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‘He’s not a theologian’. This is how one of my seminary students described his friend. He was not trying to be rude, but he implied through this statement that he didn’t know the Bible as well as he and, in all likelihood, never would. Sadly, this seems to be the attitude of a lot of seminary-trained students, who genuinely believe that a ‘lay’ person (someone who isn’t formally trained in theology), who never went to a Bible college could never understand the Bible. And the ‘layperson’ seems to have bought into this axiom, at least subconsciously if not overtly. I’ve seen many godly men who haven’t been formally trained in theology preach at our seminary and they are visibly nervous. They confess that they are nervous speaking to a seminary crowd. So on one hand there are seminary students who wrongly derive confidence in their ability to understand the Bible from their degree, and there are others who feel a lack of confidence in handling the Scriptures because of their lack of a degree.
But is this a biblical way of thinking on this subject? What does the Bible have to say on this?
Can the Bible be understood by everyone, irrespective of their theological training?
What does the Scripture say?
The doctrine of Scripture that directly addresses this subject is what theologians have called the ‘perspicuity’ of Scripture, or the clarity of Scripture.
While there are many sound theologians who’ve written on the doctrine of the ‘perspicuity’ of Scripture, I’ve found Wayne Grudem to be quite clear (pun intended) on this topic, which I’ve summarized below:
The Old Testament affirms that the Bible can be understood
Even by children:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut. 6:6–7)
Even by the unsophisticated:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple. (Ps. 19:7)
The assumption of both these texts is that the Scriptures are clear and can be understood, even by children and those considered to be ‘simple’ people.
The New Testament affirms that the Bible can be understood
Statements of Jesus
“Have you not read what David did . . . ? Or have you not read in the Law . . . ?” (Matt. 12:3, 5). “Have you not read . . . ?” (Matt. 19:4). “Have you never read in the scriptures . . . ?” (Matt. 21:42).“
Jesus constantly points His hearers back to the Scriptures and puts the blame on them for not understanding the implications of clear Old Testament texts.
The epistles are not written to church leaders but to congregations. These are churches that have men and women, educated and uneducated, slave and free, elderly and children. The writers assume that their words will be understood by their hearers, which is why Paul even encourages sharing his letters with other congregations (Col. 4:16) The Bible was read publicly- strongly implying that the church could understand what was being read, even if they were illiterate. Paul’s command to children to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-3) implies that even they were present in the churches and understood the command.
Questions regarding the doctrine of ‘Clarity’ of Scripture
Can we understand all of the Bible all at once?
No. Understanding the Bible is a process, whether you’ve been to Bible college or not. The more you study and meditate on the Bible, the more you will understand.
Can we understand the Bible without effort?
No. Effort is required to understand, especially the harder parts. Peter said that some things that Paul wrote were harder to understand (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
Do I need a supernatural spiritual experience to understand the Bible better, like a special ‘anointing’?
No. You just need to use the ordinary means of grace given to you. You need a Bible translation that is easy for you to understand, you need to listen to faithful pastors teach God’s word to you. Commentaries are resources written by gifted men for your benefit. Discussing the Bible with a group in your church helps you understand it better. Use these ordinary means of grace to understand the Bible better.
Can I understand the Bible without wanting to obey it?
No. Merely trying to understand the Bible without wanting to obey it will make you proud. Furthermore, you deceive yourself (Jam. 1:22-25). The more you willfully disobey that which you know, Scripture will become harder and harder to understand rightly.
Do I need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand the Bible?
Yes. The Scripture is produced by the Spirit of God, and only someone who is born again can understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14)
If the Bible is clear, then why are people divided on their interpretations?
Because clarity is a property of the Bible, not of the readers. Because of our sin and our finite minds, Christians will misunderstand different parts of Scripture. Jesus’ disciples also misunderstood Scripture at first (Lk. 9:44-45). Others willfully distort and twist the meaning of the Bible to suit their own ends (2 Pet. 3:16).
When will I be able to fully understand the Bible?
When you see Jesus. You will grow deeper in your understanding of Scripture with study and prayer, but one day when you are glorified, sinless and perfectly holy as Jesus is holy, you will understand perfectly. You will see clearly and not ‘dimly as in a mirror’.
Why does God inspire a Bible that can be understood?
His nature- God, being our Holy and Righteous Creator, wants us to know Him, for this is the reason for our being, to know this God and glorify Him forever.
His justice- In order for God to hold us accountable, He must give us the revelation that we can understand.
His love- Discipleship in the church would be non-existent without the reality of the doctrine of the clarity of scripture. Only a handful of select people would be able to understand the Bible and the one-to-one member ministry that Ephesians talks about would be a ridiculous command. But God, out of His great love for our sanctification, makes Scripture clear enough that all of God’s people will be able to use it to help other Christians in the local church to grow into the image of Jesus, the Son of God.
I’m not against seminaries, far from it (I currently teach at one). Seminaries have been used by God to protect against heresies that threaten the faith of the church. But the question this article is attempting to answer is this – does a Christian need a Bible college degree to understand the Bible? The answer from Scripture is a clear and resounding ‘NO!’. God has made clarity one of the distinctives of His word, and anyone who has believed in the gospel can understand it clearly (although with those caveats mentioned above). One of the blessings of the Reformation is that Scripture became accessible to believers. During that time people treasured God’s word and spent time studying it. But today, many Christians in India are intimidated by opening and studying the Bible. We feel uncomfortable about marking our Bible, and would rather keep the Bible in a respectable cover on the showpiece than read it. But the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture should motivate everyone who is a Christian to read it with confidence, knowing that God reveals Himself to us through His word. His word is clear, so let’s dig deeper into it. You will never regret it.