At What Point is a Different Interpretation of the Bible “False Teaching”?

In 2 Peter 1:20, Peter states, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” Then in 2 Peter 2, Peter addresses the issue of false prophets and false teachers who, like wolves, infiltrate, ingratiate, isolate, and then destroy by introducing “destructive heresies.”

At the same time, different Christian groups interpret some parts of the Bible differently, such as eschatology (things regarding the “end times”), pneumatology (things regarding the Holy Spirit), and ordinances or sacraments such as baptism and communion.

See: Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

And yet, the question is: at what point does a difference in interpretation of particular scriptural text or principle constitute “false teaching,” i.e. a “destructive heresy”?

I answered that question both in the video linked below, and in the sermon: Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing (2 Peter 2:1-22)

Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible

Recently I finished reading The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.

Content

When approaching the book, it is important to note that Smith is neither an evangelical nor has he been trained as an academic theologian. He is a sociologist and a professor at Notre Dame University; his writing is scholarly and well-informed, but his purpose is writing this book is to critique a certain tendency which he perceives to be a problem amongst evangelicals. This problem is something he calls “biblicism” – which is basically making the Bible the end-all, be-all source of not only theology, but practical living (including things such as diet, finance, etc.).

Smith’s biggest contention is that biblicism leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which basically means that the Bible can be used to justify several positions which may stand in conflict to one another.

He then asserts that “biblicists” are using the Bible in a way it was never intended to be used, and suggests instead that the Bible should be read through a Christological hermeneutic lens, i.e. that the Bible exists not to be a handbook for everything in life, but for the sole purpose of pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the Christological hermeneutic might seem quite obvious, Smith goes on to state that as a result of this Christo-centric view of Scripture, we therefore do not need to consider all parts of Scripture as equally inspired by God, nor applicable to the modern person. Thus, whatever is written in the New Testament, for example, such as household codes and practical rules for life, does not need to be heeded by the modern person in so much as it does not point to Christ and the saving work of God through Him.

Ultimately, Christian Smith’s biggest assertion is that Jesus himself, rather than the Bible, is what should be considered the “rule of faith,” i.e. the measuring rod by which all things are judged. What is important about his point is that he says that texts and words of the Bible itself should be judged by this rule (Jesus Christ himself), and those parts set aside, which do not align with this “rule.”

Finally, Smith closes the book with a lengthy epilogue in which he complains about those who have not agreed with his claims.

Critique

I agree with Christian Smith’s assertion that some people look to the Bible to be something which God never intended it to be (e.g. “The Daniel Diet” or as a guide for investment practices), and I believe he rightly disassembles the views underlying these practices. However, where the Bible does speak to practical issues of life, it would be foolish to write those off as uninspired, or pick-and-choose based on some arbitrary sense of what you perceive to be really about Jesus.

While Smith repeatedly asserts that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem, he gives insufficient rationale for why it is a problem. Simply repeating something loudly is not a convincing argument. He fails to explain why it is a problem that the Bible can be interpreted in multiple ways using theological and canonical reasoning.

I would argue that the Bible was inspired by God with a degree of ambiguity on certain topics by design! On the most important topics (primary theological issues), the Bible speaks without ambiguity, but on secondary issues, there is often, what I believe to be an intended ability and possibility for pluralistic interpretations. The purpose of this? As Smith rightly says: the Bible is not intended to be handbook, or a manual for life, as much as something which trains us how to think and act in a dynamic relationship with God. It is designed in such a way that we must continually be reading it and studying it, as well as engaging with others, as to its interpretation and application for one’s contemporary setting and circumstances. This is by no means to say that there is an infinite horizon of possibilities of interpretation; there are certainly boundaries for interpretation which are defined within the Scriptures themselves (canonical reasoning), but within these boundaries, sometimes there can be multiple options for interpretation and application – and I believe this is by design, and is not the problem which Smith claims it is.

