3 Bad Things Happen When We Oversimplify Scripture

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I am obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.”

I’m late to this bandwagon – I know.  Even Miranda has cut his ponytail and moved on, but too bad.  I am struck anew at phrases from his musical that come at me as biblical life lessons.  Like George Washington’s reply to Hamilton’s idea of dying like a martyr, “Dying is easy, young man.  Living is harder.”

We get it.  Not the dying part, which we know is hard, but the living part, which is regularly more than most of us can get our heads around.

Believers have been known to tackle the complicated task of living life by tossing everybody’s thoughts to later.  Heaven!  Just you wait!

The problem is, “just you wait” is a bit of an oversimplification & not really how the story of Scripture goes.  The afterlife does have a big storyline in Scripture, but it is set against a backdrop of a lot to do and think and see and experience about God while living right now.

Oversimplifying the Bible is nothing new.  However, I’ve noticed, it makes the hard task of living life just a little bit…worse.

Problem #1 with oversimplifying Scripture: It switches a Scripture that is directed at believers to a running diatribe directed at a nebulous culprit called “the world.”

That is not to say we are to conform to the patterns of this world (Romans 12:2).  The God of Scripture endorses righteous behavior, but that often looks funny.  Like forefather Judah, who got his comeuppance when his daughter-in-law, Tamar, was brave and shoved it in his face that he’d been a narcissistic hypocrite and she wasn’t going to take it lying down.

Judah’s response?

He acknowledged his wrongdoing.  He acknowledged that Tamar was telling is like it should be told.  “She is more righteous than I am,” he said (Genesis 38:26).

This was Judah, a meant to be Biblical good guy through whom would come the lineage of Jesus Christ.  Yet, three pages pre-Tamar, Judah had been shoving his brother Joseph (minus his Technicolor coat) into a well.

Scripture is not an us v. them kind of book.  As Scripture tells, it is our toddler egos that are a big part of the world’s problem.  However, as Scripture goes, we are also part of the solution.

Problem #2 with oversimplifying Scripture: it over allegorizes the historical, or over historicizes the allegorical.

The business of which bits of the Bible are historical and which are allegorical is not an easy one to tackle.  Committed, educational sites with a high view of Scripture, like Biologos.org, are great resources.  That said, we need to edify our way through this one.

This just so happened to me the other day while listening to a podcast where an Old Testament scholar said it would be okay to say the Old Testament is allegorical.  Like, pretty much the whole thing.  

Then he told about a personal time of turmoil for his daughter and her wish for a sidebar balm (a yellow Livestrong bracelet).  However, the bracelets had become oddly impossible to find.  They had once been everywhere, where had they all gone?  The story came to a dramatic finish when a dinner guest, rather miraculously and out of his own personal stash, gave to the scholar the elusive bracelet. 

In fact, the dinner guest gave the scholar more than one bracelet.  Maybe it was five.  Maybe the scholar was the dinner guest, not the other way around.  Maybe I have a detail wrong, but I do know one thing: that bracelet story was personal, concrete, and not an allegory.

Even for a guy who might oversimplify the Old Testament into an allegorical column, that scholar does not want that oversimplification applied to his own life.  Why?  One reason.  It makes untrue something that is true.

None of us want anyone over allegorizing our personal story, our history.  God doesn’t either.  That said, it is not easy to read where Scripture history starts and allegory finishes.  That brings us to problem #3.

Problem #3 with oversimplifying Scripture: God wrote it this way.

Not simple.  The God of the Scripture wrote a not particularly simple Scripture.  Which does not undermine that His mission is simple: I, God, come for you, my created people, for one reason.  Love.  

But the carrying out of that mission, the living of life - that has not been written simply, likely because life is not simple.  How are we to tackle Scripture such that we do not fall into temptation of oversimplifying it?  

Take it one page at a time.  Meet with friends.  Discuss.  Step out.  Try.  Fail.  Try again.  Believe.  Learn.  Doubt.  Ask.  This is not how a religion is borne.  It is how a relationship is borne.  The Scripture purports a living God who insists on relationship over religion at what seems to be (and this is the clincher) at His own expense.  

He repeatedly puts Himself in a position in which He is vulnerable to people rejecting Him.

Miranda’s line for George Washington does nail something on the head when he reports that living is harder, because let’s face it, this process leads to one ego blow after another to God.  

Yet, God keeps coming for the human race anyway, persisting such that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9), devising ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from Him (2 Sam 14:14).

Life is hard, though it does come with the gifted opportunity to praise.  “Death cannot praise you…it is the living – the living, they praise you, as I am doing today.” (Is 38:18)

Living is harder.  So is building a relationship rather than a religion.  What kind of God goes to all that bother?  

One that is real.


Janelle Alberts writes pithy pieces that usually feature a bit of Scripture you've never heard, but wish you had. Knowing things like even Noah got tipsy & embarrassed his kids can help a girl rally to the end of the day. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. Find out more about Alberts here.