You can’t reject textual observations because you don’t like the quarters from which they emanate

The other day I wrote about a simple, but important, little question that is vital for our bible studies and sermons. That question was, where do you get that from the text? You can read my post on that here and see why I think, in whatever setting you might find yourself, it is a vital question to be asking.

Today, I wanted to think about an almost inverse problem. We should always be asking this question about where we find our position in the text. But I have noticed another tendency too. It is not unique to people of any one particular theological persuasion. In the recent vexed conversations on twitter surrounding complementarianism, I have seen this on display by advocates of all sides. But it comes up frequently whenever there is a sharp divide between people trying to understand the bible or, perhaps more specifically, people trying to advocate for a particular understanding of the Bible.

Instead of asking, as honestly and straightforwardly as any of us might muster what this passage says, many approach the text with a number of assumptions in mind already. Some of those assumptions – if I can rightly call them that – may well be legitimate ones drawn from other bits of scripture. Some of them may be legitimate outworkings of our biblical framework that we have worked out textually at some point in the past too. After all, most of us who consider ourselves theologically reformed believe our framework is biblically justified so that when we approach a given text there is a level to which it is assumed based on our prior study of the bible. The same happens of particular doctrines too. We may approach the passage with an understanding of certain other doctrines that we bring to bear on the text. We minimally want to correlate our understanding of these doctrines with what we read here. That is all well and good.

But sometimes, we go a little bit further than that because we have particular doctrines in mind. Sometimes, we are not bringing other textual considerations to bear, we are bringing the arguments and views of those who disagree with us on certain doctrines to our reading of the text. It is not at all uncommon, for example, to read a text and draw some conclusions about it. But soon enough, someone pipes up, that people who hold to some wayward interpretation also make that observation and use it as support for their position. This argument is advanced to suggest that what we are reading, plainly in the text, cannot be what we are actually reading. It is this I think we need to stop doing.

It should not matter if those who disagree with us about certain doctrines also make the same observations about the text that we do. It is hardly surprising because we are all reading the same scriptures, after all. Nor is it necessarily an issue for us to affirm certain observations they make from the text and agree with them. Even Satan, when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, was not totally errant in what he said. A hoard of angels would have rescued Jesus if he threw himself down had he so requested it. The issue wasn’t the observation, as Jesus pointed out, the issue was the application. What Satan said was true, but it manifestly wasn’t right. In the same way, those who hold to doctrinal interpretations we deem errant are not necessarily making observations of the text that are wrong (though, of course, sometimes they might be). Often, they make legitimate observations of the text and then apply them wrongly (as we judge it).

But all too often, we throw out the legitimate observations of the text – even the sometimes legitimate applications of the text – because we disagree with where somebody lands after that. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people insist that because someone denies Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) that their observations about Christus Victor (CV) are invalid. I find that a particularly odd flex. I gladly affirm PSA, but that doesn’t mean I don’t buy the CV position either. The idea that Jesus has been victorious over sin, death and Hell is manifestly supportable by the biblical text. Just because I might not like exactly where someone lands after they have affirmed legitimate observations from the text concerning CV doesn’t mean any observation they have made about it is wrong. Nor does it mean, if they make such observations and then apply those things to land in a problematic place, where they land nullifies legitimate observations they have made. If we argue, ‘that’s an interpretation people who reject PSA take in order to justify their argument that PSA is not biblical’ that is not a valid way to read a biblical text. So what if people use a legitimate observation and draw illegitimate conclusions? We figure out what a text is saying first then deal with the potential theological implications after.

Here is the thing, if we are ruling in or out observations and interpretations based on what people we disagree with say, it is not actually the bible we are reading at all. We are not exegeting the text, but our apparent theological opponents. The problem with this is, if that’s what we are ultimately doing, we may end up falling into all sorts of theological error ourselves as we refuse to admit that they might be reading the text rightly and making legitimate observations simply because we don’t agree with their conclusions. If they are rightly reading the text, but we deem it inadmissible, we will necessarily read the text wrongly. Though we might maintain our essential doctrinal issue in doing so, we will end up with a wonky form of that doctrine (at best) or fall into error elsewhere (at worst) because we are refusing to see what others rightly do because we don’t like where they fall elsewhere.

All of that is to say, we need to come back to the question, where is that in the text? It doesn’t matter if the thing we observe in the text is something people we doctrinally disagree with also happen to think. It doesn’t matter if the thing we observe in the text is a core observation that those we doctrinally disagree with use to advance their argument. If it is in the text, then we have to accept that is what is in the text. Otherwise, we are not really reading the text, we are doing theology by exegeting fallible people and their particular arguments.

When we do land on observations that those we deem to have doctrinally erred also land on, presumably we disagree with their doctrinal position for one of two other reasons. Either, there are other textual observations elsewhere in scripture that lead us to a different conclusion. Or, we agree with the observation, but disagree with the application. What we cannot do is insist that legitimate observations of the text are not legitimate because they are also made – or even landed on heavily to advance their case – by people who disagree with us doctrinally.

It is often noted that the church is usually on some sort of pendulum swing. I think something of that exists doctrinally too. Whenever the latest doctrinal aberration arises, the instinct of many is to pull the pendulum as far in the opposite direction as possible. The problem with doing this, of course, is that sometimes doctrine is neither all one thing or another. You could easily pull the pendulum away from insisting there are no persons within the Godhead, there is just one being and one person, and end up arguing for three persons but because you reject the legitimate observations of the text made by your unitarian opponents, end up arguing to tri-theism by ruling them inadmissible. In desperately seeking to avoid one error, and keeping as far away from any observation made by advocates of it, you can fall headlong into another.

I am convinced a lot of this goes on within the vexed conversations concerning complementarianism. Many complementarians (rightly in my view) want to avoid an egalitarianism that they think is not supported by scripture. But in seeking to avoid egalitarianism, many refuse to acknowledge even legitimate observations and interpretations of biblical texts from those quarters. Ruling inadmissible anything someone egalitarian might argue, in my view, is what has led to a certain brand of cultural complementarianism – dare I say a particular US form and a specific subset of US culture at that – coming to the fore and being insisted on as complementarianism proper. It often seems like, in a bid to keep away from the doctrine they reject, there can be no admission that those who disagree can ever read the text rightly. This, in my view, has led to a particularly wonky complementarianism. A complementarianism that may be right on the essential question, but that goes well beyond what scripture either tempers elsewhere or says at all. These are points that egalitarians will inevitably (of course they would) use to bolster their case. But those observations get ruled as inadmissible because of the quarters from which the observation gets made. Which means legitimate textual observations that would temper the application of right doctrine are rejected and lead to a doctrinal truth held and practised in a bastardised form.

Which is why it is so important to come back to that key question: where did you get that from the text? It is why when we are upholding doctrinal truths, we don’t exegete the motives of people bringing the observation, we just ask is that in the text or not? If it is, then we have to accommodate it alongside what we understand from the rest of scripture. It isn’t good enough to say we don’t like, or agree, with the people bringing the observation so we’ll reject it out of hand. It isn’t good enough to say we don’t like what they will do with it if we admit it, so we will reject it out of hand. Rather, if it is legitimately in the text, we have to accept it and figure out how it fits with our understanding of other texts. There is a whole other blog post here about basic biblical interpretation which I’m not going to get into here. Suffice to say, the question is and must always be, where did you get that from the text? We might not like what the text says, but honesty and understanding God’s Word properly demands that we observe the text on its own terms. The theological implications we necessarily work out after that in light of what else scripture may have to say.