15 Aug 2021

The Bible Says It is Hard to Interpret

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 2 Peter, Bible, Books, Church, Discipleship, Hermeneutics, Journey, Reading

The Bible Says It Is Hard to Interpret (at least some of it) and We Must be Taught. This is not something we often hear admitted in the pulpit.

Most of my life has been spent “going to church.” I have often encountered the rhetoric that Christians were supposed to read the Bible and “study to show ourselves approved.” I also heard on a regular basis that Scripture was basically easy to understand – especially in regard to salvation. The Bible, it has been claimed, is plain and clear. Protestants have made this claim, historically, in response to medieval abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. But Evangelicals have sometimes changed the idea of sola scriptura into SOLO scriptura. See the fine book by James R. Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings and my article Factionists, Solo Scripturists and the Bible.

I have personally witnessed scholars, commentaries and books in general openly disparaged even by preachers. Scholars are often mocked. Especially if they were not by “Church of Christ” authors (and then frankly they have to be the right “Church of Christ authors”). There was/is no need for such things. All they do is mislead. “That is just one man’s opinion” (as if the person saying that did not express his/her opinion every time he or she commented on a passage). If a person misunderstands (in our opinion) a passage or teaching it is because they are willfully rebellious against God.

The Irony Should Not Be Lost

The irony in this is that, from a young age, I was immersed in what can only be termed approved insider (denominational!?) literature. Even as a teenager we went through the book, Why I am a Member of the Church of Christ by Leroy Brownlow. We literally used this in my teen class and I was required to use it in my first “job” in Kissimmee, FL. We used little booklets that had fill in the blanks under certain headings. I received R. L. Whiteside & C. R. Nichol’s Sound Doctrine while in high school. So, while denying we needed books to read the Bible, I (we) spent a lot of time reading approved books that provided the approved interpretation of the Bible, all the while we denied interpreting the Bible.

Rarely did I actually read the Bible. We read the Bible through these books, while saying we do not need books. I was taken through a certain slant, interpretation, regarding the Bible from people who denied having a point of view and they were interpreting the Bible even as we read their interpretation in their book (not the Bible!).

How we miss the irony I do not know.

Peter’s Confession

So, I was taught (as were thousands of others) the Bible is easy to understand, not to read anything by “mere men” – while we read books by “mere men” decrying books as misleading.

But one day, years ago, I read something by the apostle Peter. The words were nearly shocking. Strange things happen when we actually read the Bible. I knew of Peter confessing Jesus as the Christ and “upon this rock I will build my church.” But I somehow missed this other confession by the apostle Peter.

“… our dear brother Paul wrote to you in accordance to the wisdom given to him … his letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which the uninstructed and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3.15-16)

What! What Did Peter just say? I thought Paul and the “other scriptures” were supposed to be easy. Please note that Peter does not enumerate what those things are but he does use a plural. It is not just one thing but multiple things that are “hard to understand” in both Paul and the “other scriptures.”

Here Paul’s letters are mentioned by name (Peter does not provide a list of their names) but so are “other Scriptures.” Peter was no dummy. His own epistles are filled with some pretty sophisticated wisdom. But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he confessed that:

– Scripture can be difficult

– Scripture is twisted by the “uninstructed.”

The Ethiopian shared Peter’s point of view. Replying to Philip’s reasonable question,

Do you understand what you are reading?

the Eunuch exclaimed,

How can I, unless some guides/explains it to me/instructs me?” (Acts 8.30-31).


And this is not even from Paul’s letters but from Isaiah. Peter says stuff in Paul is “difficult/hard to grasp.” The Ethiopian was not reading Paul but Isaiah. I would say that there are things that even Peter said that are “difficult to grasp.” The uninstructed twist “other Scripture” as well.

A consequence from this reality is that perhaps we ought to hold our positions with gracious humility knowing that we may be mistaken in what we think and believe. Humility fosters patience and generosity with people who think differently than ourselves. Dogmatism is very near the heart of sectarianism and even cultism.

