Say what you will about Peter, but he was certainly an honest man. Never more so than at the end of his second epistle: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (3:16). Now there’s a Spirit inspired understatement. And let’s not stop with Paul. Peter’s no lightweight himself. Neither is John. Come to think of it, Judges doesn’t make a lot of sense in places. And Ezekiel? Weird.
The Bible’s an old book, full of strange allusions, foreign lands, and no pictures. What’s an English speaking, seldom reading, American Christian to do?
We could leave it to the experts, but do we really want to throw out the priesthood of all believers? If experts are all we need, let’s send our Bibles to China (a lot of them know English anyway) and leave the Bible untranslated in Greek and Hebrew so mono-lingual Americans don’t mess things up.
And who are the experts? Pastors? Professors? That won’t get us far. The experts can’t agree on date of the Exodus, let alone the virgin birth or the resurrection. No, experts won’t do the trick. There’s no chapter or doctrine in the Bible that smart people don’t disagree on. If we give up every time Ph.D.’s don’t agree, we’ll be left with a limp Bible.
Perhaps, it’s all opinion then. My understanding versus yours. Nothing but interpretations. Careful, though, there is a meaning in the text. The existence of rival interpretations does not preclude one of them being right, or at least righter than another. As soon as we make disagreements nothing more than one interpretation against another, we might as well give up on exegesis altogether and any notion of truth. The New Testament writers, not to mention Jesus himself, sure acted like ancient texts have meaning. So we should too.
But what if we are dealing with non-salvation issues? Granted, some hard texts are not justification issues, but every one is a salvation issue, at least in the broad sense of salvation. We may not be declared guilty by an incorrect understanding of election, but doesn’t working out our salvation with fear and trembling have something to do with knowing the Bible better? Are we such minimalists that we only care about the things that could send us to hell?
Maybe paradox is the answer, or tension, or whatever we call the things in the Bible that seem hopelessly contradictory. It’s tricky business falling back on “mystery.” There’s a difference between saying the doctrine of the Trinity has no human analogy, and saying your cow is a cat and calling that a mystery. Humility in the face of profundity is one thing; irrationality is another. When logic disappears, so does thinking itself, not to mention apologetics and any chance to give a reasonable answer for the hope that we have.
But who are we to put God in a box and describe him with our human words? Sounds like a good point, until you consider that using human words was God’s idea. It seems pious to refrain from speaking on behalf of God when disputes over Scripture arise, but if God’s meaning is so often undecipherable, it begs the question: why did God reveal himself so poorly that we can’t understand anything about him?
What to do when the Bible baffles?
To begin with, we recall the sovereignty of God. God wrote the Bible and he inspired the hard texts. He breathed out his revelation through Paul. And he willed it so that some things in Paul’s letters would be hard to understand. Hard texts are still God’s texts. They must be hard for a reason.
What to do next? We embrace our finitude. We admit we are not terribly smart, nor all that clever, and so we pray. As the Irish theologian McHammer said, “You’ve got to pray just to make it today.”
And as we pray we work. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Col. 3:23). So we pour over words and sentences. We read commentaries. We talk to other Christians. We interpret Scripture by Scripture. We ask God for breakthroughs. He wants to teach us. Remember, Paul wrote to slaves and the uneducated, those without wisdom, influence, or nobility (1 Cor. 1:26). They could learn and so can we.
Don’t give up on hard texts or hard doctrines. Don’t settle for platitudes or for bewailing “I’m not theologian.” We must not give up on understanding the Bible without a fight. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than any other slackers.” We are all tempted to shy away from life’s difficulties, be they hard people or hard texts. But consider the wisdom of Proverbs: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (14:4). In other words, oxen make messes, but they also help with the harvest. If you never think through difficult Bible passages, your life may be simpler, but it won’t be stronger.
God gave us brains so we could be obedient with them. And he has spoken to us in the Bible so he might be more easily known, even when some things are hard to understand.