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PREFACEMarch 5, 2003
This paper was originally written in July of 2000. It is based on over two years of my own Bible study and research begun in January 1998 and concluded in July 2000. The supporting material for these studies (encompassing Scripture lists, Greek word definitions and Bible commentaries) take up well over five hundred pages.
I have examined some very basic Scriptural issues, such as salvation and authority, but I also examined some of the practices and doctrines of the church. I have relied on my own experience over 15 years as well as written material from various leaders and excerpts from sermons and lessons.
In these Bible studies, I tried to be as detailed and thorough as possible, given the seriousness of the subject matter. These studies were never intended to be made public on a wide scale however. I organized them into a more readable format only so that I could present my conclusions to close friends here in my church, particularly our lead evangelist who was and still is, a very dear and beloved friend.
I make no claims to great scholarship, nor do I presume to have discovered anything new. These studies were simply one man's search for a deeper understanding of the will of God for his life, that is all.
These studies are not a personal attack on any man, church or group of churches. In fact, I have refused to post these studies where they might be seen as such. Nonetheless, if they come across that way to anyone, I humbly ask you to forgive me in advance, for that is most assuredly not my desire or intent.
A great deal has changed since these studies were written, and some doctrines described inside are no longer taught. The climate now seems to be entirely different than that of three years ago. There now seems to be a real willingness to re-examine long held beliefs. It is my prayer that in some way, however small, these words can help in this process.
Grace and peace to all,
1. EXAMINING THE FOUNDATION
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.Henry David Thoreau
Over the past two years I have been in the process of re-examining my core beliefs as a Christian to be sure that they were built on sound, biblical foundations. What follows is the result of my studies.
I was baptized in 1985 in the Boston Church of Christ. This summer will mark 15 years since I became a Christian. In the spring of 1998 we began studying First Principles here in my church. It had been about three years since I had last taken this class. One day, as I was going over The Word study, I came to the part in the study guide that says "you must question what your religious leaders teach". I paused and thought about that statement for a long while.
I began thinking of all the different things I have said (and heard other people say) over the years while doing this study. I often used such phrases as "you've got to be willing to question everything you've been taught, whether it came from your parents who you love or your religious leaders who you respect. If what they taught you doesn't match up with the Bible, you've got to be willing to do what God says." Another phrase often used was "people can be sincere, but sincerity doesn't equal truth. You can be sincerely wrong".
At this point of the study, we would often warn people of the dangers of following religious leaders unquestioningly. We would talk about how people often accept what they're taught without ever going back to the Scriptures to see if it is accurate. These people simply trust their leaders because they think they know more than they do. As a result of this, they're following all sorts of incorrect teachings and doctrines.
The solution to this problem, we always point out, is that you have to question what your leaders teach so that you can evaluate its scriptural accuracy. Ultimately however, you must be willing to just live by the Bible, even if it means going against the opinions of your friends, family or church leaders. Even if it goes against everything you've ever believed in the past. Obedience to God must always come first. Finally, we always conclude the Word study with the challenge to "be a Berean" and to go back over this study to see if everything we have taught them is true.
It suddenly occurred to me that I could not remember the last time I had actively questioned what I had been taught. I began to ask myself some hard questions:
The implications of these questions were enormous. I decided that morning that I was going to re-examine my core beliefs and re-evaluate their Scriptural accuracy. Most importantly, I was going to do so with complete objectivity. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines objective as follows:
Objective -expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations
It was not that I felt this sudden distrust of my leaders. When I think back over the years of some of the leaders I have known personally, my heart is filled with admiration, love and respect. Each one of these guys holds a very special place in my heart. They are heroes to me, and I am forever grateful and thankful for them.
Yet the questions remained: what if these people, who I love so dearly, are teaching something that is Biblically incorrect? How would I even know if I didn't examine the Scriptures objectively? Was I really willing to go the next step of asking "what if my entire church is wrong? What if what I have believed and taught is wrong?" Was I willing to even consider that possibility?
