Many of us, some more than others, simply want to know the truth about things. I want that more than anything. But, as Jack Nicholson said in his famous movie line, some of us “can’t handle the truth.” Often the truth about things is a bitter pill that resists swallowing.
A significant number of us believe that we have already apprehended the truth, and now it’s just a matter of endlessly defending it against heretics like me.
The fact is truth is often elusive. The world turns out to be more complex than we had ever imagined. Knowledge has been increased to such an extent that people have to become specialists to know anything about anything. The medical profession is a prime example of this phenomenon. If you belong to an HMO – health maintenance organization – your medical fate lies in the hands of a general practitioner who is viewed by the HMO as a “gatekeeper.” It is his or her job to assign you to one of more than forty-four kinds of specialists, or to a hospital.
The same phenomenon exists in just about any field: art, science, writing, engineering or architecture. The world of theology is no exception. There is no way that one man or woman, armed with a Strong’s Concordance and a few obsolete commentaries, can possibly know all there is to know about God, the Bible and doctrine.
“But you’re forgetting the factor of inspiration,” you say. No I’m not. I recognize with Paul that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God…because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14). The Bible came from the Spirit of God (II Timothy 3:16). It takes the Spirit of God to understand it. But that’s not all it takes. It also takes work and the application of scholarly principles (II Timothy 2:15). The word “study” in this verse is the Greek spoudazo meaning: “be zealous, be eager, take pains, make every effort” (BAG, p. 763). Study is work, but it’s work in vain if we don’t apply legitimate exegetical principles to the task. It is illegitimate to arbitrarily read meaning into a verse and then to claim inspiration for so doing. That’s called eisogesis – reading meaning into a text.
John R. W. Stott puts it this way: “…we have no liberty to impose on biblical words meanings they were never intended to bear” (Christian Mission in the Modern World, p. 14). E.D. Hirsch says, “a text means what its author meant” (Validity in Interpretation quoted by Stott).
To find out what a text means, we must avail ourselves of the tools of scholarship. Those who are anti-scholarship, or anti-intellectual, will find themselves on the outside looking in. Or, worse yet, they will find themselves locked into a cult of personality in which all meaning is determined arbitrarily by the personality around whom the cult rotates. Look up the history of the Jonestown massacre to find out where this sort of thing can lead. Jones, who was responsible for the deaths of more than 900 of his faithful followers, during one of his sermons once threw a Bible to the floor and said, “Too many people are looking at this instead of me” (Newsweek, December 4, 1978, p. 56). So people looked to Jones instead of to the Bible, and paid for it with their lives.
Enemies of Truth
Especially in today’s world, truth has its enemies. In our current “civil war of values,” the Left seeks to expunge Biblical truth wherever possible. Even though we are internally divided against each other, the Left sees us all of a kind. The Left wants to see a secular, socialist world in which Government, run by an all-knowing elite, functions as God. The true God, and his truth are therefore competitors to be defeated. Consequently, the truth of God is becoming an ever more precious commodity in a world that conspires relentlessly against it. It behooves those of us who are “of the truth” (I John 3:19) to get our act together.
Instead of splitting over our differences, we need to unite in our commonalities. It is upon those that we can build. The center of everything is Jesus Christ. He is the head of the Church and no man is (I Corinthians12:27). The Holy Spirit is our guiding light (John 14:26). It is God the Father who calls (John 6:44) and, if necessary, who prunes (John 15:1-2). And it is the Bible that is our touchstone – the Book that enables us to determine whether or not we are on track (II Timothy 3:15). But if we don’t agree on what the Bible actually says and means, against what do we measure?
It is important that the Churches of God stop arguing and start dialoguing. If this small microcosm of the larger Church can learn to come together, then the larger entity can too. I’m not referring here to unity for its own sake, or to unity in error, but unity in truth. I’m speaking of finding the common denominators of understanding and building upon them. The leaders of the various denominations and groups – including Worldwide and United et al – should get together regularly and talk about how they can break down the barriers that exist between them, and learn how to cooperate with each other in ministering to the people at their true points of need. So long as leaders are protecting their fiefdoms, it won’t happen. In Christ’s overview, we are all brethren – so we need to begin to act like it.
The objective should be, not to find out what’s “wrong” with everyone else’s teaching, but to discover what’s right with it. Where can we find common ground? Upon what can we agree? From what points can we move ahead?
Truth is truth. Anyone can find it wherever it lies. It is not the exclusive domain of an autocratic hierarchy of self-appointed authorities. The pearl of great price is out there, lying in the field, and everyone has access to the field. The issue is: how zealously will we dig to find it?
Ignoble Motives Thwart Truth
So long as self-appointed leaders are protecting incomes, ecclesiastical power bases, and lifestyles, the objective quest for truth will be thwarted. The apostle Paul, writing to his protégé, Timothy, said, “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (I Timothy 6:3-5 NIV). The word translated “godliness” here is eusebeia meaning “piety, religion” (BAG). The Beck translation renders this last phrase as follows: “…who think that religion is a way to make money.” This translation seems to accurately depict the intent of Paul’s words.
If money and power is the goal, the group will head in one direction. If truth is the objective, the group will head in another. The starting point in understanding truth is the teachings of Jesus Christ himself (Luke6:46; Matthew 28:20). Then we must understand how his own disciples – later apostles – understood his teachings (Acts 2:42). Once we’ve reached that point in our studies, we will be better equipped to determine how those teachings apply to our day and time.