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?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

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?

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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.


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