Douglas Estes – “Why Is the Bible Hard to Understand?”

ZA Blog on September 30th, 2009. Tagged under ,,,,,,,.

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I am convinced the Bible is at times just plain hard to understand. When I was younger, I thought that most people who had a hard time understanding the Bible didn’t read it; I figured they just didn’t make time for it. When I encouraged people to read the Bible, often they came back to me saying they had a hard time understanding it, and I remember at times dismissing this as their unwillingness to ‘open their eyes and ears’. But is it really that simple?

As I got older, I met and even lived with people who were not Christians, who were strong advocates of other religions, and who read the Bible, yet they didn’t seem to understand it at all. I got ‘witnessed’ to by many people from pseudo-Christian sects who would quote the Bible but from my vantage point also didn’t understand it at all. (At least not the way it has been classically understood by the church for two millennia).

Even more problematic, I pastor a church in a particularly biblically-illiterate area of the US, the San Francisco Bay area. Over and over again, I meet people in my daily travels who seem interested in spiritual growth but to them the Bible can be very confusing and hard to understand. Even when I recommend they try a modern version, frequently they come back to me as if I asked them to read something extraterrestrial.

Why is the Bible hard to understand? Why did God in his infinite wisdom allow the writers of the Bible to write books that would prove to be hard to understand? (So that people like me—Bible scholars and translators—could be gainfully employed?) Couldn’t God have found a better way?

Augustine said that the Gospel of John was shallow enough to wade in but deep enough to drown in. We could say the same thing for the whole Bible. In many places it is deep enough for people to drown in. We all know someone who has tried, unsuccessfully, to get a handle on the Bible. We could argue that all those people from pseudo-Christian cults who study the Bible regularly are drowning in it, with no hope of survival.

But if God loved the world (as we know he did), couldn’t God have figured out a way to make the Bible more simple?

I don’t have the answer to this question, and perhaps there isn’t an answer. So let’s turn this blog post into a free-for-all and see what happens.

Before we do, let’s chase three rabbits that will surely try to come out of their holes during the discussion:

Giving tree

First

, I expect some will write in about how the hard-to-understand Bible encourages people to dig deeper. This may be true but it doesn’t answer why the Bible is hard to understand—the Bible could have been easy to understand but still allow us to dig deeper in our faith. For example, my wife really likes the The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, a book that is both simple but deep. I’m not comparing Silverstein to the Bible; I am just pointing out that there are books that are both simple to understand but with deep content. In comparison, the Bible is difficult and deep. Why did God add the difficult part?

Second, I suspect others will cite Jesus’ statements about the difficulty of understanding his parables (such asMatthew 13:14–16). Even if we extrapolate this idea to say that the Bible was written for those who can ‘see and hear,’ can we say that people who struggle to understand the Bible just don’t have the ‘right’ eyes and ears? Remember, both people of faith and seekers can struggle with understanding the Bible. Even more, we must remember Matthew 13:11 where Jesus responds to the disciples’ question about his use of parable-speak with, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them." If we in the same way extrapolate this to the whole Bible, we get a rather cold view of God. Do we really want to say that God intentionally hides the truth from people (not counting the Tower of Babel)? (We could argue it is the Enemy that obfuscates our understanding, as in 2 Corinthians 4:4–6). Since God could have created an easy Bible, and the Enemy still could have blinded the minds of unbelievers, all this together doesn’t actually address the question: Why is the Bible hard to understand?

Third, I know some will point out the role of interpretation. They will argue that the shift in culture, language, and time is what makes the Bible hard to understand. Of course, we can all agree the need to interpret adds to the difficulty but this line of reasoning doesn’t appear to address my favorite verse in the Bible: 2 Peter 3:16. (Yes, this is the real 3:16 verse!) For those of you who haven’t committed it to memory or painted it on placards for football games: "[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (NIV) (emphasis mine). Here even Peter—who by the way we can all agree is not blinded to the truth and has dug deeper into the Bible—admits that at the least Paul’s letters (and potentially the other scriptures) are hard to understand, and that this hardness is used by evil people to lead other people away from the truth.

This gets us back to our central question … why did God allow the Bible to be hard to understand that at times even a disciple and apostle of Jesus felt that way? So why is the Bible hard to understand?

SimChurch

Douglas Estes is Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San José and Lead Pastor at Berryessa Valley Church, San José, California. He received his PhD in Theology from the University of Nottingham, UK. His publications include SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World and The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel: A Theory of Hermeneutical Relativity in the Gospel of John (Brill, 2008).