In the past, whenever I had questions about a teaching that came from my leaders, I would invariably conclude the following:
I don't mean to imply that I unthinkingly accepted everything I was taught without having any kind of Scriptural basis for my belief. It's simply that if a certain issue was not directly addressed in the Scriptures, and differing views were possible, I would usually side with my leaders.
Yet, I suddenly realized the danger in the way I had been thinking. I realized that I didn't have confidence in my own ability to find the truth. As someone who has always wrestled with a low opinion of myself, I often felt that I wasn't smart enough to understand the Scriptures the way my leaders did. If I somehow concluded something different than my leaders, I would virtually always lay my conclusions aside with the thinking that "these guys are much smarter than I am".
I decided that morning that I would no longer think in this way. There must be sound Biblical justification for every belief that I have and these beliefs must come from my own careful, prayerful and objective study of the Scriptures regardless of what my leaders teach.
In order to be completely objective and unbiased in my re-examination of the Bible however, I had to clear certain mental hurdles in my head. Somehow I had developed the idea that to disagree with my leaders (who are some of my very best friends in the world) was to be disrespectful to them. Furthermore, it was disloyal and unsupportive. It simply didn't occur to me that you could disagree in a righteous manner without ever being disrespectful, disloyal or unsupportive. I searched the Scriptures for some direction on this issue:
From these verses, I saw that God fully expects us to examine ourselves (to see if our faith is genuine), to examine our leaders (to make sure their lifestyle is Godly) and to examine what we are taught (to make sure it is sound doctrine). We simply don't have the option to just accept what our leaders teach us without searching the Scriptures for ourselves. It doesn't matter who they are or how much we love them, we cannot live on a faith borrowed from someone else.
Later that year, I read an extremely thought provoking book called Common Sense written by David Bercot. The book discusses the issue of reading the scriptures without an agenda and without any preconceived ideas. Rather than summarize the book myself, I will quote from it directly:
After reading this book, I tried to identify my preconceived ideas about the Scriptures. I made a decision that I was going to read through the New Testament as if I had never read it before and without the assumption that my current beliefs were accurate. I was going to search the Scriptures no matter where it led me. There would be no "sacred cows" of belief that would be shielded from the searching light of objective examination.
I also decided that I was going to fully accept the possibility that my entire church could be wrong on crucial Scriptural issues. This is an extremely important point. It's one thing to realize that you personally have been wrong about a given issue. It's a humbling thing, to be sure. But you just acknowledge it and you move on.
It is a drastically different story however, when you come to believe that your entire church and your leaders are wrong about something. Things are not so simple in this case. Coming to a conclusion that differs from what they teach can (and often will) bring you into conflict with them. No one relishes conflict with those in authority, especially with individuals you have come to love and respect. It is therefore much more difficult to confront errors in your church's doctrine than it is in your own belief system. Nonetheless, I was determined to read through the Scriptures without assuming that any of our beliefs were accurate.
The first book in the New Testament that I read with this "blank slate" was the book of Acts. I was immediately struck by the fact that many of the things we do are nowhere to be found in Acts: people became Christians quickly and without ever going through "the Studies", there were no "bible talks", no assigned "discipleship partners", no church hierarchies with leadership titles such as "sector leader", no mention of special contribution multipliers, no church budgets, no stats for visitors or bible studies, etc.
Something just didn't seem right to me. The lives of the Christians in Acts seemed so uncomplicated by church guidelines or rules yet so full of simplicity, power and freedom. I began to feel that perhaps somewhere, somehow we had gone wrong as a church and that in seeking to help Christians grow by introducing all these things, we had instead complicated and confused Christianity.
