Post-Truth: Biblical Interpretation Should Be Faithful To God's Word, Not The Word Of The Year


According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word of the year for 2016 is 'post-truth'. The word is an adjective defined in the dictionary as:

"Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."

The word beat competition from 'adulting', 'alt-right', 'Brexiteer', 'glass-cliff' and 'woke'. The head of US dictionaries at OUP said that, in the light of the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump, post-truth "encapsulates a trans-Atlantic phenomenon."

But while 'post-truth' might be a relatively new feature of contemporary political discourse, I'd argue it has long been a characteristic of contemporary evangelicalism. Many evangelicals have rejected, or re-interpreted, clear biblical teaching and long-established doctrines on the basis of appeals to emotion and their personal beliefs rather than the objective fact of what Scripture says. While they still claim the label "evangelical", it has lost its historic and objective content.

This is nowhere more evident at present than in regard to the issue of same-sex relationships. Despite the fact that not a single biblical reference is anything but critical of same-sex sexual activity, some evangelicals argue that loving same-sex relationships are acceptable to God and ought to be celebrated by the Church. I believe this is simply the practice of 'post-truth' in which emotions about same-sex love, and towards people who struggle with same-sex attraction, have trumped clear biblical teaching.

The same process is at work in relation to the wrath of God. The Bible clearly, and repeatedly, teaches that God is angry at our sin, and that there will be a final day of judgement on which all those who have rejected Jesus will be cast into the eternal punishment of Hell. However many modern evangelicals find this emotionally unacceptable, and so they have become 'post-truth'. They therefore reject the doctrine of God's wrath and of eternal punishment. As a consequence they fail to understand the cross, rejecting the concept of propitiation as unacceptable, even though it is clearly taught that Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin, bearing the wrath of God in the place of others.

The abandonment of these historic evangelical doctrines is justified on the basis of "interpretation." However hermeneutics has all too often become a clever way of avoiding the plain meaning of texts. 'Post-truth' interpretation starts with the emotional premise that "it can't possibly mean that!" and find ways of justifying the conclusion that it feels it ought to reach. 'Post-truth' interpretation starts with the answer and then works backwards to achieve it.

Of course there is a vital need for proper interpretation of Biblical texts that is sensitive to their context and literary genre. However all too often contemporary evangelicals are happy to accept interpretations that fail to adequately account for all the data before them. Take, for example, the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell. While it is undoubtedly the case that some of the language that speaks of final judgement uses the imagery of destruction, this is not true of all the language that is used. Elsewhere the language of judgement speaks of punishment that never comes to an end, and the eternal state of judgement is directly paralleled to the eternal state of glory. The language may be metaphorical, but what is it metaphorical of? An interpretation is not valid merely because it privileges one set of biblical terms and images over against another. A valid interpretation must account for all the language.

The same is the case in regard to the cross. To deny the doctrine of substitutionary propitiation on the grounds that there are other "models" of the atonement is simply an invalid argument. There are certainly other models of the atonement, but this does not entitle an interpreter to dismiss propitiatory sacrifice if it is also affirmed, as it repeatedly is in the New Testament. I have written more fully about the relationship between biblical authority and biblical interpretation in my article on "Inerrancy" in Issue I of Primer, the FIEC theological resource,True to His Word.

The concept of 'post-truth'not only corrupts our doctrine, but also affects evangelical ministry. Our task ought to be to set forth the truth of the gospel plainly (2 Corinthians 4:2), moving the emotions of our hearers by the truth that reveals the glory of Christ. However much evangelical preaching plays on the emotions of the hearers, offering them what they want to hear. It presents a Christ of love without wrath, offers acceptance without the need for repentance, promises wholeness and prosperity without suffering, and focuses on present life rather than the eternal future. It tells people what they want to hear, rather than confronting them with the true Christ who demands that they repent, believe, pick up their cross and follow him.

It is all too easy to see and criticise the impact of 'post-truth' in politics and contemporary culture. However 'post-truth' is a danger that is much closer to home. We need to ensure that our doctrine and gospel ministry are not determined by our emotions and personal beliefs, but by the unchanging truth of the Word of God. 'Post-truth' theology and ministry is ultimately unfaithful to God and unloving to those who are deceived by it. When evangelicals adopt a 'post -truth' methodology, as so many have done, they inevitably become 'post-evangelicals'.

In the last week the results of two research projects have been published, one from Canada and the other from the UK, both of which show that it is churches that preach the gospel faithfully, proclaiming for example the reality of Hell and the sinfulness of same-sex partnerships, that are growing, whereas those that have become 'post-truth' are failing to stem the tide of rapid decline. This shouldn't surprise us. The task of the church is to "contended for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people" (Jude 1:3) and to serve as the "pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:9).As the letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3 remind us, God will remove the lampstand of 'post-truth' churches, and he is doing this all around us.

John Stevens is the national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. This article first appeared on his blog