“Can we really know what the Bible says?”

Some theological, philosophical reflection based on past experiences, engagement with Scripture, and the desire to honor God by thinking through what I believe:

“The study of how we know things.” That is usually how I hear the term epistemology defined. “How do we know the things we know?” is the question epistemology seeks to answer.

It was not too long after I became a Christian, just five or six years ago, that I first encountered this term, epistemology. From the beginning I was intrigued, and over the last few years of being around Christians and being a part of their conversations epistemology, or understanding how we know what we know, seems increasingly important.

When my concerns first arose regarding the need to understand epistemology I was attending my first several Bible studies over the first year or so of being a Christian. It was during these times that I would start to notice common themes and ideas being brought up that questioned our ability to correctly understand Scripture with any significant degree of certainty. My attempt to trace this logic is: (1) Humans are fallible. (2) Interpreting the Bible is a human activity. (3) Thus, absolutizing any belief about theology, the Bible, etc. is wrong.

It seemed to me that many of my study-mates who embraced these ideas gained a demeanor of skepticism when approaching the Bible.  This is not to say that they did not admire or even appreciate the Bible. It’s not to say, for some of them, that the Bible ceased being a shaping force in the way they lived their lives. But the more I conversed with them about God, the gospel, and salvation the more I became concerned about their understanding of our ability to understand things (i.e. their epistemology).

As the years have gone by I have heard lectures and read some articles on epistemology, and many of them have been helpful. However, a lot of it (see “most of it”) went in one ear and out the other. At the same time I have maintained my concern for Christians who hold to the logic I outlined above and their generally skeptical approach to the Bible.

What has kept me confident that the Bible can be understood with a high degree of confidence? Why do I hold to the goodness of memorizing catechism questions and answers (which are basically formulated interpretations of Scripture)? How could I with gusto, joy, and confidence recite creeds (which are basically formulated interpretations of Scripture) with my church family?

My sustained certainty has come from at least a few reflections on the nature of the biblical witness concerning epistemology: (1) the reality and honor of martyrdom, (2) the contentious approach to asserting and guarding the truth, and (3) Scriptures interpretation of other Scriptures. This is not to say I have all of this epistemology stuff completely or even thoroughly thought out, but these few observations from the Bible have made it hard for me to be sympathetic to the view that we should be generally doubtful about what we understand Scripture to teach:

(1) The reality and honor of martyrdom: Within the testimonies of Scripture and throughout the Church’s history innumerable Christians have been murdered for what they have believed. These Christians were not only bold in maintaining their beliefs, but what really gets them in trouble (and even further demonstrates their confidence in what they know) is their refusal to stop preaching and confessing what they believe.

And within Scripture these Christians are honored for their faith in the truth. In Reveleation 2:13 Jesus labels Antipas, a martyr from the church in Pergamum, a “faithful witness”. In Revelation 6:9 martyrs are called “those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” In Revelation 20:4 John says martyrs are those who “had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God.” The martyrs of Revelation 6 are awarded white robes (Rev. 6:1), and the martyrs of Revelation 20 are among those who “reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4).

The consistent witness of Scripture and the actions of Christians throughout Church history has been to esteem martyrs.

But why die for God’s word if we cannot even understand it to a significantly high degree? And, furthermore, exalting those who die for something they cannot be absolutely sure about also seems silly if not foolish? The biblical witness, then, seems to presuppose that we can with sufficient, if not absolute, certainty understand the Bible correctly.

(2) The contentious approach to asserting and guarding the truth: If the truth of Scripture is more ambiguous than it is clear, then how could Scripture’s authors and stories demonstrate Christians who were so bold and sure when they asserted and guarded biblical truth?

The Apostle Paul’s exhortations to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 captures the standard deep-seated conviction that the writer’s of Scripture had when asserting and guarding the truth. He tells them, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20-21). And again in verse 27, “I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (v. 27). Here Paul speaks of his confident and bold assertion of God’s word, even when it wasn’t popular. Again, why be so dogmatic, so excited, so dangerously bold when talking about this stuff if we can’t even understand it with sufficient, if not absolute, confidence?

Toward the end of Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders he tells them not only to admire and mimick the way he asserted the truth but that now they are to guard it. He says,

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God…I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (v. 28-30).

At another point in Paul’s ministry he is writing a letter to a young pastor/overseer in Ephesus and his opening command is, “Remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim 1:3). In other words “Guard the truth!”

But how can Timothy be so extreme as to confront these false teachers if he cannot be certain that their “false doctrine” is false? Paul goes so far with some false teachers that he says, “I have handed [them] over to Satan” (1 Tim 1:20). But how can he be so confidently denounce these teachers if he cannot be so confident in his own ability to comprehend the truth?

The biblical witness, then, seems to presuppose that we can with sufficient, if not absolute, certainty understand the Bible correctly.

(3) Scriptures interpretation of other Scriptures: Another example of the biblical witness presupposing the clarity of Scripture and the general dependability of our minds to understand it is the way Scripture interprets itself. Throughout the Bible previously written portions of Scripture are quoted and interpreted. When these authors quote previous portions of Scripture they do not waver on what they understand it to mean. They have thought about the passage in mind and then simply say what it means.

For example in 1 Peter 2:24-25 the Apostle Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6, 8. It says, “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” Peter then states, “And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” No ambiguity, no obscurity, no questioning, no back-and-forth. The word of Lord that remains forever mentioned by Isaiah is the gospel of Christ. Crystal clear, absolutely understood, and worth dying for.

The biblical witness, then, seems to presuppose that we can with sufficient, if not absolute, certainty understand the Bible correctly.

Jude says in his brief epistle, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” I still love my friends, or anyone, who doubts the ability of the Bible to be sufficiently understood. I hope throughout my interaction with them I was charitable and fair toward them and what they believe. This, however, is one issue where serious separation would eventually take place on my road in life and particularly in ministry.

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