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Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. 

Eugene Peterson once remarked, “Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what he has to say.”[1] Faithfully discharging such a task requires not only a host of skills—knowledge of historical backgrounds, familiarity with biblical languages, awareness of the redemptive-historical context of a given passage, etc.—but also an acquaintance with our limitations—human finitude and fallenness, along with unbiblical presuppositions and cultural biases, the latter of which impede the faithful interpretation and application of the Bible. In short, interpreting Scripture correctly is hard work.

Randolph Richards, the Provost and Chief Academic Officer of Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Brandon J. O’Brien, Director of Content Development and Distribution for Redeemer City to City, contribute to the ongoing discussion of biblical interpretation with their 2012 publication Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.

Their argument is straightforward: Interpreters do not approach the Bible as “blank slates,” but with a host of unacknowledged and/or unconscious pre-commitments, culturally conditioned assumptions, and subconscious biases that affect—and oftentimes distort—their reading of Scripture. Richards and O’Brien are highlighting a point made by philosopher James W. Sire: People think with their worldview, not about their worldview.[2] The authors offer their book as a remedy to this problem (15–16).

The volume seems intended for a popular-level audience, perhaps a freshman Bible College student just beginning his or her studies, or an interested layperson at a church. Such an observation is relevant because a reviewer must assess a book based upon the intentions of the author(s), not his or her own wishes. Given the intended audience, then, the authors cite their sources but refrain from delving into scholarly debates or arcane theological discussions.

In what follows, I lay out both the positives and negatives of the book.

The authors correctly state that Western Christians and churches privilege passages about marriage and children over against singleness and celibacy (37–40). This is unbiblical and must be corrected. Thankfully, a number of authors are beginning to address this important topic.[3] In addition, Richards and O’Brien rightly criticize Western culture’s rampant individualism (96ff.). The “Me and Jesus” mentality is endemic to American culture, as is the notion that one can have a “personal relationship” with Christ but no association with his body (110). Inasmuch as such ideas are foreign to Scripture, they must be rejected by Christians in every culture. Moreover, they appropriately chide certain segments of the American church for supporting unjust wars (184–185). While conceding that they are not pacifists, they argue that Christians should stop “writing Scripture verses on the sides of bombs” (185). (No, they do not provide documented evidence that such a practice has ever occurred.) Although they overreach at certain points and misapply Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:18, their sentiments are nevertheless akin to that of many Christians in the history of the church.[4]

Finally, I enthusiastically agree with their assertion that the best way to overcome our presuppositions and cultural blinders is to read authors of different eras and cultures.

These positives notwithstanding, I also see a number of significant shortcomings that merit attention.

Negatives (Critique)
In discussing Peter’s vision in Acts 10, Richards and O’Brien implicitly categorize the food laws in the Mosaic administration (cf. Lev. 11) as cultural mores (46–47), which then reduces the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) to a dietary quibble, rather than a doctrinal matter. A more faithful redemptive-historical[5] interpretation would regard the food laws as divinely revealed but temporal in duration.[6]

They make a similar interpretive error in their chapter on race, arguing that Rebekah was guilty of prejudice based on her reaction to the news that Jacob married a Hittite: “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Gen. 27:46). The authors write of this verse: “Rebekah’s comment is heavily laden with ethnic prejudice” (57). Not only is this unwarranted given the context, but it also assumes that the authors have access to the inner workings of Rebekah’s heart and mind. The authors, therefore, commit the “fallacy of motivation,” in their attempt to “psychoanalyze” Rebekah.[7]

A more faithful redemptive-historical interpretation would note the following:

