Interpreting Scripture

Dear Udo

Some scientists interpret their data through the filters of scientism, naturalism and physicalism and this applies to interpreters of Scripture as well. There are also other filters that exacerbate the problem of bias. I refer to it as the “I am” syndrome so characteristic of the contemporary Christian: “I am from the Reformed tradition; I am a Methodist, Wesleyian, Baptist, charismatic fanatic tradition, etc, etc, etc.” The problem is no more clearly illustrated than in the matter of water baptism. Go to the Baptist, and he will point you to Scripture; go to the Dutch Reformed minister, and he will quickly give you his interpretation of Scripture rather than Scripture itself (that, in any event, is just my personal experience). What cannot be denied, though, is the influence of “church” traditions on the INTERPRETATION of Scripture. The problem gets compounded once we add Christians’ ignorance of Scripture itself. No wonder then that most fall for scientific claims that are not in line with the metaphysics of Scripture, or their PRIVATE and PERSONAL beliefs.

You have stated: “I view these as elements essential to being a Christian believer and any compromise on these matters can definitely lead to something else than Biblical Christianity” (see Different views on creation.)  I think we are on a “slippery slope” when WE (believers) begin to draw a distinction or distinguish between “elements essential” and non-essentials “to being a Christian believer”. To see that, consider first that it is NOT a distinction drawn by any writer of Scripture itself. Three examples will suffice: (a) Belief in Jesus as the Son of God is NOT divorced from belief in the virgin birth. Why not? If anyone denies His virgin birth, he/she MUST deny His sinlessness; (b) being a disciple of Jesus means adhering to EVERYTHING taught by Himself and His apostles: “If you abide in my word (Gr “teachings”), THEN you are truly disciples of mine” (Jn 8:31). Here Jesus did not make a distinction between essentials and non-essentials in being a DISCIPLE (I take it to imply being a “Christian believer”); (c) “[W]hoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an ENEMY of God” (Ja 4:4). With regard to the latter, can one be a “Christian believer” and think it is fine to be an ENEMY of God? Being an enemy of the world is essential to being a “Christian believer”, because one’s relationship to the world will affect one’s relationship with God – here and now, one day then and where. My point is simply this, we need to be careful to do things with Scripture it does not allow us to do with it. Secondly, and just as important, implicit in making distinctions between “elements essential” and non-essential, is the following message: “let’s agree to disagree”. Where in Scripture do we find that sort of idea among Christians? What I do find in Scripture is a gradual and progressive realisation of the implications of the NEW TESTAMENT, and that one apostle knew more about God’s truth than another, meaning that the latter did NOT UNDERSTAND what the former wrote about – you yourself wrote: “…we need to be careful to talk about slippery slopes when we don’t fully understand what someone else is saying,” – INCLUDING the AUTHOR of Scripture!!! Yes, it cannot be denied that Jesus’ resurrection (as described in 1 Cor 15) is essential to the Christian faith. But a person who becomes a Christian MUST accept that he/she is now a disciple as well, which means that EVERYTHING about Jesus’ teachings is ESSENTIAL for being classified as a disciple/Christian. I think you can see a problem here: since “discipleship” is not often heard anymore, in people’s minds “disciple” and “Christian” has come to represent two different things, and that is a fatal mistake.

Regards

Smithy

 

Dear Smithy

Forgive my frankness, but I find your reference to the “‘I am’ syndrome so characteristic of the contemporary Christian” a bit condescending if not arrogant and alarming. You seem indignant about how other Christians interpret Scripture influenced by “church” traditions, thereby implying that whilst they interpret Scripture, you don’t interpret, you just somehow speak from Scripture in some untainted way of understanding, free from any influence or hindrances. First of all, you are simply mistaken, nobody can read scripture and not interpret it at the same time, and secondly, it is quite beyond me how anyone can only see the bias in others, but deny it for himself. If that is not being biased, then I don’t know what is.

Smithy, I would agree with much of what you have to say when it comes to unthinking adherence to the dogma of a particular denomination. But I must now say it very clearly that I would never be so presumptuous as to claim that there were never any sincere Christians, who loved the Lord and His Word, and who did not take very seriously what they believed the Bible taught expressed in the creeds of their particular denominations. I might not agree with everything they believe, but I find it necessary to take a very deep and hard look at my own understanding of Scripture, before I could accuse others of twisting Scripture merely to suit “their PRIVATE and PERSONAL beliefs.”

Further, while you seem to deny the distinction between essentials and nonessentials, I do not hesitate to make this distinction, simply because I am a fallible interpreter of God’s Word (which you should be careful of denying for yourself, for such is the origins of many a cult and sect) and not because Scripture itself makes such a distinction. I would also be the first to admit, due to my propensity for sinning, that I very often disappoint the Holy Spirit in His efforts to guide my understanding of Scripture. My point is merely that I can be in agreement with many Christians of diverse theological backgrounds on matters relating to what it means to be a true follower of Christ (yes, disciple and Christian) without having to agree with them on everything, such as water baptism, or the age of the earth for that matter. Your contempt for the idea that Christians can agree that it is often permissible and legitimate to disagree on certain matters, I find very troubling, for by saying this you attribute to yourself a vastly superior point of view that is neither humble nor edifying when it comes to having meaningful fellowship with other believers. (Please know that when I say this, I do so as a younger, less experienced and less qualified brother in the Lord, full of my own shortcomings and blind spots.)

