Christian Living

Harter’s precept and the Bible

“The great physicist Richard Feinberg loved to warn beginning scientists, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool'” (Phillip E. Johnson, Objections Sustained, p. 17). In Johnson’s essay, he describes “Harter’s Precept” as saying that “the way to advance in academic life is to learn to see what you are supposed to see, whether it is there or not.” This is essentially another way of saying that “you’ve got to go along to get along.”

“Harter’s Precept” comes from an illustration, quoted by Johnson, of a young teenager in a physics class. The teacher placed a telescope in the school yard to show students certain planets and moons. The students stood in line to look. The teacher asked students whether or not they could see the planet. One said “no,” so the teacher showed him how to adjust the focus. Finally, he could see the planet and moons. Others had no problems; they saw the planets and moons immediately. They saw what they were supposed to see. But then one student, named Harter, said he could see nothing. The teacher shouted, “You idiot…you have to adjust the lens.” Harter did that, but still saw nothing. The teacher looked through the telescope for himself, and after a few seconds look up with a strange expression. Soon the rest of the students also saw the problem: the lens cover was still on the telescope! No one could see anything in reality.

So now here is a new precept. We know about Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong, will). Then there is Parkinson’s Law (bureaucracy expands to the limit of available resources) and the Peter Principle (one rises in a hierarchy up to one’s level of incompetence). Harter’s precept, according to Johnson, covers self-deception: seeing what we are supposed to see regardless of reality. Johnson then goes on to apply this to some social issues. I think it is equally applicable to our Bible study and teaching. The aim of Bible study is to first understand the meaning of a particular text, and second to learn how to apply it to our peculiar circumstances. The purpose is not to rubber stamp pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Yet, it is all too tempting to formulate ideas and opinions, then go to the Bible to back up what we’ve already decided. This is self-deception. We will see what we want to see if we’ve already made up our minds before going to the text. We may even think we are doing it honestly. If one decides that baptism has nothing to do with salvation before going to the text, then no matter what evidence is there is support of baptism, it will be interpreted so as to support the predetermined conclusion. This is the problem of bias. We all have it in some form; and this is part of what makes Bible study a constant challenge.

Traditions handed down through time can become laws themselves. The Pharisees were guilty of putting their own traditions on par with, or above, the revealed will of God (Mark 7:1-13). They were self-deceived, seeing what they wanted to see…seeing what they were supposed to see as defined by their teachers. But the reality was that they invalidated God’s word through their deception. Today, we can be guilty of elevating men’s traditions to the status of law. Then, by powers of persuasion, we can “force” others to see what they are supposed to see so that they will support our traditions also. The right “spin” on just about any issue can convince at least someone, if not many. The question is, is it what God wants us to see? What is God’s reality?

When we teach others, our goal is to have them discover for themselves the treasures of truth in God’s word. Our eagerness to have them see the truth, however, can lead us to push conclusions on them before they see it for themselves. We might persuade them to see what they are supposed to see, but are they seeing it in reality for themselves? Acceptance of the truth becomes meaningful when one sees it for himself, not when something is forced on him. Teaching is to facilitate this through patient and gentle instruction. But we can’t make someone believe. And, as teachers of God’s word, we dare not force our opinions on others.

Johnson points out how errors are made and perpetuated: “theorists fall in love with their theories, the appearance of scholarship can often pass for reality, and clever charlatans…can evade the scrutiny of specialists and appeal directly to those who are all too willing to deceive themselves.” This principle is true for social issues, but also for biblical issues. If the lens cap is still on the telescope, it is good for us when someone points that out. We should see what God wants us to see in reality, not what we want to see through a covered lens.

Article by: Doy Moyer

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