Sunday, January 20, 2013

The IFF Principle of Biblical Interpretation

I’ve been writing a lot about Biblical inspiration and inerrancy lately – I’m not really sure why, it’s just something that has been on my mind, I suppose.

One way in particular that it has been on my mind is with regard to how we handle differences of interpretation in Scripture. Our church is doing a study of Ephesians for the next several weeks and—just as in Romans—we are seeing Paul weave a theme of unifying around the core of the Gospel while allowing “debatable” things to differ.

This has of course long been one of the hallmarks of my site—our motto is, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.”

But the question always arises…how do you know if a particular topic is “essential” or “non-essential”? I explain this over on my “Essentials” page. But even that lacks some clarity for some people.

Last year, for example, I did a teaching on evangelizing to evolutionists for my church youth group. Now we all agreed of course in the broad scope of intelligent design/creationism—that is, that God created the universe and that any morphological variations which happen throughout time are part of His Plan, and not random/unguided. But there was (as one may suspect) a disagreement between some of the youth regarding the age of the earth—some were Young Earth Creationists and some were Old Earth Creationists. (And at least one was a Cosmic Time Creationist, following the work of Schroeder’s Science of God.)

Now, my approach last year was simple: I provided evidence for and against each of those topics, and argued that this was not something which should destroy Christian fellowship. Age of the Earth is not an essential doctrine of the faith, nor is the theology a slam-dunk for either YEC or OEC. I argued for unity and grace to be given to those with a different opinion.

However—also as one might suspect—some Christians are more willing to accept this than others. Some (on both sides of the debate) did not see this as a “debatable” thing at all, but rather felt that the matter was absolutely critical to our faith.

We see this all the time in other areas as well, with Calvinism vs. Arminianism probably being the most famous Protestant example. We American Christians just LOVE to draw a firm boundary around our interpretations and call it an “essential” to the faith (regardless of whether most Christians throughout history agreed with it.)

So how do we handle this situation? How do we both confirm the inerrancy of Scripture and yet maintain unity, allowing polite disagreement on debatable issues?

The IFF Principle

I have long described my approach as Augustinian, or (to paraphrase Michael Horton of White Horse Inn) I have sometimes said that we must read a text only for what it necessarily must be saying. But that is not clear to a lot of people.

The other day, it occurred to me that I have a much better way of describing this—at least to the fellow geeks who love my blog!

In mathematics, programming, and philosophy/logic, we often use “logic gates” to connect two statements together. Common logical connectors are AND, OR, NOR, IF, etc. So for example, I might say, “IF the San Francisco 49ers win this weekend, they will be in the Super Bowl.” Or I might say, “IF the San Francisco 49ers win this weekend AND in two weeks, they will be Super Bowl Champions.” So you see that I use these logical connectors to describe the conditions under which the two statements can be joined.

Well, one such statement is abbreviated “IFF”—it means, “If and only if.”

The IFF Principle means that the object of the sentence is true if the subject is true—and ONLY in that scenario.

For example, take the statement, “The 49ers will win IF they score at least 20 points.” In this case I am saying that the scoring of 20 points would guarantee them a win. But I do not say that this is the only way to win in this case. Logically I am only guaranteeing the one statement (20 points = 1 win), but not guaranteeing the reverse (less than 20 points = 0 wins).

However, if I said: "The 49ers will win IF AND ONLY IF they score at least 20 points," then I am being more specific. This "if and only if" (IFF) statement means that the only possible scenario in which they win is scoring 20 points.

Make sense?

The IFF Principle in Scriptural Exegesis

So when reading a Scripture, my approach is to apply an “IFF” principle to my interpretations.

That is, I say: “Is the Bible true IF AND ONLY IF my interpretation is true?”

Asking this question is very, very powerful—and very humbling. When you ask this question, you quickly can see which doctrines are non-debatable essentials, and which are not.

Using this method, you realize quickly that the Bible’s inerrancy is not dependent upon viewing creation as either young or old. You realize quickly that the Bible’s inerrancy is not dependent upon whether you are a pre-, post-, or a-millennialist. You realize that the Bible’s inerrancy is not dependent upon whether you are a futurist or a preterist or an historicist. You realize that the Bible’s inerrancy is not dependent upon whether you are a Calvinist or Armianist. You realize that the Bible’s inerrancy is not dependent upon whether the Old Testament generations are complete or incomplete.

But you also realize very quickly the things which do put the Bible’s inerrancy at risk—and thus, which are key doctrines of the faith. You realize that God must be the Creator making the universe. You realize that God must have exiled us after our rebellion in the Garden, and all of us receive a sin-nature curse as a result. You realize that Jesus must have lived and died and rose again. You realize that we must pledge lifelong loyalty to Him in salvation, and that we are expected to seal such a pledge with baptism. You realize that Christ will return and judge us all, and that we have eternal life.

The IFF method is a great way to keep yourself honest, because it quickly reduces your theology to the most important key point, namely: is this a clearly-defined necessity of the faith, or not?

So when you are hearing about a contradiction or considering debating with another person to defend your particular interpretation of a passage, ask yourself this simple question: “Is the Bible true IF AND ONLY IF my interpretation is true?” If the answer is ‘no,’ that the Bible could still be true if your interpretation is wrong, then you need to give the other person grace and seek unity, not discord, with them.


  1. You know, it's interesting how the NT often talks about being in harmony with other believers - and I think agreeing to disagree on hot-button issues is a big part of that. This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, because I have my own horns I'm inclined to toot in church, and it's difficult to make yourself be quiet for the sake of preserving the harmony of the church as a whole.

    That's not to say that there aren't important issues worth fighting over, but it's helpful to remember that there were guys concerned with being "right" about everything in Jesus' day, too - the Pharisees.

  2. I'm looking forward to applying this to my thoughts in future situations! Though, I'm sure that has absolutely NOTHING to do with being an MS Excel geek.....

    1. Ha--yes, Dan, if you are a (fellow) Excel geek, then this is definitely up your alley...