And You Shall Know the Truth
Great minds don’t always think alike, in spite of our occasional quip to the contrary. Why is it that men of comparable intelligence can read the same Scriptures and come away with diametrically opposed ideas about what they mean? This is more than puzzling; it is troubling to my soul. I recently had a conversation with a fine gentleman. We had an amicable but spirited discussion over the vital issue of divorce and remarriage. While we agreed on a number of points, we remained divided over some critical questions.
I’m sure as we talked we each thought of the other: “Why can’t he see this the way I do?” Or, “What is he seeing that I’m not seeing?” Or even, “Why can’t he see that his position is completely opposed to Christ’s teaching?”
This article isn’t about divorce and remarriage; it’s about the differences among mankind on thousands of issues on which God has spoken. The more one studies church history and modern beliefs, the more disturbing is the doctrinal disparity of the ages. We could speculate about the misguided teaching of others. Jesus noted the hypocrisy of His Pharisaic peers: “For laying aside the commandments of God, you hold the tradition of men … All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mk 7:8-9). Peter says some “will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them … And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words …” (2 Pet 2:1-3). While many passages warn of false teachers and their motives, even this is not the point of this article. The really disturbing question is: Am I the one in error?
The Starting Point. First things first. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:31-32). At the most basic level, we are charged with abiding in the word of Christ. This cannot be done without first understanding it. Many things shed light on that word: patriarchal history; old testament prophecy; the law of Moses; etc., but the bottom line is that we aren’t seeking to resolve the doctrines of Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther or any other man, creed or human organization. We must live and die by the word of God as it has come to us through Christ.
A Student. Those who struggled in school may flinch, but I just don’t see any way around it: we must embrace scholastic study. God formulated His thoughts in words, and those words come to us in English from native languages (Hebrew/Greek); different genres (law, history, poetry, figurative speech, etc.); truths and principles expressed in personal correspondence, examples, historical settings of long-dead cultures; a flood of names of people, towns, rivers, mountains, kings, battles, gods, etc. Embedded in those narratives and precepts is God’s word and will, and we are miners sifting through all that information to find the nuggets of truth. No, we don’t need a doctorate in theology to understand God’s word, but false doctrine can be elaborate and complex. We need to be diligent, thoughtful and wary students, but students nonetheless.
Teachers. God doesn’t tell us to ignore the thoughts of other men in our quest for truth. He doesn’t say, “Sequester yourself; don’t trust anyone; don’t read what others write; just blindly hold your traditions.” Paul tells Timothy, “Hold fast the pattern of sounds words you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13). He then says, “the things that you have heard from me among men witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:2). We must be careful whose teaching we listen to. It is tempting to uncritically guzzle from popular authors, to elevate the dynamic orator, to let a commentary do our thinking for us, to trust in “our” preachers, lectures, magazines, etc. Others have mined knowledge and are willing to share their discoveries, but we are responsible to test them for purity.
An Open Mind. In our quest for truth we seek a balance between (what should be) clear, certain elementary truths and deeper knowledge yet beyond our grasp. This creates mental friction: I know, but I’m still learning. So, do I know accurately? It is easy to train ourselves to think a certain way or look at the Bible through a colored lens. When we encounter an anomaly (and every position has them), we may resolve the discomfort with an illogical but satisfying rationale, never realizing the contradiction. We are digging for treasure which, when found, needs to be cleaned and carefully examined to separate the precious ore from the fool’s gold.
Prayer. This may be the most important component of all, for it is crucial that we conduct our search in the illumination of fellowship with God. As it is His truth we are seeking, we must ask for His help: “Lead me in Your truth and teach me; for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day” (Ps 25:5); “O send out Your light and Your truth! Let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your tabernacle” (Ps 43:4); “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom” (Ps 51:6).
Words Mean Things. While Scripture does contain some ambiguity, we must not surrender to despair: “It’s no use to try and learn truth; the world’s smartest theologians disagree on doctrine.” Academia can hinder more than help; God’s word is intended for all, not merely the intelligentsia. No matter what position you take or how clearly God’s word speaks, someone is lurking nearby with sophisticated arguments to undermine your conclusion. But not every critic is correct. People have their own biases and blind spots. Be honest, trust God, trust your own thinking, keep studying and don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Truth will prevail.