Monday, September 01, 2014

There are no hidden meanings in the Bible

Many well meaning Christians will dispute the title of this post. In fact, many will claim that the discovery of such hidden meanings results from the Spirit's work, which leads to the accusation that someone who claims that there are no such meanings must be unspiritual or even opposed to the Spirit's work. Even so, it is the contention of this post that recognizing that such hidden, supposedly spiritual meanings do not exist is an essential aspect of a healthy Christian life and that the quest for deeper spiritual and hidden meanings in the biblical text is spiritually harmful and even dangerous.

The reason that it is potentially dangerous is that the person who unmoors Scripture from its historical context and proper reading can as a result make the Bible out to mean anything that comes to mind. Without objective criteria for proper interpretation, there really are no mechanisms for determining whether one's claims for finding a meaning are accurate. At worst, this can become self-delusion, as a person reads his own desires, interests, or pet peeves into Scripture. Using Scripture in this way is also ultimately idolatrous, as the practice in essence leads its practitioners to claim as the Word of God what really are their own thoughts.

Thus, the reader of the Bible should approach its teaching in a straightforward manner -- and when he does so, he finds two things that on the surface seem contradictory. The Bible is a clear book that anyone can read and understand.  The Bible is a hard book to read.

The Bible is clear in that an ordinary person can read and understand it. Scholars are not required, though it should be noted that saying that they are not required is not the same thing as saying that they can't be useful. It is hubris, not spiritual maturity, that leads some to claim that they don't want to use teachers. Those who have a hunger for understanding the Bible should enjoy the work of those who have a more thorough knowledge of its contents.

But while the Bible is a clear book, it is also a hard book to read. In order to understand why this is true, it is important to briefly review the factors that make it hard.  The Bible is 1) a very large book 2) containing a collection of works of different genres 3) written in different languages 4) to people from a different age and culture 5) sometimes in response to concerns that aren't clearly stated.

That the Bible is a large book makes it difficult to master all of the contents in a way that allows us to see how all of the parts fit together. For example, there are hundreds of references to the Old Testament in the New. Many readers have no idea that is the case; yet, understanding why the New Testament writers borrowed Old Testament language can be essential to understanding their meaning.

That the Bible contains various types of literary genres will make understanding difficult for someone who doesn't realize that history must be read differently than a proverb or a Psalm differently than a letter. Each of these require looking at the text in different ways.

That the Bible was originally written in other languages means that there may be issues of translation that most readers lack expertise to evaluate. While the popular English translations are good, the typically minor differences do create some uncertainty about meaning to readers. Idioms cannot always be translated clearly, and sometimes words or phrases from one language have no clear parallel in another.

That the Bible was written to a different age and culture means that it sometimes addresses questions in a way that is not immediately applicable to modern life. Finding the original meaning prior to determining proper application can become a difficult task. Cultural mores might be a complete mystery to the reader.

That the Bible was sometimes written in response to unstated concerns means that sometimes the reader is only getting half the conversation. For example, the reader finds Paul's solutions to problems, but there is no statement as to what the problems were that required solving. In I Corinthians, Paul clearly indicates that he is responding to questions in a letter that had been delivered to him, but the full contents of the letter are not provided. Without knowing the questions, it is possible to misconstrue the significance of the answers.

While each of these items creates some difficulty, that difficulty is not resolved by some sort of "spiritual" reading of the text. Rather, these difficulties point us to the value of good books and teachers that address them. Looking for hidden meanings in the text only adds a layer of confusion on to the difficulty.

How, then, should the reader approach the Bible? The short answer is that the reader should approach the Bible by looking for its plain meaning. In other words, the texts of Scripture should be read 1) in their historical context; 2) using the ordinary rules of grammar and word meaning; and 3) recognizing the distinct literary form. One should also read the Scripture with a view toward its unifying themes, which might be described as redemptive or covenantal (ultimately, the Bible is a book about Christ).As indicated before, all of this is not intended to require the reader to be an intellectual. Anyone can benefit by looking at resources that help one understand things like context or how words were used. However, the emphasis here is on reading the text for its plain meaning.

While that might be a hard concept for one to get used to if he/she has been taught to look for hidden spiritual meanings in a text, it is ultimately liberating. There is no comfort to be found in the need to look for hyperspiritual meanings that can't be found by ordinary eyes. It is a joy to realize that the Bible, with the help of good teachers, is a book that is not out of reach. To find the Word of God, as Romans 10 explains it, one needs neither to ascend to the heavens nor descend to the depths. Rather, God's Word is near.

While this process is liberating, at first it may seem hard, as it removes one's ability to "claim" verses as one's own in ways that have nothing to do with what they actually mean. This means recognizing that "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength" has nothing to do with prevailing at the football game on Friday night -- it has to do with contentment, even when facing, as in the Apostle Paul's case, the ravages of prison. That Jesus' command to "judge not" comes only a few verses before another command not to "cast your pearls before swine" might give one pause before asserting the popular view of the former mandate.

When it comes to the subject of end times prophecy, the self-proclaimed spiritual interpretations get even stranger. The subject of events related to the return of Christ is a complex one that divides even responsible interpreters. Sadly, many of those who write on such subjects do so in ways that are irresponsible. While it would take more than a blog post to resolve and respond to all of those sorts of craziness, one can at least say that the above principles of historical/grammatical/literary interpretation apply even to prophesy and apocalyptic literature, which must be understood in its historical and literary context.

Recent decades have seen huge numbers of people follow after prophecy teachers that claim to find secret codes and messages, as well as odd numerological sequences. These kinds of teachers should be avoided like the plague. Spiritual illumination does not refer to secret meanings that the enlightened uncover. Instead of seeking that sort of gnostic illumination, read the Bible for its plain meaning and look for the Spirit's illumination in applying the truths that are found to life.

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