Often, in office conversations, in letters to the editor, in calls to radio talk shows and in many other forums, including religious TV broadcasts, people pronounce the decisive judgment on some hot-button issue like this:
"Well, the Bible says (fill in the blank)!"
Usually this includes, literally, a book-chapter-and-verse citation.
For such coworkers-writers-callers-preachers, such a citation ipso facto settles the matter, whatever that matter might be.
I quoted the Bible; you are trumped; the discussion is over.
Those of you on the receiving end of such conversation-stoppers may ask yourselves, as you scratch your heads: Why does this person think that, by referring to some ancient Middle Eastern text, he's quashed all possible debate?
Allow me to try to explain both sides of this miscommunication.
These appeals to Scripture mainly come from evangelical Protestants, among whom I consider myself a practitioner. I was raised a traditionalist Baptist.
Millions of us got our teeth cut on the doctrine of sola scriptura.
This isn't some nutty, Bible-Belt, cult thing. It's a venerable doctrine that dates back hundreds of years, to Europe and the Protestant Reformation.
It means, loosely, "only Scripture."
That is, for lots of Christians, the Bible is God's direct, divine word. It serves as the supreme arbiter of all matters regarding faith, morals and the like.
A popular catchphrase among people who adhere to this doctrine is, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it."
For such Christians, if the Bible says something, if it's stated plainly in black-and-white, then it's the Truth — capital T.
Again, this view is neither loony nor fanatical.
It's not, in itself, dangerous (although all dearly held religious or secular tenets can, theoretically, turn dangerous in the wrong hands).
Over the past 500 years, a great deal of good has resulted from sola scriptura.
I'm among its beneficiaries, even if I no longer fully embrace the teaching. I'm grateful. Biblical proficiency is an awesome tool to possess, for all manner of reasons.
I urge everyone to give Bible quoters the benefit of the doubt. As it were.
On the flip side, those of you who believe in sola scriptura get equally confused by your neighbors. You scratch your heads as well.
You think: I told this person exactly what the Bible says about this issue (gay marriage, abortion, commercial zoning, solid waste removal). Why is she still arguing? There are several possible explanations.
First, a lot of people, including some who like the Bible, view it as a massive, verbal, inkblot test that can, pretty much, be made to say anything you want it to say.
Even when you quote a passage directly, it's hard for them — or you, in all honesty — to know whether you've divined that passage's true meaning, in its proper context, or whether you're trying to justify some personal preoccupation of yours.
Second, those who accept sola scriptura can fail to recognize that the great majority of their fellow Christians, historically and currently, have not believed in, and do not today believe in, that doctrine.
For instance, Episcopalians, Methodists and other mainline Protestants tend not to see the Bible as the sole, unalterable expression of God's will and wisdom. They balance the Scripture alongside additional measures such as tradition, experience and reason.
Roman Catholics, the world's largest Christian group, place more emphasis on the seven sacraments, such as baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist and so forth. Pentecostals, the second-largest Christian subdivision, rely less on the Scripture as their ultimate authority, because they believe God is still actively, progressively speaking to his children every day.
All these groups have their own honorable reasons for believing as they do.
Third, among the growing ranks of Americans who don't follow Christianity, who embrace other faiths or, increasingly, no faith at all, Christian texts wield no authority.
For these folks, a quote from St. Paul means about as much as if you'd appealed to the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
However well intentioned you might be, then, those of you who cite the Bible as your proof for some point may find yourselves talking past your intended hearers.
So, to the one side I'd say, don't dismiss Bible quoters as crackpots. They're not. (OK, a few are.) Mainly, they're speaking from a long, rich and laudable tradition.
To Bible citers I'd say, you're not doing your argument much good. Appealing to Scripture may communicate well within your church, which is fine and dandy. It may warm your heart.
But if you're interested in debating in the marketplace of ideas, if you hope to make a persuasive point there, you might consider a different approach.