In our series on the Bible we have been exploring whether or not we can trust the Bible as the Word of God, and indeed whether we can trust ourselves as we read it. We have considered the writing of the Scriptures and see both why and how we must think of them as utterly reliable in composition. But what about the other end of the process of communication: reading. Often the simple fact of the variety of ‘interpretations’ is used as an argument for why you can’t trust the Bible. I suggested last time that this was, at best, simply an illogical argument. Just because something can be, and indeed has been mis-interpreted, doesn’t mean it cannot be truly interpreted.
What I am suggesting is that in spite of the cynicism of some, we can have a basic confidence both in the trustworthiness of the Bible, and in our ability to read and understand the Bible. Both these aspects are born out of the ministry of the Holy Spirit graciously at work both in the producing of the text in the Bible, and in our engagement with that text. Our encounter with Scripture is thus intensely relational. We lose confidence only insofar as we lose sight of the Spirit’s intimate involvement throughout the process. Though I’m not saying that every part of the Bible is as easy to understand as every other part, I am affirming our belief that God is probably quite an effective communicator. He knows what He wants to say, and how to say it such that it can be understood. We can also surmise that given our being created in the Image of God, effective and useful communication is something we can do well. Partly that would be based on experience – we do in fact manage to understand people every day. And if we don’t understand them, it quickly becomes apparent that there has been a breakdown in communication, and we can rectify the situation by going back for clarification (which, incidentally, is a good way to approach the Bible). But much more significant than our daily experience is the realisation that it is intrinsic to God to communicate. There is clearly deep communication between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus repeatedly indicates that there is a profound and persistent conversation throughout the life of the Trinity (e.g. Jn.8:26). The fact that Jesus is celebrated as the Word gives us tremendous confidence that God is in the business of effective communication. It is staggering to think that God could reveal everything in One Word.
Not only are we created to communicate, but we are also created to be communicated with. We are created in such a way that we are able to understand what we are told. Indeed, the reason we are created to understand words, is so that God can reveal Himself to us through His Word. Certainly Jesus seems to think it worth His while to spend a great deal of time teaching His disciples (and us through them) using words. He lays great emphasis on our being able to hear and hold to, to believe and trust in His words. Throughout the Scriptures our God is portrayed as a speaking God – indeed this is one of the things that differentiates Him from false gods, who have mouths by who cannot speak or answer (Psalm 135:16; Is.46:7). We know God is the Living and True God precisely because He does speak.
But as with all things ‘under the sun’, sin has damaged and distorted our ability to understand one another, and ultimately God. Herein lies the problem: not in any obscurity within the Bible, but in the obscurity of our minds and hearts, a darkness that brings confusion to what we hear and read. As I said in our last article, the struggle to ‘understand’ the Bible is not primarily an intellectual one (though aspects of our intellectual life are clearly involved), but a spiritual one. We’ll be following this thought up in the next few articles. But in the meantime, let us realize that the impact of sin in our thinking is a reality that we dare not underestimate. But neither do we dare let it lead us into despair. As in the whole arena of the consequence of sin, the work of Christ is sufficient to redeem and restore. On the basis of that work, the Holy Spirit works deep within us, re-fashioning in us the Image of Christ. That process includes our volitional and moral life, our relational and emotional life, and also our psychological and intellectual life. In other words, how we think.
We are often fearful of confronting the depth of our own sinfulness. Fearful too of measuring the impact of that sin on ourselves and on others. But in some ways it is quite an important spiritual discipline. For one thing you cannot learn to trust the grace of God if you are never driven to rely on it as your only hope. As one recent song puts it: Our shame was deeper than the sea, your grace is deeper still. No matter how devastating our sin and its impact on any area of our life or being, the grace of God in Christ is more than equal to it. And so, even as we reflect on the extent to which our sin has distorted our thinking, rendering us illogical, unreasonable, incongruous and at times absurd in what we think and why, yet still we can, (as victims of God’s grace) approach the Scriptures with confidence, as we humbly rely on the Holy Spirit to apply the work of Christ to our hearts and minds, and to guide us in the path of truth. Cynicism, or even just a loss of confidence, in our dealing with the Scriptures, however sophisticated it might seem to be, is simply an expression of our faithlessness in the redeeming work of Christ …or perhaps in the Father’s ability to communicate …or perhaps in the Spirit’s involvement throughout the event of our reading Scripture. Any of those would be something for which we would need to repent.