Is the Bible Unclear? A Guide for the Perplexed

I received this question by e-mail:

“I’ve been wrestling lately with this question:  I’m wondering why the bible is so unclear on topics that are supposed to be so important (ie Divorce – I know the exception clause, but OK to remarry? Have a church position post-divorce;  Duration of Hell – is punishment eternal leading to annihilation or is it eternal punishment?; Baptism – essential to salvation? Pick a topic – the list goes on).  More broadly, if faith is the way and not the law, why was that not more clear to the Israelites of the Old Testament?  I’m sure the Church Fathers addressed this somewhere but not sure where to look.  My sense is that knowing too much has proven dangerous to us humans and this seeming obfuscation is to keep us on our knees.  As Greg Boyd says to his own father in Letters to a Skeptic, whatever we don’t know, we start with what we do, which is Christ (God’s full revelation) and work our way backwards and leave to a loving God that which we can’t understand.  I agree with that but when we’re looking for actual direction on how best to please God, why the lack of clarity doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

I offer no simplistic answers (I hope). But I am reminded of something Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said (but it might have been any one of a number of famous people others attribute favorite sayings to): “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.” Well, okay, that’s not going to go very far in answering the e-mailers honest question.

About a year ago I blogged here about Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible. Smith argues that there is a major obstacle to regarding the Bible as authoritative in the Protestant sense of “sola scriptura”–Scripture alone without any necessary interpretation magisterially given by tradition. That is “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” In other words, as Smith sees it, there are so many reasonable interpretations of the Bible (to say nothing of unreasonable ones!) that we must have something alongside scripture to tell us what it means–namely, magisterial tradition. Around the time he wrote that book Smith joined the Roman Catholic Church because, of course, the next question after his answer is–but who interprets tradition? So, he decided the pope does.

A problem with that, in my humble opinion, is that Christian Smith decided the pope decides what tradition means when it tells us what the Bible means. So, ultimately (and there’s no escaping this)–Smith himself was for himself the ultimate “decider” of what is authoritative and worthy of belief.

Back to the e-mailer’s good question above.

First, speaking only for myself, and realizing I will sound like a fundamentalist here, I don’t think the Bible is all that unclear if read and studied properly, that is, reasonably–recognizing the Bible for what it is (now I’ll stop sounding like a fundamentalist)–not a source book of propositional answers to curious questions but a complex narrative written and compiled by human authors led by but not over ridden by the Holy Spirit.

Second, still speaking only for myself, in my opinion, everything we need to know to have a sound relationship with God and to become whole and holy persons is clear in Scripture.

Third, just because people disagree about what a text means does not mean it isn’t clear. There are all kinds of reasons why people don’t “see” what is clear. They approach scripture with preconceived interpretive frameworks that don’t really fit all of scripture or they are morally challenged and don’t want the Bible to contradict their lifestyle or vested interests or they are looking for harmony beyond what the Bible offers or was intended to offer. There are many conceivable reasons why people disagree about what the Bible says.

An analogy–the U.S. Constitution. Right now a debate rages among Americans about the meaning of the “Second Amendment.” But is the Second Amendment really unclear? I don’t think so. I think some people whose minds are clouded by their love of guns over interpret it in a way that distorts its true, historical, simple meaning. The same thing happens with the Bible all the time.

Still, in spite of those explanations (for “pervasive interpretive pluralism” in spite of biblical perspicuity in essential matters) I will admit that there are many secondary matters of belief and practice where Scripture seems to lack the clarity I and most of us would like to see there. If scripture is truly unclear about a matter, it can’t be essential to a healthy relationship with God.

I often find myself saying to myself “Well, I can’t understand how that other person can be so wrong about what scripture means, but I have to remember I have been wrong and still might be wrong even though I don’t think so–about this. So I won’t condemn the person but gently strive with him to get him to see it my way. In the process it’s possible I’ll come to see it his way. That’s the nature of being finite and fallen. We are all fallible. But I can’t let that lack of absolute certainty paralyze me.”

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Roger Olson

    Well said.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    The question is an excellent question. It seems to me that in the maturity of every believer, the question must be wrestled with at some point – but the answers are sometimes as unsettling as the questions.

    The Bible addresses questions asked by people from a very different part of history, geography and culture than us in Western cultures at this time. Understanding the Bible starts with understanding the what the Bible is saying to the original audience. Sometimes, when addressing the same topic, the Bible gives very different answers (occasionally irreconcilable answers). Take, for example, why the nation of Israel/Judah was destroyed – the author of Samuel/Kings and the author of Chronicles could hardly be further apart. Of course, they were writing for different audiences.

    Yet, the question of what one must do to be saved is answered plainly and directly in many places. The question of what God wants from humans in terms of general behavior is also quite plain, widespread, and consistent.

