Why Do So Many Christians Disagree over the Bible?

bible difficulties
Does widespread human disagreement over Bible interpretation reveal some flaw or weakness in God or his word—or some flaw or weakness in us? Or neither, or both?

This is the third of three articles on the clarity of Scripture. I’ve clarified the doctrine to show what it’s actually claiming, I’ve shown some of the benefits of interpretive difficulties in the Bible, and now I want to go a bit beyond what Protestants have historically agreed on and give a pastoral response to the sometimes very emotional question: why do so many Christians disagree over the Bible?

This is a question about sanctification: how can I obey and trust the Lord in this situation? And like every other question about sanctification, the answer involves law and grace, divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Reading is a moral activity

First, let’s talk law; let’s talk human responsibility—because reading is a moral activity. I like the way philosopher Matthew Crawford put it, in a comment I read just this morning: “We usually think of intellectual virtue and moral virtue as being very distinct things, but I think they are not” (95).

Jesus held people morally responsible for their hermeneutics, for their reading practices—particularly people who had reason to know what they were doing. And we know this because of the way he answered the Pharisees several times. He would say, “Have you not read . . . ?”

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?’ (Matthew 19:3–5 ESV)

Genesis 1 and 2, the passages Jesus cites, don’t mention divorce at all. But Jesus expected his hearers to draw the appropriate lessons about divorce from them. Jesus held God’s people responsible for not coming to the right conclusion, because he says at the end of the paragraph that whoever violates the implications of Genesis 1 and 2 “commits adultery” (Matt 19:9).

And notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Have you not reasoned?” but “Have you not read?”

Divorce and the clarity of Scripture

So let’s talk about divorce for a moment, precisely because Christians of apparently equal personal piety, theological learning, and exegetical skill have come to different conclusions about it (and because now that the U.S. presidential election is over, we need something else to raise everyone’s blood pressure). All interpreters have to deal with Jesus’ famous “exception clause” in Matthew 19: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Some interpreters take a broad interpretation which reads Jesus as permitting remarriage for the innocent party. Some interpreters take a better-safe-than-sorry approach in which remarriage is not permissible while one’s spouse still lives. (And I’m not taking a side right now.)

So much for the clarity of Scripture. What does the doctrine claim in this case?

It’s not necessarily that one set of interpreters is sinning—though that is a possibility that must not be discounted (2 Pet 3:16).

It’s not even that any Christian can know with 100% certainty in this life which interpretation or application of the Bible’s divorce passages is correct—even though sometimes we simply must make a decision which assumes that our interpretation of a passage is right. (You’re either going to perform a remarriage for a divorced man or you’re going to refuse. There’s no third way.)

No, the doctrine claims that the scriptural statements about divorce are sufficiently clear for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). You have access through the Bible to God’s will for you on the issue of divorce. Jesus will have the right to hold us all morally responsible for our interpretations of divorce passages. Preachers and teachers will be held more responsible than the rest of the church (James 3:1); everyone with more gifts and opportunities will be held more responsible (Luke 12:48; Heb 13:17). That’s why Jesus’ harshest denunciations were always against the Pharisees and other teachers of the law (Mark 7:9–13). But the average Christian can’t let himself off the moral hook by blaming bad teaching: Jesus can say to him, “Have you not read . . . ?”

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, drawn from the Bible and shaped by Christian history and reflection, does not hand present-day victory to one interpretive party in the divorce debate. It doesn’t put a soft glow around one chapter in the Four Views on Divorce and Remarriage book. Rather, it insists that people will be held accountable for their reading. The Bible is clear enough that we are responsible to guide our moral lives by reading it rightly.

But what if every interpretive party is trying its hardest to get the Bible right! How can one of them be “held accountable” for not doing so? As with every aspect of our sanctification, final judgment is in God’s hands. “Who’s right” may not be clear to everyone till the eschaton (on this you absolutely must read the conversation between the two Anglican clerics in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce). Why does any of us get Bible interpretation wrong, even on matters of comparatively little importance—the mint, anise, and cummin of the law? We are finite, and we are fallen. Sometimes only God knows which of those limitations is the root reason for our poor interpretation.

As Matt McCullough said in a helpful review of a Christian Smith book questioning the clarity of Scripture,

The authority to say what interpretations are right and what are wrong . . . belongs fully only to the Author who is also the Judge, and awaits the coming Day of the Lord.

