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Friday, 23 December 2016

The problem of understanding the Bible: reflections after four years of theological study


A question which this author has made into a personal quest is this: How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? In this post I offer some reflections on how my thinking about this question has developed over four years of formal theological study. Specifically, I discuss four possible answers that have occurred to me, and which one I have settled on.

Let me first give some personal context. I am in the final stages of an Honours degree undertaken by distance learning. No exams are involved; each module is assessed using one or more essay assignments. An essential criterion for a successful essay is an extensive bibliography showing engagement with the range of scholarly viewpoints on the issue(s) under investigation. It would be difficult to guess the number of academic sources I've consulted over the past four years while preparing for my essay assignments (as well as blog posts and some published research), but it is not a few. I say this not to boast about how well-read I am, but to stress the bewildering array of competing arguments, opinions and interpretations I have encountered concerning every biblical passage or theological topic I have closely studied.

Encountering the breadth of scholarly argument and opinion is enriching, but also challenging—even intimidating! As an undergraduate student with limited experience in exegesis and a limited command of the relevant background knowledge (linguistic, historical, literary, etc.), one enters the fray to find seasoned professors offering diverging views on the meaning of nearly every phrase in the Bible, never mind verse.

By way of example, I'm currently working on an essay on Paul's theology of atonement in Romans, with special reference to Rom. 3:21-26. This passage is a veritable minefield of exegetical debates. What is the exact connotation of the expression 'works of law' in 3:20? Does 'the righteousness of God' refer to an attribute of God or a status conferred by God or both? Does Rom. 3:23 refer to the Fall or to personal transgression or both? Is 'justification' here mainly forensic, ecclesiological or ethical? What is the meaning of the word hilast─ôrion in Rom. 3:25—mercy seat, propitiation or expiation? Were Rom. 3:24-26 composed by Paul or is he quoting an earlier tradition? If the latter, where does the quotation begin and end, and has Paul modified it in any way? And finally—perhaps the most disputed question of all (although one wouldn't know it from most English Bible translations)—does the phrase pistis Christou or equivalent in Rom. 3:21 and 3:26 (and other Pauline texts) refer to faith in Christ (Christ as the object of faith) or to Christ's faith/faithfulness (Christ as the subject of faith)? It is easy to see that how one answers these perplexing exegetical questions has profound implications, not only for one's understanding of this passage but for one's theological convictions (just ask Martin Luther!)

Faced with this battery of exegetical difficulties and competing opinions each claiming the support of capable experts, one could hardly be blamed for feeling completely out of one's depth! Truly "much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccl. 12:12). However, the thesis statement "I don't know" is generally not well received by markers of academic essays, so pragmatism compels one to weigh the probabilities, form a judgment, and complete the essay. Yet as one goes through this process repeatedly over a period of years, one cannot escape becoming introspective about the question I posed at the beginning.

Broadly speaking, four answers to this question have occurred to me, which I will now discuss in turn. I have titled these answers (1) the perspicuity of Scripture, (2) the results of biblical scholarship, (3) the renunciation of dogma, and (4) the consensus of the church.

Option 1: The perspicuity of Scripture

One possible response is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This basically says that the Bible is clear enough for any devout reader to understand. Sometimes the doctrine is qualified to state that only those teachings which constitutes knowledge essential for salvation are clear enough for any devout reader to understand.1

The basic advantage of this doctrine is that it equalizes access to theological truth across different levels of education and intelligence. This seems just, especially in the context of modern Western societies with democratic governments (both civil and ecclesiastical). However, this apparent benefit is outweighed by significant difficulties. First, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture does not itself seem to be clearly taught in Scripture (one thinks of the Ethiopian eunuch's honest question in Acts 8:31, 'How can I [understand what I am reading] unless someone guides me?') Proponents of the doctrine would of course claim otherwise.

