The dangers of supposing and assuming ahead of time

Assumptions, pre-suppositions, and avoidance of discussing them can lead to numerous undesirable outcomes, in our own thinking, our Christian journey, and within our fellowships. This note, partly inspired by two recent posts at ChristianWeek, illustrates a couple of ways this happens.

Pre-suppositions strongly influence our ideas about God and his nature as well as our interpretation of Scripture. Scripture is often not straightforward to interpret, and we can approach the same topic in very different ways.

Scripture can even make statements that appear to be mutually exclusive. How we handle all of this will be markedly influenced by our pre-suppositions. As has been said, 'we get the God we believe in.' This easily becomes 'we get the Scripture we believe in.'

Eisigesis or apophysis

Don’t be put off by the $5 words, their meanings are very easy to understand - hang in there.

We are rightly concerned about the interpretative pitfall of reading our own opinion into scriptural texts, a no-no called eisigesis. But a subtle version of this source of mis-reading texts hardly looks like eisigesis, and is better termed apophysis. Simply put, it means deciding beforehand, before cracking the book, the kinds of things the text cannot say. This is directly related to apophatic theology - deciding ahead of time (before reading Scripture) what God cannot be or do.

Let's look at a possible list of ideas that we will not consider looking for in Scripture, because (in our view of things) Scripture cannot say them, because God cannot think them or do them. Any text that, at face value, seems to support the positive version of one of these out-of-bounds ideas must be interpreted in such a way that such support disappears.

Note: The definitions of crucial words in the following list, of necessity, are human definitions. To the fullest extent possible, we should let Scripture help us define these words, without predetermined limits. But the full definition must be entirely understandable by human beings.

1. God cannot bring everyone (all of humanity) to himself (to accept and enjoy him).

2. God cannot enter time and become directly involved in his creation, as it is.

3. God cannot suffer.

4. God cannot change his mind.

5. God cannot identify with or accept 'maybe.'

6. God knows perfectly, thus he cannot hope (it would not make sense).

7. God cannot forgive (without retribution or punishment).

8. God cannot put love, mercy or redemption ahead of judgement.

9. God cannot hold anything above justice.

If we approach Scripture while insisting that these limitations be placed on God, we will interpret many texts in ways completely incompatible with other people who try to approach Scripture with a blank slate. Since no one has a completely blank slate we are talking relatively here. So, by blank slate, I mean approaching with as few ideas about what God cannot be or do as humanly possible.

In a recent article in ChristianWeek on July 24, Jeff Clarke asked “What is God Really Like?” This is an important question as it's possible to worship with the same people for years without realizing large differences often exist among us.

One reason for this is that we often fail to talk about such things in much detail. We do, however, make a lot of assumptions which may not be as correct as they are comfortable. We can even fear such conversations, as Karina Kreminski so ably pointed out here as well (July 18).

The need for conversation

The cautions regarding presuppositions mentioned above show how the all too common approach in our attempts to understanding God leads directly to varying degrees of disunity, though it is often unspoken and unexplored. Fear of the kind Karina talks about can prevent us from having needed discussions.

The fear is one I encountered in growing up in a small, holiness denomination. The folks were the salt of the earth, but any kind of disunity in the camp was so feared that voicing disagreements, especially about such big topics as our views of God, were strongly avoided.

Of course, the disunity is still there, whether we talk about it or not. How much better to learn to open up, discuss in love, and work things through.

It’s very encouraging to know that there are those in leadership advocating more openness on such matters. It requires lots of work and good will, but we and the Church will be stronger for it.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Dr. Bev Mitchell is a retired experimental biologist, university teacher and administrator. He is an informal student of theology and is especially interested in participating in discussions that might help Christians who want to find more harmony between their faith and the complex world of biology. He is a regular commenter and occasional contributor on several Christian blogs.