The God of Bad Interpreters

Is God the God of the good Bible interpreters only? Is He not also the God of the bad ones? Yes, He is the God of the bad ones, too.

This little opening, which you might notice alludes to Romans 3:29, summarizes something that has dawned on me recently. As I read more Scripture and study it more deeply, I often feel like there’s a serious problem with clarity for the average reader. In some passages or verses, it seems like study reveals meanings and depths which are not only inaccessible to someone without certain outside resources, but in fact may contradict or at least relativize the the meaning the same text might appear to have from a surface reading. In some cases obscure allusions, strange cultural thought patterns, or difficult to detect uses of irony may even completely reverse what you think a verse says on its own.

Yet in tension with this seeming reality is, it seems, the doctrine I have always been taught of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture. By most accounts I’ve ever heard, at least in the Protestant world, the meaning of any given part of Scripture is supposed to be more or less plain to whoever reads it with attention and care. You’re not supposed to need a bunch of outside help to get what a passage means. But given the radically different feel I get from in depth study, what gives? Is Scripture essentially clear, with scholars and theologians just complicating things, or is its meaning far from clear unless you are greatly learned?

I think the answer is, in some way, both yes and no. The Westminster Confession of Faith, a defining classic in the Reformed world, says this of the clarity of Scripture:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

I think this understanding of the clarity of Scripture works. On the one hand, there are things which are not equally clear to everyone. The meaning of every part of Scripture is not necessarily plain as day, or for that matter even as clear as mud. However, the WCF does specify that what we must know and believe in respect to salvation is clear enough that anyone, educated or not, who does basically proper reading.

I would in fact go a bit further than this to identify what exactly is plain. The one clarity that I believe shines forth from Scripture is the image of Christ Himself, the Savior who died and rose for us in self-sacrificing love, inviting us into His grace. Even if you find everything else called into question by lack of knowledge, or by bad teachings, or by cultural blindness, or by sin, the crucified Lord who loved us to His death and beckons us to follow that kind of life is plainly obvious to anyone who would crack open a Bible. If you know nothing else about the Bible, you know Jesus appears through its pages. Therefore what is clear in Scripture, Jesus Himself, is enough to be saved, as the WCF says.

Beyond this point, though, I do not think it is necessary to insist that the specific meanings of various parts of the Bible are all that clear. Sure, many of them are, and probably many of them are clearer that some scholars would make them out to be, but a great many of them may not be. Some passages may turn out to be so odd, obscure, or unique that the majority of people get them wrong, even the majority of well-educated people. Many passages will not be that bad, but will still need a decent amount of study, both of what the text says and of behind-the-scenes details, to properly get.

Is this a problem? Does it render much of the Bible basically unusable to normal Christians? Does it take the Bible out of their hands and return us to a day when only trained people could teach or interpret Scripture? I don’t think so. See, we must remember that there is more to the Bible that the words written in a particular context by a particular author to a particular audience. Its fullness is not exhausted by the precise original intentions, what exactly the authors were trying to say. While this is all an important part, a very important one, we must also recall that Scripture was inspired under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and now is read by believers with the same Spirit dwelling in them. Cultures and languages may pass away, but the Spirit who breathes the life of the Scriptures never passes away.

This link, the indwelling Spirit of God, makes it possible for the Bible to do things that it couldn’t rightly do as a purely natural book. For the authoring Spirit is still here to speak to us as we read it. So when we dig into Scripture, even if we lack a great deal of information that would shed light on the “original meaning,” He is more than able to speak to us through what we are reading, and to illuminate for us truth about Jesus Christ, even if it’s not the same truth the particular text was written to communicate! The same Spirit who oversaw the creation of Scripture now lives in us and oversees the intake of Scripture, so that no matter how educated or uneducated we are we can still hear the very voice of God speaking to us, telling us what He wants us to know, as we read the inspired words.

I’m not suggesting, I should add, that the Spirit will just lead us willy-nilly to make whatever we will out of the Bible. God is not the God of relativism, or of confusion. He is, however, the God of fresh life and revelation. Even when the words of, say, John were penned nearly 2000 years ago, God’s Spirit knew all the possible uses He might make for this book, and all of our needs today. From the beginning, He was able to breathe a kind of life into Scripture that adapts itself to the hearer, not to change the message to make things easier on us, but to break down the walls of culture and context which might otherwise separate us from what God wants to tell us. In the very same text He may be saying multiple things to multiple people in multiple times and places, the Spirit working in each reader to show him the Word of the Lord.

If I could sum this rambling up, I would simply say this: the “original meaning” of many texts in the Bible is far from clear. Jesus Himself, on the other hand, is very clear in the Bible. And as for everything else in Scripture, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for God to speak to us personally with an inspired message even when we can’t or don’t nail down exactly what the original author was trying to say. Therefore God is not only the God of good Bible interpreters, but of bad as well. Praise be to Him for His self-revealing kindness!

The God of Bad Interpreters

So what do you think?