Understanding the Bible:
On Our Own
With the Help of Others
It is our premise that a person doesn't have to be a
theological scholar to understand the Word of God. Scripture was
written for the "average" person. It was written for the
"nobodies" of the world, for the outcasts and homeless
people, for those trapped in the inner city ghetto, for children, for
poor people, for High School dropouts, for natives somewhere out in
the jungle, who will never know the world beyond their grass hut
village. The wise, the scholar, the influential person - these are
also welcome. But they tend to find it more difficult to humble
themselves and to become like little children - a necessary
requirement for entering God's kingdom (Matthew 18:3; 1 Corinthians
- The Bible was written in such a manner, that, to whatever degree
a person has the ability to comprehend language, he will be capable
of understanding it - provided that he accepts it as it is written,
taking into consideration the context, the meanings of the words, and
how the words connect in sentences. New converts can understand it
(if they accept it "as is"), just as old converts can. (The
total amount of what is understood will increase, as the new convert
grows in his spiritual life.) Even an unsaved person would be able to
understand it, if he were willing to accept it as it is written. (If
he did this, he would soon want to become a saved person.)
- Of course, one's comprehension of the Word will be influenced by
his natural abilities and gifts. For some people, understanding the
Word may take more time and effort - though it can still be done.
Children might understand less, simply because their language
comprehension is not fully developed. Also, those who are mentally
impaired cannot be expected to comprehend it to the same extent as
someone who has no such difficulties.
- The Bible (or parts of it) has been translated into thousands of
languages. In nearly every instance, the translation is sufficiently
accurate, that one's faith will not be endangered. (There is a
"less-than-acceptable" translation, which will be mentioned
later, in Section 7.) The only requirement is that the person must be
willing to read the Word and accept what it says. He must not change
or "adjust" the Word, to make it more acceptable; but he
must accept the message "as is" - keeping verses within their
own contexts, taking into consideration figures of speech, not
adding to or subtracting from what the verses say, etc.
- Differences between translations can be expected, for there are
often many ways to say the same thing. Some translations may
emphasize word-for-word translating, while others will emphasize
meaning-for-meaning translating. In addition, there will be
occasional disagreements between copies of the original manuscripts,
which will result in variations in the way something is translated.
(These textual differences, however, are relatively minor, and have no
significant impact on any major teaching found in the
Word! The overall message remains the same, regardless of textual variations.)
- A good translation will attempt to minimize misunderstandings
that could be caused by the translation process. Admittedly, there is
always the potential for a translator's personal opinion to influence
the translation - and this is a good reason for checking a few
different translations, when possible. It must be emphasized,
however, that this problem will rarely affect the major issues. One's
salvation will not be endangered, for the overall message
of the Word will minimize the effects of a mistranslation that might
occur in some specific verse.
- [I have seen only one translation that contains deliberate
mistranslations, the "New World Translation," published by
the Jehovah's Witnesses. I have heard comments about one other cult
that may have also done this - though I have not seen it personally.
Since these one or two faulty translations are written in English,
there are many other translations - much better ones - that can be
used, to confirm what Scripture actually says. Furthermore,
even in a faulty translation, inherent contradictions caused by such
mistranslations would alert anyone who carefully examined them. (Most
of the adherents, however, blindly accept whatever the leaders tell
them to believe. They are convinced that whatever they get told is
"what the Bible says.")]
- We don't want to forget that there is a value to
education and intelligence - as will be seen later. But our emphasis
here is the fact that God gave his Word to all of us. He
didn't give it to us in some obscure manner that forces us to be at
the mercy of some elite group of theological scholars.
- God gives each of his people gifts. The theologian is but one of
many - and he is no more (or less) important than the rest of God's
people. But just as with all the rest, the value of his contribution
to the body of Christ is directly proportional to his willingness to
place himself - and his theological perspectives - in humble
submission to the Word. Without this, he is no better than the
religious leaders of Jesus' day - against whom Jesus pronounced the
severest of judgments (Matthew 23).
