The Dangers of Bible Software

Five problems to avoid when studying the Bible on your Mac

by David Lang (Posted: 8/23/02)

When John Wycliffe began circulating his English translation of the Bible to the people of England, his actions were regarded as tantamount to heresy. What could be more dangerous than enabling people to read the Bible for themselves? Church officials worried that, in the hands of unschooled laypeople, the Bible might be mishandled, misinterpreted, and misapplied.

From the vantage-point of history, we now know that their fears were justified. Soon after the Protestant Reformers began printing Bibles in the language of the people, countless denominations began splintering off from one another, each with its own distinct interpretation of Scripture. A new wave of heretics started troubling the church, citing the words of the Bible as justification for their unorthodox beliefs. Ready access to the Scriptures had indeed proven to be a dangerous thing.

Today, with current advances in computer technology and the proliferation of Bible study software, the Scriptures have become more accessible than ever before. With the mere click of a mouse, it is possible to find every occurrence of a particular word or phrase, to look up the original Greek and Hebrew text, to access numerous commentaries and reference works, and to locate related passages of Scripture. We now have more information at our fingertips than most seminary-trained pastors have had in their professional libraries! And while such ready access to the Bible might seem like unmitigated progress, enabling us, like the Bereans, to test the assertions of our pastors, Bible scholars, and teachers; it can also be a dangerous thing, giving rise to all kinds of fallacious and inaccurate interpretations. Here are five tips for avoiding the dangers of Bible Software.

1. Stay in Context
One danger of Bible software is how easy it can be to take verses out of context. When you do a word search in a Bible program, you are typically presented with a list of "hits," verses in which the word or phrase you're looking for appears. If you're not careful to check the context of each verse, you can come away with some odd conclusions.

For example, suppose you search for every occurrence of the word "justified" in the New Testament. In most cases, you'll find statements like "we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Romans 3:28) and "a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:16). But you'll also find James' statement that "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Taken out of context, James appears to be flatly contradicting Paul.

On the basis of this single word search, we might conclude that a person is justified not by faith alone, but by faith and works—or perhaps by faith in some instances and by works in others. Worse still, we might go so far as to conclude that the Bible contradicts itself and cannot be trusted!

When our Bible software presents us with an isolated verse in a list of search "hits," we must be careful to read it in the light of its surrounding context. If we do not, we can come away with some wrong conclusions about what that verse means. Digging into the context of a verse means more work for the serious Bible software user, but it is necessary if we are to "correctly handle the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).

How to Find the Context of a Search Hit: 
  Accordance Use the Add Context pop-up menu of the Search window to select the number of verses you want displayed above and below each "hit" verse. Selecting "All" will show each verse in the context of the entire Bible.
  Online Bible In your list of search hits, double-click the book name of the verse you wish to see in context to open a separate window displaying that verse's chapter. Or double-click on the chapter reference of the verse to see its context in the current window. Double-clicking the verse reference in the context view toggles the window back to the hit list view.
  E-Bible Double-click a verse in the Search window to display it in the main window, then click the Whole Chapter button.
  BibleViewer Not applicable. A search in BibleViewer only finds the first instance of the word being searched for, and always displays it in context. To move to the next hit, you must choose "Find Again" or use the keyboard shortcut command-G.

2. Don't Be A Gnostic
Don't be "agnostic"? Well, that too! But I mean that we should avoid becoming a "gnostic" when it comes to our study of the Bible. The gnostics were ancient heretics who claimed to have a secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) of God, and that "secret knowledge" led them into all kinds of errors. In much the same way, as we explore the wealth of information which today's Bible software places at our fingertips, we can easily become tempted to look for "hidden pearls" of knowledge that are not readily apparent to everyone.

For example, most Bible programs available today offer some kind of insight into the original languages of Scripture. You can double-click or pass your cursor over an English word to look up its Greek or Hebrew equivalent, perform original language searches, consult a variety of Greek and Hebrew lexicons, etc. Never before have we had such unprecedented access to the original languages of the Bible.

Unfortunately, with all of this access to the original Hebrew and Greek comes a big temptation: to look to the original languages for some deeper meaning which has been lost in translation. Such an approach to Bible study can lead us into serious error.

Now, while it is certainly true that some subtle nuances like word plays, allusions, and other literary devices can sometimes lose their force in translation, in most cases the central meaning of the passage remains unaffected. If we are consulting the original languages in search of some "secret knowledge" that cannot be expressed in English, then we, like the ancient Gnostics, may end up obscuring the simple truths of the Gospel by promoting our own discoveries of "what the Bible really says."

3. Don't Trip Over the Roots
Perhaps the most common mistake we make when looking at the original languages is that we tend to focus on discovering the "root meaning" of a word rather focusing on its usage.

Sometimes, of course, discovering the root meaning of a word can help to shed light on its meaning. For example, when God saw that it was "not good" for Adam to be alone, He decided to make a "helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18). The Hebrew word translated "suitable" here is actually a compound word made up of two words meaning "like" and "opposite." Thus, the "helper" God envisioned for Adam was one who would be both like him, yet not like him; derived from him, yet distinct from him; essentially the same as him, yet significantly different as well. From this we can see that the animals which the Lord had previously brought before the man were not "suitable" because they were not enough "like" him. Conversely, another man would not have been a suitable helper because he would not have been different enough to serve as a complement to Adam. What Adam needed was a "help like-opposite him": namely, a woman.