However, a second and more glaring problem is that different people read the Bible and come to widely diverging opinions about its meaning at the level of phrases, verses, and ultimately doctrines. What hits home when one undertakes academic theological study is that this is true not only of laypeople but also of "the experts"—professional scholars. Proponents of perspicuity have an answer to this conundrum, of course, and it lies in the qualifier 'devout': the Bible is clear enough for any devout reader to understand. Hence, when two readers come to conflicting, mutually exclusive conclusions about what the Bible teaches, the primary cause is not different education or intelligence, but different devoutness. It is the Holy Spirit, not the natural mind, that illuminates a person with the truth of Scripture, so only the person who is devout—i.e. in tune with the Holy Spirit—will understand the Bible.

This sounds satisfactory, but consider how it works out in practice. Each interested reader of the Bible operates from the following presupposition: my interpretation of the Bible is sound. (If I didn't believe this, I would adjust my interpretation until I became convinced of its soundness). If my interpretation of the Bible is sound, then I must be reading it devoutly. Consequently, anyone who arrives at a fundamentally different interpretation of the Bible must not be reading it devoutly. Thus, the doctrine of perspicuity seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion, "I read the Bible devoutly, and those who disagree with my interpretations don't." This, however, is a perspicuously arrogant statement! "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12) It might be protested that this statement is not arrogant, because 'devoutness' has been defined in terms of Holy Spirit activity rather than personal merit. However, "My interpretations are illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and the interpretations of those who disagree with me aren't" still rests on the complacent assumption of one's own privileged, elect status.

The 'devoutness criterion' also encourages confirmation bias: readers and interpretations in agreement with my presuppositions are viewed with favour and those opposed to my biases are viewed with suspicion. The Bible seemed very easy to understand when I was a teenager, because I had not read widely outside the narrow faith tradition in which I was raised. Now I know better than to privilege my own presuppositions over those of others. "With humility think of others as being better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).

In my view, reliance on the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture ultimately entails trusting in my own devoutness. This I cannot do, so I must reject the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This is not to say nothing in the Bible is clear, or that personal study is a lost cause. It is only to assert that deducing sound fundamental doctrine from the Bible is not guaranteed for even the devout reader.

Option 2: The results of biblical scholarship

A second response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? is that study of the Bible is a very complex science and is therefore best left to academic experts. 'Scholarly consensus' is the best metric for ascertaining the true doctrines of the Bible.

This is, on the surface, a satisfactory solution to intellectually sophisticated, scientifically minded readers of Scripture. However, as a method for arriving at the divine truths of the Bible its deficiencies are obvious. First, there are myriads of exegetical problems in the Bible for which no consensus exists among biblical scholars. Second, even established consensuses are occasionally overturned in light of further research. Hence, to rest one's dogmatic position on 'scholarly consensus' is to build a house on sand or lean on a bruised reed (choose your favourite biblical metaphor).

In any case, no ecclesiastical tradition can claim that its whole belief system is backed by consensus among biblical scholars. Hence, one is compelled to disagree with the scholarly consensus on at least some points. On what grounds does one justify holding up the scholarly consensus as vindication here, but repudiating it as mistaken there? Obviously other epistemological criteria are at work! (There are some people who seem to believe that scholarly opinion is on a relentless march toward their opinion, but this is a naive expectation, to say the least!)

One might concede that the academic community cannot be relied on for trustworthy dogmatic results, but maintain that the academic method of biblical study can be. In this case, one must take the bull by the horns and become a first-rate biblical scholar oneself in order to produce a sound doctrinal system. I must confess that there was an element of this thinking in my own motivation for undertaking formal theological studies. However, as I recounted in the beginning, the actual academic experience cured me of it (thankfully). If the doctrine of perspicuity boils down to trust in one's own devoutness, then the elevation of academic biblical scholarship boils down to trust in the astuteness and objectivity of human thought—whether of the academic community as a whole, or one's own. This fails on empirical grounds, as already discussed, but it also seems theologically wrongheaded, given Paul's polemic against 'the one who is wise... the scribe... the debater of this age' (1 Cor. 1:20).

