Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cherry Picking

Earlier this month I received an email from a Thinking Friend about cherry picking. He said that he prefers “the Greatest Common Denominator” in spiritual traditions.
Then he wrote, “Does this make a ‘cherry picker’ of me? But even when I was exclusively Christian, I exercised discernment regarding the Bible, as you do. Of course I cherry pick! I want the ripe, not the unripe and rotten.”
Good point.
But is it legitimate to cherry pick when deciding which verses in the Bible, or which parts of a religion’s doctrinal statements, to accept or reject?
Cherry picking can certainly be used illegitimately. It is listed as one type of fallacious argument—and it is sometimes. But not all cherry picking is wrong or fallacious.
Consider this example.
As most of you have heard, Adrian Peterson, the star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, was indicted earlier this month on charges of reckless or negligent injury to his four-year-old son. He is accused of beating his son repeatedly.
But Peterson’s child abuse indictment has led to some people to hold up for spanking or switching children.
Corporal punishment of children has long been considered as divinely sanctioned by many conservative, “Bible-believing” Christians. After all, the Bible says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, / but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24, NIV).
The oft-quoted words “spare the rod and spoil the child,” though, don’t come directly from the Bible. They are from a 17th century poem by Samuel Butler.
Still, the admonition in Proverbs is taken quite seriously by many. But what about Deuteronomy 21:18-21?
That passage says, “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him,” they are to take him to the elders and then “all the men of his town are to stone him to death.”
Thank goodness for cherry picking!
Many other examples could be given of Bible verses that even the staunchest fundamentalists do not take seriously.
There are, however, many examples of Bible verses that fundamentalists do take literally but which “moderates” (or “liberals”) do not consider normative for contemporary Christians.
One example, of many that might be given, is 1 Corinthians 14:34, which says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (NIV)
Is there any justification for cherry picking and downplaying that verse? And if so, what?
A person’s theological understanding is the basis for determining which Bible verses to follow and which to all but ignore.
Accordingly, as a seminary teacher I long stressed, but perhaps not strongly enough, that systematic theology is more important than biblical studies.
Sound exegesis on the basis of a thorough grasp of Hebrew and/or Greek is important—but not the most important.
Biblical study in and of itself cannot determine which verses/passages are normative. That is the job of systematic theology, formed perhaps by use of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”
That unwieldy term refers to John Wesley’s methodology that said the four sources for theological development are scripture, tradition, experience and reason.
Of those four, scripture is the most, and tradition the least, important. But together they form a good basis for constructing a view of God, humankind and the world that, in turn, helps one interpret and apply the Bible correctly.
So it’s not really cherry picking after all. Rather, it’s theological understanding that guides us in affirming some Bible verses while giving little weight to others.


  1. Well said, Leroy! Every Christian should read this piece. And thanks for the insight that theology is more important than biblical studies. I hadn't thought like that before, and it makes sense. The only minor quibble I would have is with trying to rank the items in the quadrilateral as though they're separate. I'm reasonably sure you'd agree that the four are not separable, but the quadrilateral sensitizes us to the greater cultural whole in which we all live and think.

    1. Thanks for reading this morning's blog article and for commenting--and I also much appreciate you linking to it on your Facebook page.

      The four parts of the quadrilateral may not be separable, but they are distinct aspects that are weighted differently by the various Christian groups (or by individuals).

      Long before, and after, the 16th century the Catholic Church placed greatest emphasis on holy tradition. Beginning with Martin ("sola Scripture") Luther, Protestants over the last five centuries have placed greatest emphasis on the Bible. With the ascendancy of the Enlightenment worldview, liberal Protestants began putting more and more emphasis on reason until it became the most prominent aspect, and then from early in the 20th century, for example, Pentecostals placed primary emphasis on experience.

      So while the four may not be separable, they are seldom equally emphasized--although Wesley (and many others in various denominations) probably thought he had reached a good balance of the four.

