My good friend and former roommate Keith Otto has a post with the above title on his blog. (I should point out for clarification that biblical studies is not Keith’s field, but language acquisition is, plus he is one of the smartest people I know.) Keith hits most of the main points that I think are relevant in assessing how we understand what we read. He has 7 possible scenarios that I will let you read for yourself and I don’t want to steal his post but his conclusions are a good reminder to those of us “in the trade” as well as all those who read the Bible for faithful reasons as well.
For us mere mortals, we appear to be left with incomplete understanding, and no certainty about how accurate we actually are when interpreting a given passage. And this uncertainty, this ambiguity is very threatening to some.
Interestingly, this is our condition even if we hold to the most extreme doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and infallibility. Every word may be the exact and perfect one, and perfectly true and authoritative, but this doesn’t mean that we understand fully or that we all have the same understanding. Confidence in the Bible is different than confidence in my ability to fully grasp the thoughts of God after carefully reading it once–or a hundred times.
I love and believe the Bible. My argument here is not that the Bible is irrelevant or that we read it without hope of understanding. Rather, I see the need for patience and care when reading, for diligence to learn more about the language and context, for prayer that the Holy Spirit would aid in the understanding, and for humility when interpreting or when disagreeing with somebody’s interpretation.
It is the middle paragraph above that I wanted to highlight. KO is absolutely right to point out this significant problem for those who hold to extreme views of infallibility and inerrancy. Even if one holds that each and every word as we have received it is without error and perfect we the interpreters are not (this is a doctrine that I believe all those who hold to inerrancy would also accept) so the understanding and application of Scripture will thus always be significantly compromised, or at least problematized.
This, by the way, is one of the more compelling arguments brought forward by the last set of Mormon missionaries with whom I engaged. “How do you properly understand the Bible if you do not have a living prophet to help you interpret it,” they asked. Good question and well worth pondering.