Yet I also felt, as I read through Acts, that my own understanding of the Scriptures needed to deepen. Reading the Scriptures without any preconceived ideas is of no use if you do not know how to properly handle what you're reading. I felt that my ability to understand deep or problematic scriptural issues was inadequate. So I decided that I would begin studying the topic of Biblical interpretation. My goal was simply to better understand the Scriptures so that I could accurately discern the will of God in my life. The following Scriptures speak to this very issue:
Paul's admonition to Timothy in 2 Tim 2: 15 teaches us that we must be sure to "correctly" handle God's word. This obviously implies the ability to "incorrectly" handle the Scriptures. Paul told the Corinthians that he didn't distort the word of God but instead he simply set forth the truth plainly. Similarly, Peter writes that Paul's letters and the other Scriptures contain some things which are hard to understand and which can be distorted.
It is therefore vitally important for us to examine the way in which we "handle" God's Word to be sure that we are doing it correctly and not distorting what it says.
2. BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
The first book I read was How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. The first issue they tackle is the idea that "you don't need to interpret the Bible, you just need to obey it." This instantly struck me as familiar because those are virtually the identical words we use when we do the Word study.
However, they go on to show the error of this line of thinking:
"The aim of interpretation is simple: to get at the 'plain meaning of the text'… The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text … But if the plain meaning is what interpretation is all about, then why interpret? Why not just read? Does not the plain meaning come simply from reading? In a sense, yes. But in a truer sense, such an argument is both naïve and unrealist ic because of two factors: the nature of the reader and the nature of scripture." P. 14
When we tell people "don't interpret, just obey", we are actually defining the word "interpret" incorrectly. What we mean to say is "you can't make the Bible say anything you want it to say". Yet in the context in which we use it, we portray interpretation as something negative, something to be avoided. This is completely wrong! The word is defined by Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as follows:
To interpret means to give meaning. Therefore, we must interpret the Scriptures because we must give them meaning. The book goes on to describe why we need to learn how to interpret the Bible:
1. Everyone is an interpreter -the act of giving meaning to the Scriptures is itself interpretation.
"The first reason one needs to learn how to interpret is that, whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit's or human author's intent… Sometimes, what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text."
2. The English translation we read is the result of interpretation.
"The reader of an English Bible is already involved in interpretation. For translation is itself a (necessary) form or translation… Translators are regularly called upon to make choices regarding meanings and their choices are going to affect how you understand." P. 15
3. The Bible isn't always easy to understand.
"… not all plain meanings are equally plain to all… Given all this diversity, both within and without the church, and all the difference among scholars who supposedly know 'the rules', it is no wonder that some argue for no interpretation, just reading. But as we have seen, that is a false option. The antidote to bad interpretation is not no interpretation, but good interpretation, based on common sense guidelines."
The point in this paragraph is that interpretation itself is not the problem, nor is it something to be avoided. Bad interpretation is what leads us astray. This is precisely why we need to learn how to interpret -to handle the Scriptures properly.
In his book A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Robert Stein writes:
It struck me as completely bizarre that the most basic, elementary aspect of properly understanding the Scriptures is taught incorrectly in our First Principles study. It was alarming to me that this vitally important point has been taught incorrectly for the past 20 years! How could we be so wrong on something so simple, so basic, so absolutely crucial to handling the Scriptures accurately?
The following "Rules of Biblical Interpretation" are a good overview of some of the principles that we should follow. I don't remember where I found them but they illustrate some of the most important guidelines we must follow to correctly handle the Scriptures:
Rules of Biblical Interpretation
1) The rule of DEFINITION:What does the word mean? Any study of Scripture must begin with careful study of words. Define your terms and then keep to the terms defined. The interpreter should conscientiously abide by the plain meaning of the words. This quite often may require using a Hebrew/ English or Greek/ English lexicon in order to make sure that the sense of the English translation is understood.
2) The rule of USAGE:
It must be remembered that the Old Testament was written originally by, to and for Jews. The words and idioms must have been intelligible to them -just as the words of Christ when talking to them must have been. The majority of the New Testament likewise was written in a Greco-Roman (and to a lesser extent Jewish) culture and it is important to not impose our modern usage into our interpretation. It is not worth much to interpret a great many phrases and histories if one's interpretations are shaded by pre-conceived notions and cultural biases, thereby rendering an inaccurate and ineffectual lesson.
