Can We Understand the Bible?
By Kyle Pope
Desiderius Erasmus was the 16th
century Greek scholar who laid the groundwork for the translation of the Bible
into English. In his preface to the 1516
edition of the Greek New Testament he said that he wished that the Scriptures
might be translated into all languages so that all people “might read and
understand them.” A driving motivation
of the Reformation movement and men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale was
expressed in the motto Sola Scriptura - “the Scriptures alone.”
In our generation we are witnessing an information
and scientific “explosion.” We can
understand complexities of nature and technology as never before. We understand more about the building blocks
of life and the material world than our ancestors did. From the movements of the planets to the
chemistry that fuels the stars, we can chart,
formulate and explain their function better than any generation in human
The human capacity for understanding is
remarkable. Simply set a child in front
of a computer or video game and in no time they can understand every, trick,
special move and nuance of how to maneuver through complex obstacles and
overcome intricate challenges. Yet, for
some reason this same generation who is capable of understanding so many things
has come to believe that we cannot understand the Bible.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus,
it is clear that he did not intend for his words to be so complex and
mysterious that they could not be understood.
He said that God, “...made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly
written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in
the mystery of Christ)...” (Ephesians 3:3,4, NKJV). The Psalmist wrote, “Your testimonies are
wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The entrance of Your
words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:129-130).
What was true
for the Ephesians and for the Psalmist must surely be true for us today. To imagine otherwise, is to insult God. It is to say that He was incapable of
communicating His word to us in a way that could be understood. It is to conclude that the God who gave us
the capacity to understand so many other things did not give us the ability to
understand His word. On the contrary,
although we must be careful to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy
2:15), the Bible was given to us to understand how we should guide our lives, the
church and all things.
How do we
understand any written document? We first
consider what is says. Is the author
giving instructions? Is the author
telling a historical narrative or a parable to draw a moral conclusion? The Bible teaches us in the same way by its
commands, its narratives and its parables.
When we read something we also consider if the author describes
something that happened? We note whether
the things described are positive or negative?
The Bible sets for us examples of individual and church behavior that are
divinely approved or condemned. These
approved examples become binding standards for us to practice and also a sure
test of what is sound and unsound. Does
the author infer some things, without spelling them out directly? These inescapable conclusions in a novel, a
mystery or even in technical writing provide vital information that helps to complete
our understanding of a text. The Bible
is no different. Does this demand
caution? Absolutely! Jesus warns against straining out a gnat and
swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). Paul
commanded not to “strive over words to no profit” (2 Timothy 2:14). Yet, Paul himself once focused on the fact
that a single word in Old Testament prophecy was singular rather than plural
to show that it pointed to Jesus (Galatians 3:16). The necessary inferences of Scripture are just
as important and binding for us today.
real question may not be whether we can understand the Bible, but whether we
are willing to follow what it teaches?