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Q&A: How Can We Know Which Doctrines Are True?

Was just thinking of your recent debates how I have been reading and developing some arguments that are very interesting. I think we as Christians we tend to turn the bible into an idol of sorts. I has become this was nose “virgin Mary” of sorts which can say virtually anything we want it to. This is a position known as “biblicism” where the Bible is our object of faith. Some even use it as their foundation for fitness, finance and politics. (See the Daniel diet)

Look at how many different positions the bible can defend all at once: there are sincere Christians who can make the Bible say that women should not teach in church, while others make the bible say the contrary. Look at the debate between Arminians and Calvinists, old and young earth. If the bible can be used to legitimately defend all these ideas then how can we really use it as our go-to source for settling disputes?  I am finding the Bible is harder and harder to defend, because it seems so at odds internally and insufficient as the sole go-to for Christian thought and worldview. We really need to look twice at it and decide if it is error free and if Christians should be more open to other truths outside of it, such as natural theology. This does not leave us without the cross or Jesus, it just means the Bible cannot be our sole foundation for thought and worldview.

If it were, then many who profess to be sincere Christians, especially those who have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, would all come to the same conclusion, especially if they all profess inerrancy.

But it seems that there are as many legitimate interpretations as there are interpreters. And the debate does NOT go away when you turn to the original languages.

What are your thoughts?

— Colin


Sure, there are many different interpretations on a lot of issues, but that doesn’t mean that none of them are right or that we can’t know which one is. We just need to do the hard work of hermeneutics. Not everyone applies the principles of hermeneutics correctly, and even in the ones who know the principles and try to apply them, bias can creep in and make one selectively apply them. For example, one principle of hermeneutics is to interpret scripture in light of it’s historical and cultural context, in light of how the original author and audience would have understood it. Nevertheless, many Christians are scientific concordists. They interpret Genesis 1 in light of modern science. For example, I’m sure you know Hugh Ross teaches that The Bible contains Big Bang cosmology, and that science is only now catching up to what scripture had been saying all along. Yet if you look at the culture of the ancient near east, you’ll find that they had a very different view of the universe than we have today. They believed there was a solid dome sky over a flat Earth that was held up by pillars (mountains) and so forth. Authors like John Walton and Dennis Lemoroux acknowledge this, but Ross and others try to dispute this. One reason is that they think it would undermine biblical inerrancy. The Earth is obviously round, and there’s no solid dome up there, so if The Bible says there is, is it not in error? So, with the presupposition that The Bible is in error and therefore must describe the universe as it actually is, they’ll apply the, what I call “The Cultural Context Principle” selectively. Now, I don’t think ANE Cosmology in the text undermines its inerrancy, but that would be a tangent.
Bias can also affect interpretation in other ways. Sometimes we hold presuppositions we don’t even realize we have. I had been told my whole life that the eschatology depicted in the Left Behind novels was what scripture actually taught. I knew there were disputes on eschatology, but I thought these only applied to things like whether the rapture would occur before or after the 7 year tribulation period. It never even occurred to me that an entirely different paradigm (like Preterism) might be true. So, I read texts like Matthew 24-25 through dispensationalist lenses. It was only when that presupposition was challenged by Hank Hanegraaf’s book The Apocalypse Code that I began to re-evaluate things. Now that I’ve seen the case for the preterist reading of Matthew 24-25, I’m actually boggled at how I missed it before. I mean, Jesus explicitly says “this generation will not pass away before these things occur” and Jesus’ whole sermon is in response to the disciples’ question of “when will this happen? And what will be the sign of your coming?” and what prompted that question was Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed, which we know was fulfilled in the first century thanks to the writing of Josephus.
Additionally, I think non-intellectual reasons can pressure Christians from considering alternative interpretations, just as non-intellectual reasons can cause unbelievers to reject the historical case for Christianity. For example, many Calvinists may not be open to an Arminian or Molinist approach because their parents are Calvinists and would strongly disapprove of them adopting a “heretical” view. Or, perhaps less severe, they may have attended a reformed church their entire life, made some long time friends there, and if they adopted an Arminian view of soteriology and/or a Molinist view of divine providence and free will, they’d either be kicked out of the church or at least feel alienated.
Think of how much time and effort, and even finances, that Answers In Genesis has contributed to projects like The Creation Museum and The Noah’s Ark replica. If they changed their views to either an Old Earth or Evolutionary Creationist view, not only would they have to eat crow and tell the people they’ve been denouncing as heretics for decades “We were wrong. You guys were right. Now all the millions of dollars we’ve spent on a museum depicting blatantly unscientific views has gone to waste”. Not even Christians like eating crow, and certainly no one wants to find out that a big financial investment has gone to waste.
Finally, and this is the crucial point, even though there are disputes in the church on things like Calvinism and Arminianism, the correct interpretation of Genesis, what womens’ role in ministry should be, etc. Most everyone agrees on the core teachings of scripture: That God exists and created everything, that He sent his Son Jesus to die as an atoning sacrifice, that He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, that we’re sinners and need to repent by placing our faith in Him, that God is a Trinity. Etc. All of this amounts to what C.S Lewis called “Mere Christianity”.
Of course, you might object, even some of these things are disputed by detractors. Jehova’s Witnesses dispute that Jesus is God, and many sects dispute the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But again, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a correct view and it doesn’t even mean that we can’t find the correct view. We just need to do the hard work of hermeneutics, we need to try to recognize our biases as best we can, and when we do recognize them, we need to put forth the mental effort to set them aside and try to figure out what the text is saying.
So, to make a long answer short; the same issues in deciphering scripture’s meaning and which doctrines are best supported are affected by the same issues that affect any examination of any arguments in any area of inquiry. Bias, emotional reasons, moral reasons, unnoticed presuppositions, etc. can taint one’s evaluation of the facts. Yet, should we, therefore, claim that we can’t know anything? Of course not!
So, the fact that there are many conflicting doctrinal views out there shouldn’t lead us to conclude that The Bible isn’t “the sole go-to for Christian thought and worldview.” I think we can know what it’s saying. We may not get all of it right, but we will get a lot right if we do what I said above.
Now, I do most certainly agree that theology can be informed by outside sources, such as Natural Theology. It can be informed by philosophy, science, extra-biblical ancient documents. Sola Scriptura doesn’t teach that if something isn’t in The Bible, we can’t believe it or incorporate it into our theology. Sola Scriptura states that if a claim is in direct conflict with scripture, then so much for the claim! In other words, all our beliefs are subject to biblical scrutiny. Science and Philosophy can contribute, but they must bow before the bar of scripture.
For readers who want to learn the science of biblical interpretation, I suggest reading my “Hermenuetics 101” series, which is sort of a crash course in biblical interpretation.
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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ian Thompson