Regards

Udo

 

Dear Udo

I think you are confused. I press on you to read my statements again (by the way, are you always so selective in your reading of other people’s writings?). Consider the following two statements of mine, for they should confirm my observation: “Whatever applies to scientists interpreting their data through the filters of scientism, naturalism and physicalism applies to interpreters of Scripture as well. But there are also other filters that exacerbate the problem”. Why should I exempt myself from this? What makes you think that, especially when I refer to my own personal experience – explicitly? Why do you NOT talk about the point I made there, or have you missed the obviousness of it? NO PERSON IS EXEMPT FROM THIS PROBLEM. SO TAKE CARE! By allowing yourself to get distracted by my personality – arrogance, being indignant, etc – has obviously blinded you to the obvious point I had made.

You talk about, “[T]wisting Scripture merely to suit ‘their  PRIVATE and PERSONAL beliefs.’” This twisting is a reality. Here’s the challenge: Show me one Scripture in support of any “church liturgy” which holds to baby-baptism and confirmation at age 15/16 (and answering a few questions) in order to be considered a member of the body of Christ. If there are NOT, and I approach anyone who holds to this liturgy, and they point to reinterpreted Scriptures in support of their beliefs, then only two alternatives exist: (1) they have not thought about their beliefs (exacerbated by their ignorance of Scripture), and/or twisted Scripture to suit their PRIVATE AND PERSONAL BELIEFS (if you do not believe me, I can refer you to quite a number of people who would agree).

A further point concerning essentials and non-essentials. You allow yourself to be distracted by what you see as features of my personality, and in so doing, allow yourself to be distracted from the obvious points of my statements: There are NO distinctions for a disciple/Christian between ESSENTIAL/NONESSENTIAL matters related to the Christian faith. That is the issue; stay with it! By the way, how do you think Peter reacted when Paul pointed out to him the inconsistencies in his approach to the Christian faith (Gal 2:7-14)? Do you think he answered: “I do not hesitate to make this distinction, simply because I am a fallible interpreter (which you should be careful of denying for yourself, for such is the origins of many a cult and sect)????” Think again young brother!

Regards

Smithy

 

Dear Smithy

No matter how I approach some of what you have said (and I’m pointing this as my concern as a fellow Christian and not as an accusation), I get the clear impression (yes, possibly because of my filters!!) that you are somehow privy to a better understanding of Scripture because those who disagree with you, have certain filters in place that hinder their understanding in way that does not apply to you. Even if you admit that you don’t deny having other filters, I don’t think it is a matter of selective reading, or confusion, or anything else you seem to think I suffer from, for me to say that you think you are somehow exempt from the filter of tradition. (To say that this is just your own personal experience does nothing to minimise the arrogance of such a notion and I will explain why this is so in the next paragraph.) Furthermore, your strong denial of a distinction between essentials and nonessentials related to being a Christian, as well as your denial of the legitimacy of saying “Let’s agree to disagree,” when it comes to different understandings of what Scripture is saying, only exacerbates this impression.

Let me again refer to the following you said:

“…go to the Dutch Reformed minister, and he will quickly give you his interpretation of Scripture rather than Scripture itself (that, in any event, is just my personal experience). What cannot be denied, though, is the influence of “church” traditions on the INTERPRETATION of Scripture.”

I understand you to say that when somebody like the Dutch Reformed minister interprets Scripture, then he is influenced by the filter of tradition, rather than Scripture itself. Now, since your protest is against the “I am something” kind of Christian who is influenced by this filter, what is the immediate and reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from this? Is it not that you are saying that you are a “I am nothing” kind of Christian, at least in so far as the filter of tradition is concerned? But since you do admit that you are affected by at least some other filters, are you not then, in fact also a “I am something” kind of Christian? One might not call it being a Methodist, a Wesleyan or a Baptist, but you are a something, even if you can’t or won’t give it a label. Yes, labels are often not helpful, but this is not the point. The point is, and the question I’m asking, why would this something be any better than somebody calling themselves a Methodist, a Wesleyan or a Baptist?

More importantly I want to argue that nobody can escape the filter of tradition, and that your disdain for the “I am” syndrome is somewhat hypocritical. For do you think that somehow your understanding of Scripture is what it is today, due to some blank slate approach, that no authors, no preachers, no other people had an influence on how you have come to understand Scripture? If they did influence your understanding (and I don’t see how you can deny this), then you have a filter of tradition which influences your understanding of Scripture!

We are all influenced by the Christian community, the Body of Christ that we are part of or were part of, and therefore by Christian tradition.

Regards

Udo

PS: I don’t really know why, but regarding the distinction between essentials and non-essentials, it seems that we are talking past each other. My contention is simply that two Christian believers can differ in their understanding of certain passages in Scripture without it affecting the status of either of them as being a Christian believer. This means that an understanding of some areas in Scripture is non-essential to being a Christian believer. Christians differ on many theological points, but this disagreement does not therefore mean that some are truly Christians and others are not. On the other hand, other understandings of what Scripture is saying, seems essential as a requisite for being called a Christian believer (e.g., The person Jesus shared both a human and divine nature and died on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins).

Concerning this issue of essentials and non-essentials I would refer to a book by Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes called, Conviction Without Compromise: Standing Strong in the Core Beliefs of the Christian Faith.

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