Scholarly Perversions of the Word

Scholarly Perversions of the Word

by Eugene W. Clevenger
via Preceptor, December, 1951

"I know that is what the Bible says alright, but what do the scholars say about it?" I have heard that statement made many times, and it reflects an attitude. There is a widely prevalent idea that the final word to be said about the meaning of any passage of Scripture is the word of some scholar. If "Dr. So-and-So" said it means this, then it must mean this. 

Many are of the opinion that a scholar would not sacrifice his reputation as a scholar to the extent that he would pervert a passage, but such an idea is false. The only proof one needs to be assured that scholars do wrest the Scriptures is to read the scholars. Here is a verse that has but one meaning and even though the simplest honest person can understand its meaning, when the scholars get through with it they have it meaning a dozen different things, none of which is what God intended. One scholar says the passage means this, another says it means that, and still another something else. The fact that they give diametrically opposite interpretations is evidence within itself that somebody is perverting the passage. 

Who is a Scholar?

There are several failures that people make with regard to the subject of Biblical Scholarship. The first is, a failure to recognize who is a scholar and who is not. Right here it is well that I say that one does not have to be a scholar to recognize a scholar and to appreciate true scholarship. In no sense do I set myself up as a scholar, but I can read my Bible and I can likewise read what scholars say about the Bible, and I can compare the truths of the Bible with the contradictory opinions of men, and thus I am in position to see the perversions of scholars and to write concerning them. But the question is, Who is a scholar? There are some who have the idea that a scholar is a man with a Ph.D. degree. I would not for a moment minimize education (I am in the educating business), neither would I speak disparagingly of degrees, but I know that a degree is not infallible evidence of one's being a scholar. Again, others think that a scholar is one who has written a book. I like books and I appreciate men who have given their time to write books that I might learn from them, but I have seen many books that did not come from scholarly mind. A prolific writer is not necessarily a scholar. Webster defines a scholar as "one who has engaged in advance study and acquired knowledge in some special field." He may have a degree or he may not. 

There is a trend among some brethren today toward looking for the degree instead of the knowledge. Here is a great denominational preacher that must be met in debate. Whom shall we go? You had better get the man who has the knowledge. Here is a church that is looking  for a preacher? Whom shall we get? You had better get the man who can preach and do the job, whether he has the degree or not. Many brethren need to learn that the younger men are not the only scholars we have, but men who have studied the old Book and who have acquired the knowledge, regardless of their lack of formal education, these are our scholars in the highest sense of the term. 

What Scholarship Does Not Guarantee

First, scholarship does not guarantee honesty.

We are speaking primarily in this article of the reputed scholarship in denominational circles. A scholar ought not to be as susceptible to prejudice as one who is not, but often we find that he is. He may try to give the impression to others that he is only interested in the facts he finds and the truths he discovers, but it is altogether possible that he has a creed to uphold and a preconceived opinion to defend. For example, Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible is generally regarded as a somewhat scholarly work by students of the Bible, but it is full of false teaching, and the scholars who have written on the various subjects have not given an honest and true interpretation of the Scriptures. On the subject of Balaam's ass, p. 80, of the one-volume dictionary, it has this to say: 

"The story of the ass is plainly out of harmony with the narrative just outlined. It is a story belonging not to the wilderness, but to a land of vineyards. It ignores the embassy that has been sent to bring Balaam across the wilderness, for it represents Balaam as traveling alone. It is also unlikely that so long a journey as that from the Euphrates to Moab would be attempted upon an ass." 

This is a scholar's interpretation of the story of Balaam's ass. In other words, it just did not happen that way. This is scholarly perversion! 

"The modern study of geology and comparative mythology has made it impossible to see in the story of the Deluge the literal record of an historical event . . . The difficulties in the story as it stands are immense. (a) All the water in the world, together with all the vapour if reduced to water, would not cover the whole earth to the height of Mt. Ararat. And if it had, it is impossible to imagine how it could have dried up in a year and 10 days (not to speak of 40 days), or whither it could have flowed away. (b) If only a single family survived, it is impossible to account for the wide variety of races and languages. (c) The means of safety is not a ship, but simply a huge chest, which would instantly capsize in a storm . . . (d) The collection by Noah of a pair of every kind of animal, bird and creeping thing, which would include species peculiar to different countries from the arctic regions to the tropics, is inconceivable ... From every point of view it is clear that the story is legendary, and similar in character to the legends which are found in the folk-lore of all peoples." 

Second, scholarship does not guarantee infallibility.

