Is the Bible Unclear? A Guide for the Perplexed

Is the Bible Unclear? A Guide for the Perplexed May 15, 2013

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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