Here is a repost of an excellent book and lecture series giving an in depth look at the topic we’ll address: Can we really understand scripture when we read it? Enjoy…
I’m almost finished an excellent little book (153 pages of reading) on another essential issue for Christians in today’s world. The book is A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture and it addresses this question: Is the Bible a book that can be read and understood by most people, or is it instead an obscure ancient text which only formally trained scholars can understand? Or do we need to admit that no one, really, can claim to have an understanding of it?
For many of us, our common sense may seem to tell us that we can read the Bible and know what God says, but then we may face a couple things that start to erode our confidence in our ability to understand the Bible. First, we all have the experience of reading and not immediately understanding what the Bible is talking about. In fact, that may be what we experience most of the time, except for a few of our favorite “go-to” verses. Second, we may start hearing people who claim a higher knowledge of the Bible tell us that it’s uninformed to think you can simply read and understand any text, much less one that’s old and obscure, like the Bible.
What do we say to these things? Is our failure to understand scripture an indication that the Bible is, in fact, unintelligible? Are modern scholars right when they say we only think we can understand it because we just don’t know any better? And what about all the different interpretations of the Bible that float around out there? If it’s so easy to understand, why doesn’t everyone just read it and agree?
A Clear and Present Word is a patient, thorough examination of these challenges. Here is a sample from the book, which gives the heart of his argument:
Christian doctrine is not essentially rational, mechanistic or impersonal, but is relational at its very core because God in his eternal being is relational and determines all reality. A Christian doctrine of Scripture must speak of Scripture as it is related to God, and this will of necessity draw attention to the person, work and words of Jesus Christ, the one who is genuinely and without reduction both God and human. Scripture exists by and within the purpose of God to be known by men and women, those he is determined to rescue for himself. It is properly understood as an integral part of the purposeful communicative activity of God.
Here are the beginnings of an answer to the suggestion that God as transcendent mystery challenges any notion of Scripture’s clarity, for the transcendent God who cannot be contained by our thoughts and words lovingly chooses to be known. He has spoken in many and various ways through the prophets and in the last days through his Son. The transcendence of God should not be played off against this determination on God’s part to be known and to use the capacity for language that he has given us as a vehicle for a true knowledge of him. If God chooses to speak to us personally, in his Son and through those he has commissioned and enabled to write his words for us, then it is no transgression of his majesty to take him at his word.
Here too, as we have seen, is an answer to the charge that human language, spoken or written, is inadequate to express in a direct way the truth about God, since language, like humanity itself, is a fragile creature of the dust. God is the primeval speaker, the originator not just of language in some vague or celestial sense, but of language addressed to and understood by human beings. It is his gift to us, a means of relationship that he is the first to use, not something alien that he commandeers or appropriates for this purpose. Furthermore, the transition from oral to written word is not something done in his absence but at his direction, and, like Joshua, faithful men and women today are called to read and meditate on the written word in the presence of God.
Yet to say all this is to raise the stakes enormously when it comes to the issue of Scripture’s clarity, for the lines of connection run both ways. If Scripture is not clear, not generally accessible to faithful men and women who prayerfully read, seeking to know the mind of God, what are we then saying about God? As one contemporary writer asks, “What kind of God would reveal his love and redemption in terms so technical and concepts so profound that only an elite corps of professional scholars could understand them?” If communication is generally possible between human beings, as common experience confirms, then what kind of arrogance (Luther would say blasphemy) will suggest that this is beyond God? Of course there is more to be said. We need to examine Scripture’s own testimony about its clarity and indeed those instances where clarity is hard won. We need to respond to the challenges thrown up by contemporary hermeneutics.
But let this truth stand over all those attempts: the living God is an effective communicator.
If you’d like to read more for free, you can download the first 45 pages of the book for free here.
If you’d like to listen to the book, these lectures are essentially the author reading the book before it was published. Here are the links for the mp3s:
A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture
by Mark Thompson
1. Oh sweet obscurity: the absurdity of claiming clarity today
2. The effective communicator: God as the guarantor of scriptural clarity
3. It is not beyond you: The accessible word of the living God
4. Engaging the hermeneutical challenge
5. The sharp double-edged sword: Restating the clarity of Scripture today