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Doing Theology is About Pursuing Truth, Not Prejudice

How hard it is to avoid the innate desire that we all have to confirm our prejudices through our studies. Our pursuit of truth, more times than not, resembles an exercise of a passionate search for evidences that fit our presupposed conclusions. In other words, we know what we know, then we seek to confirm what we know.

It is always more comfortable to be than to become.

Becoming involves humility which calls for change. Change is not really on the agenda for most of us. Yes, we may call ourselves sinners and express the need to change, but when change presents its resume, we reject it, contriving a long list of excuses. It does not matter whether it has to do with theology or an argument with your spouse, we believe we are right and we will do everything to present our case in the best possible light. It is a fearful thing to even consider that we might be wrong.

I believe that this methodology is dishonoring to God, no matter what you are trying to defend—even if it is the truth. This methodology is sin. Better: we use this methodology because we are sinners

Last week a dear man and former professor Harold Hoehner died. He was many of the profs at Dallas Theological Seminary who emulated this love for truth. He challenged us in every way, causing us to question our most basic presuppositions in order to truly hold to them. Two years ago a book was written in honor of Dr. Hoehner. The result was one of the best book in New Testament studies available. The following except is taken from Interpreting the New Testament Text [Darrel Bock and Buist Fanning eds. (Crossway, 2006), p. 156]. David Lowery, New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes about the importance of validating our studies. I don’t think I have ever read a finer exhortation concerning the integrity that we must possess when pursuing truth. While this is written specifically to exegetes (those who interpret the Scripture), you can also apply it to all those who seek truth in any area of study. Please read it carefully.

“This process may be better understood by clarifying what it is not. It is not a matter of coming to a conclusion about the interpretation in question at the beginning of the process and arguing the case for that point of view by citing the data that seems supportive of it. In other words, an exegete is not an advocate, like a lawyer representing a client. A good lawyer will try to put his client and his case in the best possible light. He knows what conclusion he wants to reach before the trial begins and will seek to discount (or exclude) the relevance of any data that may prove problematic for winning agreement on the point of view he is putting forward.

Most of us would welcome a lawyer like this arguing our case in a trial. However, many biblical interpreters are confused about their proper role, and function for all practical purposes like lawyers arguing a point of view. They decide at the beginning of the process what view they regard as most compatible with their theological or ecclesiastical or personal conviction and then work to demonstrate the reasonableness of this interpretation against all competing interpretations. If certain data are problematic for their interpretation, they are ignored or discounted. It is a regrettable fact that many sincere (though misguided) people carry out research and writing as theological lawyers rather than biblical interpreters. Please do not be one of them

I hesitate to belabor this point but want to say as clearly as possible that manipulating the data of the text to support a particular point of view is not authentic exegesis or interpretation, and it is not validation that has any integrity of method associated with it. When you as a researcher detect this bogus approach to exegesis in the writing you are reading (or the lecture you are hearing), regard it as the wishful thinking of its author that it is. If you own writing of this sort, the only reason to read it is as an example of what not to do (libraries, by virtue of their role, routinely find shelf space for work of this sort and must be excused). Let no one say of you that you made up your mind about your conclusion before you started the process of validation. Instead, aim to follow the data to the most probable conclusion. Practice integrity of method. Your conclusion may be unsettling to you and may create more than a little personal tension (a circumstance that may never be resolved for some issues: welcome to life in an imperfect world). But you (and those you minister to) will be better for it if you treat the data with integrity (and you will not be a phony exegete).”

Can I take some liberties here? Manipulating the data to support your belief, no matter what this belief is, is not authentic Christianity and does not honor God. Christians should be above this.

This is often a problem with Christian apologists (or any type of apologist). Many apologists intent on defending the Christian faith (or their particular version of it) follow an “obscurantist” methodology where all the evidence that supports their conclusions is brought to light while all that which may cast doubt on their conclusions is never revealed or presented in a manipulated light. When their goal becomes to win an argument, truth will more than likely get lost through a polished rhetoric. In other words, truth becomes the servant of their argument rather than their argument the servant of truth. They may persuade those who are not really searching for truth (including themselves), but, in the end, they hurt their cause and dishonor Christ. I have read countless blog posts from Catholics scholars, worked through many apologetics books from (. . . ahem) Calvinists, and seen seminars from marriage apologists who were simply trying to hold marriages together (a good thing) that are guilty of defending their prejudice before defending the truth by manipulating the data.