- Someone may raise the question as to why there are so many
different views about what the Bible says. Even among theologians,
the so-called "experts" about the Bible, there is often a
great diversity of opinions. The problem isn't that
Scripture cannot be understood. Rather, people have difficulty
leaving Scripture the way it is written. They tend to either add to
it or subtract from it. When this happens, the distinction between
God's Word and people's opinions becomes blurred, and the potential
for error increases.
- When different people add or subtract different things, this
results in different conclusions and increasing amounts of
disagreement. When the distinction between what God says and what
people say has not been diligently maintained, we find ourselves with
escalating error. People with opposing views will each be
claiming to hold to "the truth." (Each side will even quote
Scripture to "prove" that they are right.) Others will
claim that nobody can really know for sure, and still others
will simply stop caring about the entire issue.
- There are different ways that error can be introduced into the
Word. A person may introduce error by superimposing his own opinions
into the Word. This may be the result of adding to and subtracting
from what the Word says. It may be the result of attempting to
"reconcile" truth with already-believed error or false
assumptions. It could even be done inadvertently, through
carelessness and a lazy attitude toward the preciseness of language.
(In a world where people want "instant results," this last
method happens more often than most people would like to admit. Few
are willing to take the time that would be required, for carefully
examining the Word.)
- A person may also add to or subtract from the Word, when he
relies on another person's opinion, and fails to make a
distinction between that opinion and the Word. This happens quite
often, when a person relies on a commentary (or a sermon, etc.) to
"define" truth. Often the reader, or listener, will fail to
make the distinction between the human opinion and God's Word - even
though the author of that opinion may, at times, make such a distinction.
- Pride and creativity have no place in determining what the Word
says. Though few would ever claim to study the Word in this manner,
at times this is essentially what happens. The creativity is present,
when the person comes up with his own ideas, and acts as though they
were the Word itself. The pride is present, when he fails to place
his views in humble submission to the Word - when he goes beyond it,
adding to it or subtracting from it.
- We have been stressing ways in which a person can fall into
error. To "balance" this, we must remind ourselves that
most error is not deliberate falsification of the Word.
People who disagree with us will often be just as sincere as we are!
Even when a person attempts to rely totally on the Word,
there is a potential for some degree of error - since nobody in this
present world is totally perfect. Even though the intensity of one's
focus on the Word will keep that error to a minimum, this
"accidental error" has the potential of getting compounded,
when the others unquestioningly accept what the person says, and
do not go back to the Word, to find out if what he said is
correct. This shows the necessity for each generation to
freshly examine the Word, and to not blindly rely on others. In such
a situation, the greater blame probably goes to the hearer, than to
the speaker (or writer).
- Many people have a tendency to rely on commentaries and
theologians for getting their view of what the Word says, rather than getting
their views from the Word itself. When they add their own
"accidental error" to whatever errors may be present in the
commentaries, sermons or lectures they rely on, the cumulative amount
of error increases. Then, if they teach others, the problem can
become even more compounded. When generation after generation relies
on the teachings of previous generations (rather than on the Word
itself), and fails to make a radical distinction between
those teachings and Scripture, it results in a downward spiral, in
which error tends to increase - error which can be removed only
by a renewed focus on the Word itself.
- Most people follow the views of people they consider to be
"experts." They get their views, not by focusing on the
Bible, but from reading books, or hearing sermons and lectures.
Unfortunately, most "experts" get their views the
same way. The way most theological training is set up, there is
plenty of time for studying the views of previous "experts"
- including the instructor's notes. But even when the student wants
to double-check what he hears or reads, he often discovers that there
is very little "free time" built into the schedule, to
allow him to independently examine the Word, and to evaluate what
those "experts" are saying.
- Some people ignore what is written, because of laziness or
disinterest. Others spend so much time studying what people
have to say about the Word, that they don't even realize the
difference between those opinions and the Word itself. They can't
even read the Word without those opinions "interpreting"
the Word. For some, if they would have devoted as much time and
energy to the Word, as they do to people's writings and lectures about
the Word, they would have truly gained more than all the experts in
the world could ever offer. They may be able to approach the level of
their teacher's "theological acumen" - after all, Jesus
does talk about the student being like his teacher (Luke
they should have spent the same energy focused on the Word itself, going
over it again and again, learning it, and reflecting on its
significance (the meaning of the word "meditation," found
in some translations of the Old Testament). Then they would have been able
to say, like the psalmist, that they had more understanding
than many religious leaders have, simply because they accepted and
obeyed God's Word (Psalm 119:100).
