There are too many examples of theologians and pastors misusing the Bible as they talk about God and disability, making God into a small, controllable ‘force’ rather than the awesome creator and sustainer of the universe that he is.
But even the ones who identify God as sovereign and have deep regard for God’s word occasionally get it wrong.
For example, Matthew Henry, in his commentary on John 9, includes this statement about one of the benefits of Jesus healing the man born blind:
The cure of this blind man was a kindness to the public,enabling him to work for his living who before was a charge and burden to the neighbourhood. It is noble, and generous, and Christ-like, to be willing to serve the public, even when we are slighted and disobliged by them, or think ourselves so.
First of all, there is nothing in the account about Jesus doing this for the benefit of the community. The point was ‘that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:3).
Secondly, the man born blind in this accounting is a man who is articulate, bold and logical. He was a ‘burden’ not because he wasn’t capable of learning and applying a skill; he wasn’t allowed to learn a trade because of his blindness. In this case, the community created its own burden based on how it looked at disability. Matthew Henry got it almost entirely backwards in this statement.
Martin Luther takes that to an entirely different level when writing about a boy he observed in Dessau. From the description, this boy had significant disabilities – but Luther identified this boy as a changling, or a being Satan has placed in what otherwise would have been a ‘normal’ child. That is just one of many possible definitions of changeling; regardless, a changeling was considered something other than or less than human. Upon identifying this boy as a changeling, Luther is reported to have written:
So I said to the Prince of Anhalt: “If I were the Prince, I should take the child to the Moldau River whichflows near Dessau and drown him.”
Obviously, if you have read this blog for any time, we take the murder of people with disabilities very seriously. And that is exactly what Luther is advocating.
So why do I (mostly) give Matthew Henry and Martin Luther a ‘pass’ on these statements?
First, the entire body of their work demonstrates a dependency on God, belief in the scriptures as God’s word, and desire for people to know and trust this God as sovereign. Luther, in particular, is problematic on other issues as well. But his essay, On Christian Freedom, is remarkable in what it says about God, freedom, and serving the neighbor. Plus, he may not have actually written that statement above; there is some dispute about it, though it is frequently quoted and attributed to him.
Second, the Bible alone is the inspired word of God. Both men are brilliant, but their writings are not of equal value to scripture.
Third, it says something important to me about how easily culture and experience can become the framework for interpreting a situation, rather than God and his word. Both of these men were soaked in scripture in ways I can only imagine – yet Matthew Henry let that sentence about ‘burden’ slip into his commentary (rather than 1 Corinthians 12:22). And Luther seems to have forgotten Exodus 4:11, Psalm 139, the entire book of Job and John 9, among others, in talking about a changeling (if he wrote it at all).
I makes me wonder, how frequently do I let my culture and experience shape my thoughts and writings, rather than scripture? I expect more frequently than I would guess.
And it is another warning to me that when confronting bad, illogical or evil arguments, the emphasis should be on addressing the argument and not making final judgments about the people making the argument. God alone knows the heart and what he has planned for the future of that person. After all, we are all entirely evil without Jesus calling us out of darkness and the Spirit helping us.
But, if I read something where the writer has no affections for God, finds the Bible unreliable, or advocates something entirely contrary to the Word, that needs to be addressed as well. This standard feels like a very fine line in which I could err in either direction!
I know I will be putting that standard for myself to the test in the coming days, as there is a ‘new’ argument about the interpretation of John 9 that I would like to address.