Spencer: March 1, 2015


Note from CM: In 2015 we will mark five years since the death of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. Today, we continue our “Sundays with Michael” series with another excerpt from a post that was originally published in February 2005. Last week, from this same post, we heard Michael critique approaching the Bible like a “magic book.” Today he suggests another metaphor to describe a common, inadequate way of reading the Bible.

 • • •

Another way of approaching the Bible is by collecting verses. The “grocery store” analogy is particularly helpful in describing how mainstream evangelicals approach scripture. The appearance of concordances and computer searching has allowed the emphasis on verses and lists of verses to develop to a high level. One need only find the proper book or software, and a search can be conducted to retrieve a list of verses relating to any subject, word or term. I compare this to going into a grocery store with a shopping list. I many need verses on marriage, parenting and forgiveness. I take my list, run up and down the aisles, and find the verses I need. (Or to be more true to today’s technology, I present my list to the man at the front, and he sends a runner to pick up my verses for me, while I simply meet him at the checkout.)

The idea that the Bible is a library of verses has been propagated through Bible study tools, but also through methods of preaching. Many popular preachers today NEVER engage a text unless it is a story with a lesson that speaks to a “felt need.”. They engage a topic that has been focus-grouped to gain the interest of the audience. (See Ed Young, Jr. for a good example) Then verses are marshalled to present an outline of principles. The Bible is the source of the verses, so it is routinely asked, “What does the Bible say about assessing potential spouses?” Since the collection of verses comes from the Bible, the conclusion seems sound. The “Bible” in this case is a humanly arranged collection of verses, out of context, with a variable degree of likelihood in relating to the truth.

While I am not saying that abuse of this method is universal, it is common. I could easily accumulate grocery lists of texts on polygamy, slavery, stoning rebellious children, demonic exorcism to solve physical problems, the need to exterminate unbelievers, and so on. All my lists would answer a “What does the Bible say?” question. And all could, potentially, seriously misrepresent the overall message that God has sent us in scripture, because the meaning of larger texts, especially books, has been ignored. I could even use the Bible itself to teach the very opposite of what the Bible teaches. In seminary, I was taught that the Bible was pro-abortion by a selective accumulation of texts. And no one laughed or cried, Orwellian as it was.

The use of the grocery store method is entirely dependent on how the accumulator understands the way verses relate to one another in larger contexts. For instance, the basic idea of old and new covenants would seriously affect how someone selected verses on worship and presented them as, “The Bible says we should worship by….” Some verse accumulation preachers are excellent. It is a method that can bear much fruit and be helpful, IF done in a context of actually understanding the larger framework of scripture. (Much like I could find lists of sentences in Walden on self-sufficiency that might misrepresent or well-represent Thoreau’s intentions in the book.)


  1. One of the most famous of the grocery store methods is “Judas went and hanged himself.” “Go and do likewise.” “And whatever thou doest, do quickly!” You can string verses together to prove anything.

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    Proof texting is an unfortunate outgrowth of the Reformation. The Reformers believed that church practice had strayed far from anything Biblically supportable, and therefore made a point of supporting their arguments with Biblical references. This was not proof texting as we know it today so much as summaries of longer versions. Fairly early in the Reformation it became apparent that the Protestant churches were splitting into two factions over the doctrine of the eucharist. This split would eventually result in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. An attempt was made to heal this rift early on, with a sit-down between Luther and (IIRC) Zwingli. Luther set a placard in front in him with the text “This is my body.” (I am writing this all from memory, so undoubtedly I have gotten the details all wrong. You have been warned.) Superficially, this looks just like the proof texting IMonk describes. I see this story sometimes presented as Luther pulling out a real zinger! In reality, it was exegetical shorthand. Everyone there knew the texts, and knew the arguments about how to interpret them. Luther was succinctly stating his opening (and, it turned out, closing) position, but that snippet of text was not by itself the whole argument.

    It is like the old joke about the retired comics’ home, where they all know the same jokes so well that they have numbered them, so one just has to call out a number and the others will laugh at the joke. (In the version I know, a visitor tries it, calling out a number at random, and is met with a stony silence, and instructed not to try to do accents if he can’t do them right.)

    The problem is that this practice is at once misunderstood and taken as the model for how to make a Biblical argument. It is misunderstood by imaging the snippet of text is the entire argument, rather than a reference to the argument. Fast forward five centuries and you have the dumbed down version Michael Spencer describes.

    • There is a famous painting of St. Jerome…holding a Bible with his finger pointing to the text.

      This is a good thing. What does the text actually say? And how does that comport with the gospel?

      This is how Luther could pound his fist on the table and say, “ist!” ( “is”)…”This IS my body…this IS my blood…”


      If we go shopping for texts that prop up ourselves and our efforts, we are in the wrong market. To take texts off the shelves that hold up the pure gospel is both right and true.

      Hey…I’m a Lutheran in the mold of Luther (hopefully)…what else would you expect me to say.

    • This is also a method of referring to Scripture often found in the New Testament (as scholars such as N. T. Wright have noted). When a person (e.g. Jesus or Paul) quotes a verse, or even part of a verse, they are often invoking a whole narrative, which the hearers understoond (because they knew the whole ‘story’, not just bits and pieces). A good example is Jesus’ statement in Mark 11:17 when he ‘cleanses’ the temple. He quotes part of two OT passages – one from Jeremiah 7. By doing so he is invokes Jeremiah’s prophecy of the destruction of the temple. The Jewish religious leaders knew exactly what he was saying, thus the accusation that he would destroy the temple.

