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Methods used to fit scripture to assert what the speaker wants it to say.

Page contents

You may read through this page in the order it was written or follow the links below to the topic of most interest to you.

The Bible is for theologians fallacy

Resolved tension fallacy

Proof text fallacies

Fallacious allegorization

Historical (traditional) fallacy

Theological language fallacy

Law of first reference fallacy

Ecclesiastical convenience fallacy

Negativistic interpretational fallacy


The most common and most serious of these fallacies, and the error from which many of the others spring, is the notion that God gave us His Word primarily to serve as a source of "propositional truths" (i.e., logical propositions) for theologians, who will then take these propositions, organize them into elegant theologies, and explain to us everything mere laymen need to know about Him. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Bible is God's love letter to us. Its purpose is to lead believers, individually, into a close and loving relationship with Him. It is primarily a means of communication by which God leads individual people from hostility toward Him into an understanding of Him and of His love. While it undoubtedly states some "propositional truths" and study of these truths by believers, with the aid of believing theologians, can be useful in developing the relationship God desires, none of these logical propositions supported by scripture have any meaning or purpose outside of a growing relationship with God. Mere academic theology, which is not built on the author's relationship with God and is not directed at helping others find a closer friendship with Him, is empty... Return to the top of this page


The scriptures often affirm to be simultaneously true pairs of concepts which are in tension with each other. When this occurs, proper interpretation demands that both concepts be regarded as equally true and reconciled with each other. To emphasize one such concept to the exclusion of the other is error. An example of such a concept pair in tension which has been particularly productive of division in church history is the tension between Jesus' deity and his humanity. From sometime in the First Century, there were those in the visible church who taught that Christ was divine only and not human. Groups who have believed this have tended to explain away scriptures asserting Jesus' humanity either by asserting, as did many of the early Gnostics, that the man Jesus was merely a phantom, an illusory physical manifestation of a spiritual body. On the other hand, for most of church history there have been groups, such as the Ebionites of the early centuries and several modern cults, who have insisted that Jesus was merely a man in whom, for a portion of His life, the Spirit of God or the "Christ spirit" took up residence. Further, there have always been those who have taught what many of today's North American nominal Christians believe, i.e., that Jesus was only a very good man who lived without sin and thereby set us an example and who, possibly, earned us some merit before God by dying an undeserved death for our sins. However, though the concepts are difficult to reconcile, the good news of our deliverance from sin through Jesus' death only works if He is what the scriptures declare Him to be — both God and man. Several other examples of concepts in tension which have created major historic divisions in the church when groups have erroneously attempted to resolve the tension in favor of one of its poles are: the unity of God versus the Trinity; God's sovereignty versus human free will; God's sovereignty versus human responsibility for sin; God's goodness (particularly in light of His sovereignty) versus evil in the world; God's justice versus His grace; and faith as the means of salvation versus works... Return to the top of this page


The Proof Text Fallacies are a group of three related methodological errors in the interpretation of scripture.

The first of these errors is recognized by nearly everyone to be an error when someone else is guilty of it, but is, unfortunately tolerated by nearly everyone in formulating their own doctrinal position. It is the error of taking a passage of scripture out of its immediate context and setting it up, in opposition to its context, as proof of a doctrinal point.

The second of these errors is also commonly recognized, though seemingly somewhat less well-recognized than the first. It is the error of setting up a single passage of scripture, or several passages of scripture, as proof of a doctrinal point in opposition to the teachings of the remainder of the Bible. It is, in effect, to take one or a few scriptures out of their broader scriptural context and make a proof out of them.

The third of these errors is hardly discussed at all in other sources this author has read, yet in a way it may be the most divisive of the three. It is the error of carving the Bible up into a series of proof texts and insisting that, once a verse or passage has been identified as a proof text for a particular doctrine, it can serve no other purpose. Beyond simply taking some verses out of context, this error destroys the entire concept of context. It reduces Bible interpretation into simply a matter of deciding which pre-established doctrinal pigeon-hole each verse was intended to fill. Thus, for example, once a person arguing from this form of the Proof Text Fallacy has decided that Acts 2:37-41 is a proof text for the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that person will ignore (and usually tell others to ignore) the apparent promise of receiving the Holy Spirit in verse 38, because that promise is not a part of the one and only purpose of the passage. Unfortunately, this error is quite common, though not always stated openly as the basis of the arguments in which it lies buried... Return to the top of this page