The scholar's interpretation is not inspired of the Holy Spirit though some might think so. He is human as well as we, and even though we grant him the utmost honesty, it is still possible for him to pervert the Scriptures. One scholar may explain ninety-nine scriptures truthfully and rightly, and yet pervert the hundredth. For example, Albert Barnes was a Bible scholar who has given us a very good commentary on the Scriptures. He is regarded by conservative students of the Bible as outstanding. But his scholarly comments are not infallible. On Romans 6:4 he has this to say:

"While it is admitted that the allusion here was probably to the custom of immersion in baptism, yet the passage cannot be adduced as an argument that that is the only mode, or that it is binding on all Christians in all places and ages, for the following reasons: (1) The scope or design of the apostle is not to discuss the mode of baptism . . . It is just as true that they who are baptized by affusion, or by sprinkling, are baptized into his death. (2) If this was the mode commonly, it does not follow that it was the only mode, nor that it was to be universally observed. (3) If this is to be pressed literally as a matter of obligation, why should not also the following expression, 'If we have been planted together,' etc. be pressed literally, and it be demanded that Christians should somehow be 'planted' as well as 'buried'?" 

Third, scholarship does not guarantee omniscience in all fields of study.

If it does not guarantee absolute correctness in even one field, to be sure, it does not mean that a scholar in one study is an authority in all. Yet some have that conception of scholarship. 

The Practical Use of Scholars

Since all are not scholars who are reputed to be scholars, and since not all scholars can be depended upon for absolute honesty, correctness of interpretation and complete knowledge, the question comes; What should be our attitude toward scholars and their works? To what extent ought we to study books of the scholars? These suggestions might be timely.

First, do not despair of scholarly works to the extent you refuse to read them.

True it is, you will find many thoughts and ideas you cannot accept, but I have never read after any man whose ideas I could accept entirely. I am conscious of the fact that one must not saturate himself with liberal denominational and modern views to the extent he cannot refute that which is false as he goes. The trouble with some of our younger brethren has been to expose themselves in modern theological schools and seminaries to so much that is supposed to be scholarly, and yet false and rotten to the core, that they have not had time to study the Truth and refute the error. There is obvious danger in reading so much that is false with little time to intelligently study the Truth to see wherein error lies. Therefore, it is far better to read books that will tend to build up faith first, and know confidently that you are on sure footing. Then, in order to be able to expose the heresies that are taught by some scholars and believed by many, look at their doctrines, read their works and become familiar with their teachings.

Second, do not substitute the reading of scholars for independent thinking and study.

Many brethren have done this. To the Wednesday evening Bible Study, Johnson's Notes or Clarke's Commentaries are carried. When asked for an explanation of a certain verse, instead of giving what he believes about it, a brother simply reads from the commentary, and for him that settles it. This is the danger of commentaries and Bible study aids. To be sure, there is a place for scholarly treatises and they can serve a good purpose in the development of our Bible knowledge, but they are often misused and abused. Someone has given this advice, "Read them all and accept none," and that may not be bad advice at all.

Paul's statement to Timothy in II Timothy 4:13 is interesting. He said, "The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments." Paul read books! Of course, it is impossible to determine just exactly what these books were, but the fact remains that Paul read them and he wanted them. So it should be with Christians today. If you would grow in knowledge, read and study. Read and study the Bible first, then read and study good books about the topic. But in your reading of books, do not substitute mere reading for independent thinking and study. Read the scholars if you will, but throw them all aside, go back to the Bible and decide for yourselves the meaning thereof.

Third, do not substitute the mere opinions of men for faith in the Word of God.

If the opinions of reputed scholars are contrary to the plain teachings of the Bible, there ought not to be a moment's delay in rejecting the scholars and accepting the Bible. God's Word is our standard of authority and not what men say about God's Word. "Let God be true and every man a liar.

The Responsibility of the Teacher

James said, "My brethren, be not many teachers, knowing that we shall receive the heavier judgment" (James 3:1). John said, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (I John 4:1). In II Thessalonians 2:11-12 Paul said it is possible to believe a lie and be damned. These scriptures impress us with great truths. First, it is a fearful responsibility that rests upon a teacher of God's Word, and those who are guilty of perverting the Word shall certainly receive the greater condemnation. Second, the possibility of perversion among teachers is stated because many false prophets are gone out into the world. There are false prophets today even among the scholars and the doctors of the law. Third, if one does not discriminate between truth and error but is deceived into believing a lie, he will certainly be damned.