      Unfortunately, as noted by Michael, this has been misunderstood and taken as simply quoting a verse that seems to fit my argument and misapplying it. The church (particularly the Protestant [perhaps especially the evangelical] church) needs a lesson in Hermeneutics 101.

  3. Michael’s wisdom is what brought me to IM. Thank you for continuing to share his legacy and reinforcing exactly why I came here in the first place.

  4. Vega Magnus says

    People often use grocery store style analysis to try to use the Bible to justify their political views as well. I’ve seen people say “Jesus was a progressive/conservative/libertarian” plenty of times. I find it really odd to try to project 21st century politics onto an ancient book like the Bible.

    Also, I’ve posted a new entry to my blog. Sorry for the self-promotion, but I don’t know how else to get readers.


  5. I would wonder if this method of lifting verses from their context does something similar to what some experience when they highlight text in scripture. Some find that highlighting causes them to skim over unhighlighted text in order to jump to what has been made a visually far more interesting verse. When we do this verse linking for proof texting we are lifting certain verses of scripture above others, so that I wouldn’t be surprised if our brains unconsciously “highlight” the text as we are reading.

    Just a quick example. Around this time last year, I wrote a post on John 3:14-15, but even though I remembered the verse I wanted to zero in on, it took a goodle search (Jesus, snake) for me to track down the address. Sure, part of that is my own lax attitude toward memorizing scripture, but I would wonder if the glaring popularity of the verse that follows doesn’t possibly serve to turn the volume down on the surrounding verses.

  6. I’m afraid the cherished idea that just anyone can pull a copy of the Bible off the shelf and get much of anything out of it is pretty much a fantasy. The Bible is a hard read. If you can’t read Homer or Chaucer or Shakespeare with facility what makes you think you can read the Bible without study or struggle?

    This is why we have the “morsel nibbling” approach to scripture. This is how many Christians can “read” the Bible their whole lives and wind up not knowing much of anything about it.

    • Provided one approaches the texts with humility, a willingness to learn from others what they may mean, and a recognition that there is much one will not understand, even if equipped with the resources of a great scholar, and that that’s okay, then it’s worth the risk to pull the Bible off the shelf and read it. It is after all uniquely in the New Testament that the Church’s memory of Jesus, of his character and words, makes itself known in the gospel narratives.

  7. It can be confusing, that’s for sure.

    But the main message is a simple one. Any clear reading of the New Testament can see it. It is proclaimed loudly there.

    Christ Jesus died for the sins of the ungodly (people like you and me). And because of that great, loving act of God…for us…we can live with Him forever in Heaven. And this is grasped by faith ( Lord willing ).

    • flatrocker says

      ….and lived out through the sanctifying works of love.
      Oh Lord, here we go again.

    • Yes and with all due respect you can buy CliffsNotes for Homer and Chaucer and Shakespeare and pretend you’ve read them too.

      Part of the humility Robert F recommends to us is realizing

      A) Unless we are fluent in greek none of us have ever actually read the New Testament anyway.
      B) The so-called “simple plan of salvation” is itself an interpretation.
      C) The NT was written by many different writers in different social situations who were NOT all saying the same thing. For example many scholars have come to the conclusion that at least some of the opponents of the writer of the letters of John and the writer of the epistolary section of the Book of Revelation were disciples of Paul! Think about that.

      My point is NOT that we shouldn’t read the Bible or that we should leave it to the scholars and specialists but that we have to show due diligence and do the work first, and THEN speak. We have be willing to suspend judgment and always be willing to pronounce those words blessed to the wise:

      I DON’T KNOW

      • Robert F says

        What you say is why I’ve made the inner emigration to a kind of Quakerism. From the second century CE through to the twenty-first, the Church has been interpreting the biblical documents, and especially the NT canon, as if they were speaking with a single voice from a unified intention and understanding in many texts where no such voice, intention and understanding exist. This should lead us to acknowledge the ignorance you mention, as well as to a profound and deep silence. Speaking personally, however, I am unable to part from trying to live and pray in a kind of relationship to the person of Jesus as depicted and described in the NT narratives. This portrait, however imaginative or fictive it may be, is deeply alive and embedded in my heart and mind, and I can only hope that the vision it discloses of a divine willingness to participate in the suffering and perplexity of humanity in some sense communicates a very real truth about God.

      • B) The so-called “simple plan of salvation” is itself an interpretation.

        Can anyone point to that ‘simple plan of salvation’? It is often a few verses from Romans, taken out of context and twisted to say something Paul didn’t mean and the the expected response is a prayer that results in a transaction where one gives God his or her ‘faith’ (however that is defined) in exchange for eternal life. That ‘plan of salvation’ thinking often leads to ‘fire insurance’ Christianity. That too is an example of the grocery list approach to Scripture – find me a list of verses that support my understanding of ‘how to get saved’.

    • Steve,

      “And this is grasped by faith ( Lord willing ).”

      After all that, why end with the “Lord willing”?

  8. Mm. This is a typical method for “de-storying” the Bible. Inflate a verse or two – and your dismembered interpretation of it – so big that you can ignore other parts of the Bible, and not have to do the hard work of holding the entire canon together in a unity.

    • I have been blessed to have a couple guys in my life that have been passionate about retaining the overally narrative of Scripture. It not only gives you a world of context to swim in, but encourages reading, and being familiar with the entirety of Scripture in a way that just saying that we should be reading our Bible does not.

      • Totally! I have never lost my desire to read Scripture since I began seeing it as a unified story that must be appreciated in its fullness of context.

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