- This problem is not new; it has always been this way. In this
matter, things are no different from what they were like in Jesus'
day. In Jesus' day, it was called, "the traditions of the
elders." In Paul's day, it may have started with, "I follow
Paul" vs. "I follow Apollos" (1 Corinthians 3:4), and
then progressed to the following of all sorts of leaders (the false
apostles of 2 Corinthians 11:13+). Today, it could be, "I'm a
Calvinist," or "I'm an Arminian," or "I'm
Pentecostal" (and so on) - where the person focuses on the books
and lectures that promote the view he has chosen to accept. [The
theological perspectives mentioned here were randomly chosen. Some
may be more accurate than others. But when people start labeling
other people, the tendency is to focus on the labels, rather than on
the Scriptures. You can insert your own favorite theological
viewpoint, if you wish.]
- Even when a leader's views are correct - as were the views of
Paul and presumably Apollos - the issue is the fact that people tend
to focus on people, rather than on God. (This is
also one of the reasons why people tend to name church buildings
- To avoid the wrong impression, we must balance what we have said,
with this: In spite of all the disagreements that may exist among
theologians, there will often be many points in which they do agree.
The disagreements may sometimes involve only one or two issues. And
sometimes, the disagreements will be based not on what the
Bible says, but on conclusions they reach when they go into issues beyond
what the Word expressly deals with - and act as though their
conclusions are as "inspired" as the Word itself.
- As long as a person (theologian or otherwise) restrains his
views, limiting them to what the Word expressly says, it is impossible
for him to reach a significantly divergent conclusion about
what the Word says. The words themselves limit what conclusions a
person can reach! If he leaves his added opinions and inferences in
the "not-inspired and relatively unimportant" category, and
does not get a "this is what God says" attitude about them,
there will be very little to argue about!
- This is not to imply that there will be no
disagreements. It seems to be a part of our nature to find ways to
disagree! But when we strip away all the interpretational schemes...
when we keep verses in context, rather than pasting-together verses
separated by centuries, so as to come-up with a view that can't be
supported by either verse when each is kept within its own context...
when we don't cling dearly to bits of information from outside
the Word, using it as our basis for "understanding" the
Word... simply put, when we don't add to or subtract from the
Word, all the disagreements will become minor issues. The more
we keep to the Word itself, the closer our views will become. The
more we will agree.
- Merely claiming that the Bible is our final authority in
all matters is not enough. Some people make such claims, and base
their claims on their favorite theologian's writings! Some will tell
others to put the Bible first, and then they try to get the people to
focus their attention on books, commentaries, preachers and
theologians who teach what they consider to be the "correct"
views. They also encourage them to avoid the teachings of
anyone who doesn't hold to these "correct" views. (They may
even distort or exaggerate their opponent's views, to make them
look less acceptable.) And so, with their mouths, they claim to put
the Bible first... but with their actions, they base their faith on
the teachings of people, encourage others to do the same, and call it
"putting the Bible first."
- Note what Jesus said to some of the religious leaders who claimed
to follow God, but who actually followed other people - people they
considered to be the "experts" of the past: In Mark 7:6-8,
Jesus called them hypocrites, whose worship had no meaning in God's sight.
- Understanding the Bible does not require the
"intervention" of a trained theologian. All people
everywhere - to whatever degree they are capable of understanding
language - will reach the same general conclusions when they study
the Word of God... if they are willing to accept the
perspective that flows naturally from the text of Scripture. This
means that they must be willing to accept it "as is,"
without adding to it or subtracting from it, all the while paying
attention to the words and the way those words fit together in
sentences. (Some people use the terms "grammar" and
"syntax" to describe this.) It is only when people begin to
add and subtract, and when they are negligent in their duty to
carefully reflect on what they read (to "meditate" on it),
that differences in views come into existence. Once they depart from
"what is written," the sky's the limit, for the variety of
viewpoints that may arise.