See also: Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

The Key Issue

Where I disagree most with Christian Smith is in regard to what constitutes the “rule of faith.” His claim that Jesus is the rule of faith might sound nice at the outset, but it is wrought with difficulties.

First of all, who defines who Jesus is? How do we know who Jesus is, what He is about, or what He thinks or stands for? Those things are passed down for us through tradition, but guess how: through the canon of Scripture! It is through Scripture, which is the recorded, preserved, and affirmed record of apostolic tradition, that we know anything about Jesus.

Furthermore, and very importantly: the Scriptures of the Bible were the “rule of faith” that was used by the church fathers in determining doctrine at the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Conclusion

The Bible Made Impossible was a roller-coaster ride. Some of Smith’s points are excellent, and deserve attention by Christians today, whereas some of his other points seemed either half-baked or completely misguided.

I’m glad I read it, but I would only recommend it to those with a keen ability to “spit out the seeds” and think critically and question what might seem at face-value to be a convincing argument.

Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

white ballpoint pen on book pages

In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew explains how different aspects of Jesus’ life fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, upon examinations, some of these prophecies bring up interesting questions.

Yesterday I addressed one such question: Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth? – based on Matthew’s claim in 2:23 that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.

The Issues: Authorial Intent and Multiple Meanings

Another verse in Matthew chapter 2 brings up a different issue: In Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew describes the flight to Egypt, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for several years because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. (See also: Advent Meditations: Jesus Was a Refugee) In Matthew 2:15, Matthew says that when Jesus returned from Egypt, it was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Here’s why this is interesting: When Hosea wrote these words, he was speaking of Israel as God’s “son” whom he brought out of Egypt in the Exodus. Hosea’s intention was not to speak of the Messiah. However, what Matthew is saying, assumedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that even though Hosea’s intent was merely to refer to Israel, he was also writing (by the inspiration of the Spirit) about the Son of God, i.e. the Messiah, whom we now know to be Jesus of Nazareth – even though he did not realize it at the time.

Furthermore, this means that there are two meanings and interpretations of this passage which are both correct: historically it speaks about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and prophetically it foretells that the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a time.

Polysemy and Multivalence

There are several Old Testament prophecies which are used in the Old Testament in this way: while they have a historical meaning, which corresponds to the authorial intent of the original writer, they also have a prophetic meaning, which the author was unaware of, which found (or still will find) its fulfillment in the future.

For example, several passages in the prophetic books warn of an exile which is to come, but then conclude with a promise of the regathering of the people of both Israel and Judah to the land, as well as a time of peace and prosperity to follow. The return of the people to the land was fulfilled in the time following the Babylonian exile. It could also be said that this was fulfilled again through the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, both of these were only partial fulfillments, since the ultimate fulfillment of promised kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness will only see its complete fulfillment after the return of Jesus.

What this means is that many biblical texts are polysemic and multivalent. 

  • Polysemic: “multiple meanings”
  • Multivalence: “many appeals or values”

Scholars of textual hermeneutics, like Paul Ricoeur and Hans G. Gadamer explain the polysemy of biblical texts by saying that, unlike scientific formulas and computer codes, the texts of Scripture sometimes contain “surpluses of meaning.” [1]

This is why some texts in the Bible are not entirely controlled in their interpretation by their original human writers (i.e. authorial intent). The Hosea passage cited in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this. What is notable here is that the different meanings do not contradict each other.

John Goldingay explains, “An element of polyvalence or irreducible ambiguity characterizes parts of scripture.” [2]

Thus, Scripture cannot be used to say anything we want it to, but we would be contradicting Scripture itself to claim that there can only be one correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture. What is important is that the different interpretations do not have contradictory meanings.

Above all, this should leave us in awe of the rich complexity and beauty of the Word of God, and it should leave us all the more convinced of its divine inspiration.

Multivalence and Multivocality

Multivalence means different appeals or values, and Multivocality means that Scripture speaks to different listeners in different voices that say different (but, again, not conflicting) things.