  2. I was raised on pick and choose version of the infallible, literal Bible. Still, I don't trust my hermaneutics (especially from my reasoning or experience), so I will stick with giving weight to tradition while listening to others offer their abberations.

    (Just last night we had a Bible study written by a postmodern branch of the Church. A very interesting discussion, but also some positive application for life.)

    1. As church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." That is one reason I don't place so much weight upon tradition.

      In addition, while the first seven ecumenical councils, recognized both by the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, certainly dealt with important issues facing the church then, they didn't (couldn't) deal with many of the most important issues facing the Church and us Christians in the 21st century.

      While there certainly many contemporary aberrations, surely there are some who speak truth in the present time as present issues are dealt with.

      Also, Biblical hermeneutics, or doctrinal development on the basis of experience or reason), doesn't have to be done--and probably shouldn't be done--by oneself. That should all be done as part of the community of faith, that includes the past as well as the present.

  3. Comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "That is well thought out, Leroy. No group needs to hear it more than Baptists. We have found support for awful views by proof-texting (which is what "cherry-picking" means) without reason, tradition and experience to guide us.

  4. From Thinking Friend Patrick Crews, who is moving from Arizona to California:

    "For me my relation to scripture is as that Zen proverb of the "finger pointing to the Moon." It's a compass showing me the direction of spiritual north. Temporary deviations simply call me to be in alignment with the field myself.

    "Scripture records the process and progress of others on the spiritual pilgrimage. Sometimes they strayed from The Path, but on the whole we can follow the direction they are traveling.

    "For people who expect absolute certainty, this approach isn't satisfying. But I consider it essential to the spiritual life. Learning Spiritual Discernment is essential."

  5. Here is part of an email received from a local Thinking Friend:

    "No mater how you slice or dice it, cherry picking by definition is cherry picking, i.e. selecting from a very old book of stories and twist it to say what you want it to say through intellectual study or through common sense or pretending to know exactly what the past authors were thinking. . . . Perhaps our focus should be more in the present and the future than the past. Not that we can't learn from the past. I prefer now. "

    1. "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12).

      If I say that these words attributed to Jesus should be a primary guideline that people should try to live by, which I believe is true, you might call that cherry-picking for there are many other verses in the Bible that I do not consider useful as guidelines for living.

      But how is taking these words at face value, which is what I think ought to be done, twisting them to say what I want? And wouldn't trying to live by these words make quite a difference in the present and the future?

  6. A Thinking Friend in Washington (state) wrote:

    "Doubtless some will consider scripture as simply part of tradition and not privilege it!"

    While that may be true, Christian "tradition" usually refers to developments after the church was formed and the Bible written. Moreover, much of the tradition was developed by those who did privilege scripture.

  7. I much appreciate these comments by local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your wise comments.

    "I am sometimes amused by Christians who try to defend everything the Bible says. This is simply not necessary. In Romans 10:9-13, Paul says that anyone who believes in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, and confesses as much with his or her mouth, will be saved. With a genuine faith, the life of a Christian will be guided by the Holy Spirit. In Romans 10:4, Paul says that Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. Paul defines righteousness as the fruits of the spirit, which he lists elsewhere.

    "So what a Christian needs to defend is not every word in the Bible, but rather the resurrection of Jesus, an event to which the Bible is a witness. By focusing on defending the Bible rather than the resurrection and the faith to go with it, Christian apologists fall into the trap of Bibliolatry. They confuse the event with its reporter.

    "So cherry picking is certainly legitimate except for the resurrection and for faith in the power of God to save. The Bible can be helpful, but it is simply a witness to greater things."

  8. Another local Thinking Friend wrote,

    "Of the Wesleyan reflective assessments, I think reason is the most reliable. If a position is unreasonable, it negates the viability of the others. Considering the reasonable dimension of a particular methodology is not the same as being a thoroughgoing rationalist."

    1. But what is considered reasonable (or unreasonable) depends on one's "Weltanschauung," so some who reject Christian faith altogether, such as the New Atheists, do so because they think theirs is the only reasonable position.