Skip to content

How complicated is Scripture?

June 20, 2011

How hard is it to read Scripture? While I don’t run into a lot of people like those I’m about to describe I’ve certainly met people who like to throw around terms like “plain meaning” and suggest that Scripture contains a series of truths easily comprehensible to all but perhaps the youngest or slowest amongst us. This often seems to be based on the presumption that faith is primarily a matter of intellect and belief, followed by the thought that the only way to come by this belief in these intellectual propositions is by reading the Bible, and so the Bible must be comprehensible to everyone so that they can be saved.

I’ve probably already tipped my hand here, but I don’t buy most of that train of thought. One reason I don’t is because I’ve watched the task of reading the Bible go quite badly.

On five separate occasions someone has told me that John 1:1, specifically “the Word was God”, means that the Bible is God. One of these people even got very excited about this sort of second Incarnation and began discoursing on how much it meant to him that God had seen fit to be bound between covers and put in his backpack for easy reference. Thankfully he found the actual point of John 1 even more exciting and so my correction didn’t hurt him but I was truly amazed that this mistake could be made. In fact, the first time I heard someone say this I mentally filed this away not as a mistake, per se, but as an indication that the speaker had a severe learning disability which I should remember when dealing with them.

Before we deal more with this example I’d like to bring up the second one. In the morning before I started writing this article I heard some Anglicans on the radio discussing female bishops. One of them, the one against female bishops, explained that this violated the Biblical idea of headship. Now that’s a big concept so I won’t tackle that here, but what killed me was her evidence. She cited Genesis 2, and said that since God created man first and then woman to be man’s helper this showed that men were to take the lead. Now, this may not be an obvious mistake, but, as I will explain shortly, it’s a very bad one.

In the first example two things are happening. One of them is that bits of the Bible are being pulled out and used completely outside of context. John 1:1 is part of the Johanine prologue which uses and then defines, through usage, several terms that have non-literal meanings (“light” being the other prime example). If John 1 was read in full John 1:14, which speaks of the Word becoming flesh, would clear up any misunderstanding about what the Word was. However, this is a reading problem (fostered in a large part by treating the Bible as a magical answer book with scrambled answers) and not something that makes the Bible difficult. Almost no one reads any other book in this strange mix-and-match way and so this problem is with readers and not the Bible.

The other thing that is happening in the John 1:1 example is also happening in the Genesis 2 example. In both examples a mistake is being made because ancient texts are being read in a modern light.

In John 1:1 the Word is assumed to be shorthand for “the Word of God”, which is a common way for Christians to refer to the Bible. At least, it’s a common way for Christians to refer to the Bible in English. The phrase “word of God” does appear in the Bible. In the Old Testament there are only two places in which this exact phrase appears. In 1 Kings 12:22 the word of God comes to a prophet. The word is, pretty clearly, the prophecy. In Proverbs 30:5 we learn that “every word of God proves true”. Again, this cannot mean the Bible, since there is more than one word of God. Nothing changes in the New Testament. Luke (3:2) tells us that the word of God came to John (the Baptizer). Luke 5:1 describes Jesus’ teaching as “the word of God”. Luke seems to like this phrase, as many examples are found in Luke and in Acts, where the disciples’ preaching is termed “the word of God” (see, for instance, Acts 4:31). I invite you to do your own search of the terms, but there appears to be no place in the Bible where “word of God” means “the Scriptures” unambiguously. There are, however, numerous places where it refers to a specific thing God has said. It’s not hard to see how a collection of documents that contains a lot of things termed “words of God” could come to be called “the word of God”. However, the mistake is in assuming that this modern usage is applicable to John 1.

In the Genesis 2 example the mistake is much harder to see, but it’s of the same sort. (Those of you who have read my article on Genesis 2 will already be aware of this.) When we read that God created the woman as a helper for the man it’s easy to see how this implies secondary status. The hired help means the servants. If you are helping out with an event you are probably taking orders from someone else. If you aren’t taking orders you are still probably taking secondary status. If, for instance, you are helping out with a wedding reception you may not need orders to put chairs around the tables and put the centerpieces out but you are doing these things because the important people (the bride and groom) want it done. However, there’s no particular reason that a helper (in its original “one who helps” sense) needs to be of secondary status. In English we have other words we often use for higher-status helpers, like “benefactor”. But Hebrew just uses ‘ezer (עזר). Of the nineteen uses that aren’t in Genesis 2 describing Eve sixteen describe God. God is clearly a high-status being, and the help He gives is the aid of His immense power. Were we to take Genesis 2’s use of “helper” for Eve as the be-all and end-all of statements about the role of women we would be more likely to conclude, from the actual evidence, that Genesis 2 is saying that men are in need of someone more powerful and perhaps smarter to help them out, much as a child needs his parents’ help. Of course this isn’t a particularly intelligent way to use the verse, which probably says something about the intelligence of the original attempt as well. Again, a modern idea (the modern English connotations of “helper”) has been imported into the Bible to the detriment of understanding.

