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Monday, February 25, 2013

Internal Debates and Twisting Scripture

Debates Within The Church

A little over a month ago I wrote about the importance of internal debates to the apologist. To sum it up in one sentence: Internal debates are necessary for the apologist to engage in, so that when they present a case for the truth of Christianity, they are not defending something false that could be used as a defeater for their conclusion of Christianity's truth.

As an apologist, I not only defend the truth of the Christian worldview, but I also defend specific views within the Christian worldview. In many of my interactions, it often comes out that I defend the truth of a view that is not very popular. Sometimes I take a stand against a doctrine that has been held traditionally but, I contend, is false. I receive much resistance and am forced to defend the doctrine scripturally, philosophically, and scientifically (not that I mind that at all). Many Christians are involved in these debates (whether apologists or not). I've written on several occasions about the danger of being emotionally committed to a doctrine that is shown to be false, but today I'd like to look at a more sincere and valid concern that people have when a traditional view is challenged.

A Sincere Concern

Anytime that I offer a view that does not fall in line with what someone has traditionally been taught, I like to provide both a positive argument and a negative argument. Since I am debating within the Church and mainly am debating with those who hold the scripture as inerrant, I like to stick with scriptural evidence first (philosophical and scientific come only if the person recognizes those are valid sources of truth). I will provide scriptural support for my view. I also provide scriptural support for why the opposing view is false. However, when I present these, I often get accused of "reinterpreting" scripture. The implication of that accusation is found in 2 Peter 3:

(15) Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. (16) He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (17) Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.
Verse 16 states that people will come along and twist (reinterpret) the scriptures to make it mean what they want it to mean. Such is done to the detriment of the person. But Peter doesn't stop there; he warns his readers that they need to keep an eye out for these people so that they are not negatively affected.

Because of this, Christians who have been taught that scripture teaches one particular thing are incredibly sensitive to the presence of challenges. Those challenges may very well be twisting scripture and may lead to the twisting of other scripture and ultimately the denial of core doctrines of Christianity, which will lead the person into heresy. Because of the gravity behind such a concern, I do not take such challenges lightly, but that is not to say that I get offended over it. I recognize the validity behind the concern, then explain that my interpretation is coming from a position of biblical inerrancy. I explain that this doctrine requires that our interpretations of any two scriptures may not contradict one another. If they do, one of the interpretations (if not both) is wrong.

Taking It Too Far

However, many Christians take this concern much further than is wise. They believe that any challenge, to any doctrine that they hold, necessarily leads in this direction (heresy), so they resist changing their doctrine regardless of what evidence (even scriptural) is presented. If we are to take this further position, then tradition can never be challenged. Scripture cannot be used to correct tradition- past, present, or future. They elevate tradition (their tradition, mind you) to a level of authority over scripture.

The problem, especially for Protestants, is that Martin Luther challenged the church's tradition based on scripture. The Reformation took place due to the recognition that scripture is authoritative over tradition. The Protestant church exists due to changing tradition based on a reinterpretation of scripture. Now, if Protestants believe that the Reformation was a legitimate event, then they grant that tradition can be wrong and their interpretation of scripture must be reinterpreted. Thus Peter was not saying that all challenges to a view is a twist of scripture, he's saying that his readers need to make sure that they understand what Paul taught (interpret scripture) properly. Which means that there will be people who are interpreting incorrectly and need to be challenged and corrected. That is what I am doing when I challenge tradition.

Back to Martin Luther and the Reformation

I'm not comparing my views to Martin Luther's or saying that because Martin Luther was right, I am too. What I'm saying is that challenging tradition via scripture is legitimate, and the interpretation of scripture that has been held by tradition needs to be tested against the rest of scripture. However, I'm not only speaking to those who need to be challenged, but I am also speaking to those offering the challenge (all internal doctrine debaters, myself included). As with the Reformation, there will be hold-outs. The Roman Catholic Church is alive and well today because members were unwilling to submit tradition to the authority of scripture. Those who challenge tradition need to understand that they may not be successful at convincing people of the correct interpretation of scripture, even though they may have the truth and can scripturally, philosophically, and even scientifically defend it.

The Human Heart Is Sinful

The apologist for internal doctrines of Christianity faces similar obstacles when convincing other Christians of the truth of a doctrine as they do when addressing the unbeliever: the human heart. Since even Christians are still affected by sin, we are not always open to the truth. (Interestingly enough, the very facts that Christians do not agree 100% on all doctrines and are not easily convinced of an alternate doctrine, is evidence for the interpretation of scripture that Christians are still affected by sin. Not all Christians believe that they are still affected by sin [an internal debate], so there is some first-hand evidence for them.) There are many possible reasons for Christians not wanting to see the correct interpretation, but I'm not going to go into those today.

A Warning Against Pride For Both Sides

Now, just because fellow Christians have a sin problem or may not be able to defend their interpretation scripturally, it does not follow that their interpretation is wrong- anyone can believe the right thing for all the wrong reasons. It may very well be that they are right, and you (or I) are wrong. We are all in the same boat. We all have traditions that we hold, and we all have a sin problem. Because of that our reasoning is not infallible. We can be confident that our investigation has led us to the truth and the ability to defend it, but we cannot allow our confidence to swell into pride. We must remember that we were once in the shoes of those we are challenging: holding to a wrong interpretation of scripture and unable to defend it. We must be patient and wait for God to open their hearts to the truth (if He ever does- Christians die with wrong theology all the time). Also keep in mind that someone you disagree with will be reading this post and thinking the exact same thing about you that you are thinking of them. In fact, I know someone is thinking about me what I'm thinking about them.


Internal debates can be very heated because of what is at stake. Anytime that we challenge an interpretation of scripture or a tradition, we can expect push-back. The push-back is most likely founded in a genuine concern for protecting orthodox doctrines of Christianity and the authority of scripture. We need to react accordingly, also understanding that both sides are responsible to provide both defense and offense. Finally, our discussions must be characterized by the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

More Posts On Internal Debates in the Church

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