In RC Sproul’s class called Knowing Scripture, in lesson 4, “Literal Interpretation,” Sproul taught against a certain popular method of decision making he calls “lucky dipping.”
In this method, when the believer wants to hear from God or wants to make a decision, they ask God to lead and guide them, and then they open the book and let their finger or their eye fall on a particular passage. They read the passage and then rest on it as their “answer” to their problem. Sproul said that this is a spiritualistic method of interpretation that rips verses from the Bible’s context. He said,
“God did not inspire passages of Scripture many years ago to tell us answers totally unrelated to the literal meaning originally intended. God does use Scripture to speak to us, but the message is always consistent with the literal interpretation.” Sproul, Knowing God
He gave an example of a hypothetical believer who asked God to lead him. He opened his Bible and read Matthew 27:5, ‘And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.’
The audience laughed. Sproul went on. He said that the person didn’t like the ‘answer’ at all, muttering ‘That can’t be right’. He repeated, ‘Lord, lead me’, and opened the Bible and dipped again, landing on Luke 10:37. “You go and do likewise.”
Sproul’s exaggerated example reveals the ridiculousness of using the Bible like a Magic 8 Ball.
I think we can all agree that dipping is unwise and we should avoid it. Sometimes when pastors preach exclusively in the topical method, they can tend to ‘lucky dip’, too. Not that they use it as a method for finding personally tailored advice, but as a method for coming at the scriptures with a topical agenda in mind.
But if topical preaching is the main method of preaching and teaching, rather than expositional verse-by-verse, then a lazy tendency can creep in. Sometimes the leader can handle the scriptures carelessly, selecting different verses from different Testaments or different literary genres to support their point. With a careful pastor who normally exposits, occasional topical preaching can be fine or even necessary. Sometimes the congregation needs clarity on an issue, especially if there has been a national or local tragedy, or if there has been a particular problem in the membership that is causing confusion or division.
But if a teacher or pastor continually preaches topically, then lucky dipping could become a problem. If the pastor doesn’t take the care that’s necessary, the sermon could simply become a mere listing of of verses disconnected from the overall argument.
And back to the original statement about laymen doing the lucky dip. If a pastor or teacher teaches topically all the time, taking verses from here, there, and everywhere, or worse, from all different translations in order to support the topic, he or she is actually teaching his congregants to lucky dip. With less training than the teacher, the church member might say, ‘Well, he/she goes all over the place with the verses, it must be OK if I do too’. And then you wind up with people who might eventually use the scriptures as a Magic 8 Ball, divining God’s will or manipulating His word to make it say what it doesn’t say.
It’s admittedly easier to open the Bible and find the one verse that will seem to help for the moment, rather than setting down to carefully study a passage in context. That is why a lazy tendency can creep in. Resist that. And resist following teachers who do that all the time. The Bible is God’s own word to humankind, the only supernatural message we have ever received with purity and unimpeachable truth. Handle with care.
I argue that the primary reason we misinterpret the Bible is not because the Holy Spirit has failed to do His work, but because we have failed to do ours. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith by R. C. Sproul