These seven simple words begin of one of the most helpful sentences a Christ-follower could ever utter:
The Bible is too hard to understand.
I say this not to discourage people from reading the Bible, but rather to encourage them to read it in a way that is most beneficial, even most Christian. I say this to challenge us to take the Bible seriously. I say this to discourage people from taking a casual, almost indifferent approach to the Bible, one that says, “I don’t need any help to read the Bible.”
If it were easy to understand, then why can’t our leaders agree about what it says? Just last week Andy Stanley, one of the most famous pastors in the US (and perhaps the world) was called out by Denny Burk, a prominent author and professor. Burk critiqued Stanley’s method of reading the Bible (his hermeneutic), referring to it as a “poison pill.” One of my initial thoughts after seeing Stanley’s comments and reading Burk’s article was:
Two professional Bible readers (they literally get paid to read the Bible and tell people what it says) fighting over how to read Genesis and the Gospels is evidence of just how difficult this is.
I suspect that some will disagree, and that they will use Martin Luther as their champion. They’ll point out that he was the one who unchained the Bible from the pulpit, liberated it from the Latin, and translated it into common German for the common peasant. It was Martin Luther who defied excommunication and spoke sola scriptura into existence, declaring, “I cannot choose but adhere to the word of God, which has possession of my conscience… Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God! Amen.”
But we seem to forget that Luther gave the Bible to the people, but he never dreamed that they’d read it on their own. That’s why he wrote (among other things) two catechisms, the Large Catechism and the Small Catechism. They were to be used in church and in homes to teach Christians how to understand the Bible. Or take Calvin, the other giant among Reformers, wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote, his Institutes, which systematically explains the Bible.
The word of God has always been intended to be read within the people of God.
The ancient Jews wrote the Talmud (Mishnah and the Gemara combined) to help explain how the Torah governed all of life. Jesus spent much of his life explaining how to read the scriptures. The Ethiopian eunuch said it best, “How can I understand what I am reading unless someone explains it to me?” Apollos was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the scriptures, and yet he needed Priscilla and Aquila to help him understand all of it.
This is why “it is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.” I’ll say it another way: God didn’t use a book to form a community; He used a community to form a book.
The Bible is too hard to understand… by myself. The Bible was always meant to be understood… by the community.
Yes, sola scriptura (by scripture alone) means that the Bible alone contains enough knowledge for salvation and holiness–not that we should read the Bible alone! And yes, the Holy Spirit will teach us all things, but he tends to explain the Bible the same way He gave it to us: through the people of God.
Reading the Bible through the lens of community rather than the lens of individualism is the first step toward freedom from ignorance. It’s foundational to our desire to know the truth, and have the truth set us free.
May we be free enough to depend on others.