Christian Smith illustrates this by compiling a list of different lessons and applications which can be faithfully gleaned from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:

  • Christians would do well to “get out of their comfort zones” in order to preach the gospel to those who are culturally different or who live in foreign lands, but are “ripe for the harvest”
  • A person who drinks of “the living water” that Jesus offers will never again “thirst” for the unsatisfying “waters” of “the world”
  • Jesus knows every detail about our personal lives, and loves us enough to confront us with hard questions in order to lead us to repentance
  • Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and still loves us and stands ready to forgive us
  • An effective strategy for evangelism is to build relationships, ask questions, and point people to Jesus
  • Those who have truly encountered Jesus and repented will naturally respond by telling others, i.e. evangelizing
  • The fact that Jesus was physically tired shows that he was fully human
  • The fact that the woman left her water jar to go and tell people in town about Jesus models the kind of priorities we ought to have in regard to possessions and the mission of God
  • By speaking to this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals that he has come as the Savior of people from all the nations
  • Jesus’ reply to his disciples about hunger and food shows us the proper outlook on doing God’s will and God’s work [3]

Again, this is not to say that we can make Scripture say whatever we want; we certainly cannot. Yet any of these above messages – and more – would be faithful interpretations and applications of this text.

Considering Inspirational Intent

We must not only consider authorial intent, we must also consider the intent of the inspirer: God. To do this, we consider canonical, or biblical theology: i.e. the message and narrative of the Bible as a whole.

This is what Matthew is doing  in several instances where he re-interprets Old Testament passages and applies them to Jesus; he is considering the grand narrative and message of the Bible as a whole, as a story which – in all of its “sub-stories” – is about Jesus. He applies a Christo-centric hermeneutic, in other words; one that he likely learned from Jesus himself after the resurrection when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

May God help us to understand, interpret, and apply His Word faithfully and accurately – according to His intent!

How Should We Understand the Song of Solomon?

photo of couple facing each other during golden hour

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

I have big trouble with The Song of Solomon. It’s often used for looking at marital intimacy, but I’m always thinking: ‘Which wife is Solomon talking about?’ He had so many. And it seems as if having all these wives was just a way of committing adultery (legally). So then I don’t understand why people use these verses to look at the loveliness of marriage?

I referred to the Song of Solomon this past Sunday in my sermon titled: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Does Not Affirm Some People’s Sexuality”, which was the final installment in our series called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”.

The Song of Solomon is important theologically because it extols marital intimacy, showing romantic love as being for the purpose of enjoyment and the binding of spouses together, not only for the purpose of procreation. This stands in contrast to many ancient (and modern) views on sexuality which extol asceticism (the denial of pleasure) and eschew physical pleasure.

What We Know

According to the first verse of Song of Solomon, this is a song written by Solomon. This would make it one of the 1005 songs that Solomon wrote (1 Kings 4:32), but the title “Song of Songs” (S.o.S. 1:1) is a superlative, meaning that this is the best of all his songs.

Based on 1 Kings 4:32, it is assumed this song was written early in Solomon’s reign.

It is a lyrical poem, and the main character is a “Shulamite woman”. Shulamite simply means “from Jerusalem” – so this woman is from Jerusalem. This is important, because the first marriage of Solomon’s that we’re told about in 1 Kings 3:1 is his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he brought to his palace in Jerusalem.

So the big question is this: Who is the Shulamite woman? Several suggestions have been made, as I will outline in the next section.

Four Possible Interpretations

It has been said that “perhaps no book in the biblical canon has had a greater diversity of interpretative strategies.”[1] Here are the four most popular:

1. Allegorical Interpretation

This view sees the sensuous descriptions of love as a picture of the love between God and his people, and then between Christ and his bride (either the church or the individual soul). This view was very common in the Middle Ages. Its weakness is that it runs the risk of diminishing the book’s endorsement of marital intimacy. Virtually all scholarly interpreters today see the book primarily as a celebration of love and the gift of sexual intimacy, many would say that it also sheds light on the intensity of the spiritual love-relationship between God and his people (see Eph. 5:22–33).

