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Monday, June 14, 2021

A Bad Analogy: The Bible As A Jigsaw Puzzle?

Banned by HWA has pointed out the continuing fascination of many Armstrongites with Herbert Armstrong’s magnum opus, Mystery of the Ages. For many of us who have escaped the clutches of the cult, however, that book is now regarded as “Exhibit A” in the case against Armstrongism! In the book, Mr. Armstrong purports to reveal seven “mysteries” which have been hidden in plain sight in the pages of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures for about 1.900 years! For Herbie, the Bible was a coded book – a giant jigsaw puzzle just waiting for the right person to come along and put the pieces together to reveal God’s picture (and he believed that person was him).

In the “Author’s Statement” at the beginning of the book, Armstrong explained: “The revelation of these mysteries was lost, even to the Church of God, although the revelation of them has been preserved in the writings of the Bible. Why, then, has the world not clearly understood? Because the Bible was a coded book, not intended to be understood until our day- in this latter half of the twentieth century. I learned, in this night-and-day study, why it is the most misunderstood book, even though it is the world’s best-seller. The full explanation or truth of any one subject is seldom made complete and clear in any one passage. Other portions, factors, or phases of the subject are usually contained in one or several other passages in other parts of the Bible either in the Old or New Testament. A true and full understanding of this subject is profitable only when these perhaps several other passages, scattered throughout the Bible, are put together.”

He continued: “I learned that the Bible is like a jigsaw puzzle - thousands of pieces that need putting together - and the pieces will fit together in only one way. Then the picture becomes crystal clear to the one willing to believe what God our Creator says. This present book merely puts the many pieces of the great puzzle together so they can be clearly understood.”

In my opinion, these assertions about the Bible being a “coded book” and being “like a jigsaw puzzle” are the keys to both understanding the phenomenon of Armstrongism and disproving its teachings. Sure, we can go through all seven of the “mysteries” and demonstrate how this or that statement doesn’t mesh with Scripture. It is, however, much easier to show that Mr. Armstrong’s foundational analogy (the Bible as a puzzle) is deeply flawed and was the basis for all of the erroneous teachings contained in his writings (including Mystery of the Ages). The “plain truth” is that Mr. Armstrong’s analogy is a bad one!

If the Bible is a jigsaw puzzle, then why are there so many different ways of putting it together? Mr. Armstrong said that the pieces only fit together one way, but the reality of the number and variety of interpretations of that book makes a mockery of that notion. What happens when we find a piece in Mr. Armstrong’s puzzle that was misplaced (or are Mr. Armstrong’s followers suggesting that his writings are inerrant?)? Is it possible that Herbert Armstrong put the pieces together based on his notion of what the finished picture should look like? What happens when we find extra pieces – pieces that don’t fit into Armstrong’s mosaic? And what about all of those generations of Christians who didn’t put the puzzle together – the ones who lived before Mr. Armstrong figured it all out?

The fact is that Mr. Armstrong’s notions about using proof texts to demonstrate the validity of some teaching is NOT a reliable or even desirable way to interpret Scripture. Like many modern Christians, Mr. Armstrong’s approach to biblical interpretation was grounded in a Fundamentalist and Literalist view of Scripture. And, although most of those “Traditional” Christians would understandably distance themselves from what they perceive to be the “heresies” of Armstrongism, the fact is that the underlying premise which they all share is based entirely on flawed HUMAN reasoning! In short, the notions that Scripture never contradicts itself, is free of any error, should always be understood literally and interprets itself are ALL based on false assumptions (which also contradict what those writings have to say about themselves).

The human reasoning behind this method of interpretation goes something like this: 1) Since God inspired the writings which we call the Bible, He is the real author of everything contained in them (the role and contributions of the human authors is thus minimized or eliminated altogether); 2) Because God is infallible, everything in Scripture must also be infallible; 3) Since God is not the author of confusion, Scripture must never offer contradictions, inconsistencies or alternative interpretations; 4) Hence, there must be only one correct way to understand each passage of Scripture (which must harmonize with what other passages dealing with the same subject teach us).

