Who Can Understand the Bible?

There are two basic myths about understanding the Bible, and most of the evangelical community believes one or the other.

The first is that only a select few can understand the Bible. This myth comes in various flavors, all of them with a seed of truth, and all of them deeply flawed nonetheless. Some insist that one must be a scholar, conversant with the culture, languages, and history of the Bible in order to understand it at all. Some even insist that one must be conversant with some particular set of theological categories in order to understand the Bible (the Roman Catholic Catechism, the Westminster Standards, somebody’s Basics series, whatever). Of course, this raises not only the question of which set of categories, but the much more important question of where the categories come from in the first place, that they are able to exercise hermeneutical authority over the Bible.

Other believers move in a less academic direction, preferring to focus on spiritual qualifications: one must be a Christian, or a Christian walking by the Spirit, or a mature Christian, in order to understand the Bible. Some — the real elitists — insist on all of the above.

Despite the great disagreements about the identity of the select few — or should I call them the elect few? — there’s a lot of tactical continuity in these types of arguments. When person A insists that only a select few understand the Bible, his version of the select few generally includes himself, or at least his sources, and does not include you, and yours. Convenient, that…

Biblically speaking, this first myth (in whatever form) forces the conclusion that Scripture is not profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness — at least not for most of the people, most of the time. (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 for a comment on this point.)

On the other side of the line is a second myth, the idea that really, the text means many different things to different people, and even many different things to the same person over time. At its root, this myth is based on the idea that the meaning of the text is my experience of the text. The author’s intent has nothing to do with it, nor do societal conventions about the meaning of words. This is simple selfishness, an “It’s all about me!” attitude applied to interpreting the Bible. Moreover, in biblical terms, it is the notion that Scripture is of a private interpretation — a position roundly condemned in Scripture itself (1 Peter 1:16-21).

The Bible itself not only opposes both these myths, it systematically sets up a totally different picture of language, meaning, and God’s communication to us. To read more, see Who Can Understand the Bible?

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