I spent so much of my Christian life with the conviction that everything the Bible had to say was clear. That all one had to do was read it to know it’s meaning. To my young mind, that was the very definition of what inerrancy meant. That everything in it was scientifically in advance of its time and that anyone who read with “spiritual eyes” could easily discern it’s message at every point.
When I encounter Christians on blogs and elsewhere today I usually encounter others who hold to this view of the scriptures, and I easily get flustered. But I am committed to the scriptures as the infallible word of God. So when I encounter Christians on the other end of this teeter-totter they automatically lump me into the first group precisely where I don’t comfortably fit in.
It gets most frustrating, however, when in discussion with any particular inerrantist group on any particular subject that they favour. Because they read the Bible and assume that what they think the Bible says does not come out of their interpretation of it. In fact, from their perspective they are not even thinking the Bible says something they believe, they are simply stating what the Bible says. And of course it just happens to align with what they believe. (They would actually say it’s the other way around.)
In a recent blog article Scot McKnight states the problem this way:
Many Christians grow up with a view of Scripture that it is inerrant, and that means for them – and I speak here of the populist impression – that it is not only true but that is more or less magically true – true beyond its time, true when everything else says something else. Connected to this view of inerrancy is a view of Bible reading that takes a sound Christian idea called the perspicuity of Scripture, that the Bible’s message is clear to any able-minded Bible reader, and ratchets it up one notch so that the Bible reader thinks whatever I see in the Bible is what the Bible is saying. This is my way of saying that one’s interpretations of Scripture become as infallible as the Bible itself, and since everything interlocks, giving in one inch is the first step in apostasy. (Here)
A “perspicuity of Scripture” (when pushed) is the idea that “whatever I see in the Bible is what the Bible is saying.” And the problem here, McKnight says, is that one’s “interpretations of the Scripture become as infallible as the Bible itself.” Give an inch anywhere and you’re well on your road to apostasy (is this why the neo-Reformed are so militant?).
But we run immediately into a problem at this point. Many people in that position cannot see how it is that their interpretation of the Bible is different from what the Bible is saying. After all, from their perspective, what the Bible says is clear if a Christian is “spiritually discerned” (which is a polite way of saying that I am holier than you are because I know what the Bible says).
For such a person there is a parable that Tom Wright shares which will help them understand:
After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the late summer of 1997, many in England were in a state of shock which reached a climax with her dramatic funeral the following Saturday. Millions of people all over the country seemed unable to think of anything else all week. The day after the funeral, preachers were faced with a choice. Since everyone is thinking about Diana, do you preach about her, discerning if you can some message, however oblique, in the day’s readings, and trying to help people deal both with genuine grief and with (as some cynics suggested) media-generated mass hysteria? Or do you do your best to change the subject and move people on (as we say) by simply preaching, with or without the lectionary, about something else entirely?
I chose the former route…. But I know of a church where the preacher made the other decision, and preached an entire sermon about Mary the mother of Jesus. One of the worshippers there told me afterward that she had come upon a young woman after the service, in tears as much of puzzlement as of grief. ‘I didn’t understand what he was saying,’ she said. ‘Can you help me get the point?’ She had assumed, throughout the sermon, that the preacher was in fact speaking about Princess Diana, however obliquely; and she was determinedly trying to decode, from his totally different discourse, a message that might help her in her grief.” (Justification, p.41)
And there you have it. When people come to the Bible with their minds on one thing, expecting one thing, they will assume that what they expect to see is what it is saying. They will then fight hard to “decode” it or attempt to press it into a systematic service and try to pull out of it something totally different than what the Bible itself is trying to say. This is why it is important to study the Scriptures in their own context (yes!), but more importantly, from their own context as though you and I were in the original crowd. This is much more difficult than picking up a Study Bible or Commentary to read about the background of a passage. We need to learn how to think as the original hearers thought in order to hear what they heard. And this, I think, is all about learning to come to the Bible with the questions the Bible itself is seeking to answer.