Fallacious Allegorization is another methodological error in interpreting the text of scripture. It is the insistence that scripture passages which appear on their faces to be statements of literal truth really do not mean what they say but instead have some hidden "figurative," "symbolic," "spiritual" or "allegorical" meaning. In its more limited use, it is a method of avoiding the clear meaning of scripture passages which are embarrassing to the doctrinal point the speaker wants to make by insisting that these embarrassing passages have only the hidden meanings the speaker assigns them. However, false allegorization also has a broader application: some systems of Biblical interpretation popular even in the Church today insist that the entire Bible is to be interpreted allegorically, and that its primary meaning is entirely the hidden, "spiritual" one. Of course, the methodological problem with interpreting passages which do not declare themselves to be symbolic or allegorical as nonetheless having hidden primary meanings is that the method completely divorces the meaning of the scriptures from the words God used to express them. This leaves average Christians entirely at the mercy of their teachers to tell them the "true," though non-obvious, meaning of God's words... Return to the top of this page


This is the error of placing organizational tradition, precepts and practices derived from the history of the organization, on an equal level with, or a higher level than, scripture. Traditions have a legitimate role, at least to the extent that they legitimately represent traditions received from the Apostles. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 & 3:6. However, giving too high a priority to tradition has four effects, all of which tend to deepen the divisions which have arisen in the Body of Christ, namely: 1) traditions may be insisted upon to the derogation of scripture, requiring the faithful to do things which are contrary to scripture in the name of compliance with tradition, in much the same manner as the Pharisees did; 2) traditions which conflict with the obvious interpretation of a scripture may require that the scripture be ignored, packaged into a proof text for some other doctrine, spiritualized or allegorized to accommodate the tradition; 3) traditions may result in the unnecessary rejection of Christians who do not adhere to them; and 4) traditions which diverge from scripture may, in time, require further interpretation and the creation of other supporting traditions. This process of generating traditions in support of older traditions tends to result in the creation of a body of traditions which stands independent of scripture and defines the differences between denominational groups in a way which cannot be corrected by reference to scripture.

The reader may at first perceive the above description of the Historical (Traditional) Fallacy as an attack on the Catholic Church. This is not its intent. Much to their credit, churches in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions are completely honest about the very high regard in which they hold their body of established traditions. Most Protestant denominations, on the other hand, outwardly profess to subordinate their traditions to the scriptures while, in fact, making many of their traditions equal to scripture by reading them into what would otherwise be non-obvious interpretations of scriptural proof texts. Many of the divisions between Protestants involve such traditions that have been read into non-obvious interpretations of scripture — bogus "interpretations" which are always more visible to those in other groups which reject them than they are to those who have been taught that they are the truth. Consider, for instance, the traditional Protestant interpretations of the New Testament's very few words about clothing, which carry those words far beyond their literal meaning and impose the resulting traditional standard on everyone, whether believer or not. At least the Catholic Church is honest about what it is doing when it honors its traditions on par with scripture... Return to the top of this page


This is the error of substituting theological language for scriptural language as if it were in the original and then demanding, as a test of fellowship, that others use the theological language the same way we do. This can be done in four different ways. One is by outright substitution — teaching that an apparently simple word or phrase in a scripture passage really is the same as a theological term for which the denomination has a separate (and not necessarily simple or obvious) definition. This will commonly be followed by an insistence that, in discussing the scripture at issue, the opaque theological term must be used instead of the simple scriptural one. Church language can also be created by interpolation, such as when the terms translated "persons" and "substance" were adopted from Latin legal terminology to describe the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The organized Church then imposed the correct use of this non-scriptural terminology as a test of fellowship through adoption of creeds which insisted that God is three "persons" who share the "same substance." A declaration that the three "persons" share only "similar substance" — a difference of one iota in the spelling of a single Greek word — was cause for excommunication.

Bible translators have also perpetuated some theological language for us. The work of translation is a difficult and exacting labor, and each translator comes from a distinct denominational background and will naturally tend to read the scriptures through the filter of his or her own background. Moreover, Bible translation is almost always overseen by committees of translators and denominational leaders who often represent a range of doctrinal perspectives, and reaching consensus often requires translation of terms around which controversies center into theological terms which each participating denomination is free to define for itself. So I commend translators for the work they have done; I do not criticize them. But readers should be aware of the perpetuation of theological language through translation. Translators may perpetuate theological language by transliterating rather than translating Greek or Hebrew terms, such as was done with the Greek word baptizo, which is uniformly transliterated as "baptize" when it refers to the Holy Spirit or to rituals involving water, but is translated in some other contexts. In Greek, the term means roughly to "bathe" or "dip," but when transliterated as "baptize" it can be said to mean whatever the speaker's denomination has decided it should mean.

