In my last post I mentioned that I hope to follow my friend Glenn Lucke's advice to do some blogging on biblical interpretation.
So I begin today with the question "do w need to be taught how to understand Scripture?" You may think it odd that I would ask such a question. I will answer the question with a hearty "yes!" But I asked it so that I can share what I believe is a very important qualifier.
The qualifier is this - most people can understand most everything they need to understand from most of the Bible most of the time.
I might even be willing to substitute the phrase "vast majority" every time I used the word "most" in the above sentence.
I throw out this italicized qualifier in remembrance of an exhortation from one of my Greek profs in seminary. He loved Greek and encouraged us to study and appreciate the value of it, but . . . He said that sometimes pastors overdo the Greek from the pulpit and this can have an unintended and injurious effect. It communicates to the people in the pew that their Bibles are insufficient.
If a pastor or teacher makes a habit of saying "the Greek word for this means . . ." and especially if that meaning often differs from the translation in the text they are reading, and super-duper especially if that meaning differs from all of the major translations, then the person in the pew can eventually imbibe the idea that their Bible is pretty unreliable.
My prof's advice can be expanded in a number of ways. Even if we say something as innocuous as "to really understand this passage you need to know the historical background and delve into the grammar and . . . " might we accidentally convey that "to really understand this passage you need your Bible plus 50 lbs of dictionaries, encyclopedias and commentaries?"
Please understand - I am all for studying the Bible in it's historical, grammatical and redemptive-historical context and believe that such things deeply enrich our understanding. But I also want us to never lose confidence that we can hand someone a Bible, say "take up and read" and trust that God can open the eyes of their heart to understand what is in the text.
Here are a few considerations which support what I just said.
1. The Bible is "revelation." As revelation it is meant to "reveal," not "conceal." It is not a book of hidden mysteries (although there are some mysteries in it), it is a book meant to open the understanding of the reader.
2. The Bible is "clear." This has been a fundamental belief of Christians throughout the centuries. The fancy theological phrase for this is the "perspicuity of Scripture," with "perspicuity" meaning "clarity." The Bible, by and large is clear. Yes, there are some things hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16) but only some are hard to understand, not all, not even most. Most things are not so hard to understand.
3. The believer has the indwelling Holy Spirit to lead Him into all truth (John 16:13). Although this verse needs greater explanation and should not be taken alone as a full statement on the issue, I John 2:27 says that we have no need for anyone to teach us. Again, we can't let that verse stand alone and uncommented on, given that God has gifted His church with teachers and commanded us to show proper respect to them. But, the point stands, the Holy Spirit is able to guide us into all truth.
It is with that foundation that we can move forward into more in-depth study of Scripture. But this forward move into more in-depth study of Scripture must also be carefully considered.
First of all, one of the foundational principles of biblical interpretation, possibly the foundational principle, is that Scripture interprets Scripture. This means that anyone with a Bible can use that Bible to help them better understand those parts of the Bible that are hard to understand. In other words, if Mrs. McGillicuddy is having difficulty understanding something in one passage of the Bible, we may not be able to give her immediate relief, but we can tell her with confidence that she has every reason to believe that if she keeps reading the Bible she has, widely and regularly, there is a very good chance she will find the answer she needs.
Hence, the greatest method of in-depth Bible study there is, is to simply read the Bible - a lot! To that end, I'm happy to recommend "The World's Best Bible Reading Program" by Dan Edelen or Joe Carter's post called "How to Change Your Mind," which "contains a four step process that could transform your life by, quite literally, changing your mind."
Secondly, there are numerous tools out there to help us understand the Bible and that will greatly enrich our studies. But when we use those tools we ought to think of them as adding color depth to our understanding of what we read, rather than unlocking a bunch of secret hidden stuff that is unavailable to the average person. Using the tools may help us go from a black and white picture to a color picture of the Bible. The picture was there before, but the tools help us add color. And going deeper and deeper into our study is like going from 8 colors, to 256 colors to 16 bit, 24 bit, and 32 bit color and more. It's of great value, but this way of looking at things affirms the value of using more advanced tools for Bible study, while keeping us from thinking that only elites with those special tools can really understand the Bible.