The preceding is an example of how understanding the root meanings of Greek or Hebrew words can add depth and color to the interpretation of a passage. Notice, however, that the fundamental meaning of the passage is clearly communicated in English through words like "suitable" (NIV and NASB), "meet" (KJV), and "fit" (ESV).

It must also be remembered that any conclusions we might derive from a word's "root meaning" must be weighed against that word's usage in its historical and literary context. For example, the Greek word for "church" is ecclesia, and is derived from two words meaning "to call out." From this, we might be tempted to conclude that Jesus chose this word because He wanted to communicate the idea that His followers had been "called out" from the world.

The problem is that in Jesus' day, ecclesia was commonly used to refer to a religious "congregation" or a political "assembly," and its root meaning was probably no longer consciously considered by most people. Thus, even if Jesus did choose that word because He wanted to make a subtle theological point, the subtlety was probably lost on most of His followers, who would simply have understood him to be referring to His congregation.

Meaning, in any language, is not conveyed merely by the words that are used, but by the way those words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. If we are to make good use of the Greek and Hebrew tools available to us, we need to learn enough of those languages to discern how the same words may be used differently in different contexts. Otherwise, we would do better to compare a few English translations or to consult a good commentary (two things Bible software can also help us to do) than to look up a word in a Greek or Hebrew lexicon.

4. Check Your Sources.
Most Bible programs now offer a vast array of study aids such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries, Greek and Hebrew lexicons, topical Bibles, and cross-references, all of which enable you to get a wealth of information about the passage you are studying. It pays to remember, however, that all such reference works and study aids are written from a particular theological perspective, and it may not always be immediately clear what that perspective is. An internet search on the name of a reference work or author may be a good way to learn a little about where that work or author is coming from.

In some respects, the proliferation of Bible software has led to a rediscovery of many classic reference works. A software developer can freely publish electronic versions of public domain works without having to worry about violating copyrights or paying royalties to the original authors, so such works have become a major part of most Bible software packages. In general, I've been pleasantly surprised with how good some of these older resources really are. They typically exhibit a depth of insight and a devotional fervor which is often lacking in more modern reference works. On the other hand, the information they contain can often be quite dated, and they may cite facts or espouse theories which new discoveries and more recent scholarship have shown to be false. It's therefore always advisable to compare such works with a more modern commentary, study Bible, or lexicon.

A particularly dangerous trend I've seen in the Bible software industry of late is a tendency on the part of some developers to "revise" older, public domain works so that they can claim copyright on what is essentially a "new edition." In many cases, such revisions only amount to an update of the language; but in some cases, more substantial changes have been made, potentially altering the theological content of a work. Whenever using an "updated" or "revised" edition of a work, it may be wise to spot check a few sections of it against a printed edition of the original, just to make sure that the editors of the electronic edition have stayed true to the original and have been careful not to let their own theological biases creep in.

5. Take Your Time
There are, of course, other potential pitfalls to using Bible study software, but the most important issue is time. Will we take the time to learn how to interpret the Bible accurately, or will we use the added convenience which Bible software provides to cheat ourselves of a deeper understanding of God's Word?

Bible software has the potential to enable us to explore the Scriptures more deeply than any other generation before us. Its ability to find every occurrence of a word or phrase will help us to derive our theology from the "whole counsel of God"—provided we examine the context of every search hit. The availability of commentaries, dictionaries, and study aids from a wide range of theological perspectives, denominational backgrounds, and historical periods can broaden our horizons and help correct our tendency to see in Scripture only what we expect to see—if we take the time to examine the full range of resources available to us. You see, rather than helping us study the Bible in less time than ever before, Bible software beckons us to spend more time immersing ourselves in the Word of God, simply because it makes so much more of the Bible accessible to us.

When John Wycliffe decided to translate the Bible into English, he knew well the risks involved. He knew that ready access to the Scriptures might lead some to misunderstand and pervert the truth. Yet he also knew that centuries of keeping the Scriptures locked up behind the walls of the church had done little to prevent errors and misinterpretations from spreading. So he began to circulate his English Bible and to teach priests and laypeople alike to interpret it correctly. He believed that every Christian had the right to read the Scriptures for himself, and he was confident that the benefits of ready access to the Bible far outweighed the risks.

Similarly, while the use of Bible software certainly has its risks, the answer is not to avoid using it, but to learn how to use it properly. As our Lord Himself said, "from everyone who has been given much shall much be required" (Luke 12:48, NASB). If we have been given greater access to the Scriptures than anyone else in history, then we have a responsibility to make sure we are interpreting them correctly. We need to use the software tools available to us not as shortcuts, but as a powerful means of deepening our understanding of God and His Word, of building up the body of Christ through sound doctrine, and of spreading the gospel in all its fullness throughout a sinful and fallen world.