As I commonly state on these pages, there is only one theology for which you will answer: your own. I will answer for what I teach, but you are ultimately responsible (as we all are) for what you believe. To that end, there are a number of doctrines I will say are "in pencil." That is, I am still not fully convinced and may erase and start again. Other doctrines are in indelible ink and form the foundation of my faith.
Our God is merciful and patient God. He welcomes and encourages the study of his revelation to man. He knows we are but dust. He knows our frailty and limitations. We must learn to present any of our convictions as humbly as possible. There are millions of believers, each at a different place. That does not mean that all beliefs are equally valid, and it certainly does not mean that none is above question. Quite the opposite, we need to be prepared to defend why we believe what we believe.
With that in mind, I present three primary hindrances to an honest study of God's revelation. They're really three sides of the same problem, but subtly different.
Submission to an earthly authority
Readers of this blog will know, I come from a devout and conservative Catholic background. One of the most fascinating things about coming out of from under that authority is my ability to now understand how much I surrendered uncritically to its teaching.
I've seen it so often since I've left the RCC as I reach back to try and reach Catholics with the truths of scripture. The pattern has been so consistent that I now just tell them where the conversation will go, and despite the warning, we somehow end up there. That is, I know how their traditions will negate truth. They have submitted their responsibility before God to an earthly authority. The more clever ones will see the path they're on and try to avoid it (as a I was able to do in my last days a Catholic apologist), but there is no escaping it. For examples, see my post on this topic.
I was fortunate to be teaching a high school Religious Education class in my parish at a time when I was suddenly eager to understand my Bible. I had my textbooks. I had my training. I had my arguments. I had my reference books. I was forced to try and bring all the truths in the Bible under the authority of my church. But my church's authorities could not agree. Popes contradicted popes. Councils contradicted councils. Church fathers contradicted Church fathers.
But it is not only the Catholics who are victims of this submission. Find and ism is Christendom and it usually demands some degree of submission. From staunch Calvinism to Classical Dispensationalism. When someone lies down in comfort on the continuum, no matter what they read, see, or hear, they slide back to their starting point.
Isolating a verse
The title of this blog is "Context or Confusion." The most important factor in a proper interpretation of any word, verse, chapter, or book of the Bible is its context. While many would agree with this in spirit, they deny it in practice.
A verse is chosen because it seems to fit the already decided upon conclusion regarding a particular doctrine. No care is give to audience or conditions or purpose of a verse unless it lands the adherent safely in his place on the continuum.
There are even instances where I have heard a preacher only read half a verse lest he introduce a possible difficulty. Such is the case with Matthew 8:12.
the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth
I heard a well-known preacher preach 45 minutes on half this verse. He scared his listeners into thinking either they or their loved ones would end up being tortured by fire based on this verse. Well, not on this verse, but on half this verse, "[They] will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
No fire mentioned here. And, more of a problem, the subject of the verse. It is not unbelievers. It is spoken of "the sons of the kingdom." The other two mentions of this outer darkness (both in Matthew) involve a "friend" of the king and a "servant."
This practice is commonplace. Jeremiah 29:11; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Ezekiel 36:26. How many people take one or all of these as "life verses?" In their contexts, they may reveal the heart of God on one level, but they are promises very specifically for Israel.
We have seen this error and have covered it several times in regard to the New Covenant. How clear does scripture need to be that this covenant is only for those who had the old covenant? And just to be sure we get it, God lists the House of Israel and The House of Jacob for us. People read themselves into the last supper. They take it from its context and create a new ordinance which is foreign to scripture.
The examples are legion. The point is that we cannot isolate verses. Yes, some are harder than others to completely discern every deep thought of God, but wresting a verse from its context is a dangerous practice.
Earlier this year we covered, in a 3-part series, a ministry and book proposing that we are the "real Jews." One verse was isolated in Romans and all other scriptures in regard to the topic of Jews in Acts Age and beyond were filtered through that one verse.
Checking a theological answer key
As I've noted, these three traps are related. The previous two seem to be wrapped up in this error. And this error is perpetuated by the clergy system. Someone attends a seminary, he is given an answer key, he gets a diploma, he now has all the answers. Men and women submit to his title. He takes whatever verse he comes across and isolates it according to the seminary/denominational answer key.
Occasionally, you find someone who does not find satisfaction with the answer key he is given, so he trades it for another. We've seen this with men like Scott Hahn and Hank Hanegraaff. But at the end of the day, they are looking for a system and men under which they can submit.
How many in Christendom submit to scripture and the "early church fathers" and the catechism and the "church constitution?" Read that carefully. Many who profess to hold to the scripture alone as their authority will gladly submit to these other things.
Men submit to a pastor. But that pastor can do nothing except submit to a system lest he lose his position. Some men leave one system for another, but they trade one answer key for another so they can get a similar position in another place.
We do not want to be blown about by every wind of doctrine, but we do want to be sure our theology is consistent and we must be willing to leave some things in pencil if they do not fit perfectly. They may never fit perfectly, but that is between the believer and the Lord. If we accept an answer key as our theology, the faith is not truly our own.
Having verses which seem to not fit the denominational or system box we'd like for them to fit in often moves the believer to settle into the simplistic. The Baptist may "claim" Jeremiah 29:11 as the Catholic will claim Matthew 16:18. Both will ignore, not only the inconsistencies with the rest of scripture in their interpretations, but they will also ignore the immediate context. This leads to grandiose doctrines stated as simplistic standards. The entire Catholic Church monstrosity is built on a single verse taken out of context and the implication quickly dismissed by the Catholic who uses it as his defense.
From the preaching side, since all scripture has to fit some rather narrow tunnels to remain consistent with the "statement of faith" or catechism, we often get the same sermons over and over again, only from different launching points.
I have given these examples before. First, I was in a very old and traditional and conservative Southern Baptist church. We had a guest pastor, a revered man in his 80s, come work with us as we searched for a full-time workers. He started a series on the Book of Acts. But it wasn't really a series on the Book of Acts, it was about 6 messages on basic topics using a verse here or there from the Book.
I started to joke about this form of teaching:
"Open your Bibles to Ephesians chapter 8."
"There is no Ephesians 8."
"OK, Ephesians 7."
"There is no Ephesians 7."
"Ugh. Just give me a verse, I'm going to preach the same thing anyway."
In another encounter, I discussed a concern a woman had with some verses which didn't seem to fit her theological tradition. I laid out the verses in their contexts and walked her through the practice of Right Division. She was grateful, but concluded our exchange with something like "that makes sense, but it's not what my church teaches." Sad.