I grew up in churches which stem from the American Restoration Movement. In our history, we had great concern for the way churches were divided. But many within this movement thought that the centuries of creeds and disputes and theological interpretation were, despite good intentions, accretions that kept us from seeing clear teachings of the Bible. We thought that the way toward doctrinal unity was pushing past the muddled history of creeds and doctrinal disputes and getting to the clarity of the Bible. This can sound condescending, as if we could look at the denominational leaders, tell them they simply needed to read the Bible alone, and these leaders would finally understand Christian truths. It could sound like a couch potato telling their favorite but struggling NBA team that they just need to get back to fundamentals. (Don’t the professional athletes know the fundamentals?) But this was no naive ecumenicalism, which thought that one could brush the disputed doctrines and practices under the rug and pretend like all the churches were united. We thought that true unity would be through an open-minded, fresh reading of the Bible.
But, somehow, this commitment to the Bible led to our group becoming one of the most divided and divisive Christian groups. How did that happen?
Though this issue is complex and involves issues like anti-intellectualism, our Biblical hermeneutics, and social divisions, there is one way of thinking that contributed to this.
The problem was our strong commitment to the Bible’s meaning being very clear.
This might make you uncomfortable. The clarity of the Bible (or, to use the technical terminology, the perspicuity of Scripture) is an important assumption of evangelicalism. Everyone can understand the Bible, we often say. As one preacher told me in the midst of a heated discussion, he thought that even a fairly uneducated man who spends his day riding a tractor on his farm can understand the Bible if he just reads it “without the opinions of men.” He didn’t need any knowledge of biblical scholarship or Greek.
Think about what this teaching means for Christian unity amidst Christian disagreement. If the Bible’s message were difficult to understand on that point, we would just chalk it up to a disagreement on a difficult, complicated, and somewhat confusing topic. We would even try to discuss and dialogue more so that we could collectively come to understand these difficult to understand doctrines. If the Bible’s teachings are clear, though, than you only have two real options for those who disagree with you on any topic: either they are stupid, or they are evil.
Let me explain: if the Bible’s teachings on any subject are simply clear to any normal person who reads and studies the Bible, then what does that say about the person who doesn’t understand it? It says they might be too stupid to understand the Biblical teachings. If the average person can understand the Bible’s teachings on a particular doctrine, then someone who cannot understand the same passage is ignorant. They are simply incapable at thinking at a high enough level to understand this Biblical teaching.
But what if the person isn’t stupid or uninformed? What if you know they have read the right passages and have access to enough resources to be able to understand the passage? What if you know they are intelligent? You would then have someone who looks at the appropriate Scriptures, can understand the passage properly if they so choose, but who is still mistaken about the Bible doctrine in question. The only serious option left is that the person is willfully misunderstanding the Bible and choosing to believe something false about God or some other topic.
Notice, then, what happens. When you think that a certain teaching of the Bible is clear, then you are forced to categorize someone who disagrees with you on that topic as either evil or stupid. That’s dangerous. And destructive. You cannot have unity with others if you think your disagreements with them are due to their stupidity or their sinfulness.
This is one reason that my Christian tradition became so divided. When churches fall into the mindset that everything they teach –– or at least everything they hold near and dear –– is plainly taught in Scriptures, they have already laid the foundation for sectarianism and disunity. There is no room for listening to those with whom we disagree and working toward a shared belief. There is only room for teaching and correcting those with whom we disagree.
Accepting the Bible Isn’t Clear
What if we just accepted that the Bible is not very clear? What if we just accepted that there are some teachings in the Bible that are difficult? That people rightly divide over them, because the evidence (even if it actually tilts in one direction) is within a reasonable, faithful person’s margin of error?
This requires us to be humble. This requires us to go to discussions to learn and not only to teach. But it will keep us from insulting other Christians and dividing from them.
Let me place a caveat here: I am not saying that every sentence of the Bible is opaque, hard to understand and apply. Many, maybe even most, parts of the Bible are clear. But there’s quite a distance between everything in the bible is crystal clear and some parts are not clear.
Some Important Caveats
First, the illumination of the Holy Spirit has to be accounted for. The Holy Spirit helps guide God’s people towards the truth. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t teach us everything little detail. I used to misunderstand that teaching. I remember once hearing someone say that the Holy Spirit guided Christians into truth. I pointed out that this person disagreed on some doctrines with one of his close friends. “Which one of you,” I asked, “isn’t listening to the Holy Spirit?” But that is not how the church has historically conceived of it. We read the Bible and discuss theology. We alter our views when we need to do so. And the church has disagreements. But the Holy Spirit is working within the church (usually in a way beyond our awareness of it) guide us into the truth. Paul said Philippians 3:15, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” Paul taught that God was working to make the Philippians Christians aware of the truth. But he also taught that was consistent with the Christians not being fully taught now.
Second, a teaching doesn’t have to be clear for its denial to be considered a heresy. For centuries, Christians have been discerning what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. With some issues, Christian tradition has seen in God’s revelation a certain truth that is so important that its denial is heresy. I have often been tempted toward saying that these doctrines — the ones whose denial is considered a heresy — should be clearly taught in the Bible. I don’t currently hold this position. Instead, I think something is a heresy when it is a denial of a crucial Christian truth, not necessarily a clear Christian truth. Many of the Trinitarian and Christological heresies are not clearly wrong; but they get something critically wrong.
And so, we have to be more exacting when we discuss the clarity (or perspicuity) of the bible. Can God’s people understand it well enough — is it clear enough? — for them to honor God with their lives? Yes. Is it clear enough for the average person to read and be encouraged by it? Yes. But is it clear enough that anyone who disagrees on any Christian teaching is thereby stupid or evil? No!
We must walk the narrow path between believing the bible is too opaque for the average person and thinking that anyone who disagrees with me is evil or stupid. That’s a tough path to walk in practice, with many questionable cases and much wisdom and grace needed. But narrow is the way.