Why are holy scriptures so complicated?

ELIZABETH IN MASS. ASKS (on behalf of a Prison Fellowship pen pal):

If divinely inspired holy books are for our guidance, benefit, spiritual enlightenment, etc., why is much of it so obscure and beyond the common lay person’s understanding? Where do I draw the line between sticking to what I can grasp and what another source asks me to believe?


How great is it that an inmate is making good use of time behind bars to ponder important questions!

The Guy’s quick answer is that scriptures are as complicated as life itself, so this is what we’d expect. All the more if, as claimed, these writings give glimpses of the infinite, divine viewpoint toward the cosmos and human realities.

In Islam, the Qur’an is believed to be eternal oracles that God gave directly word-for-word to one person, the Prophet Muhammad. The book is true scripture only when it’s read in the Arabic language and often lacks pointers to context and chronology, which can make interpretation complex. (Here I’ll leave aside scriptures of other major faiths except Judaism and Christianity.)

The Bible situation is quite different.  Believers are free to read translations into everyday languages, and they see the sacred texts as  inspired by God but written by numerous authors across many centuries, with all the complexities this brings. Much is historical narrative — in which the Hebrews were pioneers — and relatively easy to follow. (As a journalist, The Guy thinks the blunt honesty of this history compared with other ancient annals undergirds the claim of unusual divine inspiration. Consider the sordid depiction of all humanity in Genesis, the prophets’ denunciations of their nation and its rulers, the great King David’s slide into adultery and homicide, or the failings of Jesus’ apostles who founded the Christian church.)

We also find lengthy law codes, letters, poems and prophecies, proverbs and other “wisdom” musings, apocalyptic visions, Jesus’ parables (enigmatic tales to provoke discussion), and possibly fables (if one interprets Job or Jonah that way).  A rich but complicated collection with questions that invite a lifetime of fascinating study. Yet proponents say the Bible is quite clear where it needs to be, so the big picture is accessible to thoughtful readers without special aid from specialists. Theologians’ fancy adjective for this is scripture’s “perspicuity.” For Christianity, the whole variegated bundle is united by a sweeping pageant of creation, fall, sin, salvation, and consummation in Jesus Christ.

The lesser stuff involves a plunge into the ancient context, author intent, and audience, which is where scholars can help.  No reader will come across a Bible puzzler that hasn’t been explained by past experts.  The Guy posed this question to a friend, Donald Hagner of California’s Fuller Theological Seminary, who responds, “The Bible does not contain very much that may be called truly obscure. Even the average lay person, with the help of readily available resources (and we are blessed with an abundance of these in our day), can make his or her way through to an effective understanding.” When tangles arise, he recommends solid Christian books and discussions with a pastor and other mature believers.

Hagner, who holds to an intriguing middle position between fundamentalism and liberalism, has just produced “The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction” (Baker Academic). With notable clarity, this sterling treatment scans the key scriptural issues and attacks raised during two centuries of scholarship. But here are a couple introductions better suited for the Bible beginner:

– “How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth” by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (Zondervan, 3d edition, 2003). A guidebook to the full Bible by evangelical scholars of, respectively, the New Testament and Old Testament.

– “The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content” by Bruce Metzger (Abingdon, 3d edition, 2003). A textbook aimed at advanced high school students from an esteemed Princeton Theological Seminary professor.

Any other good sources to recommend?

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • FW Ken

    Good review. I might add that the scriptures can be read meditatively, in the monastic tradition of lectio divina. If that works for you, Psalms is a good place to start. It’s a comprehensive exposition of who God is and what our humanity is like.

    The Bible is over 2000 years of family stories, told and preserved as communities responded to a God unwilling to abandon humanity as humanity had abandoned Him. In addition to history and cultural information pertaining to the Bible itself, reading church history adds 2000 years to the Great Story which continues as God continues to save the world in which He became man.

  • Richard Ostling

    Since Hagner is Protestant, The Guy meant to mention that serious-minded readers might also want to explore “An Introduction to the New Testament” (Doubleday, 1997) by Catholic Father Raymond E. Brown, a moderate modernizer.

  • Bret Clancy

    It is not that the Holy Scriptures are complicated, it is a continuing lesson of our everyday lives. When the Holy Spirit is working within you and you read and ponder a section of the Word of God, the Holy Spirit helps you to understand what you need to know at that time. You may have a different problem and then read the same section; the Holy Spirit will help you understand the meaning as it pertains to you at that time.

    We are not suppose to fully understand God’s Word in it’s entirety at any given time. If we did, we would be like Him and therefore have no need for Him. Read, and read diligently and always ask the Holy Spirit to guide your understanding so that whatever you do, you do for His Glory.