This is not, of course, to say that academic biblical scholarship cannot produce any valuable exegetical results—far from it! In many cases it has produced near-certainty as to the meaning of previously confounding passages. (One example that comes to mind is 1 Pet. 3:19, an allusion previously thought to be obscure beyond recovery, but now generally accepted as referring to the Enochic Watchers myth). I only mean that the pursuit of academic learning cannot produce the assurance of doctrinal correctness which I have sought.

Option 3: The renunciation of dogma

A third response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? is essentially to wave the white flag. This might take two forms. I might conclude that the Bible itself is the problem; it does not contain any unified 'doctrines' to be understood. (This may or may not entail abandonment of Christian faith.) Alternatively, I may conclude that human subjectivity and distance from the historical context render an objective understanding of the Bible impossible. If so, perhaps dogma is ultimately not of critical importance to the Christian faith. Maybe I'm missing the point—maybe the Bible isn't meant to be understood; only marveled at. Maybe Bible study is more about the journey than the destination. Maybe God is not interested in doctrine so much as in our hearts; our sincere personal trust.

These mantras may seem trite as depicted here, but I do believe they represent an important corrective to an overly cerebral, dogma-centered approach to Christian faith. To know God at the level of dogma is surely not to have "arrived" spiritually: if I "understand all mysteries and all knowledge... but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2). Nevertheless, that dogma is insufficient does not mean it is unnecessary, or neatly separable from more relational and experiential aspects of Christian faith. One can hardly, after reading Isaiah or John or Romans, conclude that God is not interested in theology. That God demands soundness of doctrine is clear from many passages censuring and warning against doctrinal error. And God could hardly demand this if the theological task were Mission Impossible. Hence, abandoning dogma as either unimportant or unachievable is not the answer.

Option 4: The consensus of the church

A fourth response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? involves appealing, not to the consensus of the academy, but to the consensus of the church. There are some obvious pragmatic problems—the consensus of which church?, for one—but let me explain why I find this to be the most satisfactory option of the four.

My worldview underwent a significant shift when I rethought and ultimately repudiated a fundamental assumption implicit in my question: that it is my responsibility to figure out the doctrines of the Bible for myself (or, more generally, that this is the responsibility of each individual Christian). In other words, I ought to have replaced "I" with "we" in my question and so approached it from an ecclesiological rather than an individual perspective.

The individualistic perspective is endemic to modern Western society, where literacy rates are extremely high, Bibles are readily available for personal study in the lingua franca, freedom of expression and religion prevail, and self-advancement is both a core value and often an actual opportunity. When I read texts like 2 Tim. 2:15 and 3:15-17 in my English Bible on my smart phone, it certainly sounds like a mandate to me, the individual reader, to study my way to doctrinal correctness and thus divine approval. However, in doing this I forget that this letter was not written to me, or to a layperson like me, but to an ordained church leader (2 Tim. 1:6). I also forget that the social situation of the early church was very different: literacy rates were very low, copies of biblical books were rare and expensive (and the Bible itself not yet a finished product), and most people had little freedom or opportunity for self-advancement. Intensive, personal study of the biblical text was the province of the few. The many were were dependent on their teachers (like Paul and Timothy), whom they were enjoined to respect and obey (2 Cor. 13:10; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17). And this concentration of knowledge in the few was not viewed negatively; the accumulation of too many teachers was (2 Tim. 4:3; Jas 3:1)!

Now suppose I put myself in the shoes of a first century female slave who is a Christian. I hear the Scriptures read and expounded in the assemblies but I am illiterate. There is little prospect of my ever learning to read or, even if I did, getting my own copy of the Bible. If I pose to myself the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? how will I respond? Will I not answer to the first question, "I can listen to my teachers in the church," and to the second, "I can be confident in my teachers' teaching because they were appointed by the apostles of Christ and have the guidance of the Holy Spirit"?

