HB correspondent Dave writes with this quotation from someone else: “my parents taught me that the bible is up for interpretation, and it is not the spoken truth.” This is widely held as a truism and it is widely used as a justification for disbelieving Scripture but does it hold up to scrutiny? Does it work as an approach to knowing things. The theory says, in effect, “We cannot trust the truth claims of Scripture because there are competing interpretations of Scripture which creates sufficient grounds to doubt the veracity of the truth claims.”
It is true that, like any other great or significant text (or collection of texts) the Bible certainly has been subject to a variety of interpretations. The Constitution of the United States has been subject to a variety of interpretations. Plato’s Republic has been subject to a variety of interpretations. Does it follow, however, that it is impossible to come to a sufficiently reliable interpretation of any such text such that we must be skeptics? I think not.
Texts are, by design, ordinarily intended to be understood. Even texts that argue that texts cannot be understood expect you to be able to understand the claim but such authors only want you to be skeptical about <em>other</em> texts, not their own. A text is an encoded message. An idea, an intent, a truth, is encoded into letters that form words, which, in combination with other words form sentences and so on. The writer intends for someone, somewhere to interpret the message. This post is a message written under the assumption that English readers can read the letters and words and make sufficient sense of what is intended.
When our skeptic quoted his parents, he assumed that his Facebook readers would be able to understand his intent. So, he assumed perspicuity (sufficient clarity) for his message but he denies the same for Scripture. “But,” you might object, “The Bible is a large, complex collection of texts written over a long period of time, in ancient languages, and his little Facebook comment was brief and in a language we can understand.”
Well, it’s true that the Bible is, as J. I. Packer once said in class, “a big book” but big books are made up of smaller documents. The size or even the complexity of a document doesn’t mean ipso facto that it cannot be understood. After all, it’s just a matter of time. How do we tackle any large job? We start. So it is with Scripture. Of course it cannot be understood if it is never read. Further, it might not always be easy to understand. We should not assume that “able to be understood” is the same as “easily understood.” Have you ever read Shakespeare? Is he always easily understood? No. Is he generally understood? Presumably His plays have been on stage since the late 16th century. Should we think that, in all that time, actors and directors have never sufficiently understood what Shakespeare intended to communicate? Now really, that’s just silly.
It is true that the Bible was written in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It’s undeniably true that they are ancient languages but it is not true that they were not understood then and are not understood now. Of course those who first heard the Hebrew Scriptures read to them understood them. The first five books of Scripture are known as the Torah (law). Those 613 laws had to be understood and they were. A civil society was built on them and cases were adjudicated by them. The Greek NT was written in the most widely used language of the time. Those books were intended to be understood by readers and hearers and they were.
It is quite possible to read Scripture in its original languages today. It happens every day at my place of employment. In fact, our faculty busily teach students to read Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic (and even Latin) every day. Students take exams with only their Hebrew and Aramaic (OT) Bibles and their Greek Bibles (NT) regularly. Teachers stand in front of classes and lecture with the Hebrew and Greek Bible in one hand and a whiteboard marker in the other. That would be quite a trick if no one is able to understand those languages.
As a matter of history it is simply untrue to say or imply that that there is so much confusion over the meaning of Scripture that it is impossible to be understood. In fact, given the history and complexity of Scripture there is a remarkable consensus as to what it intends to say. Jewish and Christians scholars often agree today about the nature of the biblical covenants. They disagree about whether Jesus is the Messiah but they agree on many other things. Christians reached a remarkable consensus about the great doctrines (teachings) of the Scriptures and confessed them together in the early centuries of the church. Yes, there are significant disagreements but we all agree that Jesus is God the Son, that he came into history, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, was buried, and was raised on the third day, that he ascended into heaven, and will return in glory to judge the world. On those things and many others there is an overwhelming consensus.
The real problems here are two: ignorance and selective skepticism. Of course people doubt the clarity of a text they have never read for themselves. How could they not? The first step to overcoming skepticism is to overcome ignorance. The second problem is more insidious and more hardly remedied: selective skepticism. It’s a dodge, a game. “Oh, who really knows?” is a game that sinners play to avoid accountability. It’s a fatal game, however. To play the game we must suppress what we know to be true in our conscience: that God is just and that we are accountable. The game is the Devil’s game. He was the first selective skeptic: “Has God really said?” Yes, as a matter of fact, God had really said. He wanted us to be selectively skeptical about God’s message but not about his message! That’s how the game is played. “Look at the shiny object! Don’t question the premise of the objection!”
When, however, we query the serpent a bit, we can see that he is a liar and he hasn’t quit lying. The good news is that Jesus is the truth and the truth shall set you free.