We have been celebrating how confident we can be as we work to understand the Bible. We can worry that so many (clever!) people claim the Bible says so many different things… what hope does an ordinary Christian like me have? Do I really think I can just pick up the Bible, read it and understand it?
We’ve collected a number of good reasons for thinking that ordinary Christians like you and me can read the Bible and understand it. God is trustworthy and is a Communicator (He is after all, called the ‘Word’), and if He’s going to say something, He’ll say it clearly. He has created us with the ability to reliably understand what a person (including the Person of God) is saying to us. He has given us the same Spirit who inspired the Bible in the first place, to inspire our understanding of what He meant. We’ve seen that the OT prophets, Jesus and the Apostles all had to expose false teaching and wrong understandings, and that they taught clearly and fearlessly what a true interpretation of the Bible looked like. We’ve also seen that the Church – from Bible times onwards – has repeatedly explored variant ‘interpretations’, and has been able to recognise good and bad interpretations of Scripture. This means that we have a pretty good collection of creeds and confessions from many points in history, which were often written in order to exclude a certain ‘interpretation’ because it had been shown to not reflect the Bible’s teaching – in spite of what its proponents claimed. Those councils have stood the test of time, with generation after generation of Christians recognising that they summarise the trustworthy interpretation of the Bible’s teaching. And there are books and commentaries from across the geography and history of the Church that show a remarkable consistency of interpretation that transcends time and culture. That is why when I am preparing a sermon, I can read books that were written centuries ago, and find they still help me in understanding what the Bible says today.
There is one last question for us to consider before we move on. It has become fashionable in recent years to say that you need to understand the culture in which the Bible was written before you can really understand what the Prophets, or Jesus or the Apostles meant. I regularly read books, or hear preachers who tell me that I have to have a particular cultural insight into first century Palestine, or Corinth, or Rome, before I’ll be able to really understand something Jesus or Paul or Peter is telling me. I’ve even heard people suggest that the Bible is culturally bound, so that things it teaches no longer apply because ‘that was for the first century’. I respectfully disagree.
The genius of the Bible is that it interprets itself. One old English preacher, Thomas Watson drew the analogy with a diamond, that can only be cut by another diamond, to illustrate this truth. You don’t need any outside information in order to know what the Bible teaches: anyone can pick it up in any culture and still understand it. I’ll be showing this very clearly when I preach through the Book of Revelation in the autumn. Again and again we’ll see that everything we need to interpret even a book like Revelation is found in the Bible. There is a danger that theologians in universities are re-creating an environment in which you need their special insights before you can know what the Bible really says. We got rid of all that nonsense in the Reformation. Back in the Middle Ages, the educated priests didn’t trust the ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves and understand it properly. You needed to trust them, with their special insights and additional information. The Reformers put the Bible in the hands of the people.
But we are in danger of slipping back into that mindset, with the Academic theologians – with their specialised research into first century ancient near eastern and / or Judaistic culture – being a new priesthood, holding the key to a ‘true’ interpretation which is locked away from the ordinary Bible reader. But that is to misunderstand the trans-cultural nature of the Scriptures remain that means they are so devastatingly relevant to every generation and in every culture. The Bible was as radical and as counter-cultural in the first century as it is in the twenty-first century, and in every century in between. The (human & Divine) authors of the Scriptures did not ever capitulate to prevailing cultural opinion, or allow it to shape their belief. As the cliché goes: that which is wedded to one culture is widowed in the next. The genius of the Bible is that it is transcultural, and so, in the hands of the Spirit, it interprets applies itself. Whether I am a Christian in Iraq or Ipswich, if I can read it, I can make sense of it.
None of this is to say that it is always easy to understand. There is one famous passage where even Peter complains Paul’s letters ‘contain some things that are hard to understand’! But the key to unlocking their meaning is not to be found outside of the Bible. We do not have to go to a scholar with a PhD in first century culture and religion in order to gain some indispensable and extra-Biblical piece of information that means we can grasp the texts’ meaning in a way we couldn’t have done before. No, the resources to understand difficult passages in the Bible are found in the Bible. And so we do study, and we study hard, but we study the Bible first and foremost. It is our lack of a working knowledge of the Scriptures that means these passages remain closed to us for so many years.