The question then is, at what point did this sort of scenario come to an end, so that each Christian was now responsible for achieving a sound doctrinal understanding through personal Bible study? Was it when the Holy Spirit allegedly ceased activity? Was it when the printing press was invented? When religious freedom became a reality? When the Industrial Revolution led to soaring literacy rates? The burden of proof lies with the one who claims that the original model—laypeople relying on divinely sanctioned teachers for doctrine—was replaced by a democratized model in which each individual bears responsibility for the theological task.

Christ promised the church—represented by the Twelve—that the Holy Spirit would lead her into all truth (John 16:13), and that he would be with her until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). There is, then, good reason to trust an ecclesiological consensus—an agreement on fundamental doctrine reached by the church's ordained teachers. And, as it turns out, such a consensus did emerge in the early church and still exists today. It was first called the "rule of faith" or "canon of faith," and Irenaeus in the late second century both describes its content and calls it a worldwide consensus. In the the fourth century it was approved by ecumenical councils in a fixed form—the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is the ecclesiological consensus about Christian dogma, which has held ever since. (And, as I've argued previouslyall strands of Christianity extant today are descended from Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy).

The 'ecclesiological consensus' approach seems to me to incorporate the best of the other three approaches. It affirms the perspicuity of Scripture, but not at the level of the individual reader. Scripture is clear enough to be understood by the Church, illuminated as she is by the Holy Spirit. The academy has an important role in furthering understanding of the Bible and of theology, but cannot fulfill the role of producing and defending dogma. In agreement with postmodernism, the futility of individual interpreters trying to achieve a definitive, objective understanding of the Bible can be readily acknowledged.

Finally, the 'ecclesiological consensus' approach is immensely liberating. There is no room for personal pride or boasting because for the individual Christian, dogma is a tradition I have received, not a thesis I have achieved. As a theology student I can undertake biblical exegesis with great enthusiasm and follow the evidence where it leads for any given passage, minus the burden of having to manufacture dogma for myself from scratch.

Of course, a major problem with this approach is that, on many doctrinal issues not covered in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed—such as various aspects of soteriology—no 'ecclesiological consensus' holds across contemporary ecclesiastical traditions. One must therefore decide which ecclesiological tradition has a valid consensus: Reformed? Eastern Orthodox? Roman Catholic? Something else? Which of these has a legitimate claim to be the 'one holy, catholic and apostolic Church' confessed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed? This is where I am now in my journey.


My own finding after four years of intense academic study of the Bible is that the Bible is not easily understood, and indeed that the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is invalid. The Bible—not only Paul's letters—contains things "that are hard to understand" (2 Pet. 3:16) and yet essential to the Christian faith (so that to twist them is to invite destruction). I do not think that any amount of personal study will enable me personally to reach a place where I can be confident that I have correctly deduced the doctrines of the Bible. Nor do I think the situation would be different if I had more intelligence, erudition or devoutness. Many Christians of far greater intelligence, erudition and devoutness than myself nonetheless profoundly disagree about what the Bible teaches. Hence I cannot expect that God will reward my faith and my effort with a unique ability to correctly and definitively interpret Scripture. Instead, I must recognize my own insignificance and willingly submit to the teaching of the 'church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth' (1 Tim. 3:15).


  • 1 Some definitions of the perspicuity of Scripture: 'the Bible read in its entirety can be clearly understood by the devout reader' (Melick, Richard R., Jr. (2013). Can we understand the Bible? In Steven B. Cowan & Terry L. Wilder, In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (pp. 89-118). Nashville: Broadman & Holman); 'the Bible is written in such a way that all things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth are very clearly set forth in Scripture. Although theologians have sometimes defined the clarity of Scripture more narrowly (by saying, for example, only that Scripture is clear in teaching the way of salvation), the texts cited above apply to many different aspects of biblical teaching and do not seem to support any such limitation on the areas to which Scripture can be said to speak clearly. It seems more faithful to those biblical texts to define the clarity of Scripture as follows: <i>The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God's help and being willing to follow it. Once we have stated this, however, we must also recognize that many people, even God's people, do in fact misunderstand Scripture.' (Grudem, Wayne A. (1994). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, p. 108).