  • Will

    An alternate explanation might be that obfuscation is a simple and effective means of driving back skeptical inquiry. Key to the staying power of various religious traditions is the idea that they are untestable and require enormous amounts of study and interpretation to properly understand, due to the inherent “mystery” of the divine. In fact, it’s a central tenet of most faiths that full understanding of the divine is beyond the capability of mortals anyway.

    In short, when divine beings do things that seem to run counter to our expectations, it’s very handy for religious leaders to be able to point to confusing, contradictory texts and say “the Lord worketh in mysterious ways.”

  • Christopher Wentwood

    THE BIBLE BLUEPRINT by Joe Paprocki.

    In The Bible Blueprint, best-selling author Joe Paprocki makes understanding the Bible not only easy for the person in the pew, but downright fun! Using witty cartoons, thought-provoking sidebars, and short quizzes to supplement his easy-to-grasp teachings on the Bible, Paprocki guides lay Catholics to a solid understanding of the structure, organization, and purpose of God’s Word.

    Among numerous other topics, Paprocki covers the different genres of biblical writing, key figures in biblical history, and the methods Catholics rely on to interpret the Bible. As readers increase their understanding of the Bible, they will also increase their ability to find their way in Scripture: eight perforated Bible bookmarks are included.

  • Mike McKelvey

    “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” and “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” by Marcus Borg are excellent books (Borg is a sincere believer and follower of Christ, but he is definitely on the liberal/progressive end of the theological spectrum). They are less chapter-and-verse guides like the other ones mentioned here, but they take a broader view that can help you find your own way when Scripture is complicated and the scriptural interpretation is even more complicated. It is true that you will not find any Bible puzzler that hasn’t been explained by past experts–unfortunately you will find that most Bible puzzlers (and even the parts that don’t seem puzzling) have been explained in hundreds of different and mutually exclusive ways over the past three thousand years (there’s an old joke about posing a question to five rabbis and getting ten answers). Understanding the big pictures in the Bible and rooting them in your own faith and reason will help you weigh the competing claims of different scholars.

  • Stephen

    Scripture and the Authority of God by Tom Wright. A good primer on what Scripture is and what Scripture is not.

  • Reverend Robbie

    Or maybe, just maybe… they were written by a bunch of people whose guesses are no better than yours or mine. Just one possibility.

  • jerry lynch

    Thousands of sects, intramural religious wars, Crusades, Pogroms, Inqusitions, the massacre of heretics, and millennia of ongoing bitterness and conflict amongst denominations: I’d say that inmate needs a better answer. The Bible is not fun and easy to understand, although the Bible is a Little Children’s book. Where the problem seems to be is in the very nature of religion, trying to make the message of God for the whole world fit into the pigeon-hole of a particlar group’s system of belief. What Jesus gave us, in my eyes, was a spirit of action. Love is the whole purpose of truth. Turn, and become as a little child. Become, not simply believe, is key. It is not an accumulation or deepening of knowledge about the Bible that brings any real clarity; it is about the reduction of worldliness and the deepening of love. It is not knowing, it is about being.

  • jerry lynch

    The best understanding of the Bible we can share with others are good works that arise from a genuinely transformed heart. This had to be the way when few knew how to read. When there were extremely scarce copies of scriptures. When people had to work from dawn to dusk just to get by. I believe that for Jesus, there was more truth in one loving touch than in all the books f the Bible.

  • rumitoid

    Hmmm… Don’t know what happened to my previous comments. Maybe I was too coarse. I will rephrase.
    “You diligently study Scripture”: this is a good title.
    To be a true Christian, did we have to wait until Gutenberg was born? For most of the history after the life of Jesus, few people knew how to read, scripture copies were extremely rare, and the vast majority of people worked from dawn to dusk just to get by, having little or no time even to read.

    Given the enormous diversity of denominations and sects in the Church (numbering in the thousands), it seems quite plain, as it has since the time of the Apostles, that the Bible is not “fun and easy” to understand. But it is a Children’s Book. “Turn, and become as a little child”: this is the only way to see and interpret the message. It is not enough to believe; it is necessary, as stated, to become.

    Love is the whole purpose of truth. For me, Jesus would find more truth in one loving touch than in all the books of the Bible. He gave us a spirit of action, not a system of belief. The best understanding of Scripture we can share are the good works that come from a genuinely transformed heart.

    We do not study the Bible to learn more about God and be certain of His word: we read it to be transformed. It is not about the accumulation and broadening of our knowledge about Jesus, it is the reduction of worldliness and deepening of love to become as Jesus.