The Bible, clear as mud

Peering through the most recent edition of the peerless Books and Culture, I came across a three-quarter page ad for Beeson Divinity School. Forgive me, but I don’t think this ad works for an evangelical institution. What does it say about the perspicuity of Scripture, for instance, that the commentaries are in focus and the Bible is clear as mud?

The Bible, clear as mud

Books and Culture, Jan/Feb 2013

“We believe the Bible is God’s word written,” says the ad copy (not pictured above). “It is therefore fully trustworthy and able to teach us how to know our Lord and serve his people.” So long as you supplement it with a raft of commentaries because it’s otherwise fuzzy and indecipherable, says the image.

The headline only underscores the incongruity. “The Bible cannot be read like any other book,” it says, leaving the reader to finish, “because you apparently need dozens of other books to make sense of it.”

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://www.brandonschmidt.me Brandon

    Perhaps the ad is trying to highlight the level of education at Beeson. All the commentaries/theologies shown are written by Beeson faculty. So the books don’t represent the necessity of these books to understand Scripture, but the high level of education provided by these experienced theologians.

    That still doesn’t explain the blurred out Bible.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s a useful bit of info. It seems like too much inside baseball for an ad, however. All the readers sees is a blurry Bible.

    • http://www.beesondivinity.com Betsy Childs

      Dear Joel,
      I’m very glad that our ads are being noticed! You make an excellent point about the Bible being blurry. We did not intend for it to be blurry when we conceptualized the ad. In fact, there was a particular verse underlined. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have both the foreground and the commentaries in focus, and we sacrificed the foreground. I now see that was a mistake!
      We intended to show that at Beeson, we read the Bible with extreme care. We study it. We mine it for all that it is worth. Brandon is correct that all of these commentaries were written by our faculty.
      I hope this clears up our intentions, but I appreciate your astute observations.
      Betsy Childs, Beeson Divinity School

      • Joel J. Miller

        Betsy, thanks for taking the time to comment. My observations are worth exactly as much as they cost ;) Your explanation is helpful. Thanks.

        • Joshua38

          Joel, while your initial critique of the ad itself may have been legitimate, I felt that your published critique of the school itself (in the article above) was severe and unjustified. As a Beeson alumni myself, I also knew that the implication that you pointed to was wrong, since the Beeson faculty and staff are firmly committed to the notion that God’s Word is THE supreme book above all others, and our sole source of authority for all spiritual matters.

          I can’t defend the leadership at every seminary in the land (though I hope that they would all give similar reports), but the professors at Beeson have devoted themselves to studying God’s Word, teaching it to others, and publishing major theological books NOT as a means of drawing attention to themselves, their intelligence, or their writing abilities (impressive though that may be), but rather as a means of assisting others on their theological journeys as they, too, grow in the knowledge of God’s Word and prepare themselves for vocational ministry and Christian service.

          In fact, I can’t think of a Beeson professor who wouldn’t gladly burn their own books if they genuinely believed it would help further the spread of God’s Word among his people, and among the lost who still need to hear it so desperately. I assure you that no theological message was intended by the “blurred Bible” in the ad above, but it was surely just a matter of how to make the ad look attractive, while perhaps highlighting the rich legacy of faithful biblical exposition and teaching that is represented at Beeson.

          Ironically, I think this confusion wouldn’t have even come up had they simply left the Bible out of the photo altogether, and photographed the professor’s books by themselves, as many other seminaries have done in similar ad campaigns over the years. For a more accurate picture of the school which produced this ad, you might consider scanning this article by world-renowned columnist, Jonathan Aitken – (http://spectator.org/archives/2009/05/18/welcome-to-beeson), or this review of their annual Pastor’s School gathering, posted by Dr. John Armstrong – (http://johnharmstrong.typepad.com/john_h_armstrong_/2009/05/the-beeson-pastors-school-a-summer-treat-for-ministers.html).

          Regardless, Betsy Childs (a beloved employee of Beeson Divinity School) has done a fine and very gracious job of explaining this from the perspective of the Beeson staff, and I trust that her comments (and your response to her) will rather settle the issue as far as this particular school is concerned. I only hope that your article above won’t continue to give people the wrong impression of Beeson as they stumble across this page in the future.

      • http://lenwilson.us Len Wilson

        Betsy, close down the iris to extend the depth of field and get everything in focus. For example, shoot at f/5.6 rather than f/1.4. This will darken the image though, so you need to compensate with shutter speed and/or ISO setting.

      • Joshua38

        Well-spoken, Betsy! Thanks so much for your authoritative clarification on this – and for your faithful and loving service at Beeson Divinity School! As a Beeson alumni, I’m very thankful for you, and for the rest of the Beeson family – and, like you, I know that God’s Word will ALWAYS be the book of choice by our beloved Beeson profs!

