Can We Understand the Bible Alike?
Recently a preacher raised the question: “Can we all understand the Bible alike?” He declared that we cannot, and asserted that those who believe that we can are simply entertaining an ignorant viewpoint.
Your Understanding, My Understanding
The claim is frequently made: “You understand the Bible one way, and I understand it another. Neither of us should condemn the other.” Another variation of the same tune: “Well, that is your interpretation of the Scriptures. I have mine as well. Perhaps both of us are right.”
These statements contain a logical contradiction. There is no such thing as “understanding the Bible differently.” If two people differ on the meaning of a biblical text, one of them is wrong about the matter—possibly both. We might misunderstand something differently, but we do not understand something differently.
Moreover, a passage does not yield two different interpretations; somewhere, there is misinterpretation.
Can God Make Himself Understood?
We operate daily upon the presumption that we, frail mortals though we are, can make ourselves understood to our peers. A department store places an advertisement in the newspaper about an upcoming sale. Hundreds of people flock to the same establishment on the correct day at the right time expecting specific items at a certain price to be available for purchase. How is it that they understand the ad alike?
A recipe is printed on a cereal box for oat bran muffins. Hundreds of ladies across the country follow it and bake delicious muffins for their families. Do they understand the instructions alike?
A physician prescribes a medication. Do we believe that the pharmacist will understand what the doctor has prescribed, and are we confident that we can understand the instructions for taking the medicine?
If we can sensibly operate our lives on a routine basis, recognizing that we are able to communicate with one another in an intelligible fashion, why can’t we acknowledge that God, who is infinitely wiser and abler than man, can clearly make his will known to humanity?
If one suggests that Jehovah could not clearly make himself known to man, he reflects upon the power of the Lord. If one argues that God purposely did not reveal himself to mankind in a lucid fashion, he reflects upon the benevolence of his maker. If one contends that man has no responsibility to understand and obey the precepts of the Scriptures, it is he who evidences great ignorance of his obligation to Heaven.
What Saith the Scripture?
The Bible is replete with passages which have as their underlying basis the assumption that we can uniformly understand our divine responsiblility as made known in the sacred writings. Consider the following:
- Christ declared that man shall not live by bread alone, but “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). If spiritual life is only to be found in the words from God, does it not stand to reason that humanity is capable of understanding that message?
- When Jesus rebuked the Sadducees for their error concerning the resurrection of the human body, he charged that a part of their problem was that they were ignorant of the Scriptures (Matthew 22:29). Does this not presuppose that had they been good students of the Old Testament they could have uniformly known that there was to be a resurrection of the body?
- Though none of us was alive to witness the first-century miracles performed by the Lord Jesus, the history of those events was written down in order that we might believe those signs which documented the Master’s claim of deity (see John 20:30-31). Can we believe the biblical narratives regarding Christ’s deeds and confidently have a united understanding that he is the Son of God? If not, of what value is the New Testament?
- Of the early church it is said: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). How could such a statement possibly be made unless those early saints were capable of agreeing upon the apostolic instruction?
- The citizens of the city of Berea were considered to be nobler than those of Thessalonica, because they received the word of God with all readiness of mind, examining the Scriptures daily to determine the accuracy of what they were being taught (see Acts 17:11). Does this affirmation not imply that these inquirers were able to draw harmonious conclusions about the word of God?
- The Christians in Rome were commanded to be on the lookout for those who caused divisions and occasions of stumbling “contrary to the doctrine which ye learned” (Romans 16:17). If we cannot understand the Bible alike, how could anyone ever be disciplined for walking contrary to sound doctrine? That would make no sense whatsoever.
- In the New Testament epistles, the churches are constantly admonished to “speak the same thing,” to be free from divisions, and to “be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10; cf. Philippians 2:2). How can we possibly take this instruction seriously if we are incapable of understanding the Bible alike?
- The apostle Paul plainly declared that by reading the message which he wrote, we would be able to perceive his understanding of the gospel of Christ (see Ephesians 3:1-7). He thus subsequently charges: “Wherefore be ye not foolish but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17).
- The inspired Scriptures are said to be profitable “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If we do not have the ability to understand the Scriptures, how can the holy writings profit us in the aforementioned categories?
Can we understand the Bible? Of course we can. Can we understand it alike? Why not?
If we can understand that 2 + 2 = 4, if we can understand that fifty-five miles per hour means just that, then we can understand, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). We can understand that there is “one body” (Ephesians 4:4), and that that body is the church (Colossians 1:18). We can further know that salvation is in that body (Ephesians 5:23), and outside of that body no redemption is to be found (2 Timothy 2:10).
The problem with those who contend that men cannot agree upon the Scripture’s teaching is simply this: they are seeking a way to justify error!
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.