Have we taken our understanding of the simplicity of the gospel too far?
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
I sat at the table with someone who was trying to explain their understanding of a few New Testament passages. They asked me how I understood them, and as I shared how I looked at the context and the original language they paused and said, “Aren’t you just using the cultural context of the passage to explain away its clear and obvious meaning? If you have to study it that much, then it is probably not what it means.”
At the moment I was a bit taken aback. This shut down the conversation. It was before my days in seminary and honestly I wasn’t equipped with a good answer. Is the Bible meant to be simple for all to understand? I believe wholeheartedly in Bible access for all people, for teaching young children the mystery of the gospel, and that everyone—no matter their ability to read—should get to experience the wonders of Jesus. But have we taken the simplicity of the gospel and Bible access for all people too far? Does this simplicity imply that its meaning should be plain and clear without study?
CLEAR MEANING TO WHOM?
As I looked back through the passage, I saw what the clear meaning was to this person. From their 21st century, American mind-set in this particular English translation, the conclusion he drew seemed possible and logical. But what about for someone reading the passage in Ethiopia? Someone in China? A Christian in Syria? A Somalian refugee in Cleveland? And what about to the original writer, far removed from our culture and modern thinking who wrote this now ancient text? I’m not sure that he would have meant the same thing.
What is clear to us and the conclusions we draw are based on our own perception and cultural assumptions. Without proper study, we can draw numerous conclusions from passages in the Bible that are shaded by our own limited perspectives and biases. While translations are an amazing tool that make the Bible accessible to us, a translation can only go so far. The nuance of the word in the original language sometimes has a very specific meaning that is difficult to convey in translation. It is extremely important we are not drawing conclusions—especially conclusions that could restrict or harm others—without proper study.
In the current political climate of the United States, it is much too often that we hear verses of the Bible pulled from their context and used to defend everything from assault weapons to separating families at the border or—in much more subtle ways—to silence those in the margins. Throughout church history, sacred passages have been pulled out of their context and used as weapons against others, defending everything from war to slavery. We are not meant to use verses as ideological weapons to prove our points to others or to silence their voice.
PERSPICUITY OF SCRIPTURE
I do believe the work of the early Reformers is significant. I believe Luther was correct in pointing out ways that the church at the time was abusing Scripture. From Luther and the later work of John Calvin, have come the concepts of the clarity of Scripture as well as the three solas (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia) which have influenced much of Protestantism and evangelical theology up to today.1
I agree with the Reformers—the gospel is for all people. The message of redemption and reconciliation in Christ is completely clear. However, if the clarity of Scripture is meant to defend the idea that anyone can read the Bible simply in our English translations and understand it without much study, then why did Calvin take the time to write his extensive Institutes of the Christian Religion to teach doctrine and Bible study to others? Whether we agree with the doctrines taught in the Institutes or not, that was quite a lot of work for one man if he believed that the Bible was clear enough that it did not require deep study and reflection. I think we have perhaps, over the passage of time, simplified the study of the Bible too much in the name of making the Bible accessible to all people, and it has actually served to harm many.
HAVE WE SIMPLIFIED BIBLE STUDY TOO MUCH?
Since that first conversation, I have run into this line of thinking in Bible studies and church classes often. Someone asks, “What does this mean to you?” and each person vamps on their personal take on what the English words could possibly mean without showing any value for theological study. I am blessed with a very strong mother who is also a Bible study teacher. I grew up with her digging through large books of theology. I would find her studying Josephus or looking at original language resources at the dining room table while preparing for her Bible studies. She took the opportunity to teach the Bible very seriously, and as I grew up I took on this belief in the value of theological study.
However, the more I run into dangerous conclusions drawn from passages of Scripture, the more I realize how common it is to take a quick meaning of Scripture from a Western, white perspective. There is a need for deep discipleship here. The temptation is to be relevant in order to reach millennials and the next generation and to put together fancy marketing strategies to attract people to our version of church. However, this is often coming at the expense of discipleship. Discipleship of the next generation means not just teaching Bible stories or fun moral lessons but truly equipping even our young ones how to read the biblical text and how to live it out in their world. How do we take these beautiful ancient yet living texts, apply them for the good of people, and live out the love of Christ?
Here is what I have found helpful in my journey to study the Bible faithfully and to equip others to do the same.
1. Read and study the Bible with people who are not like you.
This has transformed how I experience the Bible. My presuppositions that I bring to my reading of Scripture without even realizing it come to light when I hear another perspective. Take time to learn from other perspectives and how they see the passages. It is amazing how often we have blind spots that we didn’t even notice. I have been able to see more of the beauty and goodness of God by having my perspective expanded by my brothers and sisters who are not like me. They have different life experiences, and they come to the passages from a different direction. As image bearers of Christ, they have shown me more of who God is than I would have ever been able to see on my own.
2. Equip others to study and teach the Bible.
While it seems natural to equip those who show a giftedness in teaching in how to study and teach the Bible, I believe this is a basic skill that is important for anyone. It is part of discipleship. It is part of engaging the world and living incarnationally with others. It also helps to open up spaces to hear the voices of those who often get marginalized, and who don’t have a voice in theological practice. We are all working out our salvation together. Are you looking to the young people in your community and teaching them how to study the Bible? Do women as well as men have opportunities to develop their gifts as well as learn how to exegete Scripture? Are those with disabilities equipped to study the Scripture and given opportunities to develop their gifts and be full partners in the church? This means taking special notice of all people to truly equip them in their study of Scripture.
3. Read and elevate theologians of color, women theologians and other minority theologians.
Their voices are so important. Read widely and deeply. There are many people who have used their gifts and time to study Scripture faithfully and deeply. Read their work and discuss their conclusions. Look at Scripture alongside their voices. Their academic work and study of the Bible is for our good, to help us all get a better understanding of the Scripture. When we stick to a few mainstream voices in our study of Scripture we miss some of the depth and texture that is present in the Bible.
We have to do the hard work of learning to study the Bible and learning how to teach others to study the Bible so that we can faithfully apply it in our lives, living it out on the streets of everyday life. Theology isn’t meant to be done in a vacuum. It takes community and practice. I very much believe that theology is a public practice where we can discern the Spirit together and strengthen each other through what we have studied in the Word and how we live it out. It takes away the blind spots and personal biases we may lay on top of Scripture, and helps to make clear what God is saying through his Word.
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Bruce L. Shelley. Church History in Plain Language, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.