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John Walton
 on October 11, 2017

On Being Right or Wrong

Faithful interpretation may lead to more than one conclusion. And it does not require that all conclusions be classified as either right or wrong.


Editor’s Note: This post was first published on September 29, 2014.

I was once in a panel discussion where one of the other participants raised questions about how his view could be considered wrong when it adequately addressed so many of the issues. My response was that I had not said, nor would I say, that his view was wrong. His reply was that if I thought my view was right, then his must necessarily be considered wrong. Our two views were mutually exclusive options.

I believe that this is something that we need to discuss carefully in the church. There is such a thing as being wrong. But not every disagreement about interpretation can be narrowed down to right and wrong. This is recognized in the saying quoted by Catholics and Protestants alike, formulated in the 17th century by Marco Antonio Dominis, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Rather than suggest that my colleague was wrong, I would assert that while both positions were logical and sought to be faithful to Scripture, I considered my view to offer a preferable interpretation that enjoyed the support of a preponderance of the evidence. In my mind that did not make his view wrong, only less probable. Consequently, I would not suggest that someone holding his view should be considered unfaithful to the Word, heretical in their conclusions, or un-Christian, and thus excluded from the fellowship of the church. Yet those are exactly the sorts of things that people holding a view like his (though not he himself) would say about me and others who hold views similar to mine. I do not attack them as wrong; yet they don’t hesitate to label me that way. There is a difference between being wrong and holding mutually exclusive possible interpretations. How do we think about this?

The positions that we hold (whether about origins or about any number of other important theological issues) are a combination of our presuppositions, our assessment of the evidence (and which view enjoys the support of the preponderance of the evidence), the probabilities associated with various aspects of the evidence, and the preferences that we then adopt as our own. We may have high levels of confidence in our preferences or we may hold them lightly. In the church we should be looking for faithful interpretation to determine what is acceptable and what may be outside orthodoxy. Faithful interpretation may still lead different interpreters to different conclusions (as it has throughout history) because the Bible does not nail everything down. It does not offer firm conclusions on every issue that interests us. We therefore at times have to settle for giving our best effort.

Faithfulness is going to involve a certain set of core presuppositions (“in essentials, unity”). It is going to assess evidence in an informed way that investigates all the possible issues that come into play. For the origins question, that includes theological tenets that we all hold in common, the breadth of the canonical information, the details of language, the nature of both literary and cultural context, the logic that derives from evidence in the world around us, and many other moving pieces. Careful assessment of the evidence will then lead us to establish probabilities and preferences that may take different directions. If a view can be maintained in faithful interpretation, it ought to be allowed in charity as one of the possibilities that faithful Christians in the body of Christ can hold.

It is too easy for an individual, a local church, or a denomination to decide that they have a corner on the market of interpretation and truth and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong. This attitude exists despite the fact that the New Testament shows us a number of situations when people in the early church had disagreements about issues that were decided by allowing a range of possibilities (e.g., the Jerusalem Council). Consequently we get easily embroiled in debates. The problem with debates is that they are designed to explain in great detail why the other person is wrong. I have no objection to Christians explaining to each other why and how they have arrived at the conclusions they have, but I would not be so bold as to label my Christian brother or sister as wrong if they have practiced faithful interpretation. I may disagree with them or consider them misguided; I may believe that they have presuppositions that are unnecessary or that they have misjudged or neglected certain evidence. Discussion can be beneficial for both parties and for those who listen in. But debates among Christians “score points” at the other’s expense and insist on being right while the other is wrong. Does such a view honor the concept of “charity in all things?” I am not sure that it does. We should be slow to accuse another of discarding the authority of Scripture, and therefore denouncing them, just because they interpret Scripture differently than we do.

Ultimately, it is true that one view is right and others are wrong, but such absolute vision is not always available. Until such a time, we work with probabilities while seeking consensus and showing charity toward one another as we continue to pursue truth. Sometimes we have made the mistake of believing that our conclusions are what are essential rather than the core theology and the hermeneutical premises that derive from it. The church should be big enough to allow a variety of positions while it still holds firm to the core truths of Christian doctrine and seeks faithful interpretation.

About the author

John Walton

John Walton

John Walton is an emeritus professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his book, The Lost World of Genesis One.

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