Translators may also perpetuate theological language through selective translation — that is, translating the same Greek or Hebrew word as one theological term in one context, but as another theological term or even a simple non-theological word or phrase in a different context, depending on the translators' perception of the intended theological content of the context. An outstanding example of this is provided by the treatment of the Greek word koinonia in the KJV (and most other English translations). The root meaning of the word is "partnership," and it was used in secular Greek to describe business partnerships — indeed, in Luke 5:10, the fishing company of Simon, James and John were described as koinonoi, "partners." The KJV usually translates koinonia as "fellowship." "Fellowship" has since become a thoroughly theological term, although it was a much more common secular term in 1611. However, in I Corinthians 10:16, the KJV twice translates koinonia as "communion." The context in I Corinthians 10 is speaking of the observance of the Lord's Supper, and it would appear that the translators wished to limit the application of the passage strictly to the church communion ritual and didn't wish their readers to form the impression that we are either "fellows" or "partners" in Christ's body and blood, though that is what the Greek text otherwise might imply... Return to the top of this page


The "law of first reference" is a traditional and often-stated rule of hermeneutics. This "law" states that, wherever possible, a scriptural concept is to be considered defined by its first use in the Bible. However, this "law" is an arbitrary rule of interpretation which is not prescribed by any scripture. Furthermore, it is essentially illogical and invites commentators to read their own opinions into scripture.

God's revelation of truth in the Bible was progressive, not retrogressive. Abraham did not start with full knowledge of God from which later scripture writers then subtracted. Instead, the knowledge possessed by Adam, Abraham and the Patriarchs was quite fragmentary. Moses added a good deal of knowledge, and the later prophets added still more. Finally, God fully revealed himself in Christ (Hebrews 1), and the written record of this revelation was completed by the Apostles. So, by requiring that scriptural concepts be defined on the basis of the first reference, traditional hermeneutics has compelled us to define our ideas based on the most fragmentary knowledge and then apply those definitions to interpret later, more complete, revelation. This is simply irrational, but it has historically served a purpose which was useful to denominational hierarchies: since definitions were based on very incomplete information, theologians were free to fill in the gaps as they pleased and then plead that later occurrences of the concept defined MUST follow the definitions they had devised (even when they did not appear on their face to be consistent).

The more rational method would be to read all of the references to a concept together before attempting to define it... Return to the top of this page


The Ecclesiastical Convenience Fallacy is that principle of scriptural interpretation which states that, whenever there are several possible interpretations of a scripture, that interpretation which is most convenient to the ecclesiastical organization is favored. It can be alternatively stated as the concept that the scriptures were written primarily for the convenience of the human church organization. Those who doubt that such a way of thinking exists in the church should listen carefully to the interpretations they hear, particularly of scriptures which teach about the use of money, church membership, or the (usually asserted to be one and only) "correct" form of ecclesiastical organization... Return to the top of this page


This is the error of interpreting explicit or even implicit prohibitions in scripture as broadly as possible while interpreting words which appear to give permission or to state positive commands (except for commands involving giving, church attendance or participation in church activities) as narrowly as possible. Both halves of this error can be illustrated by the interpretation which many denominations impose upon Ephesians 5:17: The prohibition of drunkenness in the first half of the verse is read as prohibiting Christians from drinking even one drop of beer, while the parallel command to be filled with the Holy Spirit in the same verse either is read as being applicable only to the immediate people to whom it was written and not to us at all or is read as meaning only that we must obey our church organization and join wholeheartedly in the prescribed form of organized worship. The intended comparison of drunkenness (control by alcohol) and the filling of the Spirit (control by the spirit) tends to be ignored, because control by the Spirit can't be restated as an absolute rule of behavior which the Church may conveniently enforce... Return to the top of this page

Common Divisive Fallacies site index

On other sites

Being filled with the Holy Spirit, a definition.

The true Christian Sabbath, discussing another instance of the Ecclesiastical Convenience Fallacy and what the Church loses by following it.

Letter to Dr. John MacArthur, Jr., regarding his book Charismatic Chaos, discussing, among other things, a very widely-held fallacious application of the law of first reference.

Other fallacies referenced above

Pigeon-hole Fallacy

Silent God Fallacy

Clerical Fallacy

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Richard Blake's review of the book Our Oneness in Christ by Lauston Stephens and Ian Johnson.

© 2000, 2002 by Ian Johnson