    Roger is correct in that we each come to the text with certain dispositions and thoughts about life. Our struggle is to get ourselves out of the way in order to let the text speak. It is in the application of what we hear from the text where our context is important. How best to act when a neighbor constantly asks for money? How best to act when we are misunderstood? How best to act when confronted with violence? It should be noted that the applications of the Bible will vary widely – and that is not necessarily under the “control” of the Bible.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    The writer had questions about: “Duration of Hell – is punishment eternal leading to annihilation or is it eternal punishment?”
    If he (or anyone) is interested in “good” answers to the above questions, check out the new ‘5-Star’ book, Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace, by Ivan A. Rogers. Available from, also on iPad, iPhone and Kindle. CAUTION: These answers will NOT be the ‘same-o-same-o’ stuff.

  • Craig Wright

    I have a book in my library (How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership) that intrigues me. It contains the stories of contemporary theologians, pastors, and Bible teachers. You can see the interaction between experience and the necessity of looking again at Scriptures through different lenses. I am aware of a couple of other instances of changing one’s mind. In responding to Love Wins by Rob Bell two authors quickly whipped out a book in response. On an interview later it was interesting to hear that one of the authors changed his mind after writing the book. He simply had not thought through the subject thoroughly and been challenged by others. Another example is a seminary professor who changed his view of the Biblical passages regarding homosexuality, because his 18 year old son came out to him, and he went back to the Bible and looked at it again, and wrote a very book on the subject.

    We are in the process of looking for a new pastor at our church. I gave a list of questions, I would like to be asked of the candidates, to the search team members. At the top I put two questions; “Have you ever changed your mind about an issue (biblical, social…)? What issue are you now in the process of thinking through?”

    We bring experience, reason, personality, research, and much more to our interpretation of Scripture.

    • ajnania

      What He has called an abomination in the Old Testament, you say
      He now calls love. Don’t just tell me you think so. Show me how that’s possible.

      It is one thing to change your mind. It is quite another to imagine you have changed His.

      • I find this response disturbing. Unless you have other knowledge of what Craig Wright believes and are responding to that, the statement he made in his post was that “a seminary professor who changed his view of the Biblical passages regarding homosexuality”…unless you believe he is obliquely referring to himself. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, ajnania, but, on face value, your response looks like a knee-jerk reaction that assumes facts not in evidence.

  • Steve Rogers

    “I don’t think the Bible is all that unclear if read and studied properly, that is, reasonably–recognizing the Bible for what it is (now I’ll stop sounding like a fundamentalist)–not a source book of propositional answers to curious questions but a complex narrative written and compiled by human authors led by but not over ridden by the Holy Spirit.”
    Two phrases in your above quote pinpoint the problem, IMHO. Both “studied properly” and “complex narrative” underscore the need for higher levels of literacy to “do the Bible” properly. Add to that the years of training and maturity necessary to get to such literacy and it seems clear that the Bible, absent explanation from some external source (magisterial interpretation or Holy Spirit illumination) is of little revelatory value to the young, nonreaders, mentally impaired and anyone who has no access to it.
    I have come to regard it as very strange that the Biblical narrative which tells of so many who had personal, dynamic encounters with God over extended lengths of time, not one of whom ever read the Bible as currently compiled, is now considered the principal (in some circles only) means of getting to know God.

    • An anecdote and I cannot vouch for it being a historical event as I read this somewhere long ago and it may well have been parabolic in nature. An old man finally learned to read because he wanted to be able to read the Bible. However, he read very, very slowly. He shared in church one day from Luke 2: “And it came to pass…” which as we know is referring to a time frame for Luke…in the days of Quirinius, etc., etc. The old man stopped reading to expound “I have learned that even bad things I live through are only here “to pass”, they will end and God will be faithful in them.” Now I have told the story badly, but the idea here that I want to point out is that I believe that God is able to communicate to us all in an effective, edifying manner.
      Yes, of course, those of us with educations should use whatever level of training, access to documents, interpretive tools, etc. The old man is not one I will look to for further theologizing (although God is able to work through a donkey so…) but let us not give up on the ability of God to reveal himself to the least of these.
      I am reminded of a man I knew who had a severe brain injury from a difficult birth; both parents of the highest order intellectually speaking. His brain did not work on higher order problems, but he did communicate the love of God to those he met. A different kind of knowledge of God, but still valid.

      • Roger Olson

        I don’t think anything I said negates that. However, I grew up in a faith community where whole sermons were often preached on partial texts taken out of context. On favorite anecdote by those who opposed such informal and even cavalier use of Scripture had to do with a preacher who was against women wearing their hair up on their heads in “top knots.” So he preached a whole sermon on “top not come down” (Matthew 24). I’m sure this is a religious legend (the religious equivalent of an urban myth), but I heard sermons twisting and distorting texts of Scripture not much different from that.

