Christian Pilgrim


The Quest for Certainty

The Evangelical Doctrine of the Impossibility of Understanding Scripture


Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.2:
What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The word of God (which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament)
a is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.b

a 2 Timothy 3:16.
b 1 John 1:3,4.

When Christ was set before Pontius Pilate, Pilate asked the question “What is truth?” (John 18:35). The Christian, who lives by faith, must answer “the Bible.” This book is his only source of truth. It contains the truth, the whole truth (or at least all that the Christian needs to know in this world) and nothing but the truth.

Westminster Confession 1:1:
I. ALTHOUGH the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusablea; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of His will, which is necessary unto salvationb. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Churchc; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writingd: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessarye; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceasedf.

a Romans 2:14, 15; Romans 1:19, 20; Psalm 19:1, 2, 3; Romans 1:32, with chap. 2:1.
b I Corinthians 1:21; I Corinthians 2:13, 14.
c Hebrews 1:1.
d Proverbs 22:19, 20, 21; Luke 1:3, 4; Romans 15:4; Matthew 4:4, 7, 10; Isaiah 8:19, 20.
e 2 Timothy 3:15; 2 Peter 1:19.
f Hebrews 1:1, 2.

There are two very popular misconceptions in the church today, which we see corrected here. Firstly there is the idea that God still speaks to His people directly today and that we therefore don't need a Bible; and secondly there is the idea that truth can never be found, everything is relative, so we can believe what we like. No and No. We cannot have a situation in which, on the one hand, truth changes (depending on who has experienced the latest prophecy), nor on the other hand, where truth is relative, i.e. whatever the individual wants it to be. There MUST be one (and only one) absolute truth. The Bible is the Christian's only source of truth.

God's “divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” (2 Peter 1:3,4).

Every word of the Bible in the original languages, has been breathed out by God:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

….the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Peter 1:21).

If we bring something from outside of the Bible into the equation when searching for truth, the problem is that truth discovered outside of the Bible may be mixed with error. I have read many books, and heard many sermons that try to explain a passage of the Bible by use of outside sources. For example, in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland Magazine (January 2004), an article was printed on the parable of the wedding garment by W.K. Tweedie (a Free Church minister in the nineteenth century). He started the article by saying, “This parable cannot be understood unless we keep in view certain of the customs of the East.” The rest of the discourse interpreted the Bible passage in the light of extra-biblical information on eastern wedding customs. How do we know the accuracy of these? Will not scholars change their views on what these eastern wedding customs were twenty years from now? There are therefore big problems with the use of any material other than that which is in the Bible itself, purely because we cannot vouch for the accuracy of it. However we can vouch for the accuracy of the Bible. We must only interpret Scripture with Scripture and nothing else:

Westminster Confession 1:9:
IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearlya.

a 2 Peter 1:20, 21; Acts 15:15, 16.

But we still have a big problem. Not, I hasten to add, with God or with the Bible. We thoroughly agree that every word of the Bible is God-breathed, and is our only source of truth. That is not the issue. The big problem we have is with language. And this is the subject we have to deal with here.

The Need for Logical Analysis

Every time we read the Bible, before we can get to the truth, we have to analyse the text. In order to understand a passage we must apply the rules of logic to it. We must convert every sentence in the Bible into its categorical form and analyse what can be deduced from the sentence by good and necessary consequence (and indeed what cannot be deduced from it by these means too). This is not a logic text book, so I am not going to go into these things here, but just to say that it is not as easy as it sounds, and we, being stupid creatures, so often make mistakes.

Most professing Christians try to avoid this because it is too much like hard work. They just do not have the patience to do this, and so go off on their own, thinking they know better. They find another source of truth that their own tiny brains can understand. These sources can be many and varied: other men such as the pope, other literature such as the Watchtower magazine, or maybe they believe that the Holy Spirit can guide them directly without the use of the Bible. All of these are very common ideas, and used by countless numbers of professing Christians. But they are all “implicit faith,” i.e. a blind following (of an uninspired source), and not real faith, which involves the understanding of the truth.

The above group are just plain lazy. We can have very little sympathy for them. But we do have a more serious problem in that logical analysis, which is vital in order to understand a text, is an extremely difficult exercise for most people. Sadly, logic has been missing from the state school curriculum for many years now. It would be good if it returned, and we had a nation of people who thought logically once more. But even if we had this, we all of us have different capacities to understand, and some people would understand more than others. All of us only have a limited capacity to understand anything.

But the Reformation gave the Bible into the hands of the ploughboy for him to understand for himself, to get away from him having implicit faith - i.e. great church leaders telling him what to believe in order for him to blindly follow. The masses are not to rely on doctors, scholars, priests or ministers to tell them what to believe, but to have the Scriptures for themselves so they may understand it for themselves.

