The Myth of the “Clear, Easy to Interpret” Bible

For some reason, many of us think that we can just open up the Bible and get an infinite amount of immediately clear truths from it with little to no effort (except the effort to merely open up the thing!). In part, this ideology was caused by the Reformation wherein the scriptures were increasingly produced in the vernacular (the language of the people) as well as the introduction of the printing press that allowed individuals to have their own copies of the Bible. Before this modernization, the majority of Christians had to rely on their priests and pastors to read them books of the Bible during Church services. Moreover, the clergy had a tight hold (not necessarily malicious of course) upon how the Bible should be interpreted. In short, in that age, one had to rely on their priest for all they would receive from the Bible.

Today, we obviously do not live with that reality. Each of us likely have multiple copies of the Bible just laying around at home, easily accessible whenever we feel like reading. This is certainly a good thing (because we all have unmediated access to the Bible), but it has also resulted in some unfortunate developments. To begin with, many Christians have this belief that the Bible is perfectly clear. Of course, most of us recognize that some of the phrases or props used in individual stories are products of their times – eras we don’t understand very well. Yet, at the same instance, many of us have this peculiar idea that one can just open up the Bible to a particular verse and immediately get a profound truth from it (or at least from much of the New Testament). However, I would like to reflect a little bit upon the difficulty of reading the Bible. We may think the difficulty lies merely in the difference of historical context (which is important as well, of course) and not in the difficulty of the truths themselves.

Most obviously, its difficulty should be evidenced by the thousands of different Christian sects (and billions of individuals) each claiming to have finally gotten the Bible right after all this time (gee, I wish it were that easy! Who knew we just needed to wait until so and so came along to finally interpret the whole Bible rightly!?). From this, it should be obvious that the Bible is not perfectly clear, nor are humans easily trusted with reading it correctly – hence the extreme variation of conflicting interpretations. On a side note, one should take into account their own limited capacity to properly interpret the Bible (perhaps the Christian concept of sin is relevant here!) when claiming to use the Bible as a once and for all authoritative document.

jacob wrestling.jpgI would argue that God made the Bible difficult to understand on purpose. It was by design. Not to foster a spiritual elitism of those trained in biblical studies over against lay people, nor so that the common person has no hope of understanding the Bible for themselves. With those passages especially entrenched in historical contexts unfamiliar to us, it may be true that an understanding in light of context is only available to those trained in discerning and evaluating those contexts (for example, historians – but we often put a bit too much emphasis on understanding the historical details). However, this difficulty is not primarily what I am talking about. Even in passages that may seem to be less tied to a particular historical context, the truths contained within them are often difficult to grasp. Many of us have stopped reading the Bible just because of this fact. We find some of it so un-relatable or un-applicable, so we just give up. Those of us that do this (and those of whom are much too quick to read and interpret), however, are missing one of the most important elements of the act of Bible reading – its capacity for sanctification.

Many of these texts do not allow us to just pick them up and get a clear interpretation/application of their contents. And by the way, forcing a text to conform to our own notions of applicability (immediate applicability often) is just plain dumb. We should not go into every Bible reading with the assumption (or requirement even!) that we get something immediately out of it to apply to our lives. This habit does not allow the truths of the Bible to shape us in their own ways, but only in the ways we presume they must. Sometimes, it’s best to just read and allow the truth to work within us, grow over time, and place ourselves under its gaze (rather than the other way around!). We also should not presume that the Spirit will lead us to a clear interpretation for that is presumptuous of the Spirit’s role in our own lives (and constitutes our own arbitrary limitation of God’s freedom – shaping us how God intends to shape us rather than how we think God ought). Perhaps an equally sanctifying time of reading the Bible will require us to wrestle with its truths.

Sometimes we must struggle with the text as we try to discover how it can be formative to our own faith. The effort necessary in these cases and the discernment it fosters are both sanctifying for our lives. As we struggle with the text – a struggle not limited to interpreting its content, but also to its meaning for our lives – we are transformed. We must not think that we can only benefit spiritually when we grasp an immediate applicability of any particular text, nor that only the most clear biblical texts can be sanctifying in the same way. Do not limit the truths inherent in scripture to your own initial perception of scripture’s truth. Perhaps a story from scripture may mean something much different from what we initially assume (or what we have assumed for all of our lives!). But we will never know this if our Bible reading stops at whatever initial perceptions we happen to come up with, nor will it happen if we give up by thinking a text is not relevant to our own lives.

The fact is, much of the Bible is extraordinarily hard to understand, and even more difficult to derive meaning from. But this teaches us to not treat God like a spiritual genie who must conform to our wrong-headed need to have an immediate truth to apply to our lives. Sometimes, instead, we will get absolutely nothing out of reading the Bible (at the very least initially). This need not be as a result of a failure on our part or on God’s to deliver truth. On the contrary, this has the potential to produce a sanctifying patience in our own lives so that we do not try to force truth to conform to our own terms, but ours to its. Our initial disappointments, when we read the Bible in this way, should not therefore be grounds for giving up the whole endeavor but may actually result in some of the more edifying moments of our whole spiritual lives.

In addition, we should be careful to refrain from pridefully asserting (even if only in our own minds) that we know everything about the Bible, or that we understand all it has to tell us. That idea would not only be blatantly false, but it would further hinder our ability to allow the Bible to do its own work in our lives. Once we remove such presumptions from our lives, it becomes possible to read the Bible more faithfully. We should approach the Bible humbly; aided, of course, by our experience in the Christian faith, our educations, and our circumstances among other things. In addition, it should cause us to rely on others to help us understand the text. We should not despise biblical scholars or theologians, but learn from them and from the Church as a whole in our communities. Bible reading ought not to be a solely, or even a primarily, individual thing. It should be done with the help of others, who, as the Spirit works in all of our lives, can come to our spiritual aid while reading the Bible.

Wrestling or struggling with the truths of the Bible is not the sign of a spiritual deficiency, but is rather one sign that God is active in sanctifying through your reading of the Bible. This should give us all comfort, and at the same time, lead us to gleam more from the texts we cherish so much.

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