A few clarifications need to be made to the above
statements. First, accepting the Word "as is" does not
ignore the existence of figures of speech, idioms, metaphors and
similes, the difference between prose and poetry, etc. Accepting all
these is a part of accepting the Word "as is."
- Second, a new disciple of Jesus may have many erroneous views,
simply because he hasn't yet had the opportunity to let the Word
change his thinking. As he learns to submit to the Word, his views
- In addition, this does not mean that a person will understand everything
in the Word the first time he reads it. Acceptance of what the Word
says requires a change in perspective, for many of the
things it says goes against the views we have learned and assumed true
- The perspective we have been taught since childhood, is not the
only thing we have to change. Scripture tells us that we were born
with a distorted perspective on reality. We need to let the
Word rebuild our minds, so that we will be able to grow in
our acceptance of its message. (This is why we are told that we need
"renewed" minds - Romans 12:1-2, and that those who have
not become Jesus' disciples have a "darkened" understanding
of reality - Ephesians 4:17-19. This is also why the concept of
"repentance" includes a change in our minds - as
well as in our actions.)
- This necessary change can take place only to the extent that we
rely on God and his Word for that change. It will take some people
longer than others to reach this point. For those who reach it
sooner, this will provide an opportunity for them to learn to
practice patience and love, as they wait for the change to occur in
others. It will occur, sooner or later - at the
resurrection, if not sooner!
- Our responsibility is to focus on correcting our own thinking
first, before we try to change others. We ourselves need to change.
We need to remind ourselves - not just other people - that such
a change will never occur if we are unwilling to abandon our
preconceived opinions and allow the Word to make that change.
- Change will often take time. A person may need to read and reread
the Word, paying close attention to the way Scripture describes
things - especially when it presents a view that is rather
"unexpected," or contrary to what the person has always
assumed to be true.
- Some passages in the Word may be difficult to understand. There
may be certain details in some passages that remain perplexing, no
matter how much we attempt to understand them. However, the overall
message of the Word - everything we need to know for life and
godliness - remains clear. What we need to know, regarding how to
live our present life and how to prepare for our future life, does
not rest on some isolated passage, here or there in the Word.
Instead, it permeates the Bible from cover to cover. If we are
willing to accept (and live by) what we can understand, then
we won't be in danger because of what we can't understand.
- Perhaps some of those difficult passages will eventually become
clear to us, as we continue to make the Word a part of our lives. For
those questions that may still remain, we will have all the
opportunities we could ever want, in eternity, to ask Jesus about them.
- It should not surprise us, when we do not understand everything
in the Word. God's wisdom and understanding totally eclipses ours.
His Word is like an inexhaustible treasure, which yields its
blessings to anyone who is willing to submit to it, yet always has
more in store, no matter how long a person may search its depths.
- When we find a difficult passage, it is our duty to not
read interpretations into it, in an attempt to make it easier to
understand. The more we read our interpretations into a passage, the
greater the probability of error. It is acceptable to have an opinion
as to the meaning of an obscure passage, but we need to maintain a
distinction between our opinions and the Word itself. Rather than
superimposing our opinions into a passage, and claiming that we know
its meaning, we should be willing to admit there are things we don't
yet understand. We can express our opinions, if we desire, but we
should have the integrity to acknowledge that it is nothing more than
opinion. We should also be willing to accept other people who have
different opinions on such matters - for compared to God's Word,
which is totally authoritative and without error, all of our opinions
fade into insignificance.
- We must emphasize that acceptance of the Word involves more than
an expression of mere intellectual activity: It involves submission
to the Word. The person who does not follow Jesus does not
truly accept the Word. Why? Because genuine acceptance includes a
change in one's lifestyle - a change to a way of life that
conforms to the truths found in the Word.
- Most non-Christians will never be willing to study the Word in a
way that enables them to understand its perspective on reality. But
even if they learned it to the point that they could be considered
"experts" in what it says, it would still be nothing more
than a sterile "intellectual exercise," until they submitted
to what it says. People need to accept as true what
the Word says, and repent of their sins, and trust God, both
for salvation and for a change in their lives. This change will
result in submission and obedience to God.
