It’s not uncommon to hear Christians claim that other Christians are “denying the word of God.” This is a pretty serious accusation, so we should probably be careful about making this kind of claim. After all, it’s certainly possible to deny the word of God; people do it all the time. However, we mock God and mangle what he’s spoken to us when we flippantly claim that others are denying the word of God every time they merely disagree with us.
Too often what happens is that we make our argument for something that we should believe, teach, or do from scripture and then if someone disagrees with our argument, we claim that they are denying the word of God. After all, our argument is based on the scriptures, right? Therefore, if they deny what we’re saying, they’re denying what the scriptures say as well. Not so fast. We have to deal with the fact that we might be wrong. We can’t assume we’re right for the sake of argument. Telling someone that they’re denying the word of God when they deny your interpretation of the word is the same thing as asserting that you really are right when someone tells you that you’re wrong. The question is usually not whether what the word says is true; the question is, what does the word actually say?
But the Scriptures are Clear!
Now, someone might object because we believe that God’s word is clear; we believe that it actually communicates. The scriptures actually have something to say to us that’s not dependent on our interpretations. In other words, the scriptures are not “open to interpretation” in the sense they can mean for you whatever you want them to mean. This is true.
In a similar vein Luther discusses at the beginning of his Bondage of the Will that the scriptures as a whole speak clearly to God’s people. In other words, they speak coherently. They do not speak in such a contradictory manner that there is no hope of ever understanding anything from them, as some claimed in Luther’s day (and our own as well).
But this doesn’t mean that it will always be easy to understand how to rightly interpret the scriptures. It especially doesn’t mean that individual passages will be clear. Hardly anybody would deny this. But we often go against this when we make appeals to the supposed “plain reading” of the scriptures (something I write about here). However, this ignores the fact that what the plain reading is to us will not be the plain reading to someone else, and neither of these may have been the plain reading to the original intended audience of the writing in the first place. In other words, there is no point in asserting that “the text is clear!” in an argument.
For example, it seems perfectly clear to many Pentecostals and charismatics that the New Testament discussion of being baptized with water and the Spirit is talking about two separate events. You’ve gotta get baptized with water and then after that you can get baptized with the Spirit, whatever that means. Yet, most in the Christian tradition read this as a single event. Any baptism is a water and spirit baptism. The “and” there is not short for “and then,” but is more like the “’n” in chicken ‘n waffles, biscuits ‘n gravy, or macaroni ‘n cheese. We could easily accuse each other of “denying the word,” but that would be foolish and unproductive since we are both (presumably) trying to interpret the word faithfully.
This doesn’t mean that we’re both right in some strange way. Not at all. At least one of us is wrong. Maybe even both. But the only way to begin to figure that out is to talk about what the word of God actually says instead of getting into a fight about who is the bigger heretic.
Asking the Wrong Questions
Another common problem is that we often ask the wrong questions of the scriptures. Or to put it another way, we don’t ask questions that the scriptures are trying to answer. Instead we ask questions that are not being addressed by the writers themselves in their own contexts. We ask questions that we’re interested in. And then we’re surprised when people come to different conclusions.
For example, a lot of our discussion on the Lord’s Supper is focused on understanding what the Lord’s Supper is, that is, in what sense are the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ? Perhaps, it is merely a symbol as Zwingli argued in the 16th century and others still argue? Or perhaps the substance of the bread (the part of the bread that gives it its breadness apart from it’s color, weight, taste, smell, texture, etc.) is changed into the substance of Christ’s body? Or perhaps Christ is really present, but only spiritually. Or maybe Christ is present in, with, and under the bread and wine, whatever that means.
Now, it’s true that all of these positions are trying to interpret the scriptural data that we have on this issue, which isn’t much by the way, so that we can say how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper. But any attempt to answer this question definitively will necessarily need to appeal to external philosophical assumptions and frameworks that would be imposed on the text.
This is not to say that some answers to this question are better than others. As for me, I’m a fan of the Lutheran answer (surprise, surprise). I believe that it does the best job of being faithful to how the scriptures talk about the Lord’s Supper, while avoiding the unnecessary philosophizing that many other answers engage in.
It’s also true that we can make conclusions about questions that are not necessarily the intended questions by the text. For example, in Genesis 3 the serpent is the source of deception and evil that causes Adam and Eve to rebel against God and fall into sin. One of the interesting parts of this narrative is that no explanation is given about who this serpent is, where he came from, or what he does after this. But there are a few things that could be said. For example, it’s clear that the serpent is not God, since he seems to exist to contradict God and spread evil. He must therefore be in some sense part of God’s creation, since God created all things that are not himself. It also make sense to say that the serpent was not created evil, but somehow fell into evil by rebelling against God, since after all, God’s creation is very good. God is not the author of evil. Note that the text itself doesn’t say any of these things; these are not the questions that the text is trying to answer. But these are valid conclusions in light of the larger canon of scripture. It would be invalid and inconsistent with the rest of scripture to assert things like the serpent is some pre-existent, equal competitor against God.
All this being said, it is still important that we recognize that these are not questions that the text is seeking to answer. This should cause us to be humble and hesitant about any answers we give to these sorts of questions. We don’t want to spend too much time with our own questions but instead stop and listen to the questions that the text itself has to answer. These questions are the focus. These questions are the ones that the text is inviting us to ponder.
What Denying the Word Actually Looks Like
It’s helpful to recognize that most theological statements are the results of pulling together several texts that together teach a particular doctrine. There may be a particular text or texts that act as a go-to anchor for a doctrine, but theological assertions are almost always the results of multiple texts coming together within an interpretive framework. This is why it’s hard to say that someone who might be wrong is “denying the word.” It’s not to say that theological truth is merely a matter of personal preference. But it’s to humbly recognize the complexity of these kinds of questions. We can assert that someone is wrong. But it’s usually unhelpful to assert that someone is denying the word.
Honestly, the only time I think it makes sense to say that someone is denying the word is when they themself recognize that that scriptures say one thing and yet they believe something else. This is rare among Christians, but this is what denying the word would actually look like.
Because of this, two people might hold the same position on an issue, but one might be denying the word while the other one isn’t.
An analogy might be helpful. Imagine two different mothers tell each of their teenage daughters that they need to be back home that night by ten o’clock. The first daughter either misheard or misremembers what her mother said. She thought her mother said to be back by eleven o’clock, and so she comes back home before eleven. The other daughter however resents being told when to come back home. So, she intentionally stays out past ten and isn’t back until before eleven. Both daughters came back at about the same time, but it doesn’t make sense to say that the first daughter was being disobedient. She didn’t do what her mother asked her to do, but she’s not disobedient. The second daughter on the other hand is most certainly being disobedient to her mother.
Denying the word is kind of like this. Someone who is merely wrong is not denying the word. They are wrong, but it’s unhelpful and inaccurate to accuse such a person of denying the word.
And ultimately, if we take this to heart, we can begin to have better conversations and dialogues with those that we disagree with in the church. People will still be wrong, and we’ll still disagree on things. But theological disputes quickly become very personal and people become extremely emotionally involved. These kinds of questions cut deeper to the core of who we are and how we define ourselves in a way that many other questions and issues usually don’t. However, since we know that, we need to do whatever we can to diffuse the blinding effect these emotional barriers can have to genuine and productive dialogue.
Furthermore, since doing this will help us to recognize the importance of interpretive frameworks in how we answer theological questions, we will focus more on discussing how we read and interpret the scriptures most faithfully, since this is where our real differences lie.
See also: What Do We Really Mean by “Inerrancy”?