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Why is Scripture Complicated?

August 1, 2011

In a previous article I examined the issue of whether Scripture is easy to read. My conclusion was that Scripture was not particularly easy to read and that it contained many landmines for the careless reader. In that article I also mentioned the belief some hold that Scripture should be easy because if it wasn’t it would be hard for us to be saved. I wish to pick up on that issue again. Why isn’t Scripture easy to read and comprehend?

In that previous article I dealt with several technical issues in regards to the reading of Scripture. In fact, I’ve been doing this for quite a while with a number of articles about how we view and read Scripture. I don’t intend to cover these issues here. Instead, I want to address the larger question of why God didn’t just give us a document that makes more sense?

The short answer is that none of us really want a document that makes more sense. In fact, I propose that the document we have makes lots of sense. What it tells us, though, is uncomfortable and so we work hard to make it make less sense because we cannot follow commands we don’t understand.

To expand on that answer we first need to figure out what sort of information we need to get from Scripture. This depends on one’s view of salvation. For instance, if one believes that someone should say the sinner’s prayer, then the sinner’s prayer would be an important piece of information to convey. If one thinks that the primary criteria for salvation is the acceptance of particular doctrinal beliefs then those beliefs should be the information conveyed. If, as yet a third option, one is saved by doing (or attempting) particular actions (for example giving to the poor or particular forms of religious observance) then those actions need to be identified to the audience. At this point we covered a pretty wide spectrum of options. Note that all of these could be conveyed in a textbook or list format. In fact, many of them routinely are – ever seen a tract? However, the Bible does not look like a tract. Sixty-six books, some of them written in poetic verse, is about as far from a tract as one can get. This is because the views of salvation I covered above are all incorrect, or at least incomplete. The information that needs to be conveyed is not any of those types.

I’ve written an entire article entitled “What is Salvation?” before but it’s worth covering the relevant basics again. The problem with all three models I proposed above is that they are “sorting bin” models. There’s a bin for people who have said the sinner’s prayer/accepted correct doctrine/performed the correct actions and another bin for people who haven’t. That’s the fundamental division in the world. Not only does this stand at odds with the complex world we live in but it also makes much of the Bible pointless. We really should have received a tract if that was what the world was really like. The Bible, as it stands, contains information for all of those categories and more. I’m making an assumption here that the Bible is not padded with extraneous material (God isn’t paid by the word) but I think you’ll be willing to grant me that assumption.

A better model assumes that the salvation is more of a process. There are people who are not on the path at all. There are people who are on the path but not very far along. There are people who are further along. There are people who are dead and who have actually been saved (one can certainly use “saved” before death but in another sense it’s like saying “acquitted” before the trial). Specifically, salvation is the process of becoming new people. This involves recognition and renunciation of the old ways (something the sinner’s prayer attempts, although I’m not fond of most variants I’ve seen), understanding of correct doctrine, and correct action. However, it is far more than any of these. Take, for instance, the rather dramatic transformations people sometimes experience in areas of Africa where civil wars simmer for decades. A person involved in one of these ethnic conflicts could begin by ceasing to kill people. That’s a first step, but why did they stop? Perhaps they initially stopped because they were worried that God would kill them or light them on fire for all eternity. We’re glad they stopped but that shouldn’t be the end point. The person who stops killing people out of fear is the same person they were before but in a different context. We would like this person to, at some point, transition to the point where they wouldn’t kill people because they would recognize that God cares for all people and that this, in turn, would give them love for all people. This would be transformation. Salvation is essentially a transformational process – it is the process of making people into a new sort of people.

Transformation is obviously much more complicated than mere compliance. This, in turn, drives the complexity of the Bible. One of the few ways to transfer information about whole people (rather than only doctrine, only actions, only emotions, etc) is to tell stories about people. This includes the central person, God, but also a long cast of other characters. Now, if God Himself were simple we might be able to dispense with these others. Unfortunately (or fortunately), God is not much like us. Because we are fundamentally unable to understand God fully we need as much help as we can get. And so the Bible contains stories about God, stories about other people reacting to God, musings on God, poetry about God, and a number of descriptions of people attempting to live lives pleasing to God with varying degrees of success (and some stories about people not even making the attempt). Each of these add something to our ability to understand God and to understand both how to be transformed and what the end product should look like.

Perhaps another way of looking at the same thing is to frame it as wisdom (a Biblical virtue for sure). Wisdom generally comes from experience. It comes not merely from knowing intellectually what, say, good and evil look like but having actually seen both good and evil in action, identified them as such, and having learned how they act. The easiest way to jump-start this process would be to tell stories in which good and evil operated and in which they were identified. Now, obviously, good and evil are not the only things that the Bible discusses, or at least not the best two categories in which to group all that the Bible discusses. However, the principle is the same. Stories are encapsulated experiences for you to learn from.

So why is Scripture complicated? Scripture is complicated because becoming new people, becoming wise people, is not an easy thing. It is not a simple matter of handing off some information and getting someone to memorize it. Instead, the task at hand involves both learning and meditating on information. It involves the fullness of human experience and so the explanations must also involve this fullness. What’s more, we don’t really want to become new people. “Love your enemies” is easy to understand and terribly hard to do. It would be easier if we misread it and didn’t have to do the hard thing it asks. It would be easier if we insisted that it was a dark and murky secret and argued about its secret meaning instead of obeying.

The Bible is sometimes complicated because truth that encompasses one’s entire being is complicated. Sometimes, though, Scripture is complicated because we don’t want to listen and we make it hard to understand so we don’t have to do so.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Dunn permalink
    August 25, 2011 1:20 pm

    Finally catching up on some earlier posts from the summer, and really enjoyed this one. Thanks for hitting the nail on the head so poignantly, Eric. :-)

  2. Eric permalink
    August 25, 2011 7:40 pm

    Glad you liked it. I feel like I only say about three things but I’m happy you liked this reframing of this thought.

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