  • Eric 8 years ago

    My 2 cents:

    I see it as a test of faith. Will the reader trust God enough to wait for Him to reveal more of Himself in His word?

    James states that faith without works is dead. Is not waiting on God a form of “works” in faith?

  • CF 8 years ago

    John Frame has an illuminating answer to a similar question in his “Review of Andrew McGowan’s The Divine Spiration of Scripture”:

    “[T]his question is a specific part of a larger question, namely, why didn’t God choose to give each individual an exhaustive, immediate, and perfect understanding of his revelation? Certainly he could have done this, overcoming the limitations of our finitude and sin. And we may understand, if not condone, the complaint that the lack of such revelation makes the Christian life more difficult. Had God given us immediate revelation of this type, we would not need to teach one another or to make long journeys to foreign countries to preach the gospel. The whole apparatus of biblical and theological scholarship need never have been created. But somehow, for his own reasons, God determined that hearing, understanding, and growing in his word would not be that easy. He determined that we would have to do some hard thinking at times, that some scholarship would be helpful.

    “Perhaps a large part of God’s rationale was that he intended our growth in knowledge to be a communal affair, not merely individual: fathers and mothers would teach their children; pastors would teach their congregations; scholars would teach the pastors. Our knowledge of God would be a public enterprise, not merely private.

    “To put this in biblical terms, this is to say that our knowledge of God is covenantal. It is the knowledge of a family, a nation, set apart to God. This covenant community is governed by written texts, as the US is governed by a written constitution. But ascertaining the meaning of those texts is a communal venture.”

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @ Eric – Good point.

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @ Keith – I hear what you’re saying, but … the more I read and study, the more I realize that the cultural and linguistic issues add to the difficulty but are not the source of the difficulty. I cited Peter because he, like some of the early church fathers, understood the culture/linguistic issue but still found it difficult. Tatian even ‘rewrote’ it [the gospels] to arguably make it easier to understand, and this was a mere 50 (minimalist view) to 100 (traditional view) years after their creation.

    That having been said, I certainly do agree that we Westerners want to use it as a data-mining platform rather than sandpaper-for-life-change.

  • Douglas Estes 8 years ago

    @ CF – Interesting idea. Definitely, there is much truth there. The difficulty of the Bible does make us all need to work together. I do think that the whole point of us working together is part of the sanctifying process. Maybe we could go far as to say studying Scripture is only part of the sanctification available through the Bible; the other part is not just the doing it but also the working together to understand it, too.

  • JJ 8 years ago

    I think it is because language itself is hard to understand. That may be because of Babel, but perhaps just the result of our imperfections.

    I work in a medium where written communication is vital. And yet, it is nigh near impossible to construct well written messages that are free from misinterpretation. Communication is difficult.

    I am married. (Pray for me!) And yet, even though we love each other dearly, we constantly misunderstand one another. Our communication is misunderstood, even the tenor of our message missed, and this nearly always causes troubles of one kind or another.

    Communication is difficult as long as we are in terrestrial bodies. I think the difficulty of the word is the difficulty with communication. Yes, of course, linguistic, grammar, language, culture add to the mix…. but as one wisely pointed out, even the early church and Peter himself said that the Scriptures were hard to understand.

    There will be no cure, this side of heaven. Until such a time, we need those of you who are gifted teachers, linguists, grammarians, and the like to help shed light.

    Someone can probably take this further who has studied the philosophy of language or communicating.

    :)
    JJ

  • JJ 8 years ago

    BTW, I also think that the reason for the difficulty in communication has a communal plan behind it (if I can call it a plan), as CF wisely points out. In the church era, clearly we need one another. And we benefit one another as we work to serve each other. Good post, CF!
    JJ

  • Irving Salzman 8 years ago

    Great discussion question, to be sure! I certainly don’t claim to have the answer to this query, but I am reminded of the scripture, “The natural man does not comprehend the the things of the Spirit (God).” We are darkened in our understanding, as Romans 1 so aptly puts it. It is no doubt a great struggle to understand God’s word. But as His Spirit imparts illumination and enlightenment, we slowly come to comprehend more of it.

  • Lisa Meng 8 years ago

    This may sound like digging a tunnel; nevertheless, it seems that the question “why is the Bible difficult to understand” can be likened to the question: “Why is Christian love difficult to live out?”[by the standard of 1 Cor. 13]. Just as love includes long-suffering, patience, kindness, humility, perseverance and so forth, reading the Bible requires the commitments of love. God could’ve made Deut. 6:5 easy to obey, but where’s the love in that?

