By Michael Mooney, NACM Exec. Elder
The altar of truth is a principle that you can add to your toolbox of biblical interpretation methods. While the concept of this principle is not unique unto itself, the principle has been uniquely developed for the ministers of our mentor program. We find that this method is one of the most accurate of all in the quest for Biblical truth. However, we also find that it is one of the most neglected tools among the many resources which assist in the interpretive process. We suspect this is because the principle requires us to remain theologically uncomfortable when reading the Bible. As ministers, we tend to have “pet subjects” and passages of scripture. If we do not remain attentive to these biases, we will find ourselves reading Scripture through the spectacles of our agendas.
Even more misleading is the reality that such misinterpretations may not be so bad after all. For example, let’s say a pastor has a deep love for the subject of the law. This subject is honorable and is likely to be useful in living a life that pleases God. In time it will become obvious that the law is significant to him. This happens by default because Jesus said “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). After hearing a few of their sermons, you may notice that they seem to cross reference to the law in areas of scripture that do not seem to mention it at all. When this happens we must ask if we are really interpreting scripture, or rather finding something in the text that does not exist.
The altar of truth helps us to make this distinction. As Christians, and more so as ministers of the gospel, truth has to be at the forefront of all of our pursuits. In fact, truth is so important that God requires it of us in order to worship Him (John 4:23). Yet, when approaching scripture there is a common misconception of where truth resides. Truth is contained within the message of the words of scripture. However, truth may be very far from the way we interpret those messages.
The Altar of Truth is approached in the following 5 steps:
1. Acknowledge any “pet subjects” you may have before reading from scripture. Being aware of these biases helps you to quickly note when they arise.
2. After reading a passage, critically analyze any interpretation that immediately comes to mind. In most cases you can be certain that there will be underlying assumptions in that interpretation.
While on occasion assumptions are appropriate, they should always be questioned when seriously seeking truth. As ministers, we are most prone to be blinded by our assumptions, and many are found in the doctrines of our Christian faith. This is not to say that these doctrines or even the assumptions associated with them are necessarily wrong, but rather they must remain in question to be either supported or not supported by evidence found in Scripture.
3. Think long and hard of any other passages of Scripture that may seemingly contradict with what is being interpreted.
Make somewhat a game of this. Genuinely try with your whole heart to contradict the interpretation using other passages of Scripture. If necessary, deliberately misinterpret another passage of scripture in order to form the supposed contradiction. You will achieve amazing results of clarity and understanding of the Bible in using this step alone.
4. Remember that there is no such thing as common sense.
The irony of such a notion is that most tend to believe they possess it while making social comparisons to determine others who do not. Nevertheless, with this perspective in mind, ask yourself, “would other people reach the same conclusions from the scripture as you have (without the necessity for explanations)?
5. Five is a biblical number often associated with grace. After taking the first four steps, now your heart is “ready” to ask the Holy Spirit for help to see that which is true.
Now that we have the 5 steps to the altar of truth before us, we will proceed with a little exercise of these principles.
In John chapter 4 we have the account of the woman at the well. During her encounter with Jesus, something very interesting is said by our Lord.
“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).
The factor which makes this passage so unique is a statement that the Father is “seeking” such worshipers. The concept of seeking something implies a lack of knowledge as to it’s whereabouts. Yet, theology proper tells us that God is omnipresent (everywhere:), and omniscient (all knowing). If this is true, why would God seek for anything? The idea becomes as absurd as searching for your lost keys, then finding them, and while holding them in your hand continuing to search as if you may find them elsewhere.
To complete this activity, use the five steps toward the altar of truth to solve this puzzle (or biblical paradox).