Can We Understand the Bible?

The Bible claims to be a revelation from God to man. Do you believe that to be true? If you answer in the affirmative, this is a good place to begin because it leads to the inescapable conclusion that man can understand the Bible. After all, that is the very meaning and purpose of revelation! Paul wrote in Eph. 3:3, “How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery.” This literally refers to a laying bare or making naked, involving a disclosure of truth concerning divine things before unknown (Thayer, p. 62). Incidentally, when Paul used the word “mystery,” it has to do with something outside the knowledge of man which can only be ascertained by divine revelation. Those things which were once hidden in the mind of God, Paul affirms that “by revelation he made known unto me.”

But then Paul refers to his writings: “As I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). Notice that Paul is describing a process where he received his knowledge by direct revelation, he then shared with his readers what was revealed unto him, and that enabled them to possess the same understanding that Paul had of God’s great redemptive scheme. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Bible is an understandable book or it really isn’t a revelation at all! As Psalms 119:130 declares, “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.”

There are people, of course, who would argue otherwise, especially with the idea that we can understand the Scriptures alike. However, if we can understand the Bible at all, it can be understood alike because it is impossible for two people to understand something correctly while their positions are self-contradictory and as different as day and night. In an attempt to smooth things over, the statement is often made in a nonchalant way, “We just understand it differently.” No, the real problem has to do with a misunderstanding on someone’s part, leading to differences among religious folks, as well as an unfortunate disregard for the truth on certain subjects. Peter described how some “wrest” the Scriptures, meaning to twist or distort, and that the unlearned and unstable of his day did so “unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). Can we understand the Bible? Let’s notice some of the various answers given to this question in the religious world. This is important for two reasons: (1) It shows how some people try to justify religious division, and (2) it exposes their reasoning for what it is. As we’re going to see, these various answers run the gamut from one end of the spectrum to the other . . .

CATHOLICISM

Some are very bold in declaring that the Bible is not an understandable book, causing them to argue that the Scriptures cannot be understood without an official interpreter. Years ago a book was written by James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, and it’s still in print and can be read on the Internet. Mr. Gibbons (who served as Bishop of Richmond from 1872 to 1877 and Archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 to the time of his death in 1921) says in his book: “The Catholic Church correctly teaches that our Lord and His Apostles inculcated certain important duties of religion which are not recorded by the inspired writer. For instance, most Christians pray to the Holy Ghost, a practice which is nowhere found in the Bible. We must therefore conclude that the Scriptures alone cannot be a sufficient guide and rule of faith because they cannot at any time be within the reach of every inquirer, because they are not of themselves clear and intelligible even in matters of the highest importance, and because they do not contain all the truths necessary for salvation.” I would like to make a couple of observations about the above quotation. First, when people pray to the Holy Spirit, it is freely admitted that the practice is “nowhere found in the Bible.” In other words, it’s not a Biblical practice, but its authority is only “of men” (Matt. 21:25). What an admission! Instead of casting doubt upon the sufficiency of God’s word, it simply shows that some have departed from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1). Also, what are we to make of the assertion that the Scriptures are not “clear and intelligible?” Obviously this is not the correct answer because it denies what the Bible claims for itself: It can be understood (Eph. 3:3-4; 1 John 5:13) and we are “not to go beyond the things which are written” (1 Cor. 4:6- ASV).

Mr. Gibbons’ book is said to be “a plain exposition and vindication of the principal tenets of the Catholic Church,” meaning that you can read and understand its contents, but supposedly God didn’t have the ability to give us a book with clear and intelligible language. Think about the implications of that! Although Mr. Gibbons’ book contains more than 100,000 words in 15 chapters, they do not question its readability because it is a “plain exposition.” Yet, according to this view, we need a special interpreter to understand the Second Epistle of John, even though it consists of only 13 verses. Who can believe it?

DIRECT OPERATION OF THE SPIRIT

In order to understand the Scriptures, some claim that you must allow the Holy Spirit to open up your mind and guide you in a direct, esoteric way. However, this position involves circular reasoning. After all, the Holy Spirit would not lead someone to contradict His inspired word (Eph. 6:17) or to deny a commandment that has been given. When Paul wrote that “it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor. 14:35), he then gave this warning: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (verse 37). In other words, the only way one can know that something is of God is if it can be backed up by a “thus saith the Lord.” That takes you right back to the Scriptures for our source of authority!

We have situations in the denominational world where different groups claim to be led by the Spirit in a direct, miraculous way, but they don’t even agree on major points of doctrine (like the Godhead). As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 14:33, “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.”

POSTMODERNISM

We live in a world where the effects of postmodernism are evident all around us. It is the view that there is no absolute truth and you don’t have the right to tell anyone that they are in error. When you stop to think about it, denominationalism is a reflection of that kind of thinking. “Join the church of your choice”/ “One church is as good as another”/ “That’s just your private interpretation”– We’ve all been confronted with those kinds of quips, implying that doctrine is unimportant and everyone has a right to their own private interpretation of the Scriptures.

Make no mistake about it, postmodernism has found its way into the Lord’s church. One brother, for example, is on record saying that baptism is necessary to salvation . . . if you understand it to be. That’s postmodernism in a nutshell! It’s the assertion that each individual is entitled to his own version of the truth, making the individual the standard instead of God’s word. Can we understand the Bible? Yes, but if we approach it with the attitude that any interpretation will suffice, we are not going to be a good student of the Scriptures.

 

Article by: Billy D. Dickinson