« Accomplishing pressure in the academy | Main | A crowded day »

That dangerous book, the Bible

Imagine my astonishment—we’re about to talk religion for a few minutes, so back off if that’s not to your taste—at reading this passage in the latest Newsweek:

... Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that citadel of Christian conservatism, concludes that one’s Bible reading must be overseen by the proper authorities. Just because everyone should read the Bible “doesn’t mean that everyone’s equally qualified to read it, and it doesn’t mean that the text is just to be used as a mirror for ourselves,” he says. “All kinds of heresies come from people who read the Bible and recklessly believe that they’ve understood it correctly.”

When I was a boy, what we understood to be one of the fundamental tenets of the Protestant Reformation was that the Bible was to be read by all believers for their own understanding and enlightenment, and that setting up some authority mediating between the believer and the book was wicked, abominable priestcraft.

Now the Reverend Doctor Mohler is surely correct is saying that the Bible has given rise to many crackpot interpretations; I would include his among them. (You may remember the Reverend Doctor Mohler from a previous post about his contention that yoga is a filthy pagan practice unfit for any Christian. Must be an interesting place, his madrassa in Louisville.)

Of course, in another sense, the Reverend Doctor Mohler is squarely in the Protestant tradition. John Calvin thought it a fine thing when Michael Servetus was burned alive for expressing qualms about the Trinity, and the Massachusetts Bay settlers who fled persecution in England discovered that they had quite a taste for it when members of their own party turned heterodox.

But still, for a Baptist divine to tell you that you are not qualified to read and understand Scripture shows us what a peculiar time we’ve come to.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:50 AM | | Comments (29)


Albert Mohler thinks not everyone is qualified to understand what the Bible says. You state that "one of the fundamental tenets of the Protestant Reformation was that the Bible was to be read by all believers for their own understanding and enlightenment." I think your positions are not mutually exclusive, at least not if you want to rely on biblical authority itself:

"The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit." (1 Corinthians 2:14.)

This verse essentially asserts that non-believers (those "without the Spirit") can't understand the Bible, while the chapter goes on to say that those with the Spirit can. The problem with the Mohler statement you quote is that he does not distinguish between the two camps. If he had, then his position would be biblically accurate (at least as applied to those who are not, as you put it, "believers").

Of course, for those who deny biblical authority this is a distinction without a difference.

Tim, I think you make a useful distinction between believers and non-believers. One cannot expect a believer to listen to a non-believer's interpretation of their holy book—though there are insights to be gained form doing so.

However, when talking only about believers, how do you decide who to listen to when you have two sincere believers who have mutually incompatible interpretations? What if one of them is Mohler, and the other of them is yourself? Mohler seems to be setting himself up as the more reliable authority, even in that case. That's a fairly extraordinary claim.

In your scenario I'd go with Mr. McIntyre's position as being the one supported by the passage from 1 Corinthians 2, and I can't discern from the quote attributed to Mr. Mohler above that he feels otherwise. He may or may not; we just don't have the evidence to say one way or the other.

>"That's a fairly extraordinary claim"

Extraordinary in hubris but astonishingly ordinary from a historical point of view.

Well, if you somehow came to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, you might very well share the doctor's concern. It's a powerful thing to put in anyone's hands, the inerrant word of God, especially since He's not always totally clear or totally consistent in Hs wordings.

Personally, I'd be all in favour of taking a second opinion. Though not, I should add, from someone of Dr Mohler's bent.

I agree that some people should not read the Bible.Atheists come immediately to mind. Talk about pearls before swine -in a purely spiritual and literary context, of course

I'd have thought those who would be best advised to avoid reading the Bible are people of Dr Mohlrr's persuasion who know (unaccountably) that it provides the literal and inerrant truth in matters of history, geography, geology, and cosmology. They come away from their reading with some very strange and unfortunate ideas.

It seems to me that with any reading (Bible or otherwise) people tend to pick and choose the points that reinforce their own prejudices.

I suppose, Dahlink, that's what the good doctor implies when he says we shouldn't use the Bible as just "a mirror for ourselves". He'd rather you chose the points that reinforce his.

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season,
time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

-T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Oh, Laura, that's unfair. Dr Mohler is intelligent but pedestrian - I can give him pedestrian replies. Tom Eliot is in a different shop. As it happens I was wondering - I'm not far from East Coker today - how he would have reacted to the good doctor. And he is beyond my wondering.

Picky, you seem to know a lot more about Albert Mohler than I can glean from the passage Mr. McIntyre excerpts in his original post above. Or are you saying that all the evidence you need is found in the fact that Mr. Mohler views the Bible as an authoritative book and therefore he must fit into a particular pigeon hole?

