It happens all the time. Two Bible-believing people have opposing views on a certain passage of Scripture. Both claim to have solid supporting evidence in terms of context, cross-references and consistency. Both make what they think are reasonable arguments for their interpretations. So how can we determine which view is right? And does it matter?
Using elementary logic, there are four possibilities regarding accuracy. Either
- View A is 100% right and View B is all wrong, or
- View B is 100% right and View A is all wrong, or
- Both A and B are partly right and partly wrong, or
- Both are 100% wrong.
But again, how can it be determined which possibility is the right one? And does it matter?
Based on probability, it is most likely that both views are partly right and partly wrong. With the exception of clear-cut fundamental Bible teaching — sometimes called “first principles” — no one should expect to find the full, complete, all-aspects-covered answer.
For example, a Bible student can be precise and meticulous in interpreting the known evidence, but what about the unknown? Scripture is so richly significant and interwoven that discovery of another aspect or realization of another line of inquiry is just a matter of time. Several times in the 20th century alone, discoveries of ancient texts — in fact, whole libraries of ancient texts — have thrown new light on Bible passages. Ongoing archaeological investigations continue to help us understand God’s inspired Record better.
There are many reasons why an avid Bible student will never stop learning:
- There is always more to learn.
- Even the most diligent and knowledgeable student doesn’t understand everything.
- Even some theory or prophetic interpretation that is 99% correct is still 1% wrong, or 1% incomplete.
- No one should be unalterably dogmatic on a matter (with the possible exception of first principles).
- To stop learning, or to stop being open to the prospect of learning something, is to give way to pride and presumption.
Why do we add: ‘with the possible exception of first principles’? Can’t we be 100% certain of first principles? Not necessarily.
- For one thing, our first principles are expressed in man’s imperfect wording; there is always the possibility of simple misunderstanding of what, precisely, those words mean.
- For another thing, some of the first principles, at least, are only temporarily true. For example, we believe it is fundamental that the dead are in their graves and know nothing. But when Christ returns, many of the dead will be raised, and —for some at least — that first principle will be a thing of the past.
- Likewise, we believe it is fundamental that the Holy Spirit gifts and powers are unavailable to us today, but when the Kingdom of God is about to be established, then the glorified saints will surely have such powers. One day the ‘first principle’ is true, and the next day it isn’t!
If we are spiritually growing as disciples of Christ, we are continually seeking to increase in knowledge and understanding. God’s Truth invites… indeed, it welcomes… investigation. So when encountering a different view, we should seize the opportunity at least to understand the evidence provided. We can always learn something, and if we’re wise, we may need to adjust our own views accordingly.
So what has all this to do with Bible study? Simple. There are many differing interpretations of Scripture. Which view is right? The measuring stick for soundness and rightness must be God’s Word. It’s that simple.
Of course, many other views (with which we may disagree) cite Bible verses as evidence. Thus it becomes a matter of determining:
- The relevance of the cited passage: Does it contain the same or similar words and ideas?
- Its validity: Does it really support the point being argued?
- Its clarity: Is the reference self-explanatory, or does it, too, need interpretation?
- Its consistency: Is the interpretation in harmony with undisputed fundamentals of Bible teaching?
For example, if an opinion is inconsistent with or contradicts well-known Bible facts and doctrine, then it must be modified accordingly, or abandoned. So just because a view is argued by citing dozens of verses does not, in itself, make it Biblically sound. What counts is clear, relevant evidence, logically arrived at.
But who is to decide what is relevant, valid, clear and consistent? In the opening paragraph, the scenario was about two people claiming solid Bible evidence and sound reasoning. How are solidness and soundness evaluated? And how is one view determined to be more right than another? Well, there are rules of logic and argumentation and applicability that can serve as a measuring stick, but the issue goes beyond academic accuracy. It’s still necessary to remind ourselves of the other question: ‘Does it matter?’
Does it matter?
When two Bible-believing people have opposing views on a Bible passage, does it matter if one is more right than the other?
Yes and no. It does matter if a person’s misunderstanding of a Bible passage, or several passages, will take him or her out of the way that leads to salvation. It doesn’t matter if the view is simply differing details such as timing and location and protagonists.
For example, if one’s view is that all believers will be “raptured” to be with Christ, and so they will totally avoid the last days tribulation, that person might be shaken in faith upon finding that he has to endure the tribulation, as Scripture plainly teaches will be the experience of some believers at least (cp 1Pet 4:12,13; Luke 21:34-36; Rev 2:10; 6:9-11; 7:14; 11:3-8).
On the other hand, if one’s view is that the Judgment of Christ will be held at Mount Sinai, while another’s view is that the Judgment will take place in Jerusalem, then the actual location seems to have little relevance to larger issues. Thus holding one view or the other can scarcely jeopardize one’s salvation. Historically, we Christadelphians have always understood that there is a distinct difference between (what Bro. Roberts famously called) “true principles” and “uncertain details”.
How we deal with our differences
Finally, there is how we deal with our inevitable differences.
Suppose a person with a particular view is 100% right on an issue that could easily affect the salvation of a person with a different view. The matter doesn’t stop here. If the first person (the one who is perfectly right) is not patient, gentle and meek in trying to persuade the second person (2 Tim 2:24,25), but rather impatient, harsh and accusatory (manifested by strong words, condescension, indignation, arrogance, or threats), then his correctness counts for little:
“The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24,25).
Wrong behavior more than cancels out right knowledge. If anyone has been blessed to have the right understanding of Scripture, then he or she has the responsibility to be forthright but caring toward those who do not yet share that understanding. Such patient, gentle teaching imitates the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself.
Questions we should never cease asking ourselves, and about which we should never cease examining ourselves:
- Which view is right?
- Have you examined all the evidence?
- Are you absolutely sure?
- Does the difference really matter?
- How should you deal with the difference?