(Please note that I understand that there are some wonderful exceptions to this in Christian apologetics—Rob Bowman being one of them. But I can also name dozens of apologists of all sorts—those of my tradition and those outside—who, I believe, are doing more harm than good for their cause because they are not honest with the data.)

Let none of us be able to be accused of using twisted, skewed, bent, shadowed, spurious, or in any other way manipulated information to defend your faith. We don’t need this. Christians are advocates of truth, not our prejudices. We must follow the truth wherever it leads, even if it takes us in places we do not want to go. God help us all to stop shaming His name by seeking our truth rather than the truth. In the end, the two might correspond. But it is impossible to know until we have entertained its opposite. Again, we follow truth, not prejudice.

I will be the first to admit that I am bent in this direction. Sadly I can give many illustrations where I was the one “protecting” truth by obscuring the data. I can only hope and pray that I have the courage to do this less tomorrow than I did yesterday. I am sorry when this has not been the case.

19 Responses to “Doing Theology is About Pursuing Truth, Not Prejudice”

  1. Aw man, I can’t tell you how much I’ve been thinking of this same thing. In fact, I was cooking up something on theological agendas and the self-interest of the flesh. And I think that self-interest, that we all have to contend with, can drive how we want to see the outcomes. In this way, we can become intellectually dishonest with the text because the end product becomes more important. One of my profs has driven home the fact that we all have some presuppositions that will taint our perspective and we have to be honest about what those are. This, I think, is about recognizing what our particular self-interests are the things that drive it. I believe you’re right, sin is at the heart of it; sin operating through the flesh because it will never want to bow down to the reality of God’s truth. It’s something we all have to contend with, which makes approaching God’s word with utmost humility and intellectual honesty, so vitally important.

  2. This is quite a good post Michael. I think I am in general agreement with the quote. Although I think the issue is a little more complex. We are after all at least partially a product of previous environments. We don’t come to the Bible completely blank, and even our concept of knowledge has assumptions. Our underlying hermeneutic may differ so we are not even starting at the same point. Think midrash versus historical-grammatical.

    So I think we need to be aware of confirmation bias. Perhaps it is more, as others have mentioned, a spiral. Being honest with Scripture such that our destination is the core even if we start somewhere away from the truth.

    I also slightly differ in that dialogue may be framed from our previous biblical experience. We come to a discussion with principles we have learnt from Scripture and in demonstrating the principle we may search for a passage that illustrates this. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this approach.

    So what I see as important is a willingness to learn from Scripture, a willingness to change one’s ideas in response to Scripture. A refusal to misuse Scripture in illustrating a point.

    You are right not to ignore difficult passages. Rather the passage that doesn’t fit is often helpful in deepening our understanding. It is wrestling with the hard passage we make progress. We see that the Bible doesn’t say what we thought it did; for example the Bible’s claim may be asymmetrical when we had assumed it was symmetrical. We develop a theology that is true to all of the passages talking to an area, not just our favourite ones.

  3. Humm…I know that I have prejudices. They are born out of my experience. I cannot do away with my experiences but I can seek to add to them so that my prejudices, should they be unjust, can be changed. I think however that it is impossible to seek truth in a vacuum. If you are not standing somewhere to begin with you cannot go forward, backward, up, down, or to the side.

  4. Very good and challenging. We must approach the study of Scripture and theology not with gun-slinger mentality (shooting down the opponent), but humbly moving towards the truth. Since He is truth, He will be faithful to confirm it.

  5. I am in full sympathy with this post. Please allow me to re-post a consideration which I think might be relevant here. (I originally posted it about a 7 months late under Copan’s “Doing Philosophy under the Cross”.)

    There is a tension between being a Christian and being a (sincere) student of philosophy. Here’s one way to put it.

    The task of understanding the arguments for an alternative point of view naturally puts you at some risk of changing your own beliefs. Now if your eternal salvation depends upon having a particular belief (i.e., your belief in truth of the Gospel), then is it really worth it to put this particular belief at risk in order to understand alternative arguments? Suppose, not unrealistically, that there were a strong and presumably causal correlation between the study of David Hume’s philosophical works and the loss of one’s faith in the Gospel. In such a case, shouldn’t you (generally speaking) avoid studying David Hume?

