Growing up in a Fundamentalist congregation usually entails memorizing many Bible verses. Such was my experience. Individual verses held great importance to us Fundamentalists. At the time I was unaware that the division of the Bible into numbered chapters and verses was not an original part of inspired Scripture. It was many years later when I discovered that we had often been chopping off God’s message in the middle by extracting verses from Scripture and interpreting them in isolation from the text.
When I discuss this with others they usually say that they never thought about the divisions not being an original part of Scripture. It just never occurred to them. It was in the 1200s that Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, divided the books of the Bible into chapters. It was not until 1551 that Robert Estienne, a member of a famous French printing family, introduced the division into verses of the New Testament chapters.
We may be thankful for these numbered divisions: They allow for quick location of any particular passage and for easy cross-referencing. This was their purpose. However, we should keep in mind that they were not an inspired part of God’s Holy Word in the same sense in which the writings were inspired.
Unfortunately, the dividing of the books of Scripture into verses has led to misunderstandings. It sometimes happens in Protestant exegesis that something intended to be helpful ends up being misused. Many people tend to treat individual verses as though they were complete thoughts in and by themselves. To these people the numbers seem to indicate starting and stopping off points in determining doctrine. It is, of course, good practice to read, memorize, and be able to quote Scripture. It is not good practice to interpret any single verse apart from the text.
Think of the impression that would be given if Christ’s words in Matthew 5:43 were quoted in isolation: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.” (I have chosen to use the King James Version in my citations, as it was from the KJV that we memorized in my youth.) Of course, a vastly different message emerges when the reader continues on to verse 44: “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.” I sometimes wonder why Mr. Estienne made his divisions the way he did.
It is unfortunate that some people do not seem aware that individual Bible verses must be interpreted within the overall message of the chapter and book. The Catholic Church has long cautioned that verses of the Bible must be interpreted not only within the framework of the chapter and book but also in relation to other passages of Scripture that bear upon the same subject.
The division of the chapters into numbered verses occurred a few years after the death of Martin Luther. This, combined with Luther’s concept of “private interpretation,” gave the newly formed religious groups and so-called “reformers” a new tool. Since that time every Tom, Dick, Harry, Jane, Sue, and Mary have felt they had license to extract verses from God’s Holy Word and put their own spin on them.
When I began to study the Catholic faith, I came to the realization that many of the verses that had been selected for us to memorize in Sunday school were probably intended as much to repudiate Catholic beliefs as they were intended to defend and support our own Fundamentalist teachings. When these verses were separated and quoted outside the text, they did indeed appear to contradict some Catholic teachings. I discovered that when many of our favorite quotes were put back into context they actually took on different meanings that allowed me to understand Catholic doctrine.
One of our very favorite quotes was Ephesians 2:8-9, which read: “For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” We felt that we had Catholics backed into a corner on these verses when it came to that age-old debate about faith and works.
Then one day, as I was reading these, I continued on to verse ten: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
The phrase “created in Christ Jesus unto good works”–or, as the New King James Version has it, “created in Christ Jesus for good works”–shot out from the page. The word “unto” or “for” is significant. After we are “created in Christ Jesus” or as some like to say, “born again,” the opportunities for good works are already there for us. We have but to look about ourselves to see that this is true. It is for the believer that God has prepared the good works, not for the unbeliever. Nothing is expected of the latter.
Another of our favorite quotes was Matthew 23:9: “And call no man father upon the earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” We Fundamentalists loved to quote that one to Catholics, since we felt that they were in disobedience to the words of Christ when they addressed priests as “father.”
Of course, we completely ignored the fact that none of us hesitated to call our own dad our “father.” Certainly our dads would fall into the classification of “man on earth.” This thought eventually did occur to me and I began to wonder why, if we expected Catholics to take verse nine literally, we did not do the same ourselves.
One day I read the twenty-third chapter of Matthew straight through from beginning to end. I was surprised to discover that, after Christ had said not to call anyone on earth “father,” he went on to use that word himself in verses 30 and 32 while speaking to the same audience. It is obvious that in verse nine our Lord meant something other than what our separated brethren seem to think, for he used this word on other occasions when referring to men. The apostles did not refrain from using the word in question when speaking of those on earth.
This is a case where we should heed the advice of the Church to interpret a passage of Scripture in relation to other passages that bear on the subject at hand. One day I read the fourth chapter of 1 Corinthians and came across Paul’s use of the word “father” in verses 14-17. Here he referred to himself as a “father,” to the Corinthians as his “children,” and to Timothy as his “son.” Paul was not the biological father of Timothy nor the Corinthians. He called Timothy his “son in the Lord.” Here we have early written evidence of the word “father” being used for a spiritual leader.
Many Fundamentalists spend quite a bit of time dwelling on the Peter’s human frailties in order to demonstrate that Christ could not possibly have chosen him to be a leader and thus the first pope. There is probably no better (or worse) example of chopping off in the middle of the message as that used to downplay the leadership role of Peter. Much is contingent on this downplay.
In my former congregation we concerned ourselves with the fact that after Christ’s arrest Peter denied him three times. We overlooked the fact that all the disciples had claimed that they would never deny him but that all of them forsook Jesus and ran off as he had predicted they would. They were not even around to deny knowing Jesus like Peter, who at least summoned the courage to follow behind in order to keep an eye on the situation.
Much importance was given in my Fundamentalist church to how Christ asked Peter three times if he loved him. The emphasis here was that our Lord asked this question three times because Peter would thrice deny him. Christ’s commands to Peter to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep” seemed to fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. We missed the message that our Lord was entrusting his flock to Peter.
When we read how Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (Luke 22:32), our Fundamentalists minds reasoned that Christ must have had concerns about Peter. Little notice was given to our Redeemer’s following words to Peter to “strengthen your brethren.” Perhaps Christ’s concerns were as much, if not more, for the “brethren” as they were for Peter.
Over the years I heard many different explanations of what the word “rock” did or did not mean in Matthew 16:18. Fundamentalists don’t always agree on this point. Whatever their explanation, it always attempts to debunk the Catholic interpretation. Our congregation gave no significance to Christ’s words that he would give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter. There apparently was no good explanation for this statement within the framework of our beliefs, so it was disregarded.
I eventually learned that in rabbinical literature the granting of keys was symbolic of the granting of authority. We can read of this in Isaiah 22:19-23. Christ would not have said that he would give the keys of the kingdom to Peter if there were not some meaning attached. Our Lord was not prone to idle chatter.
I grew up hearing that the Catholic Church ignored much of the Bible and invented doctrine. Actually, that was a case of projection on the part of the accusers. I discovered that Catholicism embraces Scripture in its entirety. The Church existed before the New Testament writings, and these writings existed for many centuries before divisions were made and verse numbers attached. For some denominations these numbers have become barriers to the whole truth of the complete Gospel message. The Catholic Church has never allowed its members to be victimized by the process of extracting, chopping off, and interpreting in isolation.