Warning: This is one of those theological blurs. As well, there are likely many mistakes in my arguments. Please do point them out.

Is the Bible accessible?

I was asked a question today. How do I deal with the idea of the bible being accessible to anyone when I think that it is complex and hard to understand at many points? I wanted to put more thought, and more words into my answer, so that’s what I am doing.

Many thoughts spring to my mind when asked how to deal with these two contrasting ideas. I will try to present them in an order that makes sense.

Firstly there are some ways in which the bible is simple and accessible, regardless of how complex it can get. It may seem a bit trite, but the Ten Commandments are not hard to understand. They are also rather important. As well, the Holy Spirit can and does move in people to create deeper understanding and to make them better people. God can communicate through the bible. This should not be used as an excuse though; the fact that God can and does do this in no way implies that He always does, that he must, or that He has to do in a “simple, accessible” way. Arguably, God works through our intellect and studies as much as outside of them, so if a man comes to a deeper understanding of the text through getting a PhD it does not mean that God didn’t reveal understanding to him.

Secondly, it seems to me that what is important is not how much knowledge we have, nor how deeply we understand doctrine or theology. What is important is love. Truth is very important throughout the bible, certainly. And getting to know God better should include the mind, the intellect. But being a good person still comes first before knowing anything. “What good does it do, then, to debate about the Trinity, if by a lack of humility you are displeasing to the Trinity? In truth, lofty words do not make a person holy and just, but a virtuous life makes one dear to God.” (Thomas a Kempis)

Thirdly, where does the bible ever say that is accessible or easy to understand? The closest it ever comes, that I can see, are two verse. The first is 1 Tim 4:13, where Paul exhorts Timothy to give attention to the public reading of scripture. The second is the ever so popular 2 Tim. 3:16 “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Lets start with some more academic problems, before we get to the obvious ones. Many scholars do not think Paul wrote 1st and 2nd Timothy. Regardless of whether you accept this or not, there is a problem. What did Paul mean by scripture? If Paul wrote these letters he could only have been referring to the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. It is extremely doubtful that Paul viewed his own writings as scripture, and the Gospels were not written yet, neither were any of the other letters in the New Testament. And if Paul didn’t write the letter, then the same problem exists, though altered slightly. The author of 2 Peter did view Paul’s letters as scripture, or at least placed them side by side. No Canon was defined until 325, so if Paul didn’t write this, then whoever did could have been referring to Paul’s letters and other letters in the New Testament, but not our New Testament. This of course leads to the next point, that the author of 2 Peter did not say that scripture was easy or accessible, he pointed out that it was difficult. “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15-16) Of course, there is the obvious problem that I referred to earlier but never explored. Those oft quoted verses from the Timothy’s do not say that scripture is accessible. It should be read publicly, and it is useful. One confusion that may come up is what it is useful for. It is very easy to hear the word teaching and then think of the teaching we have today. It is very unlikely that by teaching the author of 2 Timothy was referring to passing on of information. The biblical writers did not live in a period of information overload where the only classroom model was a lecture, and how Jesus taught the disciples shows just that. Reproof and correction almost assume that these things require understanding, which is never pointed to as easy to get. As for training in righteousness, that is the same point I made earlier. Its more important to be good than know doctrine.

The fact is, the bible points to itself as being difficult much more than it points to itself being easy. The same is true of Jesus talking about being a disciple. Yes, he said his burden was light, but he also asked that we carry our cross, die to ourselves, leave everything for him. He pointed out that the road was narrow and few would find it, that his teaching was hard, and “blessed are those who do not turn away on account of me” (Jesus). That at the end times, many would cry out to him, claiming to have done miracles in his name, but he would not know them. Read Mark. The disciples lived with Jesus for 3 years and had a very hard time understanding Him; they continuously messed it up. Ok, I know that this has strayed a bit from scripture. Jesus pointed out that some of his teachings were hard, and that his way was narrow, and these things became scripture, in some ways, but it does not address the whole issue. I know that. I still ask, where do we get off claiming the bible is easy and accessible?

So here is what I think of the idea of the bible being accessible. The fact is, no matter how much we talk about the bible this way, we all know its not, and our structures and actions assume that it is not. We have Pastors to explain it to us, they go to seminary and seminars to learn more, people spend there whole lives studying this book and the knowledge is passed down, hand over hand, until it reaches the common person in the pew. Yes, they are encouraged to read the bible on there own, but if their reading every contradicts the Pastor’s, guess who is right? Also, we have many “Gospel Presentations” specifically so that people don’t have to go through the difficulty of reading the Gospel’s themselves. (I know that is well motivated, and has as much to do with time as difficulty in the accounts, but both play a part, not just the time constraints). I do believe there are many parts of the bible that are straightforward. It seems to me that most of the parts that are very straightforward are sections that we wish were not so, and most of the parts that are complex and difficult are the sections that we trumpet our understanding about most loudly. Moreover, I believe there is value in the struggle to understand. In attempting to enter into dialogue with a text written by various authors, parts of which are over 2000 years old, written in various cultures which are a far cry from ours, we are pulled out of ourselves. This is an excellent first step, since many of us do not ever get outside ourselves, even when we read the Bible. The concept that the harder something is the greater the reward will be is not entirely true, but I think it applies in some way here. Struggling to grasp it is a worthy struggle. I am reminded of a line from “The Last Samurai”. “One could spend his whole life looking for the perfect blossom, and it would not be a wasted life.” Even knowing that we will never reach a perfect understanding, searching for it is not a waste. Lastly, the bible being easy and accessible came out of the protestant reformation, it was a reaction against some ideas held in the Catholic church. It is a good reaction as an ideal. To make the bible accessible to all, to help them understand, and let them help us understand, is an ideal well worth striving for. But it is not a fact to be defended, nor an assumption we should act on as if it were true.

Same Question, Phrased Different

So, another question, same lines, but different. Why would God ever make a text that was hard to understand or difficult? Wouldn’t it make sense to make something accessible and easy?

I think these questions rest on a lot of assumptions. If we consider the many different contexts in which the bible has existed, it is hard to see how this could have been accomplished. The Bible is at least partly culturally determined; this is another thing we acknowledge in our actions even if we don’t in our words. We let women have short hair, or speak in church, or go about without head coverings. Where do we get the idea that it is only those parts of the bible that we don’t accept that are culturally determined? It’s nice to try to use it as a criterion, but there is no consistency in doing that. If this is the case, then the only way God could have made the bible easy and accessible to all would have been to fill it with universal and complete truths that completely transcend culture, time, and even language (since even translating causes difficulty, as I am finding out in great detail in my Hebrew poetry class). In my mind such a book would be incomprehensible to us. I do not say that the bible is not full of truth, even truth’s of the kind mentioned above, but they are communicated through culture and language and such, not beyond it. It seems fairly obvious to me that the bible is not such a book as the kind mentioned above. The other option would be if God were to continually be directing every reader of the bible in correctly interpreting and reading it. While I have no doubt He is capable of this, He does not do it. History teaches us that.

On the other side of things, most of us can’t handle the straightforward parts of the bible; Not if we try to live them instead of just knowing them. A vibrant relationship with God, in my opinion, does not depend on being a biblical scholar. Nor does reading the bible the best we can. A good dose of humility and a great deal of prayer, towards our understanding of the bible especially, would do most of us a great deal of good, myself especially.

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