Over the last few years, as I have written about Bible interpretation on the Internet, I have focused on the historical-cultural approach: that we can’t understand what the Bible means to us, until we understand what it meant to the original audience, as the message was intended by the original writer. And I frequently get this question, in one form or another:
But shouldn’t the Bible be accessible to everyone? Shouldn’t everyone be able to read the “plain sense” of the words and get God’s message from them? How can the Bible, if it’s God’s word, be the sort of book that you need help to understand?
As part of my first few posts, giving the background and foundational understandings under which I operate, I’d like to offer this:
Part of the Protestant viewpoint is that the layperson can and should read the Bible for herself-- but that is not really the same as saying teachers aren't necessary. The original Protestant doctrine is called “the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture.” “Perspicuity” is an old word meaning “able to be perceived and understood.”
Here’s the doctrine as conceived by the early Protestant reformers:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
The original doctrine states that the Bible is clear enough regarding matters of eternal salvation, that anyone can, by reading diligently, understand how to be saved. However, this understanding of perspicuity has changed in the last hundred years or so, such that nowadays people think there’s something wrong with the idea that we might need scholarly research to help us understand the Bible. This is particularly true in the individualistic cultures of the Western world. But Jesus and Paul and Peter taught from an understanding of individual and community in balance-- individual faith lived out within the church community. I don’t think any of the New Testament authors would have agreed with, or even understood, a mentality that any individual should be able to read and understand everything in the Bible alone, through the eyes of only his or her own experience and knowledge. The New Testament talks a lot about sitting under teachers to gain from their education and scholarship.
In any event, the idea that the Bible is supposed to be so timeless that anyone in any age or culture can read what seems to them like the plain sense of it, without misunderstanding and without needing any teaching or explanation, goes against even what the Bible says about itself. Just about every book in the Bible emphasizes right at the beginning, that it is a message by a certain person, to a certain group of people, at a certain time in history. For instance: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ. . . To all who are in Rome.” Romans 1:1-7. Or “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah. . . And in the days of Jeroboam, the son of Joash, king of Israel.” Hosea 1:1. I believe those "street signs" are there for a reason-- to tell us that the message was never meant to be understood a-historically or a-culturally. And the further removed we are from the time of the actual writing, the more scholarship we need to help us understand.
Does it necessarily follow that for the Scriptures to be inspired by God, they cannot have been messages to certain people in certain times and places, or that we shouldn't need scholarship and research, shared through community, to understand their full sense? Or is it perhaps that God values human experience through all of history, and doesn't want each age to feel no need of the wisdom that came before it?
Traditional church interpretations, based on the writings of early church scholars, do help-- but after the fall of Jerusalem, when the church lost contact with its Jewish roots, it increasingly interpreted the Scriptures through Greco-Roman viewpoints. These tended at times to obscure more than they illuminated. But today’s resources for understanding of the original history and cultures of the Scriptures are shedding more light than ever on authorial intent. We need to make use of the resources given us today, just as the man in Jesus’ parable of the ten talents (Matt. 25:14-30) expected his servants to make use of the resources he gave them.
If you believe the Scriptures are inspired, then it makes the most sense to say that it is each original message, as understood by the original audience, that is inspired-- not what it may seem to be to us, thousands of years and half the globe away. Salvation is one matter: it has to do with the relationship of humans to the eternal God, and is therefore timeless and understandable in any age. But much of the Bible has to do with the way humans relate to one another, and this is inextricably bound up with human history and culture.
It’s important to find out what the original, inspired message was. Otherwise we risk turning the cultures of the Bible into sacred cultures-- and dragging Christians unnecessarily and unfairly, back to the first century in the way they must relate to one another.