Common Objections to Christianity

How Can Anyone Be Certain of the Bible's Meaning?

Teaching t05027

Introduction

Repeat series subject and purposes. Objection 2 dealt with the reliability of the Bible--this concerns the clarity and understandability of the Bible. You hear this objection surface in various ways:

"We should rely on the clergy/experts to tell us what the Bible means."

"That's just your interpretation."

"The Bible has been used to justify everything you can think of. You can make it mean anything you want it to mean."

"The locus of meaning is neither the author nor the text; it is the reader. All texts are social constructs. It is impossible to get inside the heads of the authors; we can only desconstruct the text and create meaning for ourselves from it."

Why is this objection so wide-spread? There are several reasons:

Portions of the Bible are difficult to understand. Paul distinguished between "milk" and "meat." Even Peter admitted this about some of the content in Paul's letters (2 Pet. 3:16). It is easy to erroneously extrapolate this to the whole Bible.

Biblical illiteracy is rampant. Most people have never read the Bible cover to cover, or even carefully read key biblical books like John or Romans. Such illiteracy makes it more difficult to refute this objection, while the objection makes it easy to excuse continued illiteracy!

Church history records ugly disagreements over the Bible's meaning. Most people are aware that churches have disagreed--sometimes seriously and even violently--over interpretation of the Bible (REFORMATION; DROWNING ANABAPTISTS; "SO MANY DENOMINATIONS;" QUASI-CHRISTIAN CULTS). To many, this links the whole idea of biblical interpretation to ugly controversy.

Relativism undermines confidence in objective meaning. Once you believe that something may be true "for you" but not true "for me," isn't it more enlightened and civilized to take this position?

I believe this is one of the most prevalent and insidious objections to Christianity today, subtly eroding the Bible's authority for both non-Christians and Christians. Even if there is excellent evidence that the Bible is inspired by God (WEEK #2), why study it if you can't be certain of its meaning?

God Makes The Main Message Clear

Doesn't it make sense that if a loving God has recorded a vital message for humans, he would communicate it in such a way that we can understand that message? Only a cruel, sadistic God would purposefully record his message in such an obscure way that we could not be reasonably certain we understand it.

God has communicated many things to us through the Bible. Some things are more difficult to understand, but he has gone out of his way to make his main message clear to us (Jn. 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16). He has done this in three ways:

By using language that is sufficiently clear. If we approach the Bible like we would approach any other piece of literature, we find that its main message is indeed understandable.

Consider this statement: "GO TO THE KROGER STORE & BUY 10 LBS. OF POTATOES." Now we might reasonably ask which Kroger store and which kind of potatoes. If we were unfamiliar with American culture, we might even ask what a potato is and how much a pound is. But would it ever be acceptable to interpret this statement to mean: "GO TO THE HIMILAYAN MOUNTAINS & MEDITATE ON YOUR NAVEL?" Would it be correct to say no one can be confident he understands this statement?

Now consider this statement: "HE WHO BELIEVES IN THE SON HAS ETERNAL LIFE; BUT HE WHO DOES NOT OBEY THE SON SHALL NOT SEE LIFE, BUT THE WRATH OF GOD ABIDES ON HIM." We might reasonably ask who the Son is, what "believe" means, or if "believe" and "obey" are being used synonymously. But would it ever be acceptable to interpret this statement to mean: "IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOU BELIEVE ABOUT THE SON BECAUSE EVERYONE GOES TO HEAVEN?" Would it be correct to say that no one can be confident he understands this statement?

"When it comes to the central core of the Christian faith . . . the biblical evidence is overwhelming. The deity of Christ, the triune nature of God, the creation of the world by God, the sinfulness of all humanity, salvation by grace through faith, the resurrection of the dead--these and many other such matters are clearly taught in scripture."[1]

IRONY: Those who resort to radical skepticism about the clarity of the Bible expect me to understand their objection! I often reply by saying, "I can't understand what you mean . . . "

By repeating the main message. If you want your young children to understand something important, you say it to them several times and in different ways. This is what God does, for example, with the issue of how we get his acceptance.