  • Phil Markham

    Joel,

    How many Christians do you know have a pretty good handle on Scripture? How many, for example, could read Psalm 46 and realize that the refrain “God of Jacob” is most probably referring to the promise of nationhood given to Abraham and repeated to Isaac and then Jacob?

    I’m a layman Beeson grad and was just asked to write a devotion for my church on this psalm. When you study the psalm a bit you realize the psalmist is pointing God’s people to trust in his promises and his past action of taking them out of Egypt and planting them in the land that – at the time of the psalm’s writing – they seem to fear they might lose because of enemies around them. Sure you can still read the psalm and understand the main point – to trust in the Lord in times of trouble – but you might wrongly conclude this is out of blind faith when in fact the writer is telling the people to think about God’s past actions and words.

    Most parts of the bible can be understood by Christians when reading it (and we haven’t even considered the illiterate) but God has given the church teachers to show its full richness. Beeson isn’t trying to obscure understanding the bible. They are recognizing it can be a hard book to understand and they are simply respecting it for what it is. It shows more respect for the bible to recognize it for what it is (a sometimes hard to understand book) than to pretend it is something it is not (an always easily understandable book).

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m not suggesting they’re trying to do that. But the ad sure does so, even if inadvertently, which struck me as very odd for an evangelical divinity school.

      And I wouldn’t suggest that the Bible is easily understood. The older I get it seems the less I understand.

  • Genesis

    Blurred Bible and commentaries…….WOW! Very confusing. Some folk don’t need to become theologians to understand the Bible, just the Holy Spirit of God. Those who have studies the “others book” aren’t as equipped as they think they are without the Holy Spirit. Put that in the ad. Bye now

    • Joshua38

      Actually “Genesis”, every Christian is a “theologian” of some sort (a person who believes something about God). The question is, “Are you a GOOD theologian, or a BAD one?”. While you don’t have to go to school (as I did) to study the Hebrew, Greek, systematic theology, etc. – the Bible is filled with commands to use your mind to honor God, and to meditate on God’s Word day and night. To fail to do this – even as a layperson – is sin.

      It is always the Holy Spirit who illuminates the meaning of God’s Word in our hearts – and no additional textbook or class is required in order for that to happen. However, God’s repeated instructions to use our minds as well as our hearts to study his Word reminds us that the Holy Spirit can actually keep bringing God’s Word to life in our hearts WHILE we’re studying, reading, and being intellectually fed by scholars who’ve already invested a lifetime in the study of Scripture.

      The Holy Spirit’s work in revealing Scripture to us as we read it is no excuse for being intellectually lazy, but rather is the opposite! God blesses the time that we spend growing in our knowledge of him and his inspired Word! Not only that, but since the passages which exhort us to study Scripture are COMMANDS rather than requests, that means that the Lord of all Creation expects us to study, meditate on, and pray along with the Bible.

      When people are studying God’s Word correctly, the Holy Spirit will both bless and illuminate their study…not hinder it. So, it should be viewed as a wise, good, and beneficial thing to study the original biblical languages (so that we can read the biblical manuscripts themselves), as well as the work of other faithful Christians, both past and present, who’ve already given their lives to the proper study and application of God’s Word.

      As Phil Markham already replied to you, there’s absolutely no reason to think that using our minds to study God’s Word will either discourage the Holy Spirit from participating in the process, or limit our dependence upon him. God is the one who gave us our minds in the first place, and he fully expects us to put them to good use as we continue to grow in our knowledge of him, and his Word.

      So, to actually STUDY God’s Word – in addition to meditating on it devotionally each day – is healthy for us to do, provided that we’re using good, trusted resources (such as those authored by the professors at Beeson Divinity School!) to assist us in this task. Whether studying with theological books at home or with professors in the classroom, growing in our ability to study the Bible is a learning process which not only honors God, but which is sure to produce much spiritual fruit in the lives of those who do so!

  • Phil Markham

    Genesis – why would someone who has been lucky enough to study the word (including reading others’ books about the word) be any more or any less spirit led than someone who hasn’t? You make it sound like it is spirit versus our God given intellect. We always need both.

