Don’t quote the Bible less, quote it better

Recently, I read an article by Rich Little about the dangers of quoting the Bible as Christians. The author correctly identifies some dangers and gives some helpful insight, but the impression he gives is that there isn’t much of a place for quoting Scripture in today’s world. His advice—to himself and to others—is to quote the Bible less when we are in danger of quoting it improperly. My advice is different: instead of quoting the Bible less, we need to quote it better. Let’s look at each of the dangers he identified and see how we can avoid them to use the Bible properly.

Note: The headings are quoted from the original article.

  1. “No Scripture is written to me”

    This is a great point. We can often sit down with our Bible, open it up, and say, “What is God saying to me in this verse?”—which is good question to ask but the wrong place to start. When we start there, we are likely to understand the verse out of context, and then quote it out of context too. But the heading is misleading; we should change it to “No Scripture is written only to me.”

    When we read a book of the Bible, we need to know the audience to whom the book was written. We need to know what the passage said to the original audience. We ask questions like: Why is it there? What would be missing if it wasn’t there? Then, once we know what the passage said to the original audience, we can learn what it says to us by asking questions like: What does this passage tell me about the kind of person that I am? What does this passage tell me about who God is? What does this passage tell me about Jesus and his work? What does this passage tell me about how to honour God? And for the most part, the right answers to those questions will be just as applicable for everyone to whom you are going to quote the passage.

    So when it comes to quoting scripture, we need to ensure that what we’re saying to whomever we are quoting it is the same thing that the passage is actually saying. If you can do that, then you don’t have to fear ripping the verse out of context. And the other thing to do, as much as possible, is to communicate the context when you are quoting Scripture. This helps ensure that both you and the person to whom are quoting understand what the text is really saying.

  2. “No Scripture is written to ‘Them'”

    This is another great point. But the danger of is that we can lose all of our confidence in defending Christian truth, thinking that we should first convince everyone to be Christians before we bring the Bible into discussion. The problem that arises then is how can we convince people to be Christians? How can we convince them to believe? The New Testament makes a consistent connection between believing and hearing the good news. For example, in Romans 10, after concluding that there is no distinction between Jewish people and Greek people (the “us” and “them” of New Testament times) when it comes to righteousness, Paul asks:

    How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? [Romans 10:14]

    The point is that it is necessary for all to hear the “word of Christ” [v. 17]. And where else will people hear this good news except in the Bible? There is nowhere else, so we use the Bible to show people the truth: that everyone (both “us” and “them”) has fallen short of God’s requirement for morality and that our only hope is faith in Jesus. The way to avoid the danger of quoting in an “us” vs. “them” mentality is to remember that there is no distinction between us and them; we all have fallen short, and we all need God’s grace just as much. But, if anything, this should drive us to quote the Scriptures more boldly—both to “us” and “them” alike.

  3. “Scripture contains errors”

    While the author makes another very helpful point—that the authority of scripture doesn’t fall down when we see variations between modern translations—the presentation is misleading, which can lead to a false conclusion. His basic point is that there are minor things in the Bible that are unreliable so we should only focus on the major things, simply “witnessing the perfect Christ of scripture.”

    The issue here is a misrepresentation of biblical inerrancy. Biblical inerrancy is the belief that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything which is contrary to fact” [1]. This is the doctrine that has always been held by believers. Now, to say that Scripture (as we have it today) contains errors is grossly misleading. Though modern translations are not inerrant in themselves, they are inerrant to the extent that they reflect the original manuscripts. And they do so very well. Different translations represent different attempts to present the same truth. When Paul quotes Old Testament Scriptures [e.g. Romans 3:10-18; 1 Corinthians 2:9; etc.], he quotes them in a different language, he speaks them to a different culture, and he doesn’t worry that the wording is not exactly the same; that doesn’t stop him from saying that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” [2 Timothy 3:16].

    Variations in wording between modern translations have no impact on the inerrancy of Scripture, and they should not make us hesitant in quoting it. They should, however, affect how we quote it. We shouldn’t get hung up on the syntax of a particular sentence from a particular version, and we shouldn’t make big stretches in interpretation because of alternate meanings or the connotations of particular English words. We should use whatever Bible study tools we have (multiple translations, lexicons, commentaries) to understand what particular texts are saying and verify the truth of whatever it is we think they do say. The more confident we are about a passage’s meaning, the more confidently we can quote it to others.

  4. “Proof-texting is unbiblical”

    The author’s next point helps us avoid another dangerous pitfall of Scripture quotation. The argument is that slicing Scripture into small chunks and reassembling it allows us to defend any doctrine we please, or even make up new doctrine altogether. This is a great point because we need to be very careful about how we piece together arguments from scripture; we cannot use out-of-context verses to build up false arguments.

    But just because we can’t use small (or even big) portions of Scripture out of context, doesn’t mean we can’t use them at all. We can use in-context verses to defend and explain truth. Let’s look again at Paul’s use of Scripture. For example in Romans 3:10-18, he cites no less than 10 separate passages from the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures—in a different language to a different audience than the original—in order to point out that no one has a righteousness of his or her own. Or, for an even stronger example, let’s look at Jesus being tempted by the devil in Luke 4. When attacked by a verbal challenge to turn a stone into bread, how did Jesus respond? With a single sentence from the book of Deuteronomy: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” And twice more before the end of verse 13, Jesus quotes Old Testament Scripture in single sentences as his only defence. Jesus was not one of the original audience members for any of those texts, but he still used them in tiny chunks, knowing that they impacted his life and his behaviour and knowing that they proved the devil to be a liar. Of course, in this passage, we also see the devil using small, out-of-context verses to try to cause Jesus to sin. So it does show that proof-texting verses falsely is dangerous, but our solution should be Jesus’ solution: the answer to misused Scripture quotations is not fewer Scripture quotations but properly used Scripture quotations!

  5. “The Bible is not God”

    The truth that the Bible is not God is a great truth. If the Bible were God, then our God would be far too small. In a general sense, all of creation (including the Bible) points to God, declaring his glory, but the Bible also does more than that. The Bible functions as God’s communication to us. In it, he inspired each author to write exactly what he intended them to write. And today when we read the Bible, we have exactly what he intends for us to have. God’s power has not been compromised by 2000 years of the copying of manuscripts.

    The Bible is not God, but the Bible is how God has told us about himself. The Bible is how God communicates his will to us. And most importantly, the Bible is how God has revealed his Son to us. And God has decided in his Bible to do more than just tell us history about his work; he has also “breathed out” to us what is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” [2 Timothy 3:16-17]. So no, we don’t worship the Bible because it is God, we worship the God of the Bible who has given it to us. And we worship him in the way he has instructed us in his Word. And when we debate—both with Christians and non-Christians—about truth, we do so using the very words of Scripture because that is how we measure truth. And when we correct—both our own views and others’—we correct it using the teaching of Scripture. And when we share the Bible with others, we quote it confidently—precisely because it is God’s word.

So to conclude, we shouldn’t fear studying Scripture diligently, and we shouldn’t fear quoting Scripture to other people. God has blessed us by providing us with a gift that “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” [Hebrews 4:12]. We shouldn’t be afraid to wield it, both to save ourselves and to save others. That’s how the New Testament church used God’s Word and that is how Jesus used God’s Word. So feel free to use it!


[1] Grudem, Wayne. 1999. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, pg. 42.