Throughout the history of Christianity there have been devout and pious persons who presented their interpretations as if they were equivalent to the Word of God: “If you don’t believe what I believe, then you are going against God!” “If you don’t interpret the Bible the way I do, then you have rejected the authority of the Word of God.” Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same claim, as well as do a multitude of other interpreters. There is no doubt that many interpreters endeavor to understand and interpret the Word of God faithfully. Everyone believes that his interpretation is good and right and accurate. No one holds to a belief that he thinks is wrong. However, believing that one’s interpretation is good and right and accurate is not the same as believing that one’s interpretation is equivalent to the Word of God. We all are, after all, finite and fallible human beings. Many beliefs and interpretations we get right, or think we get right, can be mixed with error.
Many passages of the Bible are perspicuous (that is, ‘clearly expressed and easily understood’). The perspicuity of the Gospel was an important conviction of the Reformation theologians. However, there are also passages in the Bible that are more difficult to understand concerning which there are often may conflicting points of view. Even Peter recognized this fact: “And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15–16). Every interpreter must diligently study in his efforts to interpret the Bible. It is a life-long process of study and learning, and there are some passages which an interpreter holds to tentatively simply because we are all fallible, that is, capable of making errors. Indeed there are even controversies over which passages are more easily understood and which are more difficult. There are many beliefs which I hold uncompromisingly and dogmatically—such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, the deity of Christ, the inerrancy of the Word of God, and that God created the universe out of nothing. Nevertheless there are many interpretations of passages concerning which I am open to hear what others say so that I might learn more and do a better job of interpretation. There are many interpretations that should held with humility, even though with conviction.
I am personally a young-earth creationist. However, I am not willing to say that my interpretation is equivalent to the Word of God, or that people who reject my interpretations, such as those of my fellow professors who are old-earth inerrantists, reject the authority of the Word of God. Yet this is the claim made by Ken Ham. With reference to the discussion/debate between Ken Ham and Richard Howe, Ham says, “I challenged this professor (more than once) that the age issue was an authority one, whether one stands uncompromisingly on the authority of the Word of God or allows man’s fallible ideas to be used in authority over God’s Word.”¹ There is, of course, a self-reference problem with Ham’s assertion. He presents the dilemma as holding to the authority of the Word of God or allowing man’s fallible ideas to be used in authority over the Word of God. But, isn’t Ken Ham a fallible man? Isn’t he presenting his interpretation as the authority concerning what the Bible says? If indeed we should hold to the authority of the Word of God rather than the fallible ideas of men, does it not follow that we should not hold Ken Ham’s ideas since he, like all the rest of us, is a fallible man?
We cannot make the mistake of rejecting anyone’s claims on the basis of who is making the claim. The source of a truth claim is not a test of the truth or falsehood of the claim itself. As Aristotle put it, “He who says of what is not, that it is not, or of what is, that it is, he speaks truth. He who says of what is not that it is, or of what is that it is not, he speaks false.” No doubt someone will object that I am taking the claims of a pagan Aristotle as authority over the Word of God. Aristotle’s claim simply means, truth corresponds to reality. The Word of God assumes the accuracy of this claim because it operates on the assumption that what the Word of God asserts is truth; it corresponds to reality. And the Word of God assumed this truth-claim long before Aristotle put it into his straightforward statement.
But we are not making this error here. We are not considering Ken Ham’s claims because they come from Ken Ham. Rather, we are considering his claims on whether they correspond to the way things are, and in fact, they don’t. We can see this because Ken Ham’s claim judges itself, and it fails its own test. If we are to hold to the authority of the Word of God over the fallible ideas of fallible men, then we must hold the authority of the Word of God over Ken Ham’s fallible ideas because he is a fallible man. Although I agree with Ken Ham as a young-earth creationist, I cannot agree with him that his interpretations are equivalent to the very Word of God.