Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Root of Theological Error | Dr. Clay Nuttall

This month I taught another module on Introduction to Hermeneutics, and I will teach it again in Egypt in February. Last September, I also taught it in Jordan. In every class, students tend to raise the same questions. They are confused as to how so many people can study the same text and get so many different interpretations. One student asked, “Which denomination is right?” My answer was, “None of them; the truth on every subject is in the Bible text, not in a denominational creed or statement of faith."

The question we should ask is this: “If the truth is in the scripture, why doesn’t everyone get the same interpretation of every text out of the Bible?” The answer is simple: nearly everyone comes to a text with presupposition and motive. There has to be some way to erase our presuppositions. The good news is that there is a way; and it is simple, not complicated.

A maxim I pass on to my students says that anything you cannot simplify has probably been poisoned by man. This is the reason why the faithful interpreter who wants to find the one interpretation of a text will “simplify to clarify”, while the one who wants to insert motive and presupposition will “complicate to confuse”. Does this mean we are challenging their motive? Yes, it does.


God has given us a “hermeneutical sieve” to help us strain out motive and presupposi-tion. Use of that one biblical system will accurately block the addition of human insertions into a text. The system is mathematical and will succeed in producing a single interpretation to central texts of scripture.

The reason why there are so many conflicting ideas in theology comes from a failure to obey the system and rules that God’s word has clearly outlined. I warn you that this God-given restriction will be hated by those who persist in putting their own ideas into the text. One reader suggested that this idea would limit God, but it is actually the other way around. The constant infusion of philosophy into Bible text is what hinders the teaching of truth. Without a sieve to strain out error, there is no way to arrive at a theology that is biblical.


This takes us to the age-old tension between faith and reason. Throughout history, humans have always been tempted to add to or detract from scripture. This is exactly what happened in Eden in the conversation between Eve and Satan. Most of the people in our circles would say that the Bible is the final authority in faith and practice. The truth is that the root of human reason is the cause of the conflicting theology in our midst. This reading of philosophy into the text can be readily seen in much of contem-porary writing, worship and practice.

Yesterday I was reading an article by a prolific writer whom I consider a friend. It happened to be on church polity, a study of interest to me. I was amazed to note how easily culture and human philosophy were stated in the discourse, as if they were equal to the clear statement of Bible text.

Our problem seems to be that we assign the misuse of human reason strictly to liberalism, as if we could not possibly commit that error ourselves. Reason has value, but faith that rests on the Bible is supreme; that is why we need the one system of interpretation that rises from Scripture. I am convinced that the root of theological and doctrinal error comes from a hermeneutic that is based on human reason.


There is one system of biblical interpretation. It is that normal, plain, ordinary, consis-tent literal system that represents the similarity to, and is limited by the construct of, all literature. That system reveals three unmistakable rules, which are (1) grammar, (2) context, and (3) the historical setting of the text that is being interpreted. Many tools for interpretation are revealed in holy writ; but they are tools; not rules.

One major error is the idea that application is a part of the interpretation. There is only one interpretation of each text, but there are many applications. If application is made a part of interpretation, the conclusion will be corrupted by human reason and innocent (or deliberate) adjustment of the text.

The basic conflict here is not about an interpretation of the text; it is about the fact that people use a variety of humanly invented systems. These human additions cause the confusion that results in many interpretations rather than one correct one; this is the root of doctrinal error.

In the end, the Bible student has two options: (1) to use the one biblical system and be limited to a theology that is placed in scripture by the Holy Spirit or (2) to choose any other system, thus allowing him to conclude anything he desires in his theology.

[This is taken from Shepherd's Staff published by Dr. Clay Nuttall -]