I'm sure there are others you can think of, but here are four faulty approaches to scripture:

Relativistic. The scholarly study of linguistics and literary criticism during the past few decades has been characterized by an increasing skepticism regarding the possibility of absolute truth. Formalism, structuralism, phenomenology and deconstruction have some diversity of forms, but they have led to some common philosophical assumptions, including the impossibility of objectivity, the relativity of truth, the subjectivity of meaning and the resulting primacy of experience (since ultimate meanings are regarded as indeterminate).

Relativism as a worldview now pervades contemporary thought and even pressures many Christians. A common assumption today is that Christianity is an alternative that has already had its day. This is so persuasive precisely because modern culture has adopted the notion that everything changes and anything becomes passe, whether fashions or automobiles or religion or, ultimately, truth itself. One perceptive businessman in the church I pastor commented to me, "I find the persuasiveness [of this view] very sophisticated and tugging at my elbows every day! And I consider my faith reasonably strong."

The impact of relativism is to undermine exactly what James prescribes for our study of Scripture. We say the Bible is the word of God; then we contradict that belief by conceding a cultural relativity to points of doctrine that are presented in Scripture as transcending culture. We say we believe in the authority of Scripture; but we have so often been told "It may be right for you, but not for me" that we begin to believe this relativism in our own hearts. Then, when we read the word of God, it falls on ears that hear but do not respond with action.

In 1 Samuel it is recorded that the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines. The elders of Israel conferred and decided to bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh "so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies" (1 Sam 4:3). When they next went into battle, this time with the ark of the Lord present, Israel was again defeated, and the ark was captured.

What went wrong with their plan? They treated the ark of the covenant as if it were magical, as if it could save them. Instead, they should have sought the Lord. Doing so, they would have realized that they could not expect salvation from a holy God while persisting in wickedness. They would have to do what James says to do: act on God's word.

This is not far off from the way some people treat Scripture still. The Bible is revered as an object, as if it would bring blessing on one's life. The Bible may be read often; prayers may be said frequently; church services may be attended; yet there may still be a self-satisfied overlooking of gossip or lies or irresponsibility or emotional abuse of one's spouse. This amounts to a superstitious use of Scripture.

James is insisting that the words of Scripture are of no value unless put into practice. If you study the word of God and begin to see a picture of true justice or genuine love or real holiness, then start practicing what you are discovering. This is the passion on James's heart.

Emotional. The word of God is certainly intended to affect our emotions. Jesus himself told his disciples that he spoke his words to them so that they might not fear but instead have joy (Jn 14:1-2; 15:11). The misuse of this is the employment of the word of God only for emotional comfort while avoiding obedience. By James's instruction, one should not be satisfied with a superficial devotional reading merely for emotional satisfaction. He demands a reading of the word with the goal of doing the will of God found there.

Theoretical. James's instruction also repudiates the merely theoretical use of the word of God, in which a person may study the word in exhaustive detail but then use the word only as material for philosophical or theological debate. The result is an abundance of doctrinal correctness but a scarcity of biblical godliness. The ones who are "hearers only" after this pattern tend to build a reputation for holding proper theology while leaving behind a trail of divisiveness and damaged relationships.

All of these approaches have a kernel of truth in them (though I wouldn't call the third "superstition" when applied rightly). As the book of James instructs, however, the ideal approach to scripture is to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers.

(HT: Luke.)

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