By giving the Holy Spirit to help us understand and apply his Word. Such is God's love for us, that he gets supernaturally involved to teach us the meaning of his Word and how we should respond to it. Theologians call this the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.

1 Cor. 2:12 - As we come to the Bible humbly asking for God's help in understanding his Word so that we may obey it, he promises through his Spirit to illuminate its meaning and importance for our lives.

EXAMPLES: ME W/ REV. 3:20 AT CONVERSION. I not only understood that it meant Jesus desired to enter my heart to begin a personal relationship with him; I also knew that I needed to make this decision. Many of you could supply similar examples of this . . . 

2 Tim. 2:7,15 - Neverthless, we have a part to play in interpreting God's Word ("consider what I say . . . be dilgent to present yourself as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word . . . "). (THIS IS WHERE GRAMMATICO-HISTORICAL HERMENEUTICS COMES IN.)

Disagreements Over Biblical Interpretation Occur For Two Reasons

Then why is there so much disagreement? People tend to lump disagreements concerning the Bible together, when there are actually two very different kinds of disagreements.

Because some non-essential issues are not clear. God has been pragmatic in his revelation. More important truths are stated clearly and repeated often. Less important things are more ambiguous. Because of this fact, one would expect uniformity of interpretation about the essentials and diversity of interpretation about the less important issues. EXAMPLES:

Should only professing Christians be baptized, or should infants of Christian parents also be baptized?

Do people have free will to receive or reject Christ, or does God choose who will be saved?

Does Israel continue to be God’s chosen nation or not?

Wherever the Bible has been the final authority, Christians have agreed on these important truths. Their disagreements with each other have been over issues which, while often important, are not crucial issues. This is why documents like the Apostles Creed can be formulated and agreed on by Christians from many different denominations down through the centuries. This is why it is possible for us to provide you with a concise "Statement of Faith" which agrees with all orthodox Christians (INFORMATION BOOTH). We should hold to our convictions in these areas, even work in different churches--but still unify around the essentials and fellowship and minister with each other as Christians (GRAHAM CRUSADE; VERITAS FORUM; URBAN CONCERN).

But clearly, "Christian" groups have also disagreed in their interpretation of even essential doctrines. How can this be explained? The answer to this question is surprisingly simple: Because another authority has replaced God's Word. The Bible is then ignored and/or twisted to support that new authority's doctrines. There are hundreds of examples of this:

RELIGIOUS TRADITION: Pharisees & Sadducees

NEW "SCRIPTURES": Book of Mormon

"KEYS" TO BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: Key To Science & Health; Divine Principle; Roman Catholic Papal Infallibility & "Canon Law"

ALIEN PRESUPPOSITIONS: Naturalism; Pantheistic Avatars; Postmodern Thought

So the issue here is actually not one of differing interpretations at all, or that the Bible is unclear on essential matters, but of differing spiritual authorities.

So What?

Examine the Bible for yourself! God has recorded in it the most important truths in the world, and he has gone to great lengths to help you to understand it. It is without any dispute the most influential book in human civilization.

Contrast American disinterest despite tremendous accessibility and study tools to Russian hunger (PETROZAVODSK TEACHER).

NON-CHRISTIANS: Read the gospel of John. It was written for you, to help you understand who Jesus is and what he has done for you so you can put your trust in him and receive eternal life.

CHRISTIANS: Paul wrote most of his epistles (ROMANS) with the expectation that all Christians could understand and apply the contents enough to profit spiritually. Teachings like this are important to get you started and supplement, but they will never take the place of serious personal study. If you need help learning how to do this, come up afterward and we'll line you up with people to help you.

Test all other teachings by it!

Footnotes

[1]James Sire, Scripture Twisting (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), pp. 12,13.