Have you ever faced this objection to Bible study? “There are so many conflicting interpretations of the Bible, how can we possibly know what it means? Why study it? How could we possibly know we’re getting it straight?” Or have you asked them yourself?
While Christians throughout the centuries have agreed that the Bible can be understood, we frequently disagree on what it means. Until recently. Lately, it has become popular to claim the Bible cannot be understood at all.
My favorite response to this objection is to ask the skeptic to interpret a relatively well-known and straightforward verse like John 3:16. Usually she discovers she can in fact understand the verse, and that starts the dialogue. While some verses and passages are especially challenging, God is quite clear about the key message: the path to salvation.
Why do we have so much interpretative disagreement? I think there are two explanations: one we can solve and one we can’t.
First, we frequently use incorrect or sloppy study methodology. The art of biblical interpretation has been ignored by the “all-truth-is-relative” generation. Too frequently sermons have become “edutainment”. Good bible study skills are no longer modeled, let alone taught.
Fortunately, this problem is solvable. Skills can be learned, discernment improved and understanding increased.
The second problem is not so easily overcome: we all have limited understanding of the truth. The Apostle Paul’s claim in 1Corinthians 13:12 “Now I know in part” applies to us all. Our areas of ignorance easily explain our lack of agreement.
But rather than despair in our limited knowledge, we should adopt the humble attitude of lifelong learners as we approach the Scriptures. Our disagreements can just as easily stimulate us to greater, more careful study as toward hostility.
When faced with an especially difficult or controversial passage, my advice is adopt these two goals:
- Know what you believe and why; and
- Understand the other side(s) well enough to know why they fail to persuade you.
Genuine believers will reach different conclusions one some passages. One day, God will make it all clear, but for now we give it our best shot and hold our conclusions loosely.
In the grand scheme of God’s universe, our doctrinal disagreements resemble a class of first graders squabbling over who reads best. The truth of the matter is none of us reads very well. But if we humbly submit to the master Teacher we can improve.