  • Jim W. 7 years ago

    It could be as simple as Proverbs 25:2 “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”

  • Emily Gathergood 7 years ago

    Douglas,

    Are you sure we should assume that ‘God could have created an easy Bible’? As word of God AND word of man, doesn’t Scripture inevitably communicate truth within the normal bounds and limitations of human communication? I’m not attributing this to any ‘shift’ in language/culture/time (objection #3), but to the very fact of language/culture/time. God ‘allowing’ parts of the Bible to be hard to understand is not some deliberate ploy to confuse us, but just a consequence of the way language works.

    I think we do well to remember the distinction between the biblical text and divine Revelation: God graciously condescends to speak, by his Spirit, through these human words – yes, even through poor exegesis.

    As Karl Barth reminds us, ‘Holy Scripture is not the revelation. And yet … is the revelation’.

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    @ Emily – On the surface, I don’t disagree with you. God’s revelation must by any definition be ‘rough’ to be translated into our world. And yet … we expect God to smooth out some rough edges. We see this not just in a general way through grace and loving-kindness, but in specific examples such as his divine calling into lives (lots of examples in the Bible, not to mention people we know). Clearly there is much truth to the human situation muddying everything up.

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    @ JJ – Yes, communication is by default messy. We write with physical hands and speak with physical tongues. Could we say that — think of the whole argument from Sunday School where we ask whether God could create a rock that he couldn’t lift — God could not create a perfectly-simple bible due to the imperfect limitations of our fallen world? If we can start at that point, then communication is a big culprit in this. Some may suggest to me that a ‘perfectly-simple bible’ is some kind of platonic ideal without meaning, but it is tempting to draw a line of argumentation from that point, to see where it leads (ultimately, to the interference of sin in God’s plan).

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    @ Lisa – True, true. Yes, you are digging a tunnel under the argument (as it doesn’t answer the why), but our commitment does bring greater glory to God. I do believe God credits us for obedience, even if we are obedient without full understanding (think Abraham).

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    @ Jim – That’s a very interesting proverb indeed. I did a little research (Proverbs not being my area of expertise), and it seems that the gist of it is that a king (or perhaps anyone) gets glory for the search (for truth) while God gets glory for the concealment (of truth). The contrast here to me is the ‘hide’ and then ‘seek’ verbs. God hides, kings seek. If so, the emphasis is surely on the seeker, glorified (by God) by willingness/obedience to seek out God.

    My Bible also sent me to Deut 29:29 which basically says we are not responsible for the mysteries of God we cannot understand, but we are responsible for the ones we can.

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    @ Irving – Your post/verse gave me an idea …

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    So I have one. What if one reason why the Bible is hard to understand is so that we take hold of/rely on the Holy Spirit to communicate God’s truth more clearly and more freshly into our lives? Maybe if the Bible were simple (and deep), then we would be more prone to use our own intellect in place of the Spirit (since we wouldn’t really need the Spirit because it was simple enough for our intellect to grasp). But because the Bible is hard to understand, it forces us to include the Spirit in our work to understand God. Thus, Father, Son, and Spirit are glorified daily in our lives.

  • Emily Gathergood 7 years ago

    I like the sentiment of the last idea but i’m not sure it really leads anywhere fruitful, because using our intellect in striving to make sense of the difficult texts and depending on the Spirit are not mutually exclusive options (that’s blatant anti-intellectualism).

    Could our answer to the question, ‘Why is doing the truth so hard?’ help here?

  • Irving Salzman 7 years ago

    Great suggestion. Wow, this has been such a great thread as can easily be demonstrated by all of the great posts it has generated. Thanks so much for this, Doug! I look forward to your future installments. (I really hope you will continue to be posting here!)

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    @ Emily – I agree, they are not mutually exclusive. But the danger in modern Western society is probably not anti-intellectualism, it’s probably anti-Spirit (anti-pneumatism) if anything. (At least for most people reading Koinonia blog!) I can say for myself that when I err in studying the Bible, it is erring on too little Spirit and too much reliance on my own intellect. Though this is probably a paradox of the faith.

    Yes, some of this certainly boils down to ‘doing the truth’. I am reminded of course of the classic Naaman story … even if the Bible were incredibly simple, it may not have been any impetus for us to live and do truth.

  • Douglas Estes 7 years ago

    @ Irving – Thanks! Andrew (the Koinonia Overlord) and I have agreed to a give-or-take monthly posting by me, and I’m definitely going to make sure I post at least that often. Blessings ~