3) The rule of CONTEXT:
The meaning must be gathered from the context. Every word you read must be understood in the light of the words that come before and after it. Many passages will not be understood at all, or understood incorrectly, without the help afforded by the context.
4) The rule of TIME or DISPENSATIONS
An important aspect of understanding the Scriptures is the concept of "dispensations", or periods of time in which God deals with mankind a certain way. The two primary dispensations or periods are:
i. The Dispensation of Law This period covers most of the Old Testament. During this dispensation God held man accountable to obeying the Law as it was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This period lasted until Jesus' death on the cross, or more specifically until Acts Chapter 2 when the Gospel was preached for the first time.
ii. The Dispensation of Grace This is the period in which we now live. Being "under grace" means that God no longer holds us accountable to the Laws and regulations of the Old Covenant. Our relationship with God, therefore, is fundamentally different than that of the Jews of the Old Testament.
J. Edwin Hartill, in his book Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics, writes the following:
5) The rule of HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:
The interpreter must have some awareness of the life and society of the times in which the Scripture was written. The spiritual principle will be timeless but often can't be properly appreciated without some knowledge of the background. If the interpreter can have in his mind what the writer had in his mind when he wrote -without adding any excess baggage from the interpreter's own culture or society -then the true thought of the Scripture can be captured resulting in an accurate interpretation.
6) The rule of LOGIC:
Interpretation is merely logical reasoning. When interpreting Scripture, the use of reason is everywhere to be assumed. Does the interpretation make sense? The Bible was given to us in the form of human language and therefore appeals to human reason -it invites investigation. It is to be interpreted as we would any other volume: applying the laws of language and grammatical analysis.
7) The rule of PRECEDENT:
We must not violate the known usage of a word and invent another for which there is no precedent. Just as a judge's chief occupation is the study of previous cases, so must the interpreter use precedents in order to determine whether they really support an alleged doctrine.
8) The rule of UNITY:
The parts of Scripture being interpreted must be construed with reference to the significance of the whole. An interpretation must be consistent with the rest of Scripture. An excellent example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. No single passage teaches it, but it is consistent with the teaching of the whole of Scripture (e. g. the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are referred to individually as God; yet the Scriptures elsewhere teach there is only one God).
9) The rule of INFERENCE:
An inference is a fact reasonably implied from another fact. It is a logical consequence. It derives a conclusion from a given fact or premise. It is the deduction of one proposition from another proposition. Such inferential facts or propositions are sufficiently binding when their truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence.
Common Errors in Biblical Interpretation
The book Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson goes into great detail about common mistakes people make when trying to interpret the Scriptures. Here are some of the most common errors according to the book:
1. Root Word Fallacy
This fallacy assumes that the "root" of a word holds the key to its meaning. The problem is that the root from which the word comes from is often completely different from the current meaning of the word in question. For example, the English word "nice" comes from the Latin word "necius" meaning ignorant. The point is that the etymology of a word has little bearing on what it actually means.
2. Reading the definitions of English words into the original Greek text
The best example of this mistake is the use of the Greek word "hilaron" which means "cheerful" (as in God loves a cheerful giver). It is often mentioned that this is where we get the English word for "hilarious". It is then said that God loves a "hilarious" giver or that we should give "hilariously". The problem is that the word in Greek means "cheerful" not "hilarious". The fact that hundreds of years later a word in the English language has been derived from "hilaron" does not in any way change its original meaning from "cheerful" to "hilarious".
Another example is the Greek word for power, "dynamis" as in Rom 1: 16 (the power of God). This is where we get the English word for dynamite. Once again, the English word derived hundreds of years later has no bearing whatsoever on the definition of the Greek word.