  • Gerhard Mensch

    Dear Joel,
    I like progress (“new fruitfulness” Benedict XVI, Easter message 2012), and I see some fruitful progression in your selection of themes. I like that. There is quite an advancement from asking “Why have contemporary people lost the ability to see angels – guardian angels or guiding angels?” via “Why do clergymen turn many Christians into nones?” to today’s question: “Are they too wordy or too fuzzy to give contemporary Christians enough useful guidance?” Or simply too fluffy (for example: “cheap grace”)? Regards, Gary

  • Fr. John W. Morris

    Because different people can interpret the Bible differently, we need guidance to understand its real meaning. That is the value of the Holy Tradition of the Church, which is the consensus of the Fathers, the decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the teaching of the Church through the centuries. The Holy Tradition gives us the guidance we need to properly understand the real meaning of the sacred text. When each person tries to interpret the sacred text for themselves the result is constant division of Christians into hundreds of different denominations caused when the Protestant Reformation threw out the Holy Tradition of the Church and made each individual believer His or Her own authority on the meaning of the Holy Scriptures.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Fr. John, I agree and have recently written on the subject: “Why Apostolic Tradition Matters, parts 1 and 2.”

  • Steve

    What does the Bible say about the perspicuity of the Bible?

    “So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.” – Acts 8:30-31

    “So also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” – 2 Peter 3:15

    • Joel J. Miller

      Steve, see the answer to Fr. John. I think the Ethiopian eunuch demonstrated a humility foreign to the average Christian today.

      • Steve

        I think Fr. John W. Morris and I would be in agreement that the perspicuity of Scripture is a problematic claim. However, it becomes necessary to make it if one rejects apostolic tradition as binding.

  • rvs

    I’m intrigued by the commentaries that proliferate in evangelical Christianity. Protestantism began as a movement to get rid of an avalanche of commentaries and focus instead on Scripture itself, but–as it turns out–evangelicals are a lot more like the Catholic scholastic philosophers (of the 13th-14th centuries) than many evangelicals might think.

    • Joel J. Miller

      An insightful point.

  • Greg

    I would suggest that Phil’s comment underscores Fr John’s point nicely – to not read first Christ in the Psalm is to miss its central meaning for Christians: without the broader understanding of the Church catholic you are making up your own reading: whether it is guesswork around “original intent” or some form of theological projection.

    The blurred Bible is a perfect metaphor for what goes on in evangelical institutions like Beeson – they have Christian Scripture but little idea how to read it.

    • Joshua38

      Greg – I’m sorry to hear that you’re so confused about “what goes on in evangelical institutions”, but Beeson (the school which published the ad above) is a tremendous theological school, with world-class biblical scholars teaching there (several of whom helped translate the English Bibles that you likely read :) who have literally devoted their entire lives to the faithful study and teaching of God’s Word.

      The Reformation cry of “Sola Scriptura” (meaning that “Scripture alone” is our source of authority) is a cherished conviction at Beeson, shared by professors and students alike. In spite of the many wonderful books that have been published by Beeson professors (as pictured above), there’s not a professor there who would argue that Scripture, as revealed to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, is insufficient in itself for revealing God to us. Nor would they claim that anything they’ve written is comparable to God’s revelation of himself in Scripture.

      The Bible professors at Beeson are as humble as they come, yet are brilliant biblical scholars whom the Lord has equipped and used to teach generations of ministers (including myself) how to grow in their knowledge of God’s Word, how to faithfully serve the people of God, and how to submit all that we do to the Lordship of Christ.

      Again, I’m sorry that your impression of schools like Beeson is a bad one, but that opinion is unjustified. Based on my own experience, I am thankful to the Lord for having permitted me to study under such humble professors who do all that they do to honor Christ and to further proclaim God’s holy Word. My life has been forever blessed, and the fruit of what I gained there continues to be evident in the lives of those to whom I minister.

  • Andrew

    How scripture has been interpreted and understood by scholars and church leaders provides helpful guidance, but the ultimate test of any proffered interpretation is whether the interpretation can stand up in light of Scripture itself. This requires both our intellect and the power of the Holy Spirt; were it otherwsise, Paul would not have needed an encounter with the Risen Christ to understand the Scripture he’d spent his life studying. John Bunyan was not formally educated or trained, but his interpretation of the Gospel (Pilgrim’s Progress) became the second best-selling book of all time for a reason: he correctly interprets Scripture’s message of original sin, repentence, salvation, grace, and our need for Jesus’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. But if you disagree with him, you can read the Scripture yourself and assess/argue where he goes wrong, and in doing this, you can stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and worked hard to understand the Scripture and how it fits together as a God’s revelation of Himself to man. There is nothing inconsistent with evangelical seminaries using commentaries; solo scriptura means that Scripture is the sole source of authority, it does not mean (as Fr. John seems to argue) that the Reformation threw out all reliance on historical interpretation and that every person is his own authority on the meaning of Scripture. In this respect, however, it’s helpful to remember Bonhoeffer’s observation that when man reads scripture seeking his own ends, the potential interpretations are legion, but when man reads scripture seeking God’s revelation of Himself, he will encounter God.


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