All I can say for sure from the original blog post is that Mr. Mohler says some folks need guidance when reading the Bible. I imagine most people who go to church would agree with that position. That's why they listen to sermons, go to Sunday School classes, and attend Bible study sessions.

Now, of course, Mr. Mohler may very well intend to say what you say he says. But I can't see the support for that in the quote attributed to him here at You Don't Say.

No, I can't claim to be that close to Dr Mohler. But as I understand it he is a Christian of the literalist, ultra-conservative wing, and I think I can justify what I have said by pointing to his anti-Darwin young-earth views, evident in the stuff on his website, for instance.

That's why the so-called Geneva Bible came with a lot of interpretative apparatus in the margins, lest the naive reader be led astray. But at least it was available to the layman. Remember that Tyndale was burnt at the stake for his work in making a vernacular Bible available (among other things).

Or rather, not simply that those are his views, but that he holds them - in the teeth of the evidence (as he agrees himself) -because otherwise he fears he would be forced to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

I am not literate in Greek - ancient or modern - or Arabic, ditto. But I do have a copy of the Latin Vulgate. An interesting revelation, but I doubt Dr M has approached it in those terms.Hello, Alice!

On another thread Alex is bragging away about his celebrity chums, so this is perhaps the moment to tell you that I once met T.S.Eliot. Well, you may think that a slight exaggeration: actually I was in the same room as him for about five minutes, and about 10ft away.

He very wisely took absolutely no notice of me. I think perhaps he could tell that if he caught my eye I would descend immediately into gushing-fan mode.

If you drive down the A303 towards Cornwall, as I've been doing this week, you pass within a few miles of East Coker. A couple of years ago when passing that way I turned off through Yeovil to see the place. A quiet summer day in a little Somerset village, with the sun warming that ancient stone, and you begin to sense something of how Anglo-Catholicism spoke to him.

Ah Picky, I surely didn't intend to defile Eliot by invoking him in response to this post. Rather it was an attempt to cleanse from my mind the vile outpourings of the benighted Albert Mohler. Indeed, with the likes of Mohler as his compatriots, it's small wonder that Eliot changed his citizenship.

At any rate, I spent a few pleasurable moments last night reflecting on East Coker. While it's always a dicey business to lift passages out of context, these lines seemed to be relevant to the matter at hand:

"Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;"

And that is all I have to say about Dr. Mohler.

Sorry to pipe up so late in the thread, but this piqued my interest--as JM observes, it's not every day you hear a Baptist minister saying not everyone should read the Bible! I noticed, though, that the more audacious phrase came through the paraphrase of the Newsweek reporter, and wondered if perhaps Rev. Mohler might have meant something different than what was represented.

Turns out, last week he wrote the following explanation as part of a longer article on his blog:

I enjoyed my conversation with Ms. Miller [the Newsweek reporter], but my point was not that the church needs “proper authorities,” but that just any interpretation of the Bible will not do. The authority in this issue is that of the Bible itself. [emphasis added]

In other words, the good reverend is saying--as one would expect a Baptist divine would say--that the Bible is his final authority and that interpreters of the Bible should acknowledge it as an authority instead of ferreting out their own preferred interpretations. The 'mediating authority' that rightly worried JM is, it seems, blissfully absent.

Whatever you may think of Dr. Mohler's views, it's always reasonably comforting to rediscover some nice, predictable normalcy in the world!

Oh a Gnusweek reporter! Well, as long as it's a GNusweek reporter that makes it all very clear. I know I always look for religious and spiritual clarity in Gnusweek.

Laura Lee and other who think that T S Eliot's connection to East Coker gives that place special importance may be interested to know that there are plans to build some thousands of houses which, it is said, would link the village to Yeovil and end its rural quality.

Anyone interested or concerned might like to visit these sites:

On the other hand:

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.


I could hardly call you the Horse Whisperer, but you sure have an uncanny knack for reviving, and bringing new life to earlier discussion on issues that seemed to have been long ago put out of their misery. HA!

I therefore crown you, His Royal Pickiness, 'The Dead Horse Reviver'. Of course I'm just pulling your leg here, old chap.

I'm actually just excited to revisit a debate from so many months back, and do appreciate your most recent update on the East Coker/ Yeovil linkage. Sadly, this major suburban encroachment on once pristine rural acreage has become the norm these last few decades, on both sides of The Pond.