2. Anthology Interpretation

This interpretation views the Song of Solomon as a collection of poems or lyrics, arranged around the common theme of intimate love between a man and a woman—celebrating love’s longing, ecstasy, joy, beauty, and exclusivity. This understanding rejects the idea that the book contains a narrative plot.

3. The Shepherd Hypothesis

This is an interesting hypothesis which became popular in the 1800’s. It says that the Shulamite woman and the shepherd boy are two peasants who are in love, and King Solomon is seeking to win the woman’s into his harem. The woman ultimately resists Solomon’s flattery and returns home to marry the shepherd.

Several evangelical interpreters advocate this interpretation, because it accounts for what we know about Solomon having many wives later in life, but its weakness is that it does not give us any way of knowing when the shepherd is speaking and when Solomon is speaking. In fact, the speech patterns of the main characters (e.g., the descriptive titles they use for each other) favor the idea that there are only two lovers. Also, it would mean that Solomon wrote this song, in which he portrayed himself as the bad guy, and praised the love of this couple. While that’s not impossible, it does seem unlikely.

The following outline shows how the Shepherd Hypothesis understands the structure of the book:

  1. Solomon Meets the Shulammite in His Palace (1:2–2:7)
  2. The Beloved Visits and the Shulammite Searches for Him in the Night (2:8–3:5)
  3. Solomon Displays His Wealth and Sings of His Love (3:6–5:1)
  4. The Shulammite Yearns for the Beloved (5:2–6:3)
  5. The King Fails in His Pursuit of the Shulammite (6:4–8:14)

4. The Solomon-Shulamite Interpretation

The most common interpretation today is that the Song of Solomon a story about King Solomon and the Shulammite woman. Here is the outline:

  1. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other (1:2–3:5)
  2. The Wedding (3:6–5:1)
  3. Temporary Separation and Reunion (5:2–6:3)
  4. Delight in Each Other (6:4–8:4)
  5. Final Affirmations of Love (8:5–14)

The only problem with this view, is that we don’t know who this Shulamite woman is. It is possible, that Solomon is singing this about the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he dubs a “Shulamite”, since he has brought her to Jerusalem. Another suggestion is that prior to his wedding with the daughter of Pharaoh in 1 Kings 3:1, Solomon was married to another woman from Jerusalem, which 1 Kings never tells us about, and this song is a poetic retelling of that relationship.

What About Solomon’s Many Wives?

According to 1 Kings, it was only later in life that Solomon abandoned the monogamous standard of Scripture and started accumulating many wives. So it is entirely possible that at the time he wrote this song, his romantic interests were not yet tainted, and what we read about in this book is indeed the portrayal of something pure and beautiful.

1 Kings 11 makes it clear that Solomon turned away from the Lord in his heart, and the Lord was not pleased with what Solomon did. Many times, especially in the Old Testament, the Bible “reports the news” and leaves it to us to determine if what they did was good or not, based on what we know about God’s character and standards. Clearly, what Solomon did with his many wives was sin, and not an example for us to follow.

For more on this topic, check out: Does the Bible Ever Actually Prohibit Sex Before Marriage? What about Polygamy?

Solomon is a classic example of someone who started well, but did not finish well. Whereas his early life is an inspiration, his later life is a warning.

It has been said, “The last mile is the least crowded.” May we be those who finish well in this life of faith!

 

When God Says “No”

One of the things we’ve been doing at White Fields Church is giving people the opportunity to text or tweet us questions during the sermon.

Yesterday morning I taught 2 Samuel ch 7, which is the time when David had a desire to build a house for the Lord, but God said “No!”  That has some interesting implications, because what David wanted to do was a good thing, and it was a biblical thing – yet God said “no”.

