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.”
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.