- The idea of accepting Scripture "as is," within its own
context, and trusting what God says, the way he says it, is not new.
It has existed since the beginning of the human race, when Adam
believed what God told him (even though he eventually disobeyed God's
command). It is encouraged throughout Scripture. Many people, down
through the ages and up to the present time, have encouraged it -
whether or not they succeeded in doing it, themselves. (Whether
people succeed or fail, God's Word remains firmly established
- Throughout history, the idea of people accepting God's Word
without the intervention of theological "experts" has been
one of the impelling reasons for people who desired to translate the
Word of God into languages that the "common people" could
understand. They knew that Scripture was intended for everyone,
rather than for a select group of "experts" who would tell
everyone else what to believe... and they were willing to die for
this view. One of these people - John Wyclif, who translated the
Bible into the English language, over 600 years ago - said it this
way (rewritten in modern English, with words in parenthesis added for clarity):
- It Will Greatly Help You, For Understanding Scripture:
- If you pay attention not only to WHAT is
spoken or written,
- But also OF WHOM it was spoken or written,
- And TO WHOM,
- With what CHOICE OF WORDS,
- At what TIME (in history),
- WHERE (what country or town),
- For what PURPOSE,
- In what CIRCUMSTANCES;
- Considering also WHAT IS SAID BEFORE
- And WHAT IS SAID AFTER (the following verses).
Again, this view is not new!
- Learning different theological perspectives can be of value -
though it is not an absolute necessity. The value, however, will
often come indirectly - not from the view itself, but from
one's understanding of the reasons for those views. We may
even benefit from theologians who have wrong perspectives,
if we focus on issues such as: What makes them reach their
conclusions? What assumptions are they making? Are their
"presuppositions" a mixture of truth, opinion, and supposed
"facts" from outside of Scripture? (If so, which parts are
a direct expression of God's Word, and which aren't?) Are they
over-stressing one fact, to the neglect of another? Our focus isn't
on merely claiming that they are "wrong," but on
understanding the background issues and assumptions, which caused
them to reach those wrong conclusions.
- If a person's line of reasoning is valid, his conclusions will be
influenced by the assumptions he starts with. These original
assumptions will have a major impact on the accuracy of his
conclusions. When we become aware of the impact of one's
"starting point," it will not only help us to distinguish
truth from error at its very basic level, but it will also help us to
become more consistent in our own views, as we attempt to bring our
own perspectives into submission to the Word. As we better understand
the assumptions and opinions that others tend to superimpose over
what the Word itself says, we will become better equipped for
avoiding those same errors in our own thinking. From this
perspective, even false conclusions can have an indirect value!
- There are at least two "sides" in most (if not all)
issues. If there is someone promoting a specific perspective, based
on some particular assumption, then most likely there will be someone
else who holds to the opposite set of assumptions. A person
who is willing to examine both views (and both sets of assumptions
that are behind those views) will often discover that both views
contain fragments of truth. In such a case, the Scriptures will need
to be examined (which is something a person should always do,
anyway), to find out which parts of each view cling to the Word, and
which parts need something else to prop them up.
- Sometimes the two "opposite" sides of a theological
disagreement will cling to "opposite" groups of verses. The
person who accepts God's Word "as is" can (or rather, he must)
accept the verses from both opposing views - though he may
have to reject the interpretations that the two groups have
given to those verses, along with any errant conclusions they may
have reached. Above all, he must not allow man-made opinions
"redefine" what God has said!
- It is impossible to overstate this issue: No matter who the
theologian (or non-theologian) may be, the Bible - what is written
"as is" - must be the final authority. Remember
what was said about the Bereans, in Acts 17:11: They were praised for
examining what they were being taught, and comparing it with what the
Bible says, even though the teacher was the apostle Paul! And
if it was praiseworthy for them to do it, when they were
being taught by the apostle Paul (someone who was more
"inspired," and more accurate, than any theologian
or teacher alive today), then it is even more imperative that we
follow their example, today!
- The apostles and prophets spoke the very words of God. Their
words were totally reliable and accurate. But as for the rest of us -
and even the best of teachers - there is potential for error. Perhaps
we should say that there is a certainty of error being
present, even if (in the best situations) it is just a small amount.
