Does one need to be a Christian in order to understand the Bible? Do you need seminary training, and an advanced education to make sense out of God’s book? Or, conversely, is the Bible so clear that “even a caveman” can read and grasp it?
Some, motivated by a clear sense of the Bible’s “for everyone-ness” downplay or deny the importance of formal academic study of the Bible. Others, motivated by a clear sense of the Bible’s complexity, present Scripture as something better off left to the scholars, the new priesthood of the academy. Now, in truth, most Christians are probably willing to see some truth in both positions, yet also recognize the there are dangers in either extreme.
This is how I would, and intend, to argue.
In response to these questions, we should shy away from quick yes or no answers. A straight-forward yes or no, with no additional nuance or clarification, will distort the richness of the Bible’s teaching on this issue.
Bible Translations and Theological Language
One discussion closely tied to the issues above is that of Bible translation. Just how literal and formal should translations be? A commonly cited reason people prefer dynamic equivalent translations (like the NIV, the NLT, and others) is because some biblical words are weird, or unusual for the modern reader. Words like ‘justification,’ ‘expiation,’ and ‘propitiation’ aren’t words most people use in their everyday conversations. And for that reason some think that phrases like “sacrifice of atonement” (propitiation), made right with God (justification) and others are better inserted in contemporary Bible translations.
Generally speaking, I don’t think this is a good idea and here’s why: Biblical understanding flourishes in the soil of discipleship. Sometimes I fear people want a Bible translation to do the work of discipleship. I’ve become increasingly convinced that it is good and healthy and right for Christians both to speak the language of their native culture as well as to have a uniquely Christian dialect. Words like ‘atonement’ and ‘justification’ are ways in which God has chosen to reveal to us precious truths. These terms are the vehicles for personal transformation. Postmoderns are correct in this right; language shapes a people. Very rarely have I met one with a thick theological and biblical accent who also despises theology. Without both a knowledge and love of “theological” language I simply do not know how to grasp a passage like this from Romans 3:21-26:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)
The same passage as it appears in The Message just doesn’t seem to me to have the same punch:
But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public – to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now – this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.
To my mind, The Message has done the thinking for the Christ-disciple. As the Westminster Confession (I.VII) puts it:
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.
What are the “due use of ordinary means”? These means are the ordinary ways we would determine the meaning of any written document. This includes studying the words of the document itself, its intended audience, grammar, syntax, word studies, and backgrounds (cultural, theological literary, political, etc.). It means picking up a commentary written by those who have done that level of research for us. Both believer and unbeliever.
Part of Christian discipleship is doing the work of wrestling with God’s word. So is an advanced education in theological and biblical studies necessary to understand Scripture? No, though it certainly can help! God have often used long, sustained periods of reflection under the guidance and direction of godly teachers to help so many in grasping the rich unity-in-diversity of the Bible. Such study helps us to understand how doctrines were historically formulated, how the Spirit has lead his Church, and often to apply God’s word to our modern challenges.
The Role of the Church
The chief environment for this study is not the library, apart from the fellowship of other like-minded Christians. That is a helpful means of getting in the content, but not the final context for Christian discipleship. We learn truths and facts in books. But we experience their life transforming power in the laboratory of lived experience.
The truths we wrestle with in our study come to life (or, rather, bring us to life) when we “instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14), are“devoted to one another” (Rom. 12:10), honor one another (Rom. 12:10), accept one another (Rom.15:7), “Have equal concern for each other” (I Corinthians 12:25), “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), are patient with one another (Eph. 4:2), “bear with each other…” (Col. 3:13), “encourage one another” (I Thess. 4:18, 5:11), and love another another (1 Jn. 3:11; 3:23; 4:7, 11, 12).
Ultimately, the church, in its worship and work is the place for Christian discipleship. It is the fellowship of God’s gathered people, and the context in which we learn to observe all that Jesus commanded us.