How to Interpret the Bible, Part 6: Use the Smell Test


If it looks like a duck,
Swims like a duck,
And quacks like a duck,
Then it probably is a duck.

~ “The duck test”, a common saying

This is part 6 of the series “How to Interpret the Bible“, so if you have not yet read the introduction, you should do so.  Likewise, we have already covered “Ask God for Help” and “Standard Definitions Don’t Depend on What the Meaning of the Word ‘Is’ Is“.  Part 4, “Pay Attention to Whom Is Being Addressed“, was a special case of “Context, context and context“.  In “How to Interpret the Bible, Part 5: Literal Interpretation Does Not Mean Lack of Symbols or Poetry” it was stressed that taking the Bible literally does not mean that there aren’t different styles of writing within it, but certain sections and the context can guide us easily through this.

Still, it is possible to go pretty far offtrack if a little dash of discernment isn’t interjected into the process.  The duck test might be good for using sight, observation and sound to determine if it is a duck, but what if the duck is in the grocery store?  How do you know it is any good?  What if you pull some meat out of the refrigerator?  How do you know it hasn’t spoiled?  That’s where the smell test comes into play.

Wiktionary says that the “smell test” is “An informal method for determining whether something is authentic, credible, or ethical, by using one’s common sense or sense of propriety.”  While ethical is certainly understandable, usually the emphasis is upon whether it is real and makes sense. says a “smell test” checks “authenticity or legitimacy”.

This is where someone has to use their sense of reason and logic, not to mention common sense.  For example, if we accept that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture, then any explanation of a passage that contradicts the clear wording of Scripture must be wrong.

Example 1: Soul and Death

Perhaps the best example is the usual mainstream explanations of the immortal soul and death.  They try to explain it away by saying death isn’t really death, which not only breaks the guideline of clear definitions, but it also goes against common sense.  Death means absence of life.  Clear Scripture says the soul that sins will die (Eze 18:4 and again v 20).  Clear Scripture says the dead are unconscious because “the dead know not any thing” (Ecc 9:5).

What is logical is that the first lie told in the Bible was, “Ye shall not surely die” (Ge 3:4), and that same lie has been handed down in the false religions of this world ever since.

It should also be obvious that when Paul speaks of an “earthly house of this tabernacle” that he is using poetic language.  He is not saying we literally live in a tent!  So, when he talks of “whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord”, we must not stretch that poetic language to the point where it breaks clear Scripture.  In fact, the whole question of when we will be in a spiritual body and when we will be with the Lord are both answered by His second coming, which are also pretty clear!

Example 2: The trinity Doctrine

In a similar vein, what is logical about the trinity doctrine?  In school, we are taught that 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, but the trinity doctrine says 1 + 1 + 1 = 1?  Then, we are told that “God is incomprehensible”.  If that is true, then how are we supposed to develop a relationship with Him?  You cannot create a relationship with someone that you totally do not understand!  Furthermore, it defeats the entire premise that we are made in the image of God if He is incomprehensible to us!

Logically, we should look for the clues to understanding God from the very beginning and build upon that knowledge.  We know that we see “God created”, “God said”, “God saw” and more, but we don’t see a pronoun attached to God until Genesis 1:10, where “he” called the waters seas.  We don’t see “he” again until v 16.  Then, in v 26, the pronoun attached to God is “us”, the possessive is “our”, and man likewise is given plural attributes!

How is “man” plural, and how is this in His image?

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Ge 1:27

We reject the trinity because it does not pass the sniff test, and it contradicts Scripture.  Then, we allow the Bible to interpret the Bible to give us the answer that God, which we later understand to be God the Father and Jesus Christ, are one family, just as the first man and woman were married and the first human family.

SMELL as an Acronym

If you still don’t have a grasp on it, PBS put together an article about “Don’t Be Fooled: Use the SMELL Test To Separate Fact from Fiction Online“.  They found it necessary to put together as an acknowledgement that while there is a lot of good on the Internet, there also is a lot of garbage.  They describe the web as the Sahara Desert full of mirages.

They don’t claim it will be “foolproof”.  They also don’t limit its use to just the web.  Of course, the more important the issue, the more fact checking you’ll want to do.

I’ll just list the synopsis, and invite you to read their article for more detail:

Introducing the SMELL test

S stands for Source. Who is providing the information?
M is for Motivation. Why are they telling me this?
E represents Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?
L is for Logic. Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?
L is for Left out. What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

About the only one I would caution you on is the first.  It is important to know the source and what their biases are.  It is important to know who it is in order to determine if there is a motive, the second item, which might conflict with telling the truth.  People like to protect themselves and groups they are a member of, as a form of extended self-protection.

However, we must also be careful of the trap of the ad hominem attack, in which we become engaged in attacking the messenger rather than the message.  That’s the sort of mud slinging we see all too often in politics, which is part of the reason that meaningful things don’t often get done.

Yet, when someone has repeatedly shown that they are critical even to the point of slander towards certain groups of people, the value of them as a source plummets.  Even more so when they have a donate button on their website, for that shows their real motivation.  Seriously, if they cannot be trusted to portray the truth in one area, why should they be trusted in any other area?

Also, consideration of source is one reason I tend to heavily discount or even disregard anonymous sources.  What’s the point?  You don’t know the motivation or even if they know what they are talking about.

One last point on their article is on motivation.  They go to great lengths in separating persuaders from informers.  Don’t kid yourself.  Even the informers are trying to persuade you of something.  In fact, many classes teach that a presentation should be ended with a “call to action”, which right there tells you it is about persuasion.  The real question is whether they are doing so in an even-handed and objective manner backed up with facts or are doing so using emotional tugs, slander, insinuation and baggage-laden terms.

Trust No One

The TV show The X-Files had a couple of taglines depending upon the season of the show.  I should mention that after I began coming to church, I quit watching it because 1. It was on Friday nights usually after sundown, and 2. I eventually became convicted that taking in some rather questionable themes was not consistent with my Christian walk.

One tagline was “The Truth Is Out There”, and it is perhaps the best known.  For a while, however, it was “Trust No One”.

That may seem harsh, but if you think about it, why should we trust any human being (even ourselves) implicitly and without question?

4 God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar…

Ro 3:4

9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

Jer 17:9

When I say we need to learn how to be more skeptical, I’m not joking.  We cannot be like Homer Simpson, claiming that the “TV doesn’t lie!” or believing any old slop fed to us via email or the web.

God gave us a brain.  We need to be discerning.  God actually commands us and others to not be deceived more than once in Scripture (Dt 11:16; Jer 29:8; 37:9; Lk 21:8; 1Co 6:9; 15:33; Gal 6:3, 7; 2Th 2:3).

Finally, let’s take the admonition of Jesus Christ seriously when He said:

16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents [i.e., discerning], and harmless as doves.

17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues;

Mt 10:16-17

From here, you may:

Go back to the Introduction

Go back to Part 5

Go on to Part 7

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