Do you need a PhD to understand the Bible?
Short answer: yes.
But a longer answer is called for. And the longer answer includes the fact that you need more than one PhD to understand the Bible.
When I say you need a PhD, I don’t necessarily mean that you yourself need to earn a PhD, much less several. But you will need multiple people with PhDs involved in the process. You will not understand the entire Bible without people who have expertise in Hebrew and expertise in Greek. Not just a smattering, not just a copy of Strong’s concordance or an interlinear. In order to get from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text to an understanding in English, you need linguists, experienced translators, and also scholars of history who can clarify cultural and historical references, all involved in the process.
When these individuals have done their job well, you can pick up an English translation, read it, and it will not seem hard to understand at all. Indeed, it may be so deceptively easy that you manage to ignore the hard work that went into producing the text you hold in your hands.
That is why anti-intellectuals like Ken Ham frustrate me. He recently wrote in a blog post, after quoting Bob Cargill’s words in a recent article:
Now, there’s certainly a place for Bible scholars with an understanding of the language, history, and culture surrounding Scripture, but that doesn’t negate the authority and perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture.
The Bible actually does speak plainly on many issues. Psalm 19:7 tells us, “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” How can we expect to understand the message of salvation through Jesus Christ if we need a PhD to explain it to us? Sadly, these academics are doing nothing but subverting the authority of Scripture and lifting man’s word up over it. It is ironic that three scholars in their fields who have completely misunderstood what the Bible says about marriage are willing to claim that, without them, people will not be able to make informed decisions about Scripture.
This illustrates the irony of the situation. Ham has access to that statement in the psalm in his own language, and thus can quote it, because of the work of scholars. Yet he quotes it in order to denigrate scholarship! He seems not to have understood what these words mean:
עֵדוּת יְהוָה נֶאֱמָנָה, מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי
He quoted an English translation of them, removed from their context, and shows himself unconcerned about what the text means. He adds them to his own blog post in order to make it seem to the gullible as though his own words are in fact the divinely-inspired teaching of the Bible.
Taken just on their own, or even in the context of that single verse, the words Ham quoted might seem to be about the clarity of Scripture. Reading a few verses in either direction, and one realizes that the focus is rather on divine speech, probably including but certainly not limited to laws found today in the Bible ( a compilation which did not exist in its present form when the psalms were still being written), which the wise will follow and allow to inform their way of life.
But if one reads the whole Psalm, one sees that in fact it starts out focused the order of creation – much of it couched in language that ancient people might well have taken fairly literally, but most of us today, including Ken Ham, do not and cannot. Read the whole psalm, preferably in more than one translation, as that is one of the best ways that someone without an expert knowledge in Hebrew can get a sense of the range of meaning of words in the text, and of the text as a whole. It emphasizes that the created order testifies truthfully to the Creator, and focuses significant attention on the movement of the sun across the sky, described in a manner that so closely resembles other ancient texts, that some scholars conclude that a Canaanite hymn to the sun god has been incorporated into this psalm.
It seems to me that there are two main ways to understand the portion of Psalm 19 which Ham quoted in context. One is that it is relating the divine precepts that order the cosmos to a set of written laws such as those found in the Torah. But alternatively, it may be a wisdom psalm and have in view those moral principles that can be deduced simply by observing the way the world works and reasoning.
Since my primary area of expertise is New Testament, I won’t try to figure this out myself. I’ll read what scholars whose expertise is in the Psalms have written, or perhaps ask the scholars I know what they think. Asking for assistance, and humbly acknowledging one’s dependence on others, is in keeping with the Bible’s teaching – Ken Ham’s persistent arrogant assertions that he needs no assistance from anyone to understand the Bible notwithstanding. Indeed, the irony of Ham’s stance is compounded when one considers the Bible’s emphasis on accepting correction and listening to the wise and learned, and contrasts it with what Ham tries to get his followers to believe the Bible is and teaches.
Through his driving of a wedge between the evidence from creation and belief in God, and through his selective and deceptive quotations of Scripture, Ham shows that he has no respects for the precepts and testimony of Yahweh mentioned in the psalm. If he did, he would repent of the deceit and arrogance that characterize his entire organization. While scientists who are religious believers agree with Psalm 19:1 that the created order declares the glory of God, and does so truthfully, Ham and Answers in Genesis say that you have to deny the conclusions that the evidence from creation points to, in order to believe in God correctly.
Let’s return to where we began. You need scholars in order for you to have the Bible in your own language; and even once it is translated, you need them to help you understand the Bible. You also need to understand how scholarship works, so that you can understand why scholars sometimes disagree, and so that you can avoid being duped by charlatans who will both claim not to need scholars, and yet when it suits them, will claim (typically falsely) that scholars’ conclusions support their claims.
But I am convinced that you don’t need a PhD to tell right from wrong, and to see what a false teacher like Ken Ham is up to. The Bible’s Wisdom tradition teaches that close observation and reasoning should be enough.