The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world?
Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. 1
Depending on the issue and the text, liberals are sometimes more to be trusted with the message of the text than conservatives are. This is because liberals are not stuck with the results of their exegesis the way conservatives are. Because conservatives confess that the teaching of the text is normative, the conservative has to make a show of actually doing whatever he comes up with. The liberal can say that the apostle Paul prohibited women teaching in the church—ho, ho, ho—but there it is. At least we get an accurate summary of what Paul’s position was. The conservative cannot afford to say that Paul was wrong, and—because whether or not they admit it, conservative church are pressured by the zeitgeist too—he cannot afford to act as though Paul was simply straight-up right. What to do? What to do? Time for a Greek word study!” 2
It is, I must admit, quite a bit of fun to tell another Christian that you believe x (in which x is effectively a restatement of a passage from the Bible) then watch them squirm—or fight you on that point.3
However, in the interest of first addressing the log in one’s own eye, I can remember many occasions in which I have read some passage of Scripture, and said in my heart, “Surely not!”, then searched for some commentary to tell me that this passage doesn’t really mean that.
Now, it should go without saying that there are many passages of Scripture that truly will be misunderstood at first blush, if the context or the genre are not taken into account. That is a thing, I grant.
What I am taking aim at here is the little King Ahab in each of our hearts, who amplifies the voices of sycophants to drown out the sound of God’s word:
Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for God will give it into the hand of the king.” But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?” And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah the son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” (2 Chronicles 18:5-7, ESV)
Let us consider, oh I don’t know, 1 Corinthians 11. Yes, the first bit of that chapter. And let us suppose that this passage, properly understood, truly doesn’t require a Christian wife in our day and age to wear a piece of fabric over her head when she goes to church. That being the case, it would be far, far better for a Christian wife to “misread” and “misapply” that passage by wearing a head covering to church with an obedient and joyful spirit, rather than saying what many of us have said in our hearts with that page of our Bibles open before us: “He can’t mean that! I wouldn’t do that!”
The impulse to get a second opinion about God’s word should be one of the central targets of our mortification. Instead, let us get in the habit of saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, ESV).
- Soren Kierkegaard, Attack upon Christendom ↩
- Douglas Wilson, Why Ministers Must Be Men (p. 41–42) ↩
- Am I being Christlike in so doing? Yes, that’s where I got the idea: Luke 20:16-17. ↩