Throughout the history of scholarship, there have been a lot of brilliant minds. And a lot of them have been mistaken (some frighteningly so). In fact, every mind is mistaken to one degree or another. The question is not whether or not we will be wrong about something, but what we’ll be wrong about, to what extent, and what we’ll do about it when we recognize it.
As I’ve entered the Th.M. program at The Master’s Seminary, I’ve been reminded that brilliance does not guarantee accuracy. I’m currently studying the views of some very intelligent scholars who are inductive and original and cohesive and have had a tremendous impact on their fields. But they’re seriously wrong in some significant areas. They’re brilliant, but mistaken. How does this happen? I have some thoughts (and it’s worth it to me to develop them even if they’re obvious).
- Everyone is wrong about something. No matter how intelligent you are or how right you think you are, there are just some things that are wrong and inconsistent and maybe even ridiculous about your views. This isn’t to say that we can’t know the truth accurately or that we should be timid about what we believe. It’s just to say that we’re not infallible and perfect.
- Intelligence doesn’t guarantee veracity. You can be extremely intelligent and extremely wrong. In fact, I’ve heard it said (and I think it’s true) that if your starting point is off-base or if one of your premises is significantly flawed, then the more consistent your thinking is, the further you’ll end up from the truth. You can produce a brilliant, original, comprehensive, consistent theory that goes much further astray than the theory of a simple, uneducated guesser. Impeccable logic with a jacked-up starting point will not lead to good and truthful places.
- Pride is powerful. More and more I’m coming to the conviction that the human foundation of hermeneutics is humility. By humility I don’t mean uncertainty or agnosticism. I mean a high view of God and His truth, a (biblically) low view of myself and my own abilities, a treasuring of grace and regeneration and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and a God-centered confidence that He will enable me to understand what He has written in His Word. The opposite of this mentality is a confidence in my self-perceived intellectual prowess, my institutional pedigree, my educational experience, and my academic efforts. I’m not pitting God’s enablement against human effort and study. I think we should read and study and think hard. I just think we should do it on our knees. Giftedness and prayerlessness often go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean they should.
- “It is the nature of academic discourse to be indefinite, to resist closure, and to prize innovation over tradition.”* This was written by a scholar. The values and pressures of the academic community tempt scholars to squeeze every last drop out of creativity. But creativity is nowhere more dangerous than in the field of truth-teaching. There are some fields where inventiveness is admirable. Biblical scholarship is not one of them. I believe that there are many areas of biblical studies that have not yet been adequately explored, and I value those who explore them in the service of the church. I also believe strongly that we should seek for and employ appropriately fresh ways of communicating old truth lest we forget that truth is real and not just true. But exploration and freshness cannot come at the expense of unbending accuracy.
- There’s a way to be confident in the truth and suspicious about yourself. As G. K. Chesterton has said, we have this exactly reversed in our day. We’re confident in ourselves and doubtful about the truth. I don’t think that truth-doubting is the solution to the brilliant mistakenness that I’m talking about. It would be unwise to say, “If even the most brilliant among us get things wrong, then how can the rest of us ever know that our views are really right? How can we be confident in the Bible if we know that sometimes we’re going to be wrong about it?” My wrong interpretations of Scripture are not a problem with God but a problem with me. And I can progressively overcome those problems through God’s help. But not if I’m self-confident and presumptuous, assuming that I’ll never be wrong and will never need scriptural correction.
- Culture and experience play a significant role in interpretation and theological development. I know that this point is frowned on in my circles because we don’t like being accused of holding our narrow views because that’s how we grew up (who does?), but there’s some legitimacy to it. I believe that Scripture is clear and that a dedicated, teachable, thinking Christian from any culture and any background can read it and understand what he needs to understand to live a godly life and honor God. But it’s also obvious and only fair to observe that the values of Western culture will impact the interpretations and the perspectives and the writings of Western scholars. Likewise, the experiences that we have do influence our thinking (I’m being careful not to say that circumstances and experiences cause or produce or dictate or control our thinking because that would destroy our responsibility). Sometimes, this is a significant reason why both brilliant and not-so-brilliant people can think in profoundly wrong ways.
- Much of scholarship is reactionary. Trends have come and gone and they continue to come and go, but one thing remains the same: reactionism. Reacting to things is a necessary part of life. It’s a balancing mechanism that helps us fight for equilibrium. But it can be very dangerous. Reactionary scholarship is unhelpful because its aim is simply to emphasize what the opponent is decrying instead of emphasizing what’s true. This can happen, for example, when cessationists downplay the work of the Holy Spirit in an attempt to guard against Charismatic abuses or when we shun believers wrestling with homosexual thoughts in an effort to battle the blatant homosexual agenda of our day. The Reformation was a reaction, the Enlightenment was a reaction, and Fundamentalism is a reaction. This has nothing to do with whether these movements with all their nuances are right or wrong. It just means we should be aware of the fact and take it into account. It may be true that what we’re standing against needs to be opposed, but this doesn’t mean that running to the opposite extreme is better. Sometimes good thinkers go wrong by over-correcting.
- There are some things that are more dangerous to be wrong about than others. This isn’t to make truth relative, but I think you can legitimately prioritize things that are essential and things that are secondary and things that are tertiary and things that barely matter at all. If you don’t do this, you may be smart but you won’t be proportional. It also may lead you to be weak-kneed about vital, objective issues while fighting rabidly for preferences and opinions.
- None of this means that we should despair of studying and thinking. The fact that it’s hard and fraught with peril doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. We should simply do it with a relentless commitment to humbly study God’s truth regardless of whether it proves our current views right or wrong.
- Brilliance is not necessary for a clear and in-depth understanding of who God is and what He commands of us and how to obey Him in the fullest and wisest way possible. If you can be brilliant and wrong or simple and right, it’s fair to conclude that you don’t have to be brilliant to be right.
I don’t think I’m brilliant, but I do think I’m called to study and teach as a major part of my life. And I want to be mistaken about as little as possible, especially when it comes to the truth. That’s why this is worth thinking about for me.
* Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2004), 156.