In our conversations with Kathleen Nielson regarding her new book Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word (P&R Publishing), we’ve discussed the truth that the Bible is God speaking, and that His Word is powerful, making us “wise for salvation.”
In this third installment, we talk with Nielson about the Bible’s clarity, and why we should approach Scripture with the expectation that we’ll understand what God has to say.
Because the Bible’s words are God’s words, and because they’re given to us to make us wise for salvation, you say we should come to Scripture expecting to understand it. How does this expectation affect our study?
And what are we to think when we come across passages we don’t understand?
The essential clarity of Scripture is one of its most beautiful aspects and one of the most encouraging for those who study it. Too often we laypeople assume we can’t grasp Scripture’s intricacies and so we leave the study to the professionals … or we’re simply lazy and would rather grab a quick processed snack than enjoy a substantive, carefully-prepared meal … or perhaps we’ve never been encouraged to study and enjoy (and be able to share) the fruit of learning the Word. The Reformation happened in large part because of the Reformers’ firm belief in the perspicuity—or the understandability—of Scripture, not just for church leaders but for all, even a simple laborer.
The Bible itself offers perhaps the most effective case for its clarity, promising to be a lamp and a light for God’s people along the way, urging the reading of it to the simple, and calling for its words to be diligently taught by parents to their children. One of my favorite scenes in the Bible is found in Nehemiah 8, where we see a crowd of God’s people (“men and women and all who could understand,” we’re told repeatedly) standing for hours to hear the Word of God read aloud. The Levite leaders moved among the people and “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” In fact, the people went away rejoicing “because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” The Word seems to go out of its way here to affirm the power of God’s Word to penetrate everybody’s heart, no matter what the age or stage or experience.
We have to qualify this point, of course. The people didn’t just understand as with the swish of a wand. They had to get themselves and their families to the square by the water gate really early, and they stood there for a really long time—and they listened to a lot of helpful teaching from the Levitical leaders who explained the meaning of the text. They surely didn’t grasp it all perfectly, but Scripture is careful to affirm that they “understood.” What an encouraging picture of God’s people taking in God’s Word. We won’t get it perfectly. But we can work hard at it, reading it extensively and prayerfully, getting ourselves among God’s people to study it, listening to the leaders He provides to teach it. In the process we’ll get it more and more, and we’ll also know more and more the kind of joy that comes from understanding the words God has declared to us.
Expecting this kind of understanding and this kind of joy can change the process of Bible study from tentative to confident, built on faith that the God who gave us these words actually means for us to take them in clearly and profitably.
Expecting this kind of understanding and this kind of joy can change the process of Bible study from tentative to confident, built on faith that the God who gave us these words actually means for us to take them in clearly and profitably. Such expectation can also change carelessness or laziness to diligence—for the reward of understanding and joy, once tasted, is a great motivator. Those people in Nehemiah 8 came back the next day for more. For those who lead or teach a Bible study, this expectation gives release from the fear that we’ll never be able to get it across effectively; we come to realize that we can fully depend on the power of the Word to speak.
What should we think when we come across passages we don’t understand? Well, it depends. If we don’t understand a passage upon first reading it, there are certain helpful questions to ask of the text; my book suggests and explains some of these questions. For example, what about context? The context of a passage usually helps explain a passage. The context of a book (along with its main theme) always helps clarify what any passage within the book is doing. The context of the whole biblical story sheds light on any part of it. Often one passage can be understood in light of another, which is one reason to keep reading the whole Bible from beginning to end. Then, of course, there’s the example of Nehemiah 8: we must work out understanding not just alone, but in the body of Christ, in groups that gather for that purpose with teachers who are trained to help us understand. We can consult books written by wise people within the body of Christ. Many around us can help us, and we can help many others.
In the end, there will be passages that continue to stump us. However, in my experience, the overwhelming impression of those who study is that, as we study, Scripture lights up and we understand it (and delight in it) more and more. The Bible is not a complex theological treatise; it is God speaking to us. The word “revelation” implies an unveiling: God does not hide from us but actually means to reveal Himself to us through the Scriptures. If that’s true, then it makes sense that, as we listen, He truly does let us know Him more and more clearly, by His Spirit and through His Son in whom He has shown Himself in the flesh.
Next, we speak with Nielson about the Bible as a literary work, and what that implies about our reading and study.
To learn more about Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word, visit here.