Unwilling to Be Taught

But it is that second term Peter uses that is most interesting. Peter does not say the Scripture is difficult for the stupid. The Greek term Peter uses means primarily a person who is untaught, uninformed or uninstructed. The old King James Version uses the word “ignorant” in 2 Pt 3.16. That is not a bad rendering of “amathes.”

amathes is a pretty common word in the Greco-Roman world but occurs only here in the entire New Testament. The word does not simply mean “dumb.” The third edition of Baur-Ardnt-Gingrich-Danker’s Greek Lexicon list these possibilities,

incompetent interpreters,”

Richard Bauckham in his Commentary on the Greek text of 2 Peter notes that “amathes does not mean simply ‘ignorant’ but ‘uninstructed.’ These people have not received sufficient instruction … these people are UNWILLING TO LEARN” (Jude and 2 Peter, p. 331, my emphasis). The Jerusalem Bible captures well Peter’s words,

He makes this point too in his letters as a whole wherever he touches on these things. In all his letters there are of course some passages which are hard to understand, and these are the ones that uneducated and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture–to their own destruction.”

They apparently have decided they could instruct before they were instructed. As if the Ethiopian could explain to others what he was reading before being taught what it actually meant. Peter does not tell people to just go read Paul. Peter says they need to be instructed in Paul and the “other scriptures.” They need to be willing to be taught. They were not sufficient in themselves.

This is why Paul himself says that one of God’s gifts to the church is “teachers” (Eph 4.12) and the Lord’s brother said “not many of you should become teachers” (James 3.1). And it is why the Hebrews Preacher chastises his listeners as being infantile precisely because they have chosen to remain untaught/uninformed/uninstructed. Their understanding of the faith is superficial at best and wrong at worst (Heb 5.11-6.2). Paul is pretty blunt on the matter in fact,

They want to be teachers of God’s law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Timothy 1.7).

One of the greatest values of checking with an informed teacher or book by a person who knows their stuff is that it forces me to submit my particular understanding to public examination. Am I willing to submit the “idolatry of self” to cross examination?

Peter seems to think the untaught are dangerous. The biggest problem is not that they are untaught but that they are unwilling to study and learn. They assume they already know what has to be known and thus refuse to be learners themselves. It does not take long looking at church history both outside, and within, the Churches of Christ to find those who chose to remain untaught because they were convinced of their own superiority.

I am actually unaware of a text in the Bible that asserts the Bible is easy to understand. I recall Jesus saying “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.28ff). But I also recall what Jesus said about the parables which was not that they were “easy” (Matthew 13.10-17). The purpose here is not to discourage Bible study but just the opposite. Let’s study more, not less. Let’s dig in and avail ourselves to the blessing of wisdom from the myriads of scholars, backgrounds books, Hebrew books, Greek books, geography books, all in the pursuit of communion with God. The eminent Stone-Campbell scholar, J. W. McGarvey said it well in 1883,

The man who attempts to gain a knowledge of the Bible by his own unaided powers, while the aid furnished by a multitude of learned predecessors is at hand, seems to declare himself the equal in exegetical power of all who have gone before him. In no other department of human study do we reject the aid of our fellow-students; why should we reject it in this?

This why Paul himself told Timothy to bring him his books … (2 Timothy 4.13). Everyone needs to study. Everyone needs to learn as much as possible. Everyone needs to be taught. But there are those who remain “untaught” … it is the horror of a self-inflicted wound.

Of Related Interest

Is there a Place for Scholars in the Kingdom of God?

A Talk with J. W. McGarvey on Books, Reading & Preachers

3 Responses to “The Bible Says It is Hard to Interpret”

  1. Larry Miles Says:

    Very good article Bobby. Are you familiar with or have you read Michael Heiser’s “the unseen realm”? Even though I don’t agree with everything Heiser writes about, he is a formidable Hebrew scholar. I’ve listened to his Youtube stuff for about a month now. He strives to get us thinking like a first century second Temple Jew and Proselyte would think as they heard Jesus teach. It is already helping me look at the “New Testament” with a fresh understanding. Larry Miles

  2. David Hinckley Says:

    WHOA!! You worked with a congregation in Kissimmee!!??? I am a plank owner of the first congregation there with a building (mid 1950s, the Kissimmee CoC, on Vine St now), until I left for college in 1963. I know there are something like at least 2 other congregations there now. That congregation’s web site is https://kissimmeechurchofchrist.com/. WHich congregation were you associated with???

  3. Joseph Scott Sorrell Says:

    Just another thought on Philip, earlier in Acts 8 Philip had baptized some presumably how he had been taught by the 12 or Peter, but some had not received the Holy Spirit that is hard to understand, especially how we have been taught it. I suspect they had not been taught about the Holy Spirit, possibly rushed to the water without proper teaching to ask for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). I don’t know, hard to understand. Maybe it has to do with one plants another waters. Also is there any relevance to why Paul says what he says in 1 Cor. 1:17.

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