…has become a favorite go-to introductory phrase for many who are not initiated into the complexities of intense, in-depth study of Scripture. And they could be right. There are more than 450 English translations of the Bible, and none of them are identical. Search long enough and one probably can find a version that says what one wants it to say.
American Christian lay persons, especially in some more conservative groups, have been led to believe that Bible study is simple: just draw your chairs in a circle and each one read a verse and say what it means to me. And a growing attitude in conservative Christianity—parallel with an increasingly prevalent attitude among American conservatives in general—is that education is a detriment to faith. Theological seminaries, says the attitude, are “theological cemeteries.”
Biochemist and “Sci-Fi” author, Isaac Asimov, wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
In a recent interview, FOX host, Tucker Carlson, said college education “diminishes us,” and “everyone should opt out.” He indicated the only real value in college education is “discrete knowledge” applicable to specific professions and careers. Medicine and engineering are two that he mentioned.
Always a dangerous idea, disregard for knowledge is never more dangerous than when applied to the study of ancient Holy Writ. Such a warped genre of faith expression is a spin-off: Calvinism gone amok. Faith is replaced with knowledge (Oral Roberts used to say, “I know that I know that I know…”), and questions are no allowed. Trust is replaced with certitude, and “being right” is the goal of all spiritual endeavors (because, while grace is preached, the actuality of that strain of Christianity is a “works righteousness” that says our relationship with God and our eternal destinies are determined by the correctness of our doctrine. ). And intelligence and integrity are measured largely by whether one “agrees with me.”
But here’s the thing: there are multiple doctrines claiming to be “right,” although virtually none of them are identical. Somebody has to be wrong! (Which is precisely why we need grace!)
What we must realize at the very beginning is that when we open any version of the Bible, we are reading a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy… ad infinitum.
Did somebody just play the “divinely inspired” card? With more than 450 English versions, and thousands of older (even ancient) manuscripts, scrolls, and fragments of various parts of the Bible written in multiple languages and dialects over several hundred years, none of which are identical, which is the divinely inspired one? And just because it’s “easy to read” doesn’t mean it’s true to the divinely inspired original documents, none of which exist today.
I don’t introduce all these issues and challenges just to stir the pot or to raise doubts. There is a valid, dependable way to arrive at a trustworthy understanding of Scripture that sustains the intent of the One who inspired it. But note: the understanding will be “trustworthy,” not certain. “The Word” is true—absolutely. But, limited as we are by the clay of which we humans are made, we do not possess the ability to know anything absolutely. At best—AT BEST—we will read and understand by faith, the opposite of which is not doubt, but knowledge.
I am not a medical professional. I don’t understand the mechanics of genetics or infectious diseases or immunology; therefore, I have to trust those who have devoted their lives to the healing arts. Of course, there are a few proverbial bad apples in every barrel, and while some medical professionals are seduced by the siren music of questionable applications and practices, and while others succumb to the temptations of profiteering, and while non-medical sources may politicize certain aspects of health care (e.g., immunizations), the overall consensus of reputable professionals almost always is the best path to follow.
I seriously doubt that any of those who comprise the overall consensus have dedicated their lives to the study and practice of healing just so they can mislead the public. I trust the consensus of mainstream medical science, and I accept its recommendations by faith.
The same holds true in any profession. I have a friend who is a petroleum engineer. He tells the oil companies where to drill. He studies multiple factors, such as the history of an area and its geological structure. He uses seismic technology. He reads samples collected from trial drillings. Then based upon “the preponderance of the evidence” (his words), he says, “Drill here.” Evidence produces faith, not certitude. Some holes will be dry.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV) Speaking of God’s future time, Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12 NRSV, emphases mine)
Most people are not professional theologians or biblical scholars. I have some training in both fields, and am conversant with the terminology; however, I have not engaged in the depth of investigation necessary to find “the preponderance of the evidence” within Holy Writ. I am dependent upon the work of those who have been thus engaged. In that regard, the primary difference between the general public and me is that (1) I am trained to use the resources produced by a consensus of mainstream theologians and biblical scholars, and (2) (maybe more importantly) I trust them.
I know the levels of study and research in which those professionals engage. I know the intensity of their dedication, and I don’t believe they have devoted their lives to their profession just to mess with people’s faith or to make us all liberals or communists.
There are two basic approaches to the study of Scripture. The first is to dig out what the Scriptures are saying. This is a clean slate discipline that endeavors to set aside all previously held ideas. It examines the available ancient texts in their original languages, and places them in their original cultural, historical, and religious contexts. They consider the placement of particular passage within the context of the broader reading. The general question is, “What was God saying to a particular people in a particular historical and cultural setting?” The task then becomes one of applying the ancient truths in our language, in our historical and cultural setting.
That approach is called “exegesis:” reading meaning “out of” the text; letting the text speak for itself.
The second approach is to assume the Bible’s message applies as is, de facto and en toto, to our time and to our culture, and to use the Bible as a tool for confirming ideas, creeds, and practices already in place. This approach is called “eisegesis,” reading meaning “into” the text. It sometimes is called “proof texting.”
It likely is evident that I advocate the former. I say, trust the mainstream theologians and biblical scholars. There is consensus among them, and the resources they produce are plentiful and useful.
If I may exercise a bit of self-indulgence, I suspect the most common reason the laity has difficulty with Scripture is not that it is so difficult to understand (although it is not easy!), but that the laity is not sufficiently motivated to dig into the study resources that readily are available. Devotional and inspirational sources sell; but in-depth study resources gather dust on book store shelves. Many also are reluctant to participate in studies led by those with competence in those resources.
I’m not concerned with what “your Bible” or “my Bible” says. My concern is with what “The” Bible says. And within the community of faith are those with the skills and resources I trust to guide me to the Bible’s truth.
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,