In Genesis 26:34 we read that Isaac’s son, Esau, “married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite,” which “brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah.” Grief overwhelmed them because Esau’s decision was a deliberate rejection of Abraham’s expressed command to one of his servants in Genesis 24:3, where Abraham made him promise that his sons would not marry pagan (read: unbelieving) women, who might lead them away from God. Thus, Rebekah’s remark was not prejudicial, but theological because it was rooted in God’s covenant promise to Abraham (Gen. 12, 15, 17; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14–18). (Yes, I am aware that some people view theological beliefs as a disguised form of bigotry.) Due to the covenant promise given to Abraham, the Law of Moses later stipulated that Jewish people should not marry those from pagan backgrounds. As T. David Gordon notes, this fulfilled a specific purpose: The Mosaic covenant preserved the memory of the Abrahamic covenant and it preserved the integrity of the Abrahamic seed by prohibiting intermarriage with Gentiles.[8]

Finally, Richards and O’Brien insist that the Western instinct to prioritize rules over relationships leads them to misconstrue the gospel (164, 172–173). They write:

“[W]e sometimes exchange our relationship with the living God for adherence to static rules. This tendency shows up in our theological language. Many evangelicals describe our standing before God in terms of forensic justification. While there is nothing wrong with the doctrine, it casts our connection to God in terms of rules, not relationship” (173).

Since they do not cite a source, I am not sure what to make of the claim. Nevertheless, their charge only sticks if one divorces justification from the broader gospel blessings of adoption and union with Christ. Even at the popular level, I have not seen theologians make this mistake. For example, in his bestselling book Knowing God, evangelical stalwart J. I. Packer referred to adoption as “the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification.”[9] Additionally, an entire volume of essays by leading theologians demonstrates the exact opposite of the above assertion.[10] Admittedly, this may have been nothing more than anecdotal evidence, but a citation of sources would have been helpful.

Additionally, in their endeavor to emphasize the relational aspect over rule-keeping in one’s communion with God, they argue that vows “do not arouse love. Rules never do. . . . Even after two thousand years, we are still uncomfortable with Paul’s law-free gospel” (173). Not only is this an unhelpful way to frame the issue, but it is also theologically and historically uninformed. Given that God relates to his people by way of covenant, grace always constitutes the relationship, but law orders the relationship.[11] To be clear, for a child of God obedience to the law is not a means of justification, but rather a guide to life—the Ten Commandments still reflect the kind of life that pleases God. For this reason, the authors’ phrase “law-free gospel” cries out for clarification. In the history of theology, defenders of a “law-free gospel” were dubbed antinomians (against law). Readers are left wondering: What role does the law of God play in the Christian life? The authors fail to clear up the matter.[12]

In light of the foregoing, their appeal to Paul that Christians are to “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25) does not help either. Paul does not draw as sharp a contrast as Richards and O’Brien do. In fact, just the opposite. Paul says, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10; cf. Gal. 5:6). Thus, as much as Richards and O’Brien (along with multitudes in our culture) might chafe against the idea, “love is never said to be a replacement for law in Scripture.” Indeed, this is because “love is not self-interpreting.”[13] God tells us what love is and what love looks like.

In God’s economy, love can never be anti-law since in the new covenant God promises to write his law on the hearts of his people (Jer. 31:31–34; cf. Rom. 8:1–4). The new covenant “interiorizes God’s direction and instruction.”[14] Ferguson put it beautifully: “The Lord of the law has rewritten the law of the Lord onto our hearts by His Spirit. Empowered from within by the Spirit of the law-keeping Jesus, we love the law because we love the Lord.”[15] “Life in the Spirit,” therefore, is shaped by Scripture since one cannot justly separate the Spirit of God from the Word of God.[16]

As noted above, perhaps the authors failed to address these matters because of their intended audience. Nevertheless, when interpreting the Bible it is incumbent upon authors to faithfully attend to the whole teaching of Scripture and to maintain the proper proportion of all matters under consideration in order to produce faithful disciples who are equipped to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Since most Christians do not read scholarly books, publishing houses typically want to find trained and credentialed authors who practice “responsible popularization”—that is, authors who can popularize scholarship by making their work accessible to normal mortals like the rest of us.