  • MaryLouiseC

    I recall R.C. Sproul stating that the Bible has one meaning and many applications. I use that as a guideline when I see differing viewpoints on a passage. We all come to the Bible with a different way of looking things to begin with and that can colour how we interpret it.

    Of course, we have to start with the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who instructs us in our reading and understanding. And we need to have teachers, pastors and writers who are also filled with the Holy Spirit to play a part in our learning.

    There are so many books to help us understand the Bible. A basic one that I recommend for anybody and everybody is How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

    Lastly, I think it was Mark Twain who made that comment, not Lincoln, but, as you say, there have probably been many people who have quoted it down through the years.

  • Jeff

    I’m confused.

    There’s heaven and hell. One is good and one is bad, and whether or not any given human wants to risk the bad for a chance for the good, that’s the game we’re all being forced to play.

    Like all other games, this one has rules. But unfortunately, the rulebook is unclear on some subjects. This is because the rules were dictated by the rulemaker to fallible humans who could not properly transcribe their intent. Ambiguity becomes an issue; some people will unwittingly disobey rules while under the belief that they are following them. Even more unfortunately, they will be condemned to eternal torture for disobeying rules that they didn’t even know they were breaking.

    So your solution is to throw even more fallible humans into the mix? I don’t understand why we can’t go straight to the source and have him sort this all out. In the span of an afternoon,the rulemaker could end every single religious disagreement by simply appearing on Earth and clarifying the parts of his rulebook that cause confusion. Not only would catholicism and the various flavors of protestant be reconciled, but all of christianity would be reconciled with islam and judaism, and all the Abrahamic religions would be reconciled with the many polytheistic faiths of the world. Free will would not be jeopardized, since everyone would still be free to obey or disobey as they choose. This would simply be a clarification, so that people would not be penalized for following a faulty interpretation.

    And if the rulemaker won’t clarify, then what? Surely there must be a way for us to opt out of the heaven-hell dichotomy, if the whole enterprise is based on having to *guess* which set of rules are correct. I, for one, have no interest in playing a game where the teams decide the rules for themselves, and the referee (and inventor of the game) will neither be seen nor heard until after it’s over. Especially since the penalty for losing the game is to be set on fire. Call me crazy, but that hardly seems fair.

    • Quid

      Yes, but there are some Christians who believe that Jesus has clarified his teachings through an infallible Magisterium. If there were no human institution, guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit to interpret properly the Bible, then I would agree with you. It hardly seems fair for Jesus to ascend to heaven and leave his Scriptures for our own personal interpretation.

      • Roger Olson

        Not fair? Maybe. But I don’t see any infallible human magisterium that has guided Christians infallibly to correct interpretations of Scripture. And, at the end of the day, everyone decides for himself or herself what to believe–even when they submit to the authority of someone else.

  • Roger Olson

    There are lots of things I wish God would have done that he apparently did not do.

    • Quid

      But my point is, why would God send the Holy Spirit to divinely inspire the writers of scripture and ensure the Bible was free from error without keeping the Holy Spirit around to ensure that we don’t misinterpret these divinely inspired documents?

      • Roger Olson

        I’m not sure how long you’ve been coming here or reading my writings, but I have never (in recent years) claimed the Bible is “free from error.” I think there are good reasons why God would not guarantee that we would not misinterpret the Bible. Faith is required in any relationship and faith always includes risk–as does any personal relationship. I could go on giving answers, but I suspect you’re not here to learn or engage in constructive dialogue. Convince me otherwise if you wish.

        • Quid

          I’m confused. Why would Jesus make his teachings unclear, or subject to incorrect interpretations? I understand why he doesn’t reveal himself to us, because he wants us to have faith without proof, but if the Bible is the only guide to living a moral life, why would Jesus make it deliberately difficult for us to interpret his will?

          If you don’t want to answer my objections, or you don’t have time, that’s fine, but I’ve been trying to researching Sola Scriptura to find a good apology of it, and I think there must be something I”m missing, because it still doesn’t make any sense. If you have any recommendations or links for it’s defense, I’d be happy to read them. Perhaps I’ve come off the wrong way, but I entered the discusion because I’ve been looking for an honest defense of sola scriptura.

          • Roger Olson

            What do you mean by “sola scriptura?” By it I mean that the Bible trumps other authorities when there’s a conflict, not that the Bible is the only book of truth.

          • Quid

            My understanding of “sola scriptura”, and I believe this is what Luther proposed as well, is that the Bible is the only source of complete, infallible truth. Truth is not limited to the Bible, but there are no other writings/teachings which can be definitively accepted as true.