This question was texted in during that sermon:

This morning in the sermon, you discussed having a desire to be a missionary, pastor, etc. If we have that desire in our hearts, didn’t God put that there? So why would He close The door if He put that desire there?

That is a great question!  The first question is a particularly important one: Did God put that desire there?  I believe that as we get closer to the heart of God – delighting ourselves in the Lord, as David said (Psalm 37:4) – that our desires are changed and become more aligned with His desires. 

In the story we studied yesterday in 2 Samuel 7: David had a desire. It was a good, noble desire – it was even a Biblical desire. Did God put that desire there? Maybe! Or maybe not. We don’t know for sure. There is a way in which we could argue that God did put that desire in David’s heart – but that David’s role in fulfilling that was not to be directly involved in the building of the temple, but indirectly – as we saw, how David got the ball rolling with the building of the temple and had all of the items made which would be used in the temple.

Let me share an example from my own life: I gave my life to the Lord when I was 16, and almost immediately I developed a desire to minister to the people of the former Soviet Union, specifically Ukraine, where my family had immigrated from. When I was 18, I was invited to go on a ministry trip to Budapest, Hungary – to a conference for Calvary Chapel churches from Hungary and Ukraine. It was the Ukrainian part which I was interested in, and I went there with the hope that I could connect with some ministries in Ukraine. I was able to do that, but interestingly all of the “doors of opportunity” for me to serve in Ukraine seemed closed, however there was an incredible open door and an invitation for me to serve in Debrecen, Hungary – the pastor there told me he had been praying for someone exactly like me to come and work with them. I had no real desire to go to Hungary, my desire was to serve the Lord in Ukraine – but I prayed about it and came to the conviction that this is what God had for me at that point, and after serving there for a little while I could move to Ukraine, where I really desired to be. I committed to go to Debrecen, Hungary for 8 months. During those 8 months, I prayed for Ukraine constantly, I even tried to go to Ukraine to work with some of the people I had met the year before at the conference in Budapest, but once again all the doors of opportunity were closed!  My feeling was: God, why did you give me this desire to serve you in Ukraine, and then close all the doors before me?!  Yet, in the meantime, I had become very proficient in Hungarian and was involved in some very exciting and fruitful ministry in Hungary. I came to see that perhaps God had given me that desire to serve Him in Ukraine in order to get me to pray and to get me to Hungary – which hadn’t even been on my radar, but which ended up being the “land of blessing” for me, where I met my future wife, where I became a pastor, where my 3 kids were born, where I was involved in years of fruitful and wonderful ministry. Was it God who put that desire to serve Him in Ukraine in my heart? I’m not sure. But He certainly used that desire in my life to lead me to where He wanted me to be.

My desire to serve the Lord in Ukraine never went away; I still have it. But I have come to rest in believing that God gave me that desire not in order to move me to Ukraine, but so that I would carry the people of that country on my heart and pray for them, and support what God is doing through other people there – which is exactly what I strive to do! This desire to serve the Lord in Ukraine led me to start taking teams from our church in Eger up to a Hungarian-speaking region of Ukraine, where we would do evangelism and support ministries in that region. I also had the opportunity to take extended trips to Ukraine and teach in a Bible school there. Who knows what God has for the future, but I very much can relate to David – who, although he was not allowed to be directly involved in the building of the temple, found a way to still be involved in it in a signifiant and meaningful way, indirectly.

So, to the question: If you have a desire to be a pastor, missionary, etc. – did God put it there? If so, why would he then shut the door?    I think that 2 Samuel 7 shows us that even if God is the one who put that noble desire in your heart to serve the Lord in a particular way, perhaps the fulfillment of that desire is not found in you fulfilling the role you specifically have in mind – perhaps the fulfillment of that desire will come in a way that is completely from God, and has a greater impact, even in your own life, than you could have ever imagined.