Reading it In or Drawing it Out?

The last post focused on one way to handle the problems assumptions can cause in communication—we should ask questions to help surface and evaluate assumptions that have a significant impact on the discussion. I am not advocating questioning people and ideas as a method for nitpicking our way to winning a debate. That’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the guy who won’t answer questions because he is after his agenda, not the truth. Nitpickers are not after truth either. Let’s avoid both of those in pursuit of constructive, candid discussion about things that matter.

Another kind of unhelpful assumption is one that takes place when an interpreter reads his ideas into a comment or text instead of hearing what the speaker or writer is actually saying. My guess is that this happens most often due to carelessness, not maliciousness. When carelessness doesn’t have serious consequences, we can be content to write it off as a simple mistake. A friend of mine likes to joke that ours is the coldest church in America because we tend to keep the temperature in the auditorium pretty chilly. Suppose someone hears my friend say this and assumes that it is a description of our spiritual temperature—that would be a simple mistake that could affect the third person’s view of our congregation negatively, right? That wouldn’t be cool (pardon the pun), but it wouldn’t be a serious problem unless the third person began to spread that wrong conclusion to other people. “Inter-City is one of the coldest churches in America!” At that point it degenerates from a simple mistake to a culpable error. Bottom line: rather than assuming that you understand what a potentially negative statement means, verify it.

It is always, though, a serious problem when anybody makes careless assumptions about what the Bible means. My main concern here is not with the person who repeatedly and deliberately twists the Bible—that kind of person isn’t worth trying to engage in conversation with, just rebuke and withdraw from him. My concern is with the well-intentioned person who does this. Sadly, there is a long history of snatching texts out of their historical and biblical context to use in ways that “speak to us” personally in spite of the fact that they simply don’t mean what we are now saying they mean. Instead of these personalized little “blessings” we find this way, we should seek the meaning of the text that: (1) it had at the time it was written; (2) is found in the words chosen and arranged by the writer; and (3) is consistent with the overall message and doctrine of the Scriptures. The technical way of saying that is that we should use the historical, grammatical, theological method of interpreting Scripture.

I’d like to use an example again because it might be helpful, but let me repeat my concern about examples tending to draw us away from the idea which they serve. Let’s consider how someone might read their assumptions into a text like Romans 16:17, “Now I urge you brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.” This is a very important text that should control our thinking about how we respond to false teaching, but even clear and important texts can be handled carelessly.

For instance, suppose someone takes the words “the teaching you learned” (or as the KJV puts it, “the doctrine which ye have learned”) as meaning “the things you were taught by your teachers,” would that be the correct way of understanding these words? To put it more clearly, is the Apostle Paul really saying that once you have been taught something, you are to reject anybody that teaches something different from what you were taught? Or is he saying that we must reject those who are teaching something different than the truth of God’s Word? Those are two very different conclusions.

The former really creates a cult-like adherence to the teachings of men, while the latter places all teachers under the authority of God’s Word. The former fails to read the text in terms of its historical and biblical context, resulting in the strange argument that to obey this text means that nobody would ever be able to shift their views from whatever they were taught. That would mean that if you were raised being taught that sprinkling water on infants was correct, then you should avoid those who teach things contrary to “the teaching you learned.” Some of us who have had mixed messages taught to us are in trouble! In college I was taught to be suspicious of dispensationalism, but in seminary I was taught that it was good. Should I have stayed suspicious or was I right to change my view?

Clearly, Paul was not teaching the infallibility of all teachers in all times. He was anchoring these Roman believers in the gospel and Apostolic doctrine which they had received and which he had just reinforced via this letter. The obligation of every believer is to test what he has been taught by human teachers against what has been taught in the Scriptures. No one who finds that he was taught wrongly can justify continuing in that error simply because it is what he was taught. Understood in its context, Paul is telling them not to turn away from God’s truth communicated in the Scriptures (cf. 1:1-2; 16:25-27). I’ve had the privilege of sitting under great teachers, but none of them would claim infallibility and none of them would believe that their teachings are the test of truth. They would say that their teachings must be tested by the Truth.

Arguments like this really are careless with God’s truth and make it the servant of a preconceived idea. Even if well-intentioned, that pre-conceived idea serves as an assumption read into the text, not drawn out from it—“such and such a group teaches something different than I was taught, so they must be marked and turned away from.” My point is that both “such and such a group” and you need to test what you believe by the Bible itself, not by what someone taught you about the Bible. The issue isn’t really whether they agree with you or your teachers; it is whether they agree with the Bible. (And if you assume that you are infallible in your understanding of the Bible, you need serious help!)

So, think about this the next time you hear someone shouting (or planning a conference under) the words “Remove not the ancient landmarks!” or “Touch not the unclean thing!” Ask yourself, was the writer of Scripture speaking about the same thing that they are speaking about? What were the ancient landmarks referred to in those passages? What is the unclean thing to which the text refers? It is quite possible that someone is assuming that the Bible is saying what he actually wants to say! If we intend to speak on behalf of God, then we can’t afford to be careless with His Word. We better say exactly what He said and that means replacing assumptions with careful exposition and application.


Comments are closed.