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“Proper” and “Rightly”: How Conservative Evangelicals Creatively Manage the Scriptures
I’ve noticed that some conservative evangelicals often use “properly” and “rightly” to manage the possibilities of the Scriptures.
For instance, in the recent interview between Tony Jones and John Chisham, John suggests that if a believer has not had an emotional collapse of self, a salvatory moment, then the legitimacy of their beliefs are open to question. It is not enough to profess Jesus’ name and believe, “we have to understand Jesus rightly” and that means being “born again” in this specific way. In another recent example, Dr. Malcolm B. Yarnell II uses “proper” on multiple occasions throughout his paper ("Shall we ‘Build Bridges’ or ‘Pull Down Strongholds’"?) to modify “understanding,” “interpretation,” and “translation.” There is a “proper understanding” of Paul’s Mars Hill sermon and it is more “confrontational” and not “dialogical,” as Brian McLaren and some others have improperly claimed.
What are the effects of the use of “proper” and “rightly”?
I’m arguing that when believers use words such as “rightly” and “proper,” they effectively split the community of believers into two camps. There are those with the “proper understanding” on the inside and there are those folk with an improper understanding on the outside. To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that splitting the community of believers into two camps is necessarily wrong or misguided. Neither do I want to suggest that splitting the community in half is necessary. My point is simply that when believers use “rightly” and “properly” they are effectively splitting the community in half.
The use of “rightly” and “proper” to split the community in half is an extra biblical practice. Chisham, for instance, refers to John chapter 3 to support his case about “rightly” understanding what it means to follow the narrow path. In response, Jones aptly points out that
Or take Yarnell as another instance. He suggests that there is one “proper understanding,” one “proper interpretation” and one “proper translation” that gets down to the bottom of Paul’s Mars Hill sermon. But, in line with Jones’ critique of Chisham, it’s important to note that Paul does not make this claim. Paul articulates the Mars Hill sermon and Yarnell creatively modifies Paul’s words. So, my point is simple: both Chisham and Yarnell appeal to extra biblical words and phrases to support their arguments and beliefs about “rightly” understanding Jesus or a “proper” understanding of Paul’s Mars Hill sermon.
Not surprisingly, as Chisham and Yarnell demonstrate, believers that use “proper” and “rightly” to split the community in half, usually situate themselves among those privileged few that have “rightly” grasped the Scriptures. In other words, both Chisham and Yarnell imagine themselves as insiders that “rightly” understand. With their “proper interpretation” practically assured, there’s little possibility of them getting it wrong or missing the point.
To rehash the three points I’ve made about using “rightly” and “proper” to manage interpretations of Scripture:
1. Using “rightly” and “proper” effectively split’s the community of believers into two camps—insiders and outsiders.
2. “Rightly” and “proper” are extra biblical means of defining belief in Jesus and Paul‘s letters.
3. Using “rightly” and “proper” are usually practices carried out by insiders and it privileges the insider’s camp over the outsider‘s camp.
So, in short, talking about “rightly” understanding some piece of Scripture or having a “proper interpretation” is a way that some conservative evangelicals manage the abundant possibilities opened up by the Holy Bible and a way that they sustain their particular visions of faith.