The Bible Tells Me So

Week of Monday, August 6, 2001

Evangelicals pride themselves on the role they give to the Bible in their Christian lives. A church we know recently changed their name to indicate that it was a “Bible” church. Detractors, on the other hand, charge us with “bibliolatry” or turning the Scriptures into a “paper pope.” Depending on what circles you travel in, we face the twin temptations of trying to make the Bible say either too much or too little. Evangelicals succumb to the former, more liberal saints to the latter.

I have often returned to the fine statement about Scripture found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) to help me to avoid both snares.

The confession contains 33 short chapters, the very first of which treats the Scriptures in articles 1–10, signaling to us their primary role in the Christian life. The Scriptures are “most necessary” because although we can know something about God from a number of sources like creation, providence or nature, we know His full revelation and redemption only by what He tells us there. They are a rule or canon for our “faith and life” and we gladly place ourselves under their authority. One might try to offer a convincing rationale for this, the Confession says, but ultimately one accepts the God-breathed nature and authority of the Scriptures only through the “inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”

In our culture today Biblical literacy is at an all time low. Seminaries struggle with this problem of their students who enter seminary with little or no knowledge of even the basics of Scripture. In a recent essay Charles Colson notes that CBS journalist Dick Meyer confessed that he did not understand a strange phrase used by George W. Bush in his inaugural address (it was a reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan), and that according to pollster George Barna only a small percentage of Americans can name the Ten Commandments, and only 42% know who preached the Sermon on the Mount.

Anyone serious about the journey with Jesus must read the Bible; there is no other way. We must read it often and well.

For evangelicals who tend to read not too little but too much into the Scriptures, here is where I find the Westminster Confession so helpful. I quote article I.7:

Not all things in Scripture are equally clear, or equally clear to all people. But those things that are necessary to be known, believed and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other that not only the learned but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain a sufficient understanding of them.
If we think about this statement, it gives us at least four important reminders about Scripture. All four of them are rather obvious, but I often find that many Christians have not thought about them.

First, as to the text of Scripture, not everything is equally clear in the Bible. Some things are downright obscure, others morally repugnant, still others apparently contradictory. There is no merit pretending otherwise. What are we to make of the sometimes bizarre visions we read in Ezekiel or Revelation? Why did God ask Abraham to murder his son Issac (Genesis 22) or command Moses and Joshua to commit genocide (Genesis 31, Deut. 20:16, Joshua 6:21)? Did Judas hang himself (Matthew 27:5) or fall and split open his intestines (Acts 1:18–19)? Did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning (John 2:12–16) or end (Mark 11:12–19; Luke 19:45–46) of his ministry? Still other things are crystal clear, like the command to love God with all of our heart, soul and strength, and our neighbor as ourself (Mark 12:29–31).

Next, not all things are “equally clear to all people.” This turns our attention from the text of Scripture to the reader of Scripture.The inspiration of the text of Scripture is one thing, its interpretation by sinful, subjective, fallible human beings is another. No reader is neutral. All of us read the Scriptures through our own subjective “lenses”—our unique time, place, culture, gender, ethnicity, limitations, strengths, weaknesses and so on.

Taken together, these first two points help to explain why Christians who dearly love Jesus and his church can disagree, sometimes drastically, over important matters like church government, women's ordination, ethical issues like the death penalty, and so on.

At this point the Westminster Confession makes a crucial distinction. Those things most necessary to know are most clearly explained. There are some things in Scripture that are necessary to know, believe and observe in order to experience salvation, like the extent of my sin and the breadth and depth of God's transforming love and grace in Christ. These are simple and clear. By implication, this means that there are many things in Scripture that are good, interesting, helpful and so on that are not, strictly speaking, necessary to understand for salvation, nor, sometimes, are they as clearly stated. Clearly, there are matters of secondary and even tertiary importance in the Bible. We could include here all the vexing examples I listed in the first point. The Apostle Paul makes a similar distinction in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, where he says that he passed on to the Corinthians matters of “first importance”, namely, that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, raised on the third day, and that he made numerous public appearances that could be verified.

Fourth, the Confession reminds us that we need not be Biblical scholars to understand the Bible. Granted, there is no merit in laziness, carelessness and ignorance. Nevertheless, Scripture is open to “the learned and the unlearned” if we will but employ the “due use of ordinary means.” What are those means? Study, hard work, prayer, persistence, an open heart, availing ourselves of the advice and wisdom of others in the Christian community, and so on. A believer who employs these means can be confident that they can read the Bible and clearly understand everything they need to know for salvation and a godly life.

Finally, the Confession leaves us with a salutary and humbling reminder that is always cause for modesty. Our understanding of the Bible, says the Confession, can be sufficient for all we need, but it will never be perfect. I find this liberating, because it means that I do not have to answer every question or conundrum that pops into my head in order to read the Scriptures with profit, experience their life-changing power, and be the person God wants me to be.

In sum, Biblical ignorance is perilous to the soul. The Scriptures are necessary to “make us wise unto salvation” and to “equip us for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that they are living, active and sharper than a two-edged sword, judging the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. Ignoring, denuding or making the Scriptures say too little is no bargain. Conversely, and thank God, I can be a faithful Christian without being a Bible expert , trying to solve every Biblical puzzle, or twisting the Scriptures to make them say too much.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.