    On the other hand, if you allow such fears to determine what you study, and you avoid certain arguments because they might change your beliefs, then you have compromised your willingness to expose yourself in good faith to the best opposing arguments and to follow evidence and reason to wherever they might lead. And when you make this sort of compromise, it seems somehow dishonest to say that you are truly doing philosophy.

  6. Totally dead on. We have to ask God continually to show us where we are in error and to open our hearts and our minds to receive his Truth, however uncomfortable it makes us feel.

  7. If I’m looking at the NT’s interpretation of the OT, is there no cause to act like the trial lawyer and defend it?

    One example of complete dispassion is the NRSV’s young woman translation of Is. 7:14.

    If I’m making an apologetic to an athiest, is it my job to bring to light and acknowledge the weight of all the arguments why there is no God? Do we really respect Christians who fall over themselves to admit that the evidence could be interpreted to mean there is no God?

    The reason people act like a trial lawyer is because they believe the reasons they know about for holding their current position must outweigh anything they might possibly find elsewhere.

    I don’t think it’s entirely noble to always be walking around completely dispassionate about the possibility that the next fact we run into might completely overturn what we believe. There’s got to be a balance there. Presumably we believe what we believe for what we think are well grounded reasons. It’s to be expected we see things through that lens.

  8. “The reason people act like a trial lawyer is because they believe the reasons they know about for holding their current position must outweigh anything they might possibly find elsewhere.”

    Peter, are you endorsing this attitude/behavior? Perhaps one can argue that an exception should be made for issues of “faith”, but wouldn’t you agree that it is generally a bad thing for a people to proceed like this?

  9. Now if your eternal salvation depends upon having a particular belief (i.e., your belief in truth of the Gospel), then is it really worth it to put this particular belief at risk in order to understand alternative arguments?

    I would say salvation depends on faith/loyalty/allegiance to Jesus which I suppose is the Gospel in a nutshell.

    I do have some ability to be dispassionate ( the consequence of severe shortcomings in my basic humanity subroutines) but I will admit that there are some philosophies that I find distasteful. I also find some arguments ridiculous, such as an article I read in Philosophy Now where a writer claimed to have presented an argument that disproved the existence of God to a little old lady only to have her respond that she didn’t accept his conclusions. He claimed this to be an example of the religious rejecting reason, but then he didn’t put up his argument so that others could critique it.

    I fear that philosophy is the profession best left to those who don’t have to work for their crust.

    I am perfectly happy to consider almost any position possible provided it is presented in a reasonable fashion but atheism long ago failed the test of reasonableness for me. The Pastafarian arguing for the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is far more rational in my view than someone arguing that everything including themselves was spun into existence from nothing by nothing.

    Aristotle believed in efficient cause, so do I, so does every rational person. Nothing is not an efficient cause, and people who talk in terms of negative energy should probably pick up crystals and start cleansing their chakras.

  10. it’s interesting to see the juxtaposition of ‘data’ and ‘truth’ in confessional studies. how does one get from data to truth?

    let me first suggest that data is about mutual perception. for instance, which of the following are data:
    –jesus is lord
    –i believe jesus is lord
    –the christian scriptures say that jesus is lord
    –at least a million people in america believe jesus is lord
    –at least a million people in america profess that jesus is lord

    i suspect that while there is some agreed upon congruency about which of these constitute data, there is not a complete consensus among this blog’s readers about which of the statements are verifiable, accurate data. how would you verify ‘jesus is lord?’ can we reach a truth claim about a confessional conclusion, ‘jesus is lord?’ it always strikes me as difficult to talk about data in confessional (belief-oriented) studies. most of what gets used as data is unverifiable.

    perhaps data are not enough for confessional studies. in addition to mutual perception, it seems there needs to be some mutual meaning (interpretation of the data) as well. again, there is some congruency over what constitutes valid meaning about some of the data, but as we move away from the data itself, there is less consensus about interpretation. one would think if the data were crystal clear and verifiable that the interpretation of meaning would be highly congruent, but this often is not the case when assessing theological data. else there wouldn’t be so many denominations and doctrines.

    i think there also needs to be a sense of mutual value as well. while some data may be highly congruent, it may also seem trivial. red herrings are filled with accurate, valid, highly verifiable data.

    which then leads to mutual truth claims. and then what one’s response, individually and in community, might be to a mutually-reached truth claim.

    i’m not sure that this rigorous ‘data leads to truth’ process is as readily do-able in confessional studies as one might think. it seems to me in confessional theological studies, the ‘arriving at truth’ process is filled with primarily with interpretation, value, authority of sources, and much filled with the verifiability of data. and the truth claims arrived at are applicable to faith communities’ orthodoxies and orthopraxies.

    as for authoritive sources of data, christian scripture is often the beginning and the end of data collection. which of these are data?

