Does widespread human disagreement over Bible interpretation reveal some flaw or weakness in God or his word—or some flaw or weakness in us? Or neither, or both?
This is the third of three articles on the clarity of Scripture. I’ve clarified the doctrine to show what it’s actually claiming, I’ve shown some of the benefits of interpretive difficulties in the Bible, and now I want to go a bit beyond what Protestants have historically agreed on and give a pastoral response to the sometimes very emotional question: why do so many Christians disagree over the Bible?
This is a question about sanctification: how can I obey and trust the Lord in this situation? And like every other question about sanctification, the answer involves law and grace, divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
Reading is a moral activity
First, let’s talk law; let’s talk human responsibility—because reading is a moral activity. I like the way philosopher Matthew Crawford put it, in a comment I read just this morning: “We usually think of intellectual virtue and moral virtue as being very distinct things, but I think they are not” (95).
Jesus held people morally responsible for their hermeneutics, for their reading practices—particularly people who had reason to know what they were doing. And we know this because of the way he answered the Pharisees several times. He would say, “Have you not read . . . ?”
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?’ (Matthew 19:3–5 ESV)
Genesis 1 and 2, the passages Jesus cites, don’t mention divorce at all. But Jesus expected his hearers to draw the appropriate lessons about divorce from them. Jesus held God’s people responsible for not coming to the right conclusion, because he says at the end of the paragraph that whoever violates the implications of Genesis 1 and 2 “commits adultery” (Matt 19:9).
And notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Have you not reasoned?” but “Have you not read?”
Divorce and the clarity of Scripture
So let’s talk about divorce for a moment, precisely because Christians of apparently equal personal piety, theological learning, and exegetical skill have come to different conclusions about it (and because now that the U.S. presidential election is over, we need something else to raise everyone’s blood pressure). All interpreters have to deal with Jesus’ famous “exception clause” in Matthew 19: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Some interpreters take a broad interpretation which reads Jesus as permitting remarriage for the innocent party. Some interpreters take a better-safe-than-sorry approach in which remarriage is not permissible while one’s spouse still lives. (And I’m not taking a side right now.)
So much for the clarity of Scripture. What does the doctrine claim in this case?
It’s not necessarily that one set of interpreters is sinning—though that is a possibility that must not be discounted (2 Pet 3:16).
It’s not even that any Christian can know with 100% certainty in this life which interpretation or application of the Bible’s divorce passages is correct—even though sometimes we simply must make a decision which assumes that our interpretation of a passage is right. (You’re either going to perform a remarriage for a divorced man or you’re going to refuse. There’s no third way.)
No, the doctrine claims that the scriptural statements about divorce are sufficiently clear for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). You have access through the Bible to God’s will for you on the issue of divorce. Jesus will have the right to hold us all morally responsible for our interpretations of divorce passages. Preachers and teachers will be held more responsible than the rest of the church (James 3:1); everyone with more gifts and opportunities will be held more responsible (Luke 12:48; Heb 13:17). That’s why Jesus’ harshest denunciations were always against the Pharisees and other teachers of the law (Mark 7:9–13). But the average Christian can’t let himself off the moral hook by blaming bad teaching: Jesus can say to him, “Have you not read . . . ?”
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, drawn from the Bible and shaped by Christian history and reflection, does not hand present-day victory to one interpretive party in the divorce debate. It doesn’t put a soft glow around one chapter in the Four Views on Divorce and Remarriage book. Rather, it insists that people will be held accountable for their reading. The Bible is clear enough that we are responsible to guide our moral lives by reading it rightly.
But what if every interpretive party is trying its hardest to get the Bible right! How can one of them be “held accountable” for not doing so? As with every aspect of our sanctification, final judgment is in God’s hands. “Who’s right” may not be clear to everyone till the eschaton (on this you absolutely must read the conversation between the two Anglican clerics in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce). Why does any of us get Bible interpretation wrong, even on matters of comparatively little importance—the mint, anise, and cummin of the law? We are finite, and we are fallen. Sometimes only God knows which of those limitations is the root reason for our poor interpretation.
The authority to say what interpretations are right and what are wrong . . . belongs fully only to the Author who is also the Judge, and awaits the coming Day of the Lord.
There comes a point in any debate over Scripture when all discussion is exhausted, and we must make our decisions and leave the rest to God. Sometimes the only thing I can do in such a controversy is keep quoting the Bible and trust that God will use it to bring clarity to everyone, including me. The point of the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is not to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt immediately that I’m right, but to insist that He is. What Paul said to Jewish people in Romans 11 I can say to all Bible readers: “Do not become proud, but fear.”
Understanding is a gift
I would be a poor minister of God’s Word if I stopped with law, however, and talked as if human responsibility were the only significant factor in interpretation. You see, this book we’re talking about is the only one with a divine author. This is the one author in existence who can stand over the shoulders and even dwell in the hearts of readers of his work. As Jesus told his disciples,
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13 ESV)
I do get upset—I do face spiritual doubts—over the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” in the church. I need the consolations of God’s grace and the reassurance of his sovereignty.
And the Bible gives it to me. Paul strikes an intriguing note in his second letter to Timothy:
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7 ESV)
Here’s an inspired comment in an inspired letter, and it expects Timothy to give careful attention to what Paul wrote: “Think it over.” Give some attention and meditation; exercise your mental capacities; take some notes; use commentaries and journals. (The Greek here uses an aorist of intensity and literally means, “fire up Logos Bible Software.”)
Good interpretation does require hard work. But Paul is not a hermeneutical deist or Pelagian. He doesn’t believe that the Spirit has given Scripture to us and then left us alone. The reason Paul tells Timothy to put forth this mental effort, to think things over, is “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” Clarity is a divine gift.
As Mark D. Thompson says,
We remain as dependent upon God in the matter of reading, understanding and appropriating the words of Scripture as we do in all other areas of life. (134)
We are dependent creatures. Thinking over what he says will be useless if he doesn’t give us understanding.
In all areas of life outside Bible interpretation, what do you do when you are uncertain what to do? You use all the means of grace available to you, and you make a decision.
The same should go for your interpretation of Scripture—even and especially when the fur is flying over some hot-button question. You treat your Bible reading like any other area of your sanctification. You believe that God is great, good, and true—and has great, good, and truthful purposes for your struggles to read righteously. You ask the Lord to give you clarity the way you ask him to give you faith, hope, love, and any other virtue. If one day you “come to yourself” like the prodigal son and realize your hermeneutical sins, you confess and repent.
There are comforts within a careful doctrine of clarity. One is that the God of the Bible is powerful enough to get truth across to fallen and limited people like ourselves, and good enough to “make his mind known to us without distortion” (162). Perhaps the most important is that, as Thompson says,
The same Spirit who moved men to write these words moves in the hearts of men and women to bring about an understanding that demonstrates itself in repentance and faith. (165)
The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture keeps human responsibility and divine sovereignty together the way the Bible does. It reminds you that “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness,” and that it is “for this very reason” that you ought to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Pet 1:3–5). You ought to work hard to learn because “the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” You “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV).
If you are genuinely struggling to understand a particular passage; if you are troubled by doubts about Scripture—the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is here to help, but only God can truly give any of us clarity about anything.
As in all of life, so in Bible interpretation, we rely wholly on God’s grace and yet are morally responsible for our choices.
Have you not read?
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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