But we all have different capacities to understand. Some have been given five talents by God, and others only one. We should realise this. There is only one truth, and that is the truth that can be deduced from proper logical analysis of the propositions in the Bible. But most Christians have great difficulty performing this deduction process. Those who do have the ability to do this, should by all means try to teach the ones who have not, but we must never let this degenerate into one man starting to lord it over others. That would be a situation we must try to avoid at all costs.

But, despite the fact that most people have not got the capacity to get to the bottom of a text for themselves, the fact remains that we still need proper logical analysis if we are to understand any passage of the Bible properly. It may be very difficult to get to the bottom of a passage of Scripture using logical analysis, but it is still possible. So far, so good.

The Problems with Language

But the problems grow. When we apply logical analysis to a passage of Scripture, we assume that the passage in question means exactly what it says, and all we have to do is logically analyse it, trying not to make mistakes in the analysis along the way. However, this is not so. Many passages in the Bible do NOT mean what they say. We repeat: Many passages in the Bible do NOT mean what they say. This might seem a shocking thing to say to the average evangelical Christian, but it is true because:

(a.) Firstly, we must realise that God breathed out the Scripture originally in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). (Other languages are present as well, in short passages, Aramaic, Chaldee etc., but it is mainly in Hebrew and Greek). So, if we want to understand God's meaning of the passage, we must always perform our logical analysis on the passage in these original languages. The problem with a translation from one language to another is that the translation itself automatically brings about some changes. Change is inevitable in any translation. It may be possible to directly translate nouns, as these words point to objects we can see and know about, but translation of other words such as prepositions, or dealing with the word order, grammar and syntax, all these present problems in translation that cannot be translated absolutely perfectly.

Just looking up two common words in Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, we find 34 Greek words for the English word “take” (plus 17 notes), and 39 for “come” (with 16 notes); each Greek word having its own nuance. Unless we learn every Hebrew and Greek word in the Bible, together with each word's exact nuance (which will not necessarily be identical to the translated English's nuance), then we have not really got to the bottom of the meaning of the text.

Not only that, but how do you find out what these nuances are? You can try using Strong's Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, but you have just started to interpret the Bible using an outside source, which may or may not be correct. Strong's may be wrong. Your Hebrew or Greek teacher may be wrong. How can we know for sure, unless Hebrew or Greek is our mother tongue? We can't.

(b.) Secondly, we cannot take everything in the Bible literally. Some of the Bible is poetry and should be taken as such. E.g. “The trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12). This does not mean that trees will literally grow hands and clap them. It is “obviously” poetry, and should be read as such. But how do we know which passages are poetry and which aren't? In some texts we are told that we have a “psalm” or “song,” so we can know for sure we are dealing with poetry in those places, but in other passages we really cannot tell. Some Bible versions such as the New King James and the New International Versions of the Bible change seamlessly from printing the text in prose to printing it in poetry. But how do the compilers of those version know which is which? We cannot explain how we come to the conclusion that certain passages are poetry. It is not “obvious” at all. We go along the lines of thinking that the idea of trees growing hands and clapping is ridiculous, so we conclude that it must be poetic. But Christ dying on a cross to save His people from their sins is “ridiculous” to human reasoning, but it is nonetheless true. We can never use what we call “common sense” to analyse a passage of Scripture.

And what about parables? How far do we go in our interpretation of them? Christ often gives us the interpretation, but what about, for example, the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8)? We can understand it to teach that God “will avenge His own elect speedily” (vv.7,8), but we cannot extend the interpretation to teach that God is unjust, because we know from other passages of the Bible that this certainly is not true. But unless we are told, how do we know how far to take a parable? We don't.

And how do we interpret allegorical language? Many people think that they can understand the book of Revelation, or at least some of it, ascribing to it a historicist or preterist or futurist or whatever-ist interpretation, but in most cases they only interpret it to conveniently fit in with their already preconceived ideas about things to come. Can any of us really understand an allegory, unless the interpretation is also revealed in Scripture at the same time?

(c.) If the above problems about language seem overwhelming enough, this third problem is the biggest of all - figures of speech. In every passage we always need to work out whether a figure of speech is being used or not. There are many figures of speech, most of which do not affect the sense of the passage, but some do. Two of the most common of these are ellipsis (where something is deliberately missing from the sentence) or hyperbole (exaggeration for effect). These are used a lot in the Bible. For example, take the following sentences:

And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.” (Matthew 14:19).

And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.” (Matthew 15:36)

In both these passages the Bible clearly says that Jesus “gave…. the disciples to the multitude.” That is what the Bible says, so it must be true. But, that is “obviously” wrong. We “obviously” have an ellipsis here. It should read “and the disciples gave the loaves to the multitude.” (or bread might be a better word instead of loaves, because the loaves would have been multiplied by this point).

So which is right? Did Jesus give the disciples to the multitude, or did the disciples give the bread to the multitude? One must be right and the other wrong, but which one, and why? Is a figure of speech (in this case an ellipsis) being used here or not? How do we know? We really, seriously cannot tell. Again, we go along the lines of thinking that it cannot mean Christ gave the disciples because that would be ridiculous, and the disciples giving the bread would be the more “obvious, common sense” meaning, but we cannot really know this for sure.

There is a book written by Ethelbert Bullinger called “Figures of Speech in the Bible.” It lists hundreds of different types of figures of speech, and gives Biblical examples to illustrate each one. It is in general a very useful book, but in some cases he sees a figure of speech where there isn't one, mostly in order to promote his (preconceived) premillennial dispensationalist views. So who is right? Are these examples figures of speech or not? How do we know whether a figure of speech is being used in a passage or not? The fact is, we don't.

The Impossibility of Bible Interpretation

Do you see the dilemma now? How can we know the nuances of the words of Scripture in the original languages, whether the text is poetry or not, or whether a figure of speech is being used or not? Or how to interpret a parable or allegorical passage?

We need to know all these things before even beginning to logically analyse a passage so we can get to the bottom of a Biblical text, and find out what it teaches.
....who is sufficient for these things? How can anybody get to the absolute truth?

As we have seen, no-one is capable of doing this, for two reasons:

(1.) Most of us are just not clever enough to analyse a text properly, and those who try, easily make mistakes. This excludes nearly all of us from understanding the truth of a passage at all, although it is still theoretically possible to do so for those who persevere.

(2.) But, more than this, there are many passages where we have to guess the nuances of the original words, whether it is poetry, allegorical or whether a figure of speech is being used or not, and all this can affect the sense. And we have to guess, because not one of us can know for sure, even the best logician in the world.

If we cannot tell whether a passage is a figure of speech or poetry or not, then how can we know for sure whether, for example, the first three chapters of Genesis should be taken literally? Or the resurrection of Christ? Liberals would say that they should not be taken literally, whereas we Evangelicals would say that they should, but how do we know? We have just concluded that no-one can know the truth, even from the Bible alone. So are the liberals right?

No. We hasten to add that we are not becoming liberals at all by saying any of this. We fully accept that the Bible in the original languages is the Word of God, every word has been inspired by Him and providentially preserved through the ages - a fact that the liberal theologian would completely dismiss. What we are saying is that it is language that is the problem, not the Bible. We cannot know the truth because of the difficulties of language.

The Answer

Following men?

Sadly, to solve this problem, a vast majority of professing Christians end up following other men who, to them, seem to have a gift of understanding the truth. However, this is not necessarily so. We have just proved that no-one can know the truth. Many who end up in leadership positions in the church (or in any other walk of life for that matter), do not get into those positions for their intelligence or knowledge of the subject in hand at all. They get there for their ability to impress other people that they are right. A good hospital consultant doctor is not someone who has all the right answers. Rather, he is one who can make a decision (right or wrong) and stick to it, and is able to impress other people that his decision was right, rather than it necessarily being right absolutely. All people in leadership have this persuasive, almost hypnotic power. And the ordinary man in the street, or in our case, Christian in the pew, finds it a lot easier to blindly follow someone like that, than to even try to think for themselves. These leaders don't have to be right, but they just have to give the impression they are right to people who can be easily persuaded of it. Churches, denominations and groups all gather around such people as a honeypot gathers bees.

As an example, we recently saw a good Bible teacher on television expounding 1 Peter 2:8 “And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” He explained that “the Greek text supports the idea that….” these people were appointed to salvation, but they chose to reject it. This interpretation is completely the opposite of what the passage actually says. Firstly, notice that he refers to the Greek. He knows very well that hardly any of the congregation would understand Greek, neither would they check up for themselves; and he also knows very well that the fact of his mentioning that he knew the Greek would impress most of them how scholarly he was. So that's why he did it. Also, he must have read John Calvin's commentary on the passage, because Calvin states that this interpretation (that they were appointed to salvation) is possible, but then immediately says that he rejects it, and gives good reasons why; Calvin then going on to explain the true interpretation of the text. Of course the speaker never mentions any of this, but simply tries to impress his hearers. All the time, everywhere we look, we have men trying to impress. That is all we ever have in the churches, and it becomes so thoroughly sickening after having endured years of it. Our whole church culture of preaching being a discourse which no-one is allowed to question or ask anything about is totally nauseating. But I digress.

So merely following other men is not the answer, whether it be the pope, Billy Graham, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones or the minister of the tinpot evangelical church down the road from you. All this is “implicit faith,” the blind leading the blind into a ditch (Luke 6:39). Of course, other people can be helpful in our search for truth, but they are not to be blindly followed.

Following the Holy Spirit?

