This is the third article in a series dealing with enemies of sound biblical interpretation. You can find the first two articles here and here.
Today I’d like to address overriding presuppositions. Sometimes people come to the study of the Bible bringing with them presuppositions that preclude certain interpretations of a given passage. (A presupposition is something that we believe without it being proven.) They begin with a conviction that a certain belief is true so that any interpretation that would call that conviction into question is ruled out.
One huge area of overriding presuppositions pertains to the character of God. I have been guilty of approaching Scripture presupposing what God would and wouldn’t do. "A God of love wouldn’t do this or that." I was right to believe that God is loving – the Bible says so. I was wrong to bring presuppositions about what that looks like into my study of the Bible.
The first time I remember doing this was in my study of the doctrines of grace. For many years, I rejected them because they seemed incompatible with my preconceived notions of a “God of love.” I was convinced that a God of love would not choose certain people to be saved and not others. A God of love would try to save everyone. This caused me to massage certain passages of Scripture so that they allowed for unnatural interpretations.
For example, I interpreted Romans 8:29 in a way that is foreign to the text and both the near and larger context. This verse reads, For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. I presupposed that God would not predestine certain people for salvation and not others, so I ruled out the possibility that foreknowledge and predestination in this verse could refer to God establishing a relationship with a particular person. Having ruled out this natural reading (which is validated by a myriad of OT and NT texts), I had to find an alternative. So I read into the text that this foreknowledge referred to God foreseeing faith in particular people. In other words, I believed that God foresaw those who would choose Him. (Mind you, this is not in the text nor is it in any way implied.) God then took that group of people and predestined them not to salvation, but to sanctification. So in my mind this passage in no way referred to election, but to God foreseeing who would be saved of their own volition and predestining that those who made that choice would eventually be like Jesus. All of this resulted from a preconceived idea of what a God of love would and would not do.
I’m so thankful that the most important thing my parents taught me is that the Bible is true. Eventually, that conviction, in conjunction with the text of Romans 9-11 and John 6, would show me that I had a wrong presupposition regarding the love of God. I then began to allow the Scriptures to dictate to me what God’s love looks like rather than me dictating to the Scriptures what His love looks like.
The appropriate presupposition with which to approach study of the Bible is that the Bible is true. That and that alone should be our starting point. The Bible should mold our other foundational beliefs, including our beliefs about the character of God. There is a relatively small body of truth about God that can be gleaned from general revelation, that is, from the world around us. Certain attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, are evident through the things that have been made (Rom 1:20), but all other truths about Him must come from the Bible.
Beyond presuppositions about the character of God, we can bring into Bible study presuppositions regarding a host of other things, including social and political issues like divorce and remarriage, homosexuality and gender issues, abortion, the supposed heavenly endorsement of capitalism and democracy, etc. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful our presuppositions can be. They can cause us to completely disregard the natural reading of a given text. They can cause us to read things into Scripture that simply are not there. They can even cause us to hold that a given text means the exact opposite of what it says!
So how can we spot these overriding presuppositions? A telltale sign is when we find ourselves trying to argue that a text does not mean what it says. Let's go back to one of the examples from the last two articles. 1 Tim 2:12 clearly reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” The context supports the natural reading of this verse. Yet often, people approach this text presupposing that there are not different but complimentary roles for the different genders. Those who hold this presupposition are forced to find a way for this passage to not mean what it so clearly says. When we find ourselves doing this, it is likely that an overriding presupposition is at work and we need to identify what it is and allow the Scriptures to override it.
God’s Word is true and it should shape our thinking on every issue of life. We should never do the opposite – allow our thinking on any issue of life to shape our view of God’s Word. If we do, we’ll often find ourselves at odds with sound interpretation.