So how hard is it to read the Bible? This depends on how well we want to read. On one hand it’s absolutely impossible for us to leave our culture behind and step into the world of the Bible. We can do better or worse at this, but we can never fully succeed. There’s legitimate reason to ask if we need to do this perfectly. There might well be a lot we could get out of the Bible without really entering into the culture of the Bible. However, the examples I have given suggest that there are also a lot of easy mistakes to make.

The problem really centers on the fact that we aren’t aware of our cultural framework. When we remember to adjust for other cultures we tend to be decent at it. For instance, most of us remember that the Bible is set almost entirely within agricultural societies, and so we remember to think of farmland as wealth, of harvest-time as a major event, of rain as a life-sustaining or life-threatening event, and so on. But there’s a lot we bring to stories that we don’t realize we bring and so we never adjust for it. In both of the examples above the various speakers never realized that what they said might involve issues of language or culture. These aren’t isolated incidents, either. Most of us live in a world that has fully embraced matter/spirit dualism. The Hebrew world didn’t. In consequence most of us read a number of passages with some sort of odd spin because we read them through a lens foreign to the passage. This has even crept into translation. 1 Corinthians 15:44 compares the current body to the resurrection body. The resurrection body is clearly described as “spiritual” (πνευματικον). The current body, though, is described using the word “ψυχικον” (psuchikon). The root of this word is ψυχή (psuche) from which our word “psyche” is derived, and which is normally translated as “soul” or “life”, and occasionally “mind” or “heart”. Despite this, most Bibles translate ψυχικον, in all its occurrences, as “natural”, and often in 1 Corinthians 15:44 in a manner that suggests flesh. The reasoning behind this is unclear, but it seems to fit well with a dualism in which the opposite of spiritual is material and hence, in the body, fleshly. However, it seems equally likely from the words themselves that Paul means to indicate that the Spirit will control the resurrection body while the current body is controlled by our own wills.

It would be remiss of me, however, to end on this note. There is at least one simple way to tackle this problem, and it’s one that Ben and I discovered entirely by accident while teaching a class on how to read the Bible. Ask more questions. Ask stupid questions, because sometimes those questions aren’t stupid because the answer you “know” is based on assumptions you shouldn’t be using. Look, for a second, at Luke 4:1. Just one verse, and not even a full sentence, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness”. Who is Jesus? Who is the Holy Spirit? What does “holy” mean? What’s a spirit? Where’s the Jordan? Why is Jesus returning from it? Is “the Spirit” the same as the Holy Spirit? Are we expected to know how the Spirit might have done this leading? What’s “the wilderness”? Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness? Do people often go off into the wilderness? That’s eleven questions. Five of them are, by my rough estimation, stupid. By Luke 4 you should have some idea of who Jesus is (he’s the main character) and who the Holy Spirit is, even if you might not understand either of these characters fully. The two questions about the Jordan are really asking whether you read the previous section and paid attention, and, of course, identifying “the Spirit” and the Holy Spirit is a matter of basic reading comprehension. But the other six questions all deal with places where our normal (i.e., modern) ideas don’t belong to the world of the text. With a little digging they are all pathways into better understanding. And that, of course, is the whole point. Easy texts don’t say anything. Complex, rich texts do, but they are complicated as well. They require good reading.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 4:28 pm

    Love it, as always. I’m sort of dealing with a similar concept right now (check latest blog post, finally something not about GIS despite the humorous title ;). Should be interesting discussion among the Bible study group, which I’m glad to find can be fairly diverse of opinion.

  2. June 23, 2011 10:48 am

    Indeed true, and great comment, you’re once again quoted in the latest post :) Two paragraphs later in the book is the mention of Revelation 4-5, so I went back 1-11 to review the scene of end times. To further discuss the ideas you’ve presented here, have you read “Blue Like Jazz”? I really enjoyed that read, as a non-intellectual sensing of the truth of Christ and intuitive belief.

  3. Eric permalink
    June 23, 2011 12:42 pm

    I have not read “Blue Like Jazz”. I’ve read only a few short article by Miller and I didn’t like them, and, since my reading list is perpetually full, I decided not to take a gamble on a longer book. Maybe I will someday – you’re not the only person to recommend it to me.

    I do think the idea of non-intellectual sensing of things and intuitive belief are important when handled correctly. If I feel that something is correct I generally don’t treat that as evidence that it is correct but I do think it is evidence that I should look into it. I often find that my feeling that something is correct (or that it is not) is based on my unconscious mind having processed something quickly or matched patterns or some other such legitimate manner of finding truth. Of course, sometimes it’s not and so it always bears investigation.


  1. Why is Scripture Complicated? « The Jawbone Of an Ass

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: