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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Answering Bible Difficulties

Don Stewart :: How Should Specific Difficulties Be Evaluated?

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How Should Specific Difficulties Be Evaluated?

Answering Bible Difficulties – Question 13

What should the reader do when they find a difficult passage in the Bible? Is there a way to approach particular problems? The answer is, “Yes.” There are several matters that must be kept in mind when one comes across a Bible difficulty.

1. We Should Assume That It Was Written to Be Understood

In assessing any written document, we should always assume that the author had intended to make sense of what he wrote. Therefore, we should use our common sense to understand what the author is trying to say. When someone takes the time to write something, they desire their writing to be understood.

2. We Must Ask How the Original Audience Would Have Understood It?

The key issue is finding out how the original audience would have understood what was written. What would it have meant to them? This should be our starting point.

3. We Should Give the Bible the Benefit of the Doubt

Whenever a document comes down to us that is reportedly ancient, and it shows no signs of tampering or forgery; and if this document demonstrates that it is correct with the specific references that it gives; the burden of proof is on those who doubt its authenticity. The writing in question should always be given the benefit of the doubt.

Therefore, when we meet an apparent error in Scripture—a Book that repeatedly has demonstrated itself to be reliable, we should presume the error is because of our ignorance or lack of understanding of what the author is saying. In other words, the Bible always gets the benefit of the doubt.

4. We Should Check Out the Original

Sometimes the problem we face lies in the translation of the passage. When the original language is checked, the discrepancy often goes away. This is why multiple translations should be considered when encountering a difficulty.

5. We Must Let Scripture Interpret Scripture

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is that the Bible must be allowed to interpret itself. We must remember that the ultimate Author behind each of the books of the Bible is God. When Scripture is compared with Scripture we can then discover the full implications of what God intended.

6. We Must Interpret the Obscure by the Clear

One central rule of interpretation is that we interpret the obscure passage by the clear. We do not try to force the obvious meaning of one text to conform to the obscure meaning of another text. Never should a doctrine be based upon an obscure passage. A good example of this is 1 Corinthians 15:29. It reads:

Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29 NKJV)

We may not exactly know what this passage does mean, but from the totality of Scripture we certainly know what it does not mean. People are not to be baptized in water in place of those who have died.

Another example of making a doctrine out of something obscure would be the “gap theory.” This theory, which argues for a gap of time between the first two verses of Genesis, is built upon a questionable translation of the Hebrew. This alone should make the theory suspect.

There is a principle called “the analogy of Scripture.” Simply stated, this teaches that every unclear reference should be interpreted in light of something that is clear. Therefore, we should never assume that an unclear passage contradicts what is clearly taught elsewhere in God’s Word; neither should we build any doctrine on some obscure text or translation.

Thus we should interpret all difficult passages in light of the clear teachings of Scripture. No doctrine should be built upon passages that are obscure. If a certain teaching is vital, it will be stated in Scripture more than once.

7. We Should Interpret the Bible as Other Books

Another point that needs to be made is that the Bible should be interpreted by the same rules that we use to interpret any other book. There are no special rules we should employ when we interpret the Bible. The Bible should be approached like all other books with regard to interpretation. We should seek to understand how the original readers would have understood it.

8. It Is Important to Look for the Literal Meaning

The Bible is God’s communication to humanity. Obviously, if the Bible intends to reach the maximum number of people, then the message should be understood at face value. The Bible should be interpreted in a literal manner if at all possible. A good rule of thumb is this: If the literal sense makes good sense, then seek no other sense, lest you come up with nonsense.

9. We Should Understand Different Literary Devices Found in Scripture

Sometimes the difficulty we encounter is a result of an incorrect understanding of the type of language the author is employing. The Bible contains different literary styles. In the pages of Scripture we find such styles as narrative, law, and poetry. Sometimes the difficulty lies in the incorrect identification of the type of literary form the author is employing.

Literal interpretation allows for figures of speech. The Bible, at times, uses figures of speech to communicate its truth. These figures of speech should not be interpreted in the same way as a simple narration of events. Literal interpretation does not mean that every sentence, every statement must be interpreted literally when the context calls for a non-literal interpretation.

If the Bible is read as other literature, allowing the author to say what he wishes in the different literary forms, then there will be no major problem understanding that which is to be taken literally and that which is meant to be non-literal. It is crucial to understand this.

10. It Is Crucial to Always Check Out the Context

The Bible should always be interpreted contextually. This means the context should be studied in order to see how each verse relates to that which precedes and that which follows. Close attention should be paid to the theme and scope of the biblical book under consideration. Context should always be a determining factor when interpreting any difficult passage.

For example, it could be argued that the Bible teaches that God does not exist. Psalm 14:1 says, “there is no God.” By itself, this statement seems to teach atheism. However, the statement is prefaced by this qualification: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” Each statement of the Bible needs to be read in its context.

11. We Must Realize That Not Every Statement Is True

When we read the Bible, should we regard every statement as true? Can we confidently read any portion of Scripture, and act upon any statement? The answer is no. A distinction needs to be made between the accuracy of the statements in the Bible, and their truthfulness.