    –christian scripture is the infallible word of god
    –i believe christian scripture is the infallible word of god
    –at least a million americans believe christian scripture is the infallible word of god
    –at least a million americans profess to believe that christian scripture is the infallible word of god

    peace—

    scott

  11. sorry, i hit send too quickly.

    one sentence should read, ‘it seems to me in confessional theological studies, the ‘arriving at truth’ process is filled with primarily with interpretation, value, authority of sources, and not much filled with the verifiability of data.

  12. –jesus is lord
    –i believe jesus is lord
    –the christian scriptures say that jesus is lord
    –at least a million people in america believe jesus is lord
    –at least a million people in america profess that jesus is lord

    Or, Jesus himself claimed to be Lord, then, based on the best information we have available, rose from the dead. I would consider that reasonable empirical evidence that his claims had some merit.

    –christian scripture is the infallible word of god
    –i believe christian scripture is the infallible word of god
    –at least a million americans believe christian scripture is the infallible word of god
    –at least a million americans profess to believe that christian scripture is the infallible word of god

    Or the Bible itself claims to be the written word of God and should therefore be regarded as a truthful measure of history. Since much of Christianity, and Judaism before it, is concerned with God’s actions in human history this is important.

    Your points about verification of data are valid. We are working with historical works and generally have to ascribe to them a similar level of critical evaluation as we would to any other text. We, at the very least, should not assume that the writers were writing to people exactly like ourselves and should attempt to understand what they would think of what was written. It’s historical decontextualisation that leads to people turning Jesus’ parable of sheep and goats into a theology of salvation by works.

  13. ” I do have some ability to be dispassionate…but I will admit that there are some philosophies that I find distasteful. I also find some arguments ridiculous….I am perfectly happy to consider almost any position…..Aristotle believed in efficient cause, so do I”

    If only the topic of this thread were Jason C.

  14. I think advice is that is needed for Apologist of this time. We need to maintain a balance and not put our presuppositions above the objective truth put before us. The Bible will always be the final authority. May be defend the truth with truthfulness indeed.

  15. “We need to…not put our presuppositions above the objective truth put before us. The Bible will always be the final authority.”

    This is an interesting set of claims. Can you explain them more? Should one of “our presuppositions” be the idea that “the Bible will always be the final authority” because it is “objective truth”?

  16. jason–

    i would consider ‘the bible itself claims to be the written word of god’ to be data. you and i would mutually agree on this. but i would consider ‘and [it] should therefore be regarded as a truthful measure of history’ to be an interpretive conclusion. this is where you and i do not mutually agree on what constitutes data. see how hard it is to reach consensus on data, let alone truth?

    quote quote–

    ‘the bible will always be the final authority’ isn’t data. it is definitely a conclusion– perhaps based on data? what data do you base this conclusion on? and how would you verify this data?

    peace–

    scott

  17. Which one among us truly knows the mind of God?

    To think that any one can truly exegete is totally presumptuous.

  18. i would consider ‘the bible itself claims to be the written word of god’ to be data. you and i would mutually agree on this. but i would consider ‘and [it] should therefore be regarded as a truthful measure of history’ to be an interpretive conclusion. this is where you and i do not mutually agree on what constitutes data. see how hard it is to reach consensus on data, let alone truth?

    I would agree with you on the second part not being data but an attitude to the data. The Bible’s claims about history would be data, the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho, the reign of Solomon etc. How we use it would be part of the interpretive matrix.

    ” I do have some ability to be dispassionate…but I will admit that there are some philosophies that I find distasteful. I also find some arguments ridiculous….I am perfectly happy to consider almost any position…..Aristotle believed in efficient cause, so do I”

    If only the topic of this thread were Jason C.

    Did I use “I” that many times? I must be slipping. I really have to try harder to use “I” in every sentence.

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