I just read an article in which the author seemed to assume that anything that is said or written about the meaning of Scripture that does not correspond to what Herbert W. Armstrong [the late head of the Worldwide Church of God and still venerated in some quarters] said about it is not “the truth.” This is an absurd position to take. Let me explain why.
If you review the history of Herbert W. Armstrong’s own writings, you will discover that he changed his mind on points many times over the years. What he wrote in 1938 about church government, for example, is closer to truth that what he wrote about it in later years.
At one point, HWA taught that Pentecost must always be observed on a Monday. Later, he revised that opinion.
If you read what HWA wrote about Bible prophecy in the early years of WWII, and compare it with what he wrote in the 50’s, and later, you will find that his prophetic prognostications were in a constant state of flux as circumstances changed.
Over the years of his ministry, HWA modified his teaching on many things: the use of medical doctors, divorce and remarriage, the use of makeup, birthday observance, and many other issues. At what point in time should one freeze the HWA doctrinal package and declare it “perfect,” “orthodox” or “utterly correct”?
Setting Dates for Doctrinal Perfection
Some have actually attempted to do this. One evangelist who broke out on his own on grounds that the WCG was not being true to HWA orthodoxy arbitrarily froze the “truth” about 1955, or thereabouts. Another who formed his own denomination picked a slightly different date.
This mentality is simply ludicrous. Not only was Mr. Armstrong’s doctrinal understanding in a constant state of flux, but there were things about which he wasn’t about to change that were absolutely erroneous. There are issues and doctrines about which Protestants are right and Armstrong was wrong – and vice versa.
There were times when Mr. Armstrong revised a doctrinal teaching because, he said, “I was misled.” So who misled him — other ministers? Bible helps? “Outside” influences? Point is, if he could be misled at all, he might’ve been on any number of occasions. Perhaps not everything that he said and did was inspired?
Those who are held in thrall by the “Armstrong mystique” cling tenaciously to HWA’s teachings as though they were Scripture itself. They walk through life with blinders on, not being able to discern truth from error. For them, truth by definition is whatever HWA said it was – in 1938, 1955, or 1980.
Look, truth is truth. It stands on its own. It can be discovered through the leading of the Holy Spirit and through sound exegetical methodology. HWA didn’t have a corner on the market of truth. It’s available to the whole Church. Truth isn’t truth simply because HWA said it was; it is truth because it can be demonstrated to be true, and for no other reason. Truth is not dependent upon HWA or anyone else to convey it. It’s there for all of us to access.
Exegesis, Not Eisogesis
At the same time, something must be said for sound exegetical technique. Drawing the appropriate meaning and application from Scripture is not always as easy as some people think. Many times we practice eisogesis: reading into Scripture what we want it to mean. Old and New Testament exegesis are different disciplines, requiring different skills. Ultimately, Biblical exegesis answers the question, “What did the Biblical author mean?” Connected with this are what he said, and why he said it. A person who is skilled at New Testament exegesis is able to do eight things (assuming that he or she can read the text in its original language):
- Survey the historical context in general
- Confirm the limits of the passage
- Become thoroughly acquainted with your paragraph or pericope
- Analyze sentence structures and syntactical relationships
- Establish the text
- Analyze the grammar
- Analyze significant words
- Research the historical-cultural background
Each of these items represents an exegetical skill. Each must be learned. We never learned such skills at Ambassador College because to do so might have threatened the doctrinal status quo by enabling bright students to more competently exegete Scripture. In those days, the word of HWA was viewed virtually as Holy Writ. To question it on the basis of exegesis was to commit an act of heresy and disloyalty.
Most, if not all, of the doctrine that was formed in the old WCG was formed on the basis of English-language translations, not on the original texts. It was formed using what most scholars would recognize as inferior or outdated Bible helps.
Today, the handful of real scholars that functioned within the old WCG has been driven out, or is deceased. Doctrine and exegesis are now in the hands of largely unskilled ministers who hold various positions within hierarchies, or who operate independently. Some have simply copped out by adopting the position of the man described at the beginning of this article: HWA was right about everything and that’s all there is to it; end of story. Others, often lacking the necessary skills, have sought to revise HWA’s doctrines and move ahead. Some in the hierarchy of the Neo-WCG are acquiring a valid theological education, but they are also becoming steeped in Evangelical doctrine which is being given the same set-in-concrete status HWA’s teachings are elsewhere. In some ways, this compounds the problem. When it comes to doctrine, the leadership of the Churches of God Pod is all over the map.
If you want to bone up on your personal exegetical skills, let me recommend two smallish, easy-to-use books for starters:
New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors by Gordon D. Fee (the above eight points were taken directly from this book).
Old Testament Exegesis: A Primer for Students and Pastors by Douglas Stuart.
These books are basic. Yet even if you master the exegetical techniques recommended in them, you will not find yourself in a position to pontificate about the meaning of Scripture. Beware the pitfall of unjustified dogmatism. When it comes to exegetical skills, we’re all on a learning curve. There are no recognized exegetical giants among us. It seems that more humility and less dogmatism would therefore be appropriate.