Have you ever noticed how many different interpretations of the Bible there are in the church? There are Calvinists and Arminians, supersessionists and dispensationalists; there is sprinkling and immersion, and there is infant baptism and believer’s baptism. How can we know what the Bible really teaches? Who really knows who is right and who is wrong? More importantly, how can we recognize the truth when we see it and be confident we are not being led into error?
This is an extremely important question, and if you do not have a good answer to it, you may be susceptible to false teaching. Ultimately, most church going Christians believe the way they do because their religious tradition teaches it. If a spiritual leader has a false doctrine, there is a good chance it will be passed on to his disciples. Although we claim our doctrines come straight from the Bible, more often than not, they come straight from the people who taught them to us. Of course, these people assure us that their teachings are derived from Scripture, but the church down the street disagrees with them, and they claim the same biblical support for their beliefs. Someone must be wrong. How can we recognize error when we hear it and be sure that our doctrines are true?
Before I answer that question, let me make clear that we all are flawed in our understanding of Scripture. Of course, we think we are perfect in our doctrines or else we would not believe them. But I have never met a person who agreed with me n every point of doctrine. Probably, there are no two people in the world with identical beliefs in every point and it would be arrogant for anyone to assume to be the only person in the world with perfect doctrine. Therefore, one of our goals in interpreting Scripture should be to locate weaknesses in our theology and correct them.
In the biblical exegesis class I teach at FIRE School of Ministry I try to impart three principles that are crucial to recognizing and correcting the errors in our theology that we carry to the text. In fact, if you do not practice these three principles, it is doubtful that you will ever correct most of the erroneous doctrines you currently believe. These principles have to do not with exegetical technique, but with Christian character. The character of the student is just as important to interpretation as the character of the text. If we are weak in character, our interpretations will be filled with flaws even if our exegetical technique is sound. To be in the best position to interpret Scripture correctly, one must embrace the principles of 1) approaching the text with humility, 2) being Spirit-led, and 3) being a lover of truth. This article addresses the third principle.
What is a lover of truth?
What does it mean to be a lover of truth? Most people like the truth, but do not necessarily love it. If they do love the truth, they do not love it as much as they love their doctrine, their opinions, or the peculiar “insights” that they have gained from the Bible, whether they are true or not. A lover of truth will pursue truth at all costs and reject all that is not true, even if it is cool and amazing and makes a great sermon point. Are you a lover of truth? To find out, answer the following questions:
1) Are you uncomfortable around people whose doctrine differs from yours?
I once talked to a Baptist who was witnessing in my neighborhood. I mentioned that God had told me to go to a Pentecostal Bible school. The look on his face was worth a thousand words. He simply could not believe God would tell anyone to go to a school that differed from his doctrinal position. I have to admit, at that time I was also skeptical about his claim that God called him to the Baptist Bible school he was attending, but the encounter awakened me to my mistaken assumption that God agrees with me in all matters of doctrine. Are there any Christian groups that you have, in effect, written off, because of their doctrinal position? Do you question their salvation because of their eschatology?
Those who love their own doctrine more than they love the truth tend to isolate themselves from those who disagree with them. It does not mean they do not love truth, they just love their doctrine more than truth. The result is that they seek the truth insofar as it agrees with their doctrine, but they are opposed to change. Unless we are willing to subject our beliefs, including those that distinguish our denomination from others, to the teachings of Scripture, and change our beliefs if the Scripture demands it, we are not truly in love with the truth. This does not mean subjecting our doctrines to our church’s interpretation of Scripture. It means allowing the text to speak to us, even if what it says disagrees with what we believe. It may be scary at first, but if you are a lover of truth, you will be willing to do it.
2) If a friend corrects you when you are wrong, and does it in public, do you resent him for it?
Prov 27:5-6 says: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Truth is more important than your reputation. If you are wrong, you need to know it and be corrected. If others witness it, you should be glad, for then they also hear the truth, and are protected from the error you almost spread to them. The embarrassment of the moment is worth it for the assurance that you will never suffer the same embarrassment again, because now you know the truth.
3) Do you avoid reading books or hearing people speak who differ from you in some non-essential matter of doctrine?
If the only books I bought were those written by people who believed the same way I believe, my shelves would be empty. I own a book by a Baptist on baptism in the Holy Spirit. I own a book by a Catholic on the birth of Jesus. I own a book by a Calvinist, explaining the doctrine of predestination. I do not agree with any of these authors’ views on the key points made in their books, but I realize I can learn from them, so I put aside my differences and try to learn as much as possible from their insights. If my beliefs are true, then they will hold up to the criticisms of men. If they are flawed, then thank God for sending me someone to point it out so I can be corrected. If I am afraid that a book I read will prove me wrong, then I love my doctrine more than I love the truth.
There is much to be learned from people of different denominations, many things that you will never hear from the pulpit of your favorite church. A lover of truth will go wherever truth can be found, and will trust God to help him to “spit out the bones and chew the meat.
4) Do you assume your interpretations and your doctrines are correct before you examine the Scriptures?
One who loves the truth lets the Scripture interpret him, correcting any misinformation that he may have. One who loves his own doctrine only interprets Scripture in a way that supports his already established beliefs. Every Scripture that seems to contradict his beliefs is explained away in every possible way, but by no means will such a Scripture cause this interpreter to reevaluate his position.
It is true that we all have a preunderstanding of what we believe to be true, and it is right to use that preunderstanding to affect our interpretation of Scripture. But a lover of truth will interact with the text in a way that allows it to adjust the landscape on the horizon of his preunderstanding. If we engage the text regularly, our pre-held beliefs are going to be altered in some way. If you have not changed any points of your doctrine since you were a new believer, then beware. You may be locked into your pre-held beliefs too firmly to be altered by God’s Word.
A lover of truth will labor in the text to ascertain its teaching. He will not avoid passages that threaten his doctrinal position, and he will gladly accept humiliation and embarrassment if that also comes with a fresh acquaintance with the truth. Do you love the truth more than you love your own doctrine or those of your church? Do you love truth more than you love your reputation and your pride? If so, practice the principles above and let the Word of God speak to you afresh.