A recent Christian news source published an article that stated, “The Bible is crystal clear about [insert controversial topic].” Contrary to such dogmatic statements, the Bible is not crystal clear about anything. For example, think about something that seems undeniably crystal clear in the Bible, beyond any dispute. How about the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Most Christians would probably say that the Bible is absolutely clear that Jesus experienced bodily resurrection from the dead. Yet church history teaches that within the first century after Jesus’ death, people tried to deny that Jesus had physical flesh. They called this docetism. Docetists believed that Jesus was only a spiritual being, more like an apparition, that people only thought or perceived him in physical form. “But what about Thomas?” Some may say: “He doubted, so Jesus invited Thomas to physically touch his hands and feet to prove he was physically there.” This is absolutely correct. But even with such documentation, people—those who may have seen Jesus himself or knew others who did—still thought that he was a bodiless spirit.
Things that seem crystal clear to one person may contrast what seems crystal clear to another. Our cultures, worldview, age, gender, and race—along with many other parts of our personhood—contribute to our understanding of the world around us. When it comes to Scripture, we cannot help but read the text through our own cultural lenses. Most often, we read into the text what we already believe.
Is all Scripture ambiguous? Certainly not! The Bible is the inspired word of God, spoken through approximately forty individuals to communicate God’s truth to humanity. When we read the Bible as a whole, many themes repeatedly appear as we navigate over thousands of years of history. When each theme occurs, we have to study each individual passage where the theme occurs to discover what the author was trying to communicate to the original audience. Then we extrapolate the major principles from the passage and compare it to the overall evidence of Scripture to see if it still weighs true. If the principle stands, it must be true for all people, at all times, in all places. It must be just as true for a twenty-first century American female as it was for Mahatma Gandi who lived in India over a century ago. This is where the issue gets sticky.
Our culture wants to say, “You do what works for you, and I’ll do what works for me. You live your truth and I’ll live mine.” Simply put, such a relativistic philosophy cannot succeed for long in a society. Societies can only function by upholding shared values. Without absolute truth, societies no longer have values to share, which breaks any sort of communal bond by isolating individuals. This is why demanding that the Bible is crystal clear on an issue can be so damaging. Taking the Bible at only face value allows readers to believe something without understanding it. This also encourages people to shut down those who do not see as they see. The Bible becomes an individualistic endeavor for interpretation that excludes those with differing perspectives, making each reader his or her own island.
When we read Scripture, we can never assume that we fully understand it. Even what initially appears obvious, we should seek to study more. Studying well does three things in us.
- Embracing our lack of understanding points us to the all-knowing, omniscient God.
We become most aware of our finite status and limitations, humbled before the God who is greater. We must open our hearts and minds for the Holy Spirit to give us truth that we cannot come to on our own.
- We must rely on the community around us.
When we do not know the answer to a question, we must ask and learn from someone who knows more than we do. We ask others whose experiences and worldviews differ from our own. As we learn to see through the eyes of others, we gain a fuller picture of the God who is entirely other from creation. We begin to see things to which we were once blind. Such learning grows us into fuller, mature persons.
- As we become confronted with God and also with our peers, we discover what we truly believe and develop ways to explain it.
Shallow faith cannot endure in the presence of God or others. God sees through to our shallow hearts, and others see through to our ignorant minds. We are forced to dig in, to explain coherently our beliefs and have the integrity to live them out.
Words are important. How we say something is just as important as the message we seek to communicate. Setting an ultimatum by declaring that something is crystal clear shuts other people and opinions out of the conversation. If we want to engage in genuine dialogue, we need to use language that intentionally keeps the discussion open for other people to engage with their own ideas. If we refuse to listen and understand, no one will want to hear what we have to say, and our input—whether true or not—becomes useless.