Speaker Mike Johnson’s Biblical Interpretation Problem - Word&Way

Speaker Mike Johnson’s Biblical Interpretation Problem

The new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, brought his Bible with him for his first speech as Speaker where he expressed his belief that all members of Congress are called by God to serve the American people. But what grabbed my attention most was the lesson he had to teach about reading Scripture. To understand his worldview, Mr. Johnson told Fox News host Sean Hannity that people can simply “go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.”

Rodney Kennedy

Where does one start in dissecting this simplistic approach to the Bible? Mr. Johnson sounds like one of those people who brag, “When I have a question, I open my Bible, put my finger on a verse, and do what it tells me to do.” I can’t think of a worse way to employ the Bible as the daily guide for life and faith. What if you open to the story of David forcing Bathsheba to have sex with him? Or the text that instructs parents to stone disobedient children to death? Such an approach would be like driving your Mercedes through the streets of Atlanta at a high speed with no knowledge of traffic signs.

When I heard Mr. Johnson say, “pick up a Bible,” I imagined my 12-year-old self at the Louisiana Baptist Convention State Sword Drill competition. The leader would say, “Draw swords.” He was, of course referring to the hardback black Bible that each contestant had in his or her possession. He would then announce a verse of Scripture for the contestants to find in 8 seconds or less. For example, “Hosea 1:2.” Then he would say, “Charge.” The Word of God is referred to as a “sword,” hence the name “Sword Drill.” I surmise we were being trained to be “soldiers in God’s army.”

Not a Magic Book

Without hesitation, I followed the instructions of Mr. Johnson. I picked up my Bible and opened it. Holding my black leather NRSV in my hand, I didn’t get any direct messages about a worldview or how to live my life. I remembered President Trump picking up a Bible in front of an Episcopal Church in Washington, D. C., and waving it around for no particular reason other than attempting to give divine sanction to the use of illegal police action against peaceful protestors.

Mr. Johnson’s advice and Mr. Trump’s actions leave me with the suspicion that people still associate something magical with a Bible or a holy man. We don’t seem to have changed much since Naaman the leper cried, “‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”

Reading Difficult Texts

I opened my Bible to Deuteronomy 9:1 – 3: “Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan today, to go in and dispossess nations larger and mightier than you, great cities, fortified to the heavens, a strong and tall people, the offspring of the Anakim, whom you know. You have heard it said of them, ‘Who can stand up to the Anakim?’ Know then today that the Lord your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.”

Here are instructions from God to destroy all the Canaanites in the land. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis says, “Certainly for contemporary readers of the Bible, one of the gravest ethical problems posed by the Old Testament is the Deuteronomic party line ‘The only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.’”

Does God command the killing of all Canaanites? The answer is no! In fact, as the capture of the Promised Land proceeds, all the Canaanites that we meet are “good Canaanites.” Rahab, the Jericho prostitute, is the first person to declare faith in Israel’s God within the Promised Land. So the biblical narrative doesn’t command the death of all Canaanites. We have to do more than read a passage and do what it says if we are to understand what is at stake in reading the Bible.

New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan offers helpful guidance:

Let’s give Mr. Johnson’s recommendation another chance. Turn to the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler. Jesus says to the rich young ruler in Mark 10:21, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mark records the rich guy’s response: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Hermeneutics Required

According to Mr. Johnson’s instructions, we are not supposed to check any sources, find any other interpretations, or ask our pastor if Jesus really means this. We are supposed to read what the Bible says and do it. In a nation that worships at the church of Wall Street and serves the god of Mammon, there’s no chance of Jesus’s teachings about money becoming a worldview.

Mr. Johnson has missed some lessons in hermeneutics. Scripture is not self-interpreting or plain in its meaning. What has occurred is that he has been trained by Southern Baptist pastors to read the Bible without spiritual transformation. He has been taught to read the Bible as a democratic citizen who thinks his common sense is all he needs to know what Scripture says. The Bible he reads becomes not the “word of God” but the ideology for a politics quite different from the teaching of the Church.

Mr. Johnson is also beset with the problem that he is part of a faith tradition that places great emphasis on the inerrant, literal truth of the Bible as well as the authority of the Bible. In this understanding, the Bible is so clear that a reader doesn’t need any other textbook. Here is the question that dogs Mr. Johnson’s reasoning: If the Bible is at once so clear as the source of doctrine, why are Christians divided over how to interpret it? Either we must admit to a limitation in some form of the principle of “Pick up a Bible and read it,” or accept that the numerous denominations and sects with all their diverse and deviant readings are the true form of the Christian life.

Guidelines for Reading Scripture

Since Johnson brought his Bible to the House, I want to offer him a few guidelines for reading Scripture.

  • Take Scripture seriously but not literally. Ethical consciousness over the centuries has led the church to read the Bible in new ways.
  • Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the original intent of the author.
  • Scripture has diverse and different readings in different times, places, and churches.
  • Faithful reading of the Scripture takes place in the community of faith — the Church.
  • Ultimately, we read the Scriptures not to decide that it says exactly what we already believe, but to read the Bible confessionally with an openness to repentance, to changing our minds.

Walter Brueggemann offers us a cautionary lesson: “I do not believe that the Bible points directly to any political policy or action … I believe that, at the most, the Bible (a) can frame questions in the public sector according to the will and purpose of God as that will and purpose have been discerned in the church in a long, interpretive tradition and (b) can provide specific materials that may evoke and tilt our imagination in one direction or another. Thus I do not believe that one can make direct moves toward or connections with contemporary issues, even though we — liberals and conservatives — keep trying to do just that.”

Our approach to reading the Bible requires a deep sense of humility, the recognition that we may be wrong, and a willingness to change. As Ellen Davis puts it, “The Scriptures are chock-full of embarrassing, offensive, and internally contradictory texts, texts we do not wish to live with, let alone live by.”

Good luck to the new Speaker of the House in reading his Bible to learn how to handle his band of Republican rebels.


Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His seventh book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).