    How do we know your rules of hermeneutics are true? How thoroughly have they been tested? Or (and) are they Revealed?
    And do they tell us which range of texts to consider?

    (I do not see any easy answers.)

    1. Evan Minton

      These aren't "my" rules. These are the standard principles excepted in the field of theology. You go to any article or book on the science of hermenuetics and you'll see the same ones popping up over and over again (example:

      Furthermore, when you think about the principles, you can see that they make sense. Take the principle of immediate context as an example. It's common for political opponents to take a statement by someone they don't like and then use that statement to say "Oh, look at how horrible this person is to have said such a thing". The recent example of Donald Trump saying "They are animals!" comes to mind. Leftists took a short clip of this and ran with it to argue that Trump considered illegal immigrants to be animals, sub-human. If they had played the footage that preceded that, it wouldn't fit their narrative. Trump's statement was in the context of a response to a question from a woman regarding the gang group MS-13. Considering what came before Trump's comment totally changed how you would interpret "they are animals". Context matters!

      Now, apply the context principle to the Bible. You can look at Philippians 4:13 in which Paul says "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". You look at that and go "Wow! I can do anything with Christ! All my dreams can come true!" But consider what came before: "I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." – Philippians 4:10-13

      Whoops. Paul isn't saying "With Christ, the sky's the limit!" He's saying that he learned to be content no matter how good or how bad his circumstances were, and the reason he was content regardless of circumstances was that Christ was strengthening him. Looking at the context totally changes how one sees verse 13.

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