The Bible is simple… right?

Why does the Bible need to be studied? Isn’t its message simple enough to be understood by anyone? Surely it would be unfair of God to expect people to believe him and live according to his Word if it wasn’t able to be understood by everyone? Has not God chosen the ‘foolish’ of this world?

These are commonly expressed concerns when people advocate what is perceived to be an ‘academic’ approach to the Bible. It has an element of truth to it but it is a rather simplistic statement. Yes, God does expect people to understand His Word and believe clear basic doctrines concerning Him and His plan of salvation. But we must also remember that we are not the original recipients of the Bible. God has not spoken directly to us. He has not even written directly to us.

God has communicated His message to special individuals over thousands of years. But he wrote first for them, in their time and in their culture. He preserved the message for us, but it was first written to another people in another time.

The Bible was written to people from a different cultural background to us. The original audience was an ancient one. They knew nothing of the science, technology, medicine, and other things that define our modern world. They knew little of democracy, and literacy was not widespread. It is only in the modern era, from perhaps the 18th century onwards, that literacy has been common. Even today literacy is not as widespread as it should be. Consider then that the original audience most commonly would have heard rather than read the text!

We want to consider the following points (1) over subsequent posts as reasons why we need to engage carefully and thoughtfully in an interpretive process.

  1. Time distance
  2. Cultural distance
  3. Language distance
  4. Geographical distance

Finally, consider the variety of Biblical interpretations there are out there. How many people and Christian groups are there, all disagreeing with each other about how to understand certain points and issues?

This all goes to show that we need to have a systematic approach to understanding the Bible. We need to use methods and resources that we know make sense and are consistently reliable.

The Bible is for us too. But we need to remember we aren’t the original audience, so we need to think about how they would have understood it. Hopefully this blog will assist you with this and help to deepen your understanding of God’s Word and how to study it.

(1) Taken from Klein, William, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2004.

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9 thoughts on “The Bible is simple… right?”

  1. “But he wrote first for them, in their time and in their culture”
    No – God did not write, but people directed by him did.
    What was SAID was always for there time and culture. What was directed to be WRITTEN was a record for those after. We are specifically told in Rom 15:4 that it was for us “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction”
    Hence by God choosing who wrote his message he ensured it was expressed in a way that was understandable to those far removed from the time of writing.

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    1. I agree with Romans 15:4 and if you read my post carefully, I’m not saying the Bible isn’t for us, I’m just saying that we need to think carefully about the original historic context of each passage.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree 100% in the case of the epistles – they were letters written to a specific audience of which we have a record. My point is that you can’t apply that premise to everything equally. There were parts of the bible specifically written for later audiences – eg Johns writing of the revelation given to him. Some parts (7 ecclesias) were written for that time and culture. Other parts undoubtedly written for others later. One must also accept that large parts of the bible were specifically written down for the purpose of a record for those that come later, not for an audience at the time (eg kings, chronicles) – what about Jeremiah, – he was told not to say certain things that were revealed about the kingdom, but he wrote them down for those that came later. So the point “they were written first for their time” is true of letters we have in the scripture record, but other parts were specifically written for later people.
        I think the overriding principle is:
        When studying scripture, one of the first questions to ask is -who is the intended audience?

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      2. OK. I see what you’re getting at.

        My point is that the Biblical authors (or God’s scribes if you prefer) didn’t sit down and write with a 21st century, English speaking audience specifically in mind. I accept that some sections may have simply been written for later generations of believers generally.

        “When studying scripture, one of the first questions to ask is -who is the intended audience?”
        Absolutely agree.

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  2. I think flawedpremise makes a useful distinction. We can be too narrow in viewing the Bible through a 21st century Western prism, but it is equally narrow to limit the intended audience of a divinely-inspired text to the immediate hearers or readers. Which begs the question: God knows the cultural and linguistic frameworks with which all of the intended readers through history will have viewed the text. Did he ensure this was accommodated within the writing process? And how aware were the human writers that what they wrote was intended for a readership wider than their immediate and initial audience?

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    1. Hi Richard, thanks for your comment. I am not limiting the intended audience of the Bible to the initial readers and I do believe the Bible was inspired with a message that is globally, eternally relevant.

      My point is that the human writers wrote within their own historic contexts and usually for a specific audience (sometimes but not always specified). I think your questions are interesting but I’m not sure what a culturally transcendent (or ‘a-cultural’) text would look like. I agree the Bible’s message of salvation transcends culture, but we have to be aware that Biblical texts will generally reflect something of the author’s context. I will be elaborating a little more on this in subsequent posts.

      I like this post of yours by the way (similar point to mine above): http://richardjbenson.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/does-the-bible-need-interpreting/

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      1. Hi bibcog, sorry I was thinking aloud rather than disagreeing. I think we’re broadly happy with the “to us, for them” summary, simpl(istic?) though it may be.

        I agree a completely acultural text would be a nonsense, since language is inherently cultural, though there’s obviously ways of limiting or widening cultural scope. Some texts are written for multi-national and multi-lingual audiences – examples today are international treaties, examples from the past are things like Ahasuerus’s decree (Esther 8). There’s perhaps some examples of cultural / historical ‘widening’ in the biblical redactors’ comments/amendments about place names and weights & measures.

        I guess what I’m musing over is how much we can discern the cultural ‘limitations’ of an author. We might notice something which differs from our cultural norm, and assume that is ‘merely’ a result of the cultural background of the writer, when it could be that it was counter-cultural in its own time, or that it is a cultural element which God saw fit to include because it has something to teach us.

        Looking forward to further cogitations; as you may have seen I had similar intentions on more frivolous lines but put on the backburner for the time being.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Richard, “to us, for them” is good.

        The way in which Biblical authors interact with their culture varies very widely. As you say, they sometimes intended to be counter-cultural (John Baptist comes to mind). From a Bible study perspective, my initial concern is that we strive to be aware of the differences between our culture and theirs as well as developing a broad awareness of the cultural preconceptions that we bring to the table. More on this in tomorrow’s post. Thanks again for your thoughts and would love to see more from Herman 😉

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    2. There is no such thing as an acultural text.

      >>
      but it is equally narrow to limit the intended audience of a divinely-inspired text to the immediate hearers or readers.
      >>

      It is perfectly legitimate to limit the intended audience of a divinely-inspired text to the immediate hearers or readers if the text itself makes this clear. When Paul told Timothy to take some wine for his stomach’s sake, should we assume we are part of his intended audience?

      >>
      God knows the cultural and linguistic frameworks with which all of the intended readers through history will have viewed the text. Did he ensure this was accommodated within the writing process?
      >>

      No, and I don’t believe He needed to.

      >>
      And how aware were the human writers that what they wrote was intended for a readership wider than their immediate and initial audience?
      >>

      In the vast majority of cases: not at all.

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