Jesus knew, all too well, that lots of people who read the Scriptures did not really understand them. It’s true today, and it was true in the first century. Modern Christians disagree over all sorts of issues—baptism, spiritual gifts, the end times, church government, and so on—and if you read church history, you’ll soon discover that we’re not the first generation like that. So Christians often ask: “Is the Bible clear? Surely, if it were, we’d all agree on what it meant, right?”
There are two answers we could give to that question. The first is: when it comes to the essentials, we do. All Christians, everywhere, believe in one church, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one baptism, one God. Whenever I feel discouraged about the confusions and debates within the global church, I go and read the Nicene Creed, and it reminds me just how much we agree on.
The second answer to that question—“If the Bible were clear, wouldn’t we all agree about everything?”—is: not necessarily. There are all sorts of things on our end—ignorance, hard-heartedness, sin, rebellion, unbelief—that might prevent us from understanding what Scripture says quite clearly. In fact, when Jesus interacted with people who had misunderstood something he’d said, either in Scripture or in person, he never blamed the Word of God for being unclear, confusing, or obscure. Instead, he always said it was something to do with the readers or hearers:
“Are you also still without understanding?”
“You make void the word of God by your tradition that you’ve handed down.”
“Do you still not perceive? How is it that you fail to understand that I wasn’t talking about bread?”
“This people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed.”
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ should suffer these things, and enter into his glory?”
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.”
“But they didn’t understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about it.”
“Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.”
“It is the Scriptures that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Ignorance. Traditionalism. Naïveté. Dullness, deafness, foolishness. Opposition to God. Fear. Sin. Stubbornness. When people don’t understand something God has said, Jesus assumes that the Scriptures are clear—“Haven’t you read in the Scriptures?!”—and the people are muddled.
Frequently, in our arrogance, we assume it’s the other way round.
It’s easy to see how, in all kinds of situations, misunderstandings could be our responsibility. I might disagree with you about baptism because I’m stubborn and mired in my tradition. I might disagree with you about the end times because I’m ignorant, or proud, or naïve. I might disagree with you about spiritual gifts out of fear or hard-heartedness. (Of course, we might also disagree about something because Scripture doesn’t speak clearly about our particular questions. It doesn’t tell us whom to vote for or whether to drink tea, for instance.) But whatever the reason, we can all agree on this: the problem is probably at our end, not God’s.
When I teach theology courses, I always make a point of telling my students that a number of the things I’ll teach them will be untrue. I never intend to teach wrongly, of course, and I work hard to ensure my teaching is as accurate and helpful as possible, but the reality is that I will teach some things that are incorrect. When that happens, though, I don’t want anyone to think it’s because the Bible isn’t clear where it intends to be. It may be that the Bible wasn’t intended to address the particular question I’m asking, or it may be that I’ve been waylaid by some combination of ignorance, carelessness, and sin. It certainly won’t be because the Scriptures are an incoherent mess.
“Your word is a lamp for my feet,” the psalmist wrote, “and a light to my path.” When you’re walking along a dark and narrow track, you can’t always trust your judgment. But you can always trust the light.