A half-truth is a whole lie.
Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.
Twisting Scripture? Theologians have long pointed out that you can prove anything from the Bible. The atheist looks at scripture and sees errors compounded on more errors; the cultist looks on scripture and sees bizarre interpretations; the Christian looks upon scripture and sees the wondrous God that is described therein. Truth, like her sister Beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But Truth, Reality insists, is an absolute, and they that ignore it do so at the peril of their souls.
I cannot count the ways that scripture has been twisted. Man, with a perverse heart, seems to have found innumerable interpretations that allow whatever behavior he wants to excuse. Yet, the message of the Bible has changed millions of lives, dramatically and for the better. There is no discounting of the testimony of saints like John Newton, Whittaker Chambers, or Chuck Colson. Dramatic changes happen in sin-stained lives as the God of the Bible is discovered to be true. But all of that, and it is true, does not belie the fact that messy perversions of the scripture have happened throughout history.
Why do the scriptures get so twisted? Those who do not see God seem nonetheless to be highly creative and imaginative creatures, and are capable of postulating the most bizarre propositions from scripture. Communism and slavery have both found their justification from the Bible, from those who would pervert its message. All sorts of other perversions have happened to the Bible, by these creatures, and the message of the Bible is muddied.
The Reformers thought that when the Bible was made available to the masses that things might finally change—that the word of God would get out and shine like it is supposed to. In large measure, they were right, and I have long maintained that Calvin and Luther’s greatest contribution to the church was in getting the Bible to the masses. But, as with most good intentions, there are always bad ends not foreseen. I do not think that any foresaw the rapid rise of cults that were allegedly based on the Bible. There were hundreds of such cults in the 1800s in America, and during the last century they seemed to multiply even faster. What can be done to combat the plethora of false messages?
I think the answer is found in the question: does God really mean what he says? If we do indeed think that he does, then we had better turn to the word and examine completely what he says. I remember that Satan originally deceived Eve, not by lying, but rather by telling half-truths. He cleverly suggested to Eve that the one law made by God was that they were not to eat of any tree in the garden. Eve seems eager to correct that impression, and cites God’s command only to leave the one tree alone. She erred by adding to God’s command, saying, do not touch it or you shall surely die. In that singular addition, do we not see the first “cult” being developed? Surely, the least we should learn from her error is that we need to find what God says, and stick to it exactly. There is an old Yiddish proverb that states it exactly, “A half truth is a whole lie."
And that is precisely the problem of heresy. Sometimes it is found in outright denial of scripture, but more often it is found in clever additions that are overlooked by those caught in such half-truths. Those of us who would find the real message of the word are caught in the middle between two extremes. On the one hand, some of those we are around deny the scriptures themselves, but, on the other hand, there are many who cleverly seek to change the message, to add to it, or to take away from it. Says Satan, “You shall surely not die”, meaning that God had to mean something other than what he plainly says. But Eve would have been so much better off had she just taken the simple sense of the command, neither adding to it, nor allowing herself to change it in the slightest. It is what it is.
To avoid twisting the scriptures, teachers are challenged to rightly divide the word of truth. In fact, Paul is concerned enough about Timothy (2 Tim. 2:15) to warn him personally to, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” By application, the verse extends to those who find themselves in Timothy’s shoes—namely those who would teach the word of God. In the New International Version, the word study found in the above verse is rendered “do your best”. From the original Greek, the word has the idea of being diligent. Thus both study and doing your best are good translations. We are to strive with all effort to teach that which the Bible has taught to the church throughout the centuries.
John Milton reminds us, “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”1 There is only one way to know God aright, and that is through rightly dividing the word of truth. Paul elsewhere says that we are to take the sword of the Spirit. Why the Spirit? Because, as he finishes the verse, the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that the word of God is living and active and sharper than any sword. Thus, when we teach the whole word of God, we are presenting the whole truth.
I cannot leave this without mentioning that there is only one way to interpret things. What I mean by that is not at all the way I interpret things. I am not trying to be pretentious here. Instead, what I mean is that God has intended what he said to mean something. Our job is to work out what he means. My Bible teachers at Biola used to say to me, “when the simple sense makes the best sense, seek no other sense.” I know that there are many passages of scripture which scholars look at, not understanding, and then seek to interpret them symbolically. But often history has revealed those interpretations not to be able to stand up, and often the plain sense of what God says comes through to the church. I do not pretend to understand Revelation, nor what God exactly intends to do, but is it not plain that the judgment of mankind and Satan are two prevalent themes? Perhaps we ought to take what God says as plainly as we can figure out. Dare we do anything else?
1. John Milton, Milton on Education, the Tractate of Education,: With Supplementary Extracts from Other Writings of Milton