My guess is that is what Richards and O’Brien attempted to do in this work. Given the weaknesses in this book, I cannot in good conscience regard this volume as “responsible popularization,” and would therefore not assign it were I teaching a class on biblical interpretation.

For my part, I would direct interested readers to the following works:

Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation.

J. Scott Duval and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible

Grant O. Osbourne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.

D. H. Williams, “The Patristic Tradition as Canon,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 32 (2005): 357–379.


[1] Eugene Peterson, “Caveat Lector,” Crux 32 (1996): 6.

[2] James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as Concept 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 143.

[3] One is Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), Ch. 3. Others are publishing books on this topic as well.

[4] See, e.g., Kirk R. MacGregor, “Nonviolence in the Ancient Church and Christian Obedience,” Themelios 33:1 (2008): 16–28. For a much more comprehensive analysis, I recommend Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), Ch. 14. Also, for evangelicals who do not make the mistakes Richards and O’Brien observe in American culture, see John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), Ch. 14. Whereas Richards and O’Brien seem to think that God governs both church and state in exactly the same way, I do not think such a line of argumentation can be sustained. See, e.g., David VanDrunen, “Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38–42,” Themelios 34:3 (2009): 322–334.

[5] By “redemptive-historical,” I mean correctly placing the passage under consideration within the unfolding drama of redemption. The context of any verse or passage in the Bible is the entire Bible. Helpful sources here are Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002); T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008); Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2012). For tracking the story in the Old Testament, I highly recommend Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 15 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003).

[6] They are temporal because the civil and ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic Law were temporal (see the entire Book of Hebrews). See further, L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, New Studies in Biblical Theology 37 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 257. The point Morales makes is that while the way of approaching God during the Mosaic administration was typological and temporary, it was nevertheless real. And in Leviticus the food laws are presented as divinely revealed, not mere cultural expressions. See also Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with An Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 109.

[7] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 135. They also seem guilty of “uncontrolled historical reconstruction” (Ibid., 130–133). The goal of biblical interpretation is not to get inside the mind of the human author, but to attend to the text of Scripture.

[8] See further, T. David Gordon, “Abraham and Sinai Contrasted in Galatians 3:6–14,” in The Law Is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, eds. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 241–242.

[9] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 206, emphasis in original.

[10] Here I am thinking of Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007). See especially Lane G. Tipton’s essay “Union with Christ and Justification.”

[11] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 138–139; Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 360; Michael Allen, “Sanctification, Perseverance, and Assurance,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 566–567.

[12] For historical context and theological analysis, I recommend Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain—Disciplinary Religion & Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). For salient observations and critique see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 529–535. At the popular level I recommend Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013). For a superb theologically informed yet pastorally sensitive treatment see Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016). In framing the matter this way, the authors reveal that they have misunderstood both the law and the gospel. As Ferguson makes clear in his book, both legalism and antinomianism are perversions of the gospel. For a shorter essay, see Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Oh How I Love Your Law,” Tabletalk 40:6 (June 2016): 17–21.

[13] Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 168

[14] Michael Allen, Sanctification, New Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 202; Michael Horton, “Obedience Is Better than Sacrifice,” in The Law Is Not of Faith, Ch. 11; Paul T. Nimmo, “The Law of God and Christian Ethics,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), Ch. 13. Since 1 John 3:4 says “Sin is lawlessness,” Robert Letham writes, “lawlessness is the absence of love. There is no antithesis between love and the law of God” (Systematic Theology, 371).

[15] Ferguson, “O How I Love Your Law,” 21.

[16] On this point Calvin is particularly helpful. See his Institutes 1. 7. 1; 1. 9. 2–1. 9. 3. This also follows from the fact that being filled with the Spirit means being controlled by the Spirit, on which see Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985), 125; Andreas J. Köstenberger, “What Does It Mean to Be Filled with the Spirit? A Biblical Investigation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:2 (June 1997): 229–240.