Debunking error or preaching truth?

It is not uncommon to hear preachers highlight a variety of scriptural interpretations and doctrinal statements that, over the course of half an hour or so, are duly debunked ending in the assertion of the supposed correct view. Is this the most helpful approach to biblical teaching? Of course, it is eminently right and proper that correct doctrine based on biblical truth is taught and restated in our churches; nevertheless, the preacher can seek to do this in one of two ways. Either biblical truth can be taught exclusively, without reference to other errant views and interpretations, on the basis that knowledge of truth allows us to recognise anything that is not truth itself. Alternatively, particular errors can be highlighted, demonstrated errant and correct biblical truth taught to steer people directly away from specific errors and clearly towards biblical truth simultaneously.

It is possible to argue that, of these two approaches, the first is the better. By teaching biblical truth exclusively the preacher must make a sound interpretation, backing up each statement he makes with clear verses from the text and can apply his interpretation directly to the people to whom he is speaking. In order to fill a half hour sermon he must state the correct interpretation of scripture, show how he arrived at such an interpretation, illustrate his points clearly and make his points applicable to the people listening rooting all of this in the text. Where the preacher is faithfully doing this he can rest assured that in teaching what is true people will themselves be able to determine that which is false if they so encounter it.

The second approach, however, brings with it a number of difficulties. Firstly, nothing is added to the listener’s understanding of scripture by teaching what the passage does not mean. The aim of teaching should be to aid understand of the meaning of scripture. When we spend time explaining why particular views are errant we are ultimately telling people something they do not need to know. Instead, we should teach primarily what the Bible does mean and in so doing we teach people what they actively need to know as opposed to the endless list of things they do not.

Secondly, the more views we raise in a sermon the greater the possibility of causing confusion. We may offer an expert explanation of why each interpretation, apart from our own, is errant but for many this will come across as just one view amongst a sea of others. The greater number of views we introduce the more this seems to be the case. Moreover, the list of things a passage of scripture is not saying is infinite and we could spend a lifetime explaining what a passage does not mean without ever getting to the point. Far better to spend time simply explaining biblical truth exclusively rather than concerning ourselves with the infinite number of things the passage does not teach.

Thirdly, by highlighting specific false teaching we may bring particular errors to the attention of people who otherwise would not have encountered them. In doing this, the best we can hope for is that those listening will recognise the errant teaching for what it is. More likely, however, we may cause some to investigate the error we highlighted further and, in doing so, may lead some to be swayed by compelling arguments that far exceed the intellectual plane on which our own preaching functions. Furthermore, we may add to this problem ourselves by, no doubt unintentionally, misrepresenting the exact nature of the error we are trying to steer away from. Those that quite legitimately investigate these matters further may see such misrepresentations as unfair criticism and become more inclined towards the error we were trying to direct against because we have unfaithfully represented them. Moreover, where we disagree with an interpretation it is extremely difficult to avoid making straw-man arguments. When we do this we unfaithfully represent views in order to knock them down. This can lead many to see our own interpretation as weak as we can only defend it against the straw-men we put up ourselves. Where we stick to proclaiming biblical truth exclusively, without reference to error, we avoid such accusations.

Fourthly, highlighting numerous errant interpretations can be a means by which some seek to avoid illustrating and applying biblical truth. Instead of seeking to teach biblical truths from the text, illustrate these points and apply them clearly some preachers spend more time stating various errant views and the reasons why they are false. If one highlights only two errant interpretations alongside the supposed correct one – giving a statement of why each is errant and the correct one is true – there is little time left in a sermon for any illustration or real points of application. In reality, this can either be a means of masking an otherwise weak sermon or an attempt to avoid the more difficult aspects of sermon preparation.

Therefore, when we come to a passage we should seek to teach what it states exclusively. We should avoid explaining what the passage does not mean and should avoid highlighting false doctrines and errant interpretations. By faithfully teaching biblical truth exclusively we equip the listener with everything they need to avoid false doctrines and errant interpretations. Where we begin to concern ourselves with tackling such particulars we open ourselves up to a whole host of difficulties that are best avoided by simply teaching the truth of the Bible exclusively.