Yet another example is the word for "devoted" in Acts 2: 42. You often hear people teach that this Greek word is the source for our word for "addicted". The preacher then goes on to say that what this passage really means is that "the disciples were addicted to the fellowship".
First of all, lets look at the word in the Greek. The world translated as "devoted" in the NIV is the Greek word "proskartereo". Strong's Dictionary defines it as follows:
Vine's Expository Dictionary defines it like this:
Neither of these dictionaries make any mention of the word addiction. The reason for this is that the word addiction wasn't even invented when Luke wrote the book of Acts.
Now lets take a look at the definition for "addiction". Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as follows:
According to Webster, this word didn't come into use until 1599 A. D., almost 1,500 years after the New Testament was written. Other dictionaries note that the English word for addict does not come from the Greek word "proskartereo" but rather from the Latin word "addictio."
My point is simply that you cannot say that "the disciples were addicted to the fellowship". That's just plain wrong. The word Luke uses in Acts 2: 42 means "devoted" not "addicted".
Why is this such a big deal? Because it shows how we can subtly change the meaning of a Biblical passage by incorrectly defining key words.
3. Assuming words have just one meaning
Just as in English, Greek words often have many meanings. It is context that determines which meaning applies. For example, take the English word: "watch". If I assumed that this word only means "a timepiece usually worn on the wrist" I would have great difficulty making sense out of the following statements:
-Watch your step.
As an example, consider the use of the word "ekklesia" (translated as "assembly") in Acts 7: 38. You would have a hard time making sense out of this passage if you assume that ekklesia always refers to the Christian church.
4. Selective use of evidence
Using only a few scriptures to support your views. The answer to this is to study every verse that has to do with the word or topic we are studying.
5. The false dilemma (the law of the excluded middle)
Framing an issue in terms of either/ or when in fact there may be some perfectly reasonable middle ground. For example, assuming we're either saved by faith alone or by works. The fact is that faith and works are not mutually exclusive but rather work together.
6. Failure to recognize distinctions
The fallacy that argues that because X and Y are alike in certain respects they are alike in all respects.
a. A dog is an animal
7. Bad logic
Thinking that certain arguments are good when a moment's reflection exposes them as worthless. (see example above)
a. When it rains the sidewalk is wet
8. Eisogesis -inserting preconceived ideas into the meaning of a passage
9. Purely emotional appeals
An example of an emotional appeal you might here in our church is "if you have a problem with what I'm saying its because you have a problem with God". I have personally heard this many times.
10. Unwarranted associative jumps
As the tired old cliché goes: "Text without context becomes a pretext for a proof text"
11. False statements
"It is astonishing how often a book or article gives false information; and if we rely on such a work too heavily, our exegesis will be badly skewed. Go to the primary sources!"
12. The non sequitur (Latin for "does not follow")
This refers to conclusions which "do not follow" from the evidence and arguments presented. Many times it is the result of muddled, sloppy thinking or false premises.
13. Cavalier dismissal
14. Inadequate analogies
Supposing that a particular analogy sheds light on a biblical text when in fact the analogy is demonstrably inadequate or inappropriate.
15. Misuse of leading words such as "obviously" or similar expressions.
16. Changing the meaning of words
In his excellent book The Twisted Scriptures 1 , Carl Ketcherside identifies two additional means by which the Scriptures can be misapplied or as he puts it, "twisted":
1 Not to be confused with the book entitled Twisted Scriptures by Mary Alice Chrnalogar. Ketcherside's book was written in 1965 and is available online: http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/wcketcherside/tts/index.html
He quotes Alexander Campbell:
The mistake he is pointing out is that of thinking that your own personal definition of a word is what that word actually means.
Based on my studies over the past two years, I have come to the conclusion that we as a church routinely and systematically mishandle the Scriptures and as a result, we have reached incorrect conclusions on a whole range of vitally important issues.
This mishandling is the result of ignoring the time honored principles of biblical interpretation. It is the result of making virtually all of the errors I have described above.