Every time I read my kids their “Children’s Bible,” my overly analytical mind starts contemplating just how hard it is going to be to teach them all they should know about the Bible. It seems like an infinite task ahead when we are still at the (age-appropriate) point of “God created everything” and “God loves you.”
This ambiguity and complexity has made me reflect on the importance of how Christian parents approach teaching kids about the Bible. If we are not careful to teach the facts of the Bible itself, we can effectively end up teaching a specific set of our own interpretations and feelings. Consider the implications of these three classifications (facts, interpretations and feelings).
For purposes of this discussion, teaching kids Biblical “facts” means educating them on the contents of the Bible – what it says – regardless of your interpretation of or feelings regarding that content.
Much to my personal chagrin, God did not leave us with a simple bullet point document and corresponding FAQ that unequivocally explains everything we would like to know about this life and eternity. What we have instead is the Bible – a collection of writings by men inspired by God, written over thousands of years. Because of this, we are faced with the necessity of reading the scriptures with an appropriate hermeneutic (method of interpretation) given the historical, cultural, linguistic and literary context that exists.
For example, it is well known that Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). The fact, in this example, is the actual quote from Jesus in the Bible. However, few if any Christians would say it is impossible for a rich person to enter heaven, as the quote would literally imply, because we interpret what Jesus said as hyperbole used to make a point. That interpretation is universally accepted as appropriate given 1) what is known of Aramaic methods of speech and 2) what other scriptures say (salvation is based on whether or not you believe in Jesus, not on an arbitrary value of financial net worth).
There are many other cases where verses are less clear and there are multiple appropriate interpretations given the context. A study Bible typically points out these appropriate interpretations. I read a passage last night for which the study Bible gave six possible interpretations (Matthew 16:28).
Whether there is one generally accepted interpretation or many, it is important for us in our teaching to distinguish interpretation from fact. If we skip teaching the actual Bible (the actual quote from Jesus) to only convey interpreted concepts, we at best are missing an opportunity to teach our kids how to study the Bible on their own and at worst are risking teaching a wrong interpretation. Ideally, we should be reading the Bible itself with them and then discussing the possible (appropriate) interpretations. It’s the difference between teaching, “Jesus says money makes being faithful difficult” and teaching, “Here’s what Jesus actually said (quote). Here’s what that is believed to mean based on (interpretive reasons).”
As an important note, there are inappropriate interpretations of the Bible. Of course, whether your interpretation is appropriate or not is subjective. That said, here is a pretty good barometer: If you are offering an interpretation that your study Bible doesn’t have as an appropriate possibility given hundreds of years of scholarly knowledge in history, culture, linguistics, literature and the entirety of scripture, you are probably off base. If you really examine why you are interpreting something that way, it’s almost certainly because you simply want the Bible to say that, not because you really think you are interpreting what it says appropriately (or because you think others are interpreting wrong). In this case, I would suggest such “interpretations” need to be reclassified as feelings (see the next category).
Opinions that have (little or) no basis on the Bible should be explicitly acknowledged as feelings and not confused with interpretations. Feelings generally fall into three categories:
a. Feelings we form in the absence of explicit Biblical instruction.
My husband and I went through multiple fertility treatments to have our children. The Bible says nothing about fertility treatments because they didn’t exist at the time. I feel that fertility treatments, when used in an ethical manner (i.e., not destroying embryos), are consistent with God’s use of doctors for any illness. I can debate with someone passionately about my feelings in this area, but I should never purport to know the reality of how God sees it.
b. Feelings we form despite knowing that they are contrary to appropriate interpretations of the Biblical text.
A common example of this is when Christians, who believe in the Bible, say they don’t believe in hell because it simply doesn’t make sense to them. It is a fact that the Bible speaks repeatedly of hell. There are several appropriate interpretations of what the Bible says on the nature of hell (e.g., annihilation vs. eternal punishment; literal fire vs. metaphorical fire), but (to my knowledge) there are no scholarly interpretations of the Bible that propose the Biblical writers didn’t intend to claim there is a real hell or that the specific parts concerning hell happen to all be man’s error. If you don’t believe in hell (of some nature), you have to acknowledge that that is based on feeling and not on an appropriate interpretation of what the Bible actually says. (This is not intended for a debate on hell; I’m only saying that we need to be very aware of and honest about why we believe what we believe and understand the implications for Biblical education.)
c. Feelings we form thinking they are based on the Bible, but in actuality are not.
I had a conversation with someone once who said that she believes God loves everyone, and the Bible never says Jesus is the only way to salvation. When I sent her references to where the Bible actually says this, she was surprised. Her belief was based only on her feelings of what made sense and were not based on an education of Biblical facts – knowing what the Bible actually says.
To a degree, we all form some beliefs based on feelings – we simply don’t have a Bible that is 100% clear on 100% of the things we want to know. Ironically, we tend to hold even stronger to feelings than to interpretations because feelings involve an emotional reaction. For this reason, our feelings have a special danger of taking priority in what we teach our kids – because we consciously or subconsciously give those feelings an educational priority over teaching what the Bible itself says.
This is why studying the Bible itself with our kids is of utmost importance – not just teaching them Biblical “concepts”. Without a solid base understanding of what the Source of those concepts says and doesn’t say, a child will grow up with a belief system pieced together from some facts, some appropriate interpretations, some inappropriate interpretations, and lots of their parents’ feelings.
We can never provide a purely objective Biblical education. Ultimately, by necessity, everyone ends up piecing together a belief system from facts, interpretations and feelings. But I would propose that without focusing on and prioritizing the Bible itself, we end up indoctrinating kids with our own patchwork of beliefs rather than educating them on the source.