Look at Christ's teaching about the parables:

And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.” (Mark 4:11,12).

Christ Himself said that He deliberately taught in parables so that those outside the church would not understand. So we should not be surprised that men cannot fully interpret Scripture themselves.
Having said that, the Pharisees (unregenerate men) could at least find out something from a parable:

And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.” (Matthew 21:45).

So they did know something. The parable did not mean nothing to them.

But note that unto believers it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God. How can this be? Of course as Evangelicals we know the answer: the Holy Spirit interprets the Scripture for the believer.

Westminster Confession 1:10:
X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest; can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripturea.

a Matthew 22:29, 31; Ephesians 2:20 with Acts 28:25.

Christ has given us two witnesses:

But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:26,27).

The true believer has the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures (the latter being the witness of the apostles and prophets). The world cannot receive the Holy Spirit:

Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” (John 14:17).

So the unbeliever only has Scripture, out of which he can find some truth, but he is bound to make mistakes, because even if he was the greatest logician in the world, he cannot distinguish between a piece of prose (whereby he can use logical analysis) or poetry or allegory or a figure of speech, and he certainly cannot get to the bottom of a parable, although he can know something about it - particularly the fact that it condemns him. Also, if true believers trust in themselves to interpret Scripture, rather than relying on the Holy Spirit, they too will assuredly go wrong.

And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.” (John 16:8-11).

The Holy Spirit, which is on display in all true believers, will convince and reprove the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. So the world can know something when they come across Scripture and true believers who have the Holy Spirit working in them putting Scriptural truths into practice.

But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth.” (1 John 2:20,21).

True believers have the Holy Spirit within them, and can really know the truth, indeed “all things” (all things necessary for them in this world, that is). Unbelievers cannot know “all things,” but they can know something - at least enough to condemn them.

But, can we not still see the problem? With Scripture not being able to furnish us with these "all things" on its own, and with the Holy Spirit being needed to determine the interpretation of Scripture for sure, we become no different from the Charismatics, who rely on (what they consider to be) the Holy Spirit alone as their guide.

This produces problems. Someone we know is now in her nineties. She claims conversion at the age of 13, so she has been a professing Christian for eighty years. She is utterly convinced through reading the Scriptures and much prayer, that the Holy Spirit has taught her that there is no such place as hell. She is completely wrong, but how do we convince her of this? Other examples abound. There are many people who are thoroughly convinced the Holy Spirit has taught them, for example, that God wants all men to be saved, or that God is pleased with man-made hymns in worship, or that God is a woman; etc., etc.; whereas we are utterly convinced that the Holy Spirit has taught us that these things are very wrong. Who is right? Both parties claim the Holy Spirit has taught them the truth through reading the Scriptures. Who is right? How do we know?

We can never get to the bottom of it. That is a humbling message, isn't it? This does not mean that we shouldn't try to know truth (as liberals and Charismatics would argue), because we are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17), so knowing truth is very important to our sanctification. There is only one truth after all, and it is found in the Bible. But our condition is such that we are never going to arrive at a position where we can honestly say that we know as much truth as we need to know, without it still being mixed with a lot of error. All any of us can do is stick to (and live by) what we believe to be the truth to the best of our understanding at the time, knowing that we will be constantly changing over the years as we learn more from the Scriptures, and consequently this will result in us always having disagreements with other fellow professing believers who are all at different stages in their Christian lives. A lot of churches believe that we should never have disagreements amongst the members of the congregation and that we should always put on a united front as a church, but we have here proved that we cannot avoid disagreements. So we should never pretend that we can. This is normal.

We are all of us learning more and more as our days and years on this earth go by. So we will come to some knowledge of the truth from our reading the Bible, we will not be completely ignorant. And we will be growing in that knowledge, the more we read the Bible and are led by the Spirit into the truth. We will over time change our views on things, as we align our beliefs with what we are learning from Scripture. And this is the point. All of us only ever have the knowledge of some truth but it is mixed with a lot of error. And it changes over the years. We can think all we like that we can come out of the other churches and set up a perfect, pure church in doctrine, worship and practice, but the fact is that we can never do it. We can never arrive at all truth, and form a pure denomination to “keep the testimony.” Christ said: “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18).

We shouldn't be arrogant enough to think we have arrived anywhere on this earth. No church is our home here. We can always know some truth from the Bible. There is no other source of truth, after all. But we should not be arrogant enough to think that any of us are not still full of error. Since Adam's fall, we are all in bondage to decay and death because of our sin. We are born knowing nothing, and having to learn everything we need in this world as we grow up. But in our old age, we forget things and decay until we know nothing again. Do you want to learn humility? Here it is.

…dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19)

But if we know Christ for ourselves, we will continue learning of Him and loving Him to all eternity. This is the one thing needful.

…if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:2).

For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.” (Galatians 6:3).