The Bible is too hard to understand…

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.

About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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7 Responses to The Bible is too hard to understand…

  1. violetwisp says:

    “If it were easy to understand, then why can’t our leaders agree about what it says?”
    This is a puzzling post for someone not of your faith to read. Surely a deity could make a book that transcends human confusion. If not, surely a deity would be able to sufficiently move your leaders (its representatives in its invisible absence) to a ‘correct’ interpretation. But, above all, surely you can recognise that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation or you would still be stoning your adulterers, owning slaves or have given up all your worldly possessions to follow your faith. It’s one thing to believe in a god, but another to take these ‘holy’ books so seriously in the face of their shocking historical use.

  2. larnewman says:

    If by reading the Bible “in community” you mean that we should only believe what our surrounding Christian culture believes (as if it believes uniformly), where would there even have been a Luther? Only a “magisterium” and “implicit faith in what the church teaches.” But if you mean reading the Bible among and with community (others) and open to valid correction from community (others) — as well as on our own in the sight of God — then Amen. It was “community” that took away “the key of knowledge” (Lk 11:52) and “community” that “shut off the kingdom of heaven from people” (Mt 23:13). The individual must listen and judge what is said (1 Cor 14:29).

  3. Bruce says:

    If we are reading this blog, we could be coming from the perspective of one who is outside the community of believers, inside the community of believers, one seeking God, or as one skeptical of His existence altogether. In the Bible, God clearly reveals how He transitions the communication of His eternal love between His People (Israel), the Church and the world. The “community” of believers is the Church and cannot simply be those in secular “community”. The Bible clearly shows how understanding scripture is a process; through those appointed with certain gifts (Preaching and Teaching, (Pastors, Elders, etc.); through the gathering of believers to “work out (their) salvation” (Phil. 2:12) by study and prayer; and through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:25). A critical transition from “the Law” to faith took place when Christ confronted and corrected the “community” of religious leaders (Matt 23). God has always made it clear that He is in charge and that if we are to live in peace it must be though submission to Him and His ways (John 14:27, 14:6). Although this is difficult, even within the Church, it is the way God designed to show His miraculous power of transformation from death to life

  4. Curtis Klope says:

    Great post.

    i really appreciated Scot McKnight’s perspective on the Stanley/Burk thing…

    “To be sure, we know Jesus because of the Word but we have the Word because God spoke the Word and the Word God speaks has a name, Jesus. So first the Word, the Living Word, and then the Word, the Written Word. And it is really a silly game to think we need to argue about which one is most important: both.”

  5. alnjulie2009 says:

    Excellent article Tim! Great reminder to myself that I needd tpoo take my Bible reading seriously! See my problem is that I’ve read a majority of the Bible. So when I read parts of it over again, my thankfully fully intact long term memory tells me that I already know this stuiff and then I forget to read critically to glean even more knowledge from it! Maybe that’s why I should read commentaries and such… To get another perspective on things…. I dunno! Again, Thanks for your excellent essay! Something to ponder for the night!

  6. Josh F. says:

    Thank you, Tim!

  7. Pingback: The Bible is Hard! | Insomniac memos

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