            What I don’t understand is how Scripture can stand on its own, if private interpretation is required to understand Jesus’ teachings as well. We’ve all seen how people can use the Bible to conclude completely opposite messages, but (provided that there’s a universal moral law) one of them must be true, and the other false. The only way to arrive at this conclusion, aside from using extra-Biblical sources, is to accept one interpretation of the Bible and reject another. The problem with that is the Bible specifically condemns private interpretation with no authority to back it up (2 Pt 1: 20)

          • Roger Olson

            2 Peter 1:20 is open to different interpretations. 🙂 Whether or not one should or must accept an infallible teaching office to guide and enforce one specific interpretation of the Bible is itself a matter of interpretation. There’s no escaping interpretation.

  • Carol

    Please add me to your email list. It would not accept my address in the box above. Thanks.

    • Roger Olson

      I wish I knew how. 🙁 I’m struggling a lot with the new discussion program Patheos has adopted.

  • ajnania

    Jesus expressly promised that the Holy Spirit, God Himself, would lead, teach, and comfort us. Men have been vying to replace the Holy Spirit ever since. The meaning of Scripture is intentionally concealed, as Jesus said, but it is opened every moment to humble hearts by the His Spirit

  • stefanstackhouse

    The thing is, there IS an interpretative authority – none other than Jesus himself. “You call me teacher and Lord, because that is what I am.” What this means to me in practice is that the words and example of Jesus that we have in the Gospels is always my starting point. Then I read the rest of the New Testament in light of the Gospels, and finally I read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. (I don’t really care what the OT authors originally intended; God had his own ultimate intentions which might not have been clear to them at the time.) Of course, immediate textual context and literary style also get taken into account.

    (Of course, we also have the issue of whether or not the text actually is original inspired scripture, or if there has been subsequent embellishing and editing. In the case of the NT, critical scholarship has gotten us very, very close to what must have been the original, and a modern critical text can be relied upon with a high degree of confidence. Things are more questionable when we come to the OT, especially the Torah and many of the pre-exile historical books. As a practical matter, if the NT – being itself inspired and thus infallible – quotes or alludes to an OT passage, then I would take that OT passage to be infallible at least as far as the NT passage goes, but would allow for the possibility that there could possibly have been embellishing or editing beyond that. For example, some of the Genesis genealogies are replicated, more or less, in Matthew or Luke, so I would understand that as meaning that those people actually existed. The ages from the Genesis passages are not replicated in the Gospel passages, and given their lack of verisimilitude I would take that as meaning that those ages are suspect as possible later embellishments. I would also not assume that absence of others mentioned in the line of descent means that any others are absent. Using the Genesis genealogies to create a time line back to Adam is thus clearly wrong-headed.)

    It is true that Paul said that all scripture is profitable for instruction, but it seems that more than a few have thus gotten the idea that they can just plunge in anywhere and grab any passage out of context. Is it any wonder that we end up with “pervasive interpretative pluralism”?

    Starting with Jesus’s words and works as our authority may not eliminate all interpretative questions, but it very likely will dispose of a great many of them. Just to address the author’s examples above:

    Divorce? Jesus himself was very clear: divorce is contrary to God’s intent and a sign of hard-heartedness, something to be avoided if at all possible, unless adultery causes an irreparable rupture; anyone who marries a divorced person, or remarries after divorce, commits adultery. That isn’t the unforgivable sin, but if you are seeking an answer to what Jesus wants you to do and how to please him, there’s your answer.

    Duration of Hell? I can’t imagine how Jesus could have made it any clearer. He considered Hell to be a real place, and a place that everyone should earnestly strive to avoid. As for what is meant by eternity, many people incorrectly think that means an infinity of time; what it actually means is the absence of time, or at least of our time. God created time and space as well as matter and energy, and exists independently of them all, outside of time. That is why both at the burning bush and Jesus himself uses a perpetual present tense – “I AM”. Hell is the place that a merciful God provides that is as far away from his omnipresence as it is possible to be for those that hate him and don’t want to be in his presence. Sadly, there will be such people, which is why Jesus clearly indicates that Hell will indeed be populated. They will be there for eternity, just as those who love him will be with him for eternity. I don’t know if there is a practical difference between eternal torment and annihilation; what it is for such people is the end, and a terrible end at that.

    Baptism? Jesus assured the thief on the cross beside him that the thief would be with him in paradise that day. Thus, baptism is not absolutely essential for salvation. If you have as good an excuse as the thief did, you can omit it too. Otherwise, what good reason is there to forgo the example of submitting to baptism that Jesus himself established?

  • Your view of Roman Catholic church history, and Christian history in general, is overly romantic and asks too much in credulity.

    In addition, interpretive pluralism issues are found within the RCC itself. There are debates about how to interpret the Pope’s encyclicals, for instance, which are often cryptic and vague in their own right. There’s even debates about how much of Catholic doctrine is infallible.

    • Roger Olson

      Of course there are. However, the RCC has a mechanism for settling debate that other churches do not have.