Case in point, back home in Toronto and environs, what was once a veritable giant, continuous swath of arable farm land, wilderness, and mixed woodlands immediately north of the metro city limits, has rapidly become mile-upon-mile of unimaginative, cookie-cutter designed suburban sprawl, now connecting once sleepy, bucolic little towns perhaps 40 miles north of the big TO directly to the Big City. (Ugh!)

Picky, in your, what I assume is a quote from a T.S. Elliot, passage, I couldn't help but pick up on the familiar echos and back-and-forth cadence of the Book of Eccleisiastes verses, beginning w/ "To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven". Considering Elliot's late-in-coming religiosity, this was clearly his intent.

As you may recall, iconic folk tunesmith, and veteran human rights activist Pete Seeger added his "Turn, turn, turn..." line to the almost verbatum Biblical verses, signifying, perhaps, the inevitable, relentless rotation of our tiny blue planet, in celestial sync w/ our solar orbiting planets......... and Pluto. (Can't forget poor 'demoted' Pluto, can we?)

Of course, the American folk band, The Byrds, covered Seeger's 1959 paean to our collective hope for world peace, which in the mid-'60s became an almost instant global hit, striking a common spiritual chord w/ believers and non-believers alike.

Peace, brother Picky1


I have nothing to add to this topic, but I can't resist noting that I met the lovely Laura Lee (see posts above) a few days ago. Eat your hearts out, Alex and Picky! She is just as wonderful in person as she is in our virtual community.

It gives me no surprise, Dahlink; I'm told the same thing is true of Alex - the Apollo of the North, they call him. Not so for me. Here I am, as you know, a joy for ever, whereas non virtually, in this breathing world, I am so lame and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.

Yes, Alex, I do seem to have an unhealthy interest in dead horses. Perhaps I am, as my schoolmasters used to say, a Disruptive Influence. I would like to think so, anyway.

Dahlink, you are too kind, but thank you. Of course, the admiration is reciprocated. It was indeed a pleasure to meet someone for whom I've had such warm regard for so long.

Picky, you are a Disruptive Influence for the better. And we all need someone like that in our lives.

Thank you, madam, one does one's best. We don't hear from you often enough, Laura Lee.

Laura Lee, what Picky said! It's always a pleasure to see your name here (and elsewhere).

And Picky, a Disruptive Influence? You? I find this hard to credit.

Figured, as the fourth member of our little ad hoc "You Don't Say" mutual admiration society (HA!) ---Laura, Dahlink, Picky et moi., I'll just second those emotions.

Picky, I echo Laura Lee's sentiments. Your 'disruptiveness' on this site is always welcome. Your sometimes belated comments often serve as a kind of catalyst for further back-and-forth discussion and lively debate. Love your exchanges w/ John Cowan, and your spirited byplay w/ Her Terseness, Patricia. When keeping our Prof. Mci. on his toes you do so w/ consummate civility, and good humor. Never a hint of one-ups-manship, while you generally defend your intellectual positions so well.

Laura Lee, I'm totally jealous of Dahlink for beating me out in meeting you face-to-face; one of the many drawbacks of living out here on the Left Coast, thousands of miles from Charm City, U.S.A.
Always appreciate your thoughtful contributions to this blog. You always appear to cite the most appropriate classic verses of poesy that reflect the gist of the discussion topic at hand.

On a little side note, I had no clue that one of your favorite men of letters, T.S. Elliot, hailed from St. Louis. This weekend's installment of NPR's "Prairie Home Companion" aired from St. Louis, and at one point in the broadcast host Garrison Keillor was listing some of the famed notables who came from this mid-west metropolis; and Mr. Elliot clearly made that list.

Dahlink, you brought some reality into our virtual world in meeting up w/ Laura Lee. I kinda figured she'd be a real sweetheart, in the flesh. Wish we could all meet one another some day.

Say, let's all trundle off to merry old England, and visit Picky. His getaway outside of London town sounds absolutely charming. HA! (Don't worry Picky, as blogger JD Considine would say, "Alex is just talking out of his hat".)

Hope all our bloggers on the east coast weathered hurricane Irene's wrath w/ few problems over the weekend. Heard New York City managed to dodge a potential bullet, although it got slammed and drenched fairy hard. At least their subway system avoided a predicted tidal surge which could have really mucked up the subterranean works for months.

Out here in L.A. we're just melting in 100-plus-degree heat for this past week. Still, beats hurricanes and tornados I suppose. We really can't choose our poison when it comes to the vagaries, and seeming whims of Mother Nature.

Earthquakes in Virginia? Mercy!

Stay safe, folks!


Very much born in St Louis - and took it with him, I think. Certainly he seemed to write forever in the presence of The River.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected