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Why Difficulties in the Bible Are a Good Thing

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Jen Hatmaker recently launched a kerfuffle in the evangelical blogosphere (meteorologists have started to assign these kerfuffles their own names, like hurricanes) by reconsidering her stance on a hotly contested biblical doctrine. I won’t get into that particular issue here (though I do not think it is trivial). It’s part of her reasoning for changing her position that interests me in this post:

Thousands of churches and millions of Christ-followers faithfully read the Scriptures and with thoughtful and academic work come to different conclusions…. Godly, respectable leaders have exegeted the Bible and there is absolutely not unanimity on its interpretation. There never has been.

Empirically, she’s got a point. Lots of them, actually. Logos sells the Counterpoints series, after all. Christians of all sorts disagree about all sorts of Bible statements. Combine this fact with our culture’s viewpoint that what one sees has everything to do with where one is standing—and what do you get?

The Bible becomes a wax nose, interpretation a human power play, “orthodoxy” the name for the opinions of the winners, truth a human invention rather than a personal property of the one true God. In the oft-quoted words of Yeats, Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Could this possibly be God’s intent behind giving us the Bible? No.

I’m writing a brief series of posts on the clarity of Scripture. Last week I clarified what this historic Reformation doctrine actually claims—namely that the Bible is clear about salvation and profitable for reading by people who are not clergy—profitable for teaching, for correction, for instruction, and for training in righteousness. Major moral questions are clearly answered, otherwise the Bible would not be providing this training it claims to.

Nonetheless, grasping a clear message is not always easy. God is allowed to have purposes for his Word that you wouldn’t have thought of, and some of them he accomplishes by giving us texts that require real effort to understand.

Let me just list off briefly some of the benefits of Bible difficulties:

God calls us to prayer through Bible difficulties.

Many years ago I faced a major life decision. As I prayed and thought and studied, I realized that my decision hinged on the interpretation of one difficult passage. I beat on that text, like Luther beat on Romans. I was desperate to understand it. I called out to God repeatedly. And though it took a while, I believe God gave me the wisdom I prayed for. Clarity was hard-won in that case.

If you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:3–5)

Sometimes I make it easy for my children to win a game I’ve invented for them. Sometimes I insist that they stretch themselves by enduring the difficulty of finding a well-hidden Daddy. I may hear them from my hideout grousing, “This is too hard!” But when they find me, their joy is all the greater.

Call out for insight. It’s there, but it’s not always on the surface.

God attacks our pride through Bible difficulties

I was once a budding young seminarian preparing a sermon on Genesis 4 and the story of Cain and Abel. I specifically recall thinking to myself, “I nailed this. I know just what this passage is saying, and I’m going to say it to my hearers.”

Years of maturity and years of school later, I realized that I wasn’t wrong, per se, but that I had missed major things going on in Genesis 4. I was humbled. And that was good for me. The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is never an excuse to get puffed up with pride over your superior understanding of the Bible. There will always be more clarity to discover in a divine book.

As Chesterton said,

Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason . . . The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether. (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 55)

God trains our brains through Bible difficulties.

I’m about to afflict you with a difficult paragraph from a lecture at Oxford 152 years ago, but you’re going to read it anyway because it is absolute gold. The meaning will be clear, as it often is with the Bible, if you work at it.

The writer [of NT epistles] does not announce a succession of revelations, or arrest the inquiries which he encounters in men’s hearts by the unanswerable formula, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ He arouses, he animates, he goes along with the working of men’s minds, by showing them the working of his own. He utters his own convictions, he pours forth his own experience, he appeals to others to ‘judge what he says,’ and commends his words ‘to their conscience in the sight of God.’

He confutes by argument rather than by authority, deduces his conclusions by processes of reasoning and establishes his points by interpretations and applications of the former Scriptures. . . . Why all this labor in proving what might have been decided by a simple announcement from one entrusted with the Word of God? Would not this apostolic declaration that such a statement was error, and that another was truth, have sufficed for the settlement of that particular question?

Doubtless! But it would not have sufficed to train men’s minds to that thoughtfulness whereby truth becomes their own, or to educate them to the living use of the Scriptures as the constituted guide of inquiry. (T. D. Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament, 157–158 [paragraphs added for, well, clarity])

When you give a command to little kids, like, “Come here,” they frequently ask “Why?” And sometimes the answer is so complicated—involving the schedules of multiple family members, the timer on the oven, and the closing time of Rite-Aid—that they simply have to be told, “Come here because I’m the dad and you’re the kid.”

But a sixteen-year-old has some right to know, because my goal in parenting a sixteen-year-old is not merely to get him to do the right thing, but to think and love the right things (that’s my goal with the three-year-old, too, but I serve it differently because of his capacities). I train my teen by exposing the reasoning and the motivations behind my actions. I shape him to think the way I do. At least I hope I will when I get to that stage. In this, I hope that my fathering will be somewhat like God’s. The Mosaic law sometimes treated the Israelites as schoolchildren (Gal 3:24), telling them what to do and what not to do without a lot of explanation. The New Testament epistles, in particular, work in a different mode than any portion of the Old Testament; they shape our thinking rather than merely stock it.

John Piper has a great little book called Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, and it makes the point that where true Christianity goes, literacy and education follow (173). Why? Because the Bible both demands and produces rigorous thinking, something it wouldn’t do if Bible interpretation presented no friction, no challenges for the human mind.

Conclusion

The classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not care to deny the difficulties in the Bible, any more than the apostle Peter did when he talked about the things “hard to understand” in Paul’s scriptural writings. But God has loving purposes behind even those difficulties.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

 

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Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is the editor of Bible Study Magazine and author of its back-page column, Word Nerd: Language and the Bible. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. He is also the host of the Bible Study Magazine Podcast and an active YouTuber.

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Written by Mark Ward