Divine inspiration guarantees the accuracy of every statement, but not the truth of it. For example, every time Satan spoke, he lied. Jesus said of him:

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (John 8:44-45 NRSV)

In the Garden of Eden, the serpent promised Eve that she and her husband would be like God if they ate of the forbidden fruit. The Bible says:

The serpent said to the woman, “Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5 NET)

The New International Version translates it this way:

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5 NIV)

The statement of the serpent is recorded accurately, but the statement is not true. Other examples can be found in Scripture where people made statements that are against the clear teaching of God and His Word.

12.The Bible Was Written in Non-Technical Language

It is also important to understand the manner in which the truth is communicated in Scripture. The Bible is written in non-technical language to reach the maximum number of people. Whenever any event occurs, there are two basic ways of explaining it. One way is to give a technical explanation. However, the more technical the language, the more limited your audience will be.

A second possible way of explaining things is to relate how the event appears to the observer. It is this non-technical way in which the Bible describes events. For example, the events of creation recorded in the early chapters of Genesis are not described in terms of modern scientific classification, but are described from the vantage point of an observer here on earth.

The Bible does not use the technical language of science, but rather the non-technical language of the marketplace. The biblical writers dealing with concepts of their times used the language of their times. The scriptural language is the language of common everyday use. The words of the Bible are neither scientific, nor unscientific in nature, but are rather timeless and non-scientific. The language of Scripture is the language of appearance. Biblical writers describe things as they appear to the observer. This is also known as “phenomenal” language.

Furthermore, the Bible does not attempt to give technical answers to technical questions. Since the Bible speaks in everyday language to all people of all times, it is not correct to look for answers explained in technical scientific language. This type of language soon becomes out of date, and would be irrelevant for future generations.

13. Our Interpretation Is Not Infallible

The Bible alone is the inerrant Word of God—not our personal interpretation of it. Unfortunately, there have been mistaken interpretations of the Bible by certain “church” authorities. This has caused some to think the Scripture is in error.

A classic example of this is the mistaken view that the earth is the center of the universe. Because the Bible speaks of things from an earth-centered viewpoint, some have thought Scripture was affirming that the earth, not the sun, was the center of the universe. This earth-centered idea became an article of faith for many in the church. They attempted to silence those who taught otherwise. Sadly, this was all based upon a wrong interpretation of Scripture.

Therefore, we should not make the mistake of believing that science and the Bible are at odds because of a wrong interpretation of the facts of Scripture. The infallibility is in the Scripture itself, not in our interpretation. When Christians read their own fallible interpretation into Scripture, this does not mean the Bible is in error. Rather, it means the interpreter made a mistake.

14. What about the Author’s Intent?

One of the ways of understanding any written communication is attempting to find out the author’s intent. However, when we come to the Bible we encounter a number of problems if we attempt to do this. They are as follows:

We Need to Realize the Bible Has Dual Authorship

First, Scripture is clear that it is the result of more than one author. There are the various human authors of Scripture, but ultimately God is behind the wording of Scripture. Therefore, it is not possible to attempt to discover the author’s intent since every part of Scripture is the result of dual authorship. It is divine/human.

We Do Not Know the Mind of God Unless He Reveals It

As far as God is concerned, we do not know what He is thinking unless He tells us. God has said that His thoughts are beyond our comprehension:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 KJV)

In addition, we are told that at times the human authors did not realize what they were writing. Peter wrote:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who evangelized you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things angels long to catch a glimpse of. (1 Peter 1:10-12 NET)

Consequently, since they did not always realize the exact meaning of what they were writing, it is fruitless for us to attempt to discern their intent. All of this makes attempting to find the intent of the author a futile exercise. The best thing to do is try to discover how the original audience would have understood it.

Conclusion: These Facts Should Be Kept in Mind When Bible Difficulties Are Examined

If we consider all these facts whenever we encounter a difficulty in Scripture, it will help us in coming to some type of answer to the problem. While not all difficulties have obvious answers to them, we can certainly eliminate a number of difficulties if we apply some of these points.

Summary – Question 13
How Should Specific Difficulties in Scripture Be Evaluated?

When one encounters a difficult passage in God’s Word, the following facts should be considered. First, we should assume the author wants to make sense. Second, we should attempt to ascertain how the original readers would understand what the author had written. In areas of difficulty we should give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.

When at all possible, check out the original. It is also important to realize that Scripture interprets Scripture. It is crucial to interpret the obscure passages by the clear ones.

We must make certain we interpret the Bible as other books. Although one should always look first for the literal meaning, it is also important to realize that the Bible sometimes employs figures of speech. It is also vital that we make certain that we always check out the context. It is necessary to realize that not every statement in the Bible is true—just that it is accurately recorded. Remember too, that the Bible was written in non-technical language. Above all, let us understand that our interpretation is not infallible.

In addition, we should not be overly concerned to attempt to find the author's intent—seeing that each portion of Scripture has a human and a divine author. It is better to try and understand how the original readers or hearers of the message would have understood it.

What Type of Difficulties Do We Find in Scripture? ← Prior Section
What Specific Objections Have Been Made Against the Inerrancy or the Trustworthiness of Scripture? Next Section →
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