This is one of the reasons that each person must turn back
to the Scriptures, as the final authority, and re-evaluate what
others say about the Word. When we fail to do this, we are in danger
of accepting, then transmitting to others, the errors of those who
came before us... compounded by whatever errors we ourselves may have.
After a few generations of not returning to Scripture, even small
errors, compounded together, could become fatal!
- It is our view that God has given us, in his Word, everything
necessary for life and godliness - either by direct statement, or
indirectly. Even if the issue we are exploring isn't directly stated,
it may be related to something else that is expressly
stated. Or it may simply be "not an issue." Or, if it
involves moral choices, it may be "a matter of freedom," in
which the person can freely choose either way. In any case, we must
not "force" something into the Word that is not directly
stated. We cannot "improve" on what God has said.
- Many people use the terms "interpretation" and
"application" in a very haphazard manner - and often
interchangeably. However, there is a distinct difference between
them. When Scripture is accepted "as is," without adding to
it or subtracting from it, there will be only one interpretation
(with only slight variations, when grammar and syntax allows, or if
there are textual variations among the early manuscripts - see
Section 5). However, once we understand what Scripture says, there
will often be many ways we can apply it to our own lives.
- One problem that sometimes occurs when we study the Bible is
this: The information we want to find in the Bible and what
we need to find in the Bible, are not the same. The
questions we want answers to, and the answers we need
to know, are not always on the same topic. It is only as we conform
our thinking to the Word of God, that what we want and what
we need will become the same thing. As Scripture changes our
perspective, our opinion of what the "issues" are will also
change. And we will become less concerned with the issues that we
don't see stressed in the Word. When our thinking is not conformed to
the Word, it is natural for us to define issues wrongly; when our
perspectives change, so does our understanding of the issues.
- It is not our job to promote interpretational schemes,
or to use "facts" not mentioned in the Word, as the basis
for understanding or interpreting the Word. If, to understand the
Word of God, we need to add a set of facts not found in the Word
of God, then God made a mistake by failing to include them in
his Word. How can God let humans decide which facts are
needed, and which facts aren't needed, for understanding his Word? It
is we humans who have the faulty thinking! Just look at how
many different denominations there are... and as already mentioned,
even theologians - who are supposed to understand the Bible - can't
agree, once they start going beyond what is written!
- Also, what about those who are "less fortunate" who
don't have access to all this so-called "necessary supplementary
information"? This would probably include most of the Christians
living in the world! If material not found in the Bible is
necessary for our understanding of the Bible, these people will never
be able to understand it - and the more they try, the less they will
succeed. If outside information were necessary for understanding the
Bible, the more a person accepted what the Bible says, the
more deceived he would become! Adding "outside information"
is one of the ways that sects, cults, heresies and false religions
come into existence.
- Some types of supplementary information can be of value. For
example, a Bible atlas can help a person understand the relationship
between various cities and nations. Archeological discoveries may
help a person better understand the reasons for various customs and
practices. But this is all supplemental to the Bible. It may
amplify our understanding of what is written, but it will not
go against, undo, or become a substitute for what is written. It will
not change the message.
- So what is the significance of all this? First, we can benefit
from what theologians say - if we "filter" their words
through what God says in his Word - the Word we have accepted "as
is," with each passage kept within its own context,
taking into consideration idioms, figures of speech, etc. If the
theologians or commentators (the "experts") agree with the
Word, then what they say may give us insights into things we didn't
previously know. And even if they are wrong, perhaps we can still
benefit from them, if we can understand how they arrived at
their wrong conclusions. Even though we must reject what the errant
theologian says, we can benefit indirectly, if it helps us
understand some of the subtle ways people fall into error, and thus
enables us to avoid those pitfalls.
- On the other hand, if we do not have access to what
these theologians say (even the accurate ones) - and most people
in the world don't - we can still benefit from God's
Word. We can still grow in the way of truth. And if we
maintain a humble stature before our God, submitting both ourselves and
our thoughts to his Word, we will be no worse off for
our lack of "theological resources," than if we had all the
theological knowledge in the world.
Dennis Hinks © 2001