The flaws inherent in this line of reasoning should be immediately apparent to all of us: 1) Scripture was always a joint venture between human and Divine (and the human part of that equation is NOT infallible); 2) God’s infallibility is a Divine trait which is not transferable to humans (even to those acting under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit – witness your own experiences as a Christian); 3) God may not be the author of confusion, but humans are pretty good at it; 4) Hence, it is illogical to assume that there must be only one correct way to understand each passage of Scripture (and it isn’t necessary to impose a harmony on those passages which doesn’t exist in reality).

In short, the image of a bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered over a table does not mesh very well with the reality of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The truth is that better analogies are available to us in describing the Bible.

Given the variety of the styles and perspectives expressed by the human authors of Scripture, an art museum is probably a much better analogy for understanding the Bible. The museum is a harmonious whole in that it is a collection of artistic interpretations of various subjects/themes. It is also possible to see the inspiration of the artist in every piece and to understand that each work will mean both similar and different things to each and every person who is viewing them. Moreover, we know that interpreting and appreciating the various works of art is greatly enhanced by some knowledge of the artist, who/what influenced them and the times in which they worked.

For others, comparing the Bible to a tree may be more meaningful. It is certainly consistent with what is revealed in those writings (and with what many of us have experienced of them) to compare them to a living organism. Like Scripture, these folks may see the tree as a single organism, but also understand that each leaf is unique and different. Likewise, they may equate the addition of branches and growth rings over the lifetime of the organism as being analogous to the way that Scripture came together over time. In similar fashion, the way that trees are damaged over the course of their lifetimes by storms, animals, insects, fungi and other things may have profound meanings for these folks relative to their understanding and experience of the Bible.

At any rate, we should all be able to see that the jigsaw puzzle analogy doesn’t hold up well under closer scrutiny. Scripture has meant many different things to many different people down through the centuries, and the notion that there is only one correct way to put it all together is frankly absurd!


  1. Miller:

    Good analysis. I used to be a literalist years ago. But, for me, it was a nerve wracking position to hold. I was always fearful that someone was going to find something in the Bible that was inexplicable and the house of cards would tumble down. And they did find things. Many things. Things that I could not insulate myself from if I really wanted to know the Bible.

    I finally came to understand that the Bible is not a perfect engineering text but is rather a human curated document. Like Peter Enns said, "God let his children tell the story." And I had to face the issue that I had no right to insist to God that he produce a document with my set of specifications if the document were to be believable.

    Coming to deal with the Bible as God permitted it to be curated is an internally revolutionary experience - one that many people do not want to undergo. But once you deal with this, with the help of God, you realize that life isn't about God meeting our expectations but about our meeting his expectations. As it turns out, what he ultimately wants for us is also what we want if we consider carefully.

    HWA created an egocentric interpretation of the Bible. How he handled the Bible is a testimony to his personal idiosyncrasy. In his world, nobody could challenge his interpretation because he was the only person whom God permitted to understand the Bible. This is a stunning viewpoint that denies what the Bible itself says. And his view collapses for its inconsistency. Yet Armstrongists don't want to face it.

    I am always intrigued by the Armstrongist responses that appear on "Banned by HWA." They don't want to confront the issues. They strike me as people who hide in the dark because they fear the daylight. They don't want to face the fact, for instance, that Jesus abrogated the OT. It gives me an uneasy feeling to read some of their ideas. It's like listening to someone who is delusional. Full of sound and fury.

    I regard the Bible as being incarnational - a term introduced by Dr. Peter Enns. It was made to live in our world - a world of flawed humanity. Which is in conflict with the idea of The Bible Code. There are people who use computers to apply skip sequences to the Biblical text in order to come up with hidden messaging in the Bible. How does that work when you don't know what translation to use? Or which Hebrew manuscript? A mistake of one letter would throw off all the skip sequencing. And if the Bible reflects human curation, which it does, how does this human "ornamenation" get factored into the skip sequencing algorithm? According to the sequencers, Trump was supposed to win in 2020. Odd the way that the Bible Code seems to align with the politics of the decoder. Just like HWA's decoding oddly reflected HWA and his times.


    * Click on my moniker for Disclaimer

    1. Thanks, I completely agree with "God let his children tell the story." The Fundamentalist/Literalist approach to Scripture sets one up to experience cognitive dissonance, confrontational and argumentative apologetics and failure. As you suggested in your remarks, the Bible may not be what we expected or wanted, but it is what we got!