Eenie, Meenie, Miny, and the Bible

Discussing the practice of sortilege among early American settlers, Jackson Lears writes about a certain Christian reaction:

Christians condemned it, then went into competition by resorting to the Sortes Sanctorum–the use of the Bible as a means of divination, either by opening it to a random passage or rolling dice to choose chapter and verse.

This bibliomancy was never completely orthodox but almost always tolerated by canny Christian clerics who knew a way to accommodate popular magic when they saw one.
[Something for Nothing, p.31]

While we do not find much rolling of the dice to obtain Scriture guidance today, bibliomancy is rampant in churches today. Even those of us trained in how to study the Bible properly are tempted once in a while to just open the Bible and put our finger on a verse. There’s little doubt if you’ve been in church long enough that you will have heard a testimony where God has spoken to someone by letting the Bible fall open to a certain passage.

Let me be clear that I do believe with Paul that all Scripture is God-breathed, and God may speak to someone through any portion of his word. This said, I think that the practice of bibliomancy can often be more dangerous than beneficial, especially in a culture like ours that elevates instant gratification over patient endurance.

The Bible was never meant to be used in a magical way. The classic example of this fallacy is the man who, looking for a word from God, opened his Bible at random. His eyes fell to Matthew 27:5, speaking of Judas, “And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” The man needed further word from God, so opened his Bible again, this time his eyes fell to the latter part of Luke 10:37, “You go, and do likewise.

Read the Bible, but read it in context. The benefit might not always be seen immediately, but it will be more full. Let us not turn the gift of the Scriptures into a magic tool of divination.

4 thoughts on “Eenie, Meenie, Miny, and the Bible”

  1. I can think of at least two places historically, that a kind of “Sortes Sanctorum” has been used to some good effect. The first is in Acts, where they chose Judas’ replacement by prayerfully casting lots. (There is some argument that they shouldn’t have done this,that they should have waited and ordained Paul, but there’s a falacy there: Paul wouldn’t have qualified if he had been saved and in the room at the time, because he hadn’t “been with them from the beginning.”)

    The second place is in the Augustine’s Confessions:

    ….I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

    Surely Augustine’s experience was a good one.

  2. Kyle, you’ve made a couple of good points here. There’s no denying that good has resulted from such practices. The issue remains, however, as to whether we SHOULD persue these practices. A good outcome in itself does not validate a practice. Let me explain.

    Regarding the Acts passage, the casting of lots seemed to be a carry over from the the Old Testament practice of casting the Urim and Thummin. Following Acts, this practice seemed to fade–at any rate it is never prescribed for determining the will of God.

    Augustine is a bit tougher to deal with. How do you refute someone’s testimony. My answer: you don’t. God certainly used Augustine’s magical use of the Bible to convert him.

    Here we must see the redemptive work of God, and not a prescription for how to use the Bible. A gracious takes our missteps and uses them for his glory. This does not mean that our missteps do not remain missteps.

    So, while you’re right that good can come out of such practices, it remains a dangerous thing to use Scripture magically.

  3. I would say, though, that though you certainly shouldn’t prescribe it, you possibly shouldn’t proscribe it either. That is, while no one should actively seek God’s guidance in their lives by playing Bible roulette, one shouldn’t prohibit God from making use of that means if He so chooses. Otherwise, we end up with only one or two options that a sovereign and creative God can use to communicate with His people.

    What good is a God who is not intimately involved in the lives of His people?

  4. Kyle–I think I would agree with you–after all, ALL Scripture is God-breathed. He can use his word powerfully in many ways.

    My concern is that in the magical use of the Bible, the likelyhood of taking something completely out of context arises, and this is dangerous. The arbiter of meaning becomes the individual (or the place where his or her finger falls), and not the intent of the biblical writer.

    For example, if I were seeking a word from God and let my Bible open randomly to Judges 11, I might read of how Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to keep a vow to the Lord. If I didn’t read it all, or didn’t read it in the context of the entire book of Judges, I might be inclined to think this was an honorable thing Jephthah did, and may even be open to doing it myself (I realize this is an extreme example, but you get the point).

    I do realize that God is providentially involved in all we do, but bibliomancy tends often to exult the self over a providential God.

    All this to say that we should view God’s revealed word a treasured gift, and handle it with care-as Paul would say, righty dividing (not divining) the word of truth.

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