There comes a point in any debate over Scripture when all discussion is exhausted, and we must make our decisions and leave the rest to God. Sometimes the only thing I can do in such a controversy is keep quoting the Bible and trust that God will use it to bring clarity to everyone, including me. The point of the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is not to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt immediately that I’m right, but to insist that He is. What Paul said to Jewish people in Romans 11 I can say to all Bible readers: “Do not become proud, but fear.”

Understanding is a gift

I would be a poor minister of God’s Word if I stopped with law, however, and talked as if human responsibility were the only significant factor in interpretation. You see, this book we’re talking about is the only one with a divine author. This is the one author in existence who can stand over the shoulders and even dwell in the hearts of readers of his work. As Jesus told his disciples,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13 ESV)

I do get upset—I do face spiritual doubts—over the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” in the church. I need the consolations of God’s grace and the reassurance of his sovereignty.

And the Bible gives it to me. Paul strikes an intriguing note in his second letter to Timothy:

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7 ESV)

Here’s an inspired comment in an inspired letter, and it expects Timothy to give careful attention to what Paul wrote: “Think it over.” Give some attention and meditation; exercise your mental capacities; take some notes; use commentaries and journals. (The Greek here uses an aorist of intensity and literally means, “fire up Logos Bible Software.”)

Good interpretation does require hard work. But Paul is not a hermeneutical deist or Pelagian. He doesn’t believe that the Spirit has given Scripture to us and then left us alone. The reason Paul tells Timothy to put forth this mental effort, to think things over, is “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” Clarity is a divine gift.

As Mark D. Thompson says,

We remain as dependent upon God in the matter of reading, understanding and appropriating the words of Scripture as we do in all other areas of life. (134)

We are dependent creatures. Thinking over what he says will be useless if he doesn’t give us understanding.

In all areas of life outside Bible interpretation, what do you do when you are uncertain what to do? You use all the means of grace available to you, and you make a decision.

The same should go for your interpretation of Scripture—even and especially when the fur is flying over some hot-button question. You treat your Bible reading like any other area of your sanctification. You believe that God is great, good, and true—and has great, good, and truthful purposes for your struggles to read righteously. You ask the Lord to give you clarity the way you ask him to give you faith, hope, love, and any other virtue. If one day you “come to yourself” like the prodigal son and realize your hermeneutical sins, you confess and repent.

There are comforts within a careful doctrine of clarity. One is that the God of the Bible is powerful enough to get truth across to fallen and limited people like ourselves, and good enough to “make his mind known to us without distortion” (162). Perhaps the most important is that, as Thompson says,

The same Spirit who moved men to write these words moves in the hearts of men and women to bring about an understanding that demonstrates itself in repentance and faith. (165)

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture keeps human responsibility and divine sovereignty together the way the Bible does. It reminds you that “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness,” and that it is “for this very reason” that you ought to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Pet 1:3–5). You ought to work hard to learn because “the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” You “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV).

If you are genuinely struggling to understand a particular passage; if you are troubled by doubts about Scripture—the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is here to help, but only God can truly give any of us clarity about anything.

As in all of life, so in Bible interpretation, we rely wholly on God’s grace and yet are morally responsible for our choices.

Have you not read?

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. Hamilton Ramos says:

    Peace and grace:

    Rev. Ward, thank you for writing articles that make us use critical thinking, and search the Bible to see if things are so.

    I hope I am not misunderstood, but I want to bring up an important point:

    Quoting from the article:

    “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7 ESV)

    Here’s an inspired comment in an inspired letter, and it expects Timothy to give careful attention to what Paul wrote: “Think it over.” Give some attention and meditation; exercise your mental capacities; take some notes; use commentaries and journals. (The Greek here uses an aorist of intensity and literally means, “fire up Logos Bible Software.”)”

    My problem with the explanation that you give after quoting Scripture, is that to me the implication is that information found in commentaries and journals, are elevated to the same level as Scripture, because the quote says: the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

    I would have clarified, that commentaries and journals just give a framework that helps identify key aspects of the topic being studied, so one can focus in the search of unchangeable truths from the Scripture, who is the only infallible rule for belief and practice.

    I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit may have given men of God in history and across denominations / traditions, insights that are valid and that jibe well with key thrusts from the Bible.

    And this brings up another point: how are we to determine which insights by which authors really align well with the truths in the Bible.

    What if a commentary or journal clearly goes against the revealed truth in the Bible, and even though the particular author did a wrong interpretation of the Scripture and came to the wrong conclusion, just because the person is popular and / or influent then the error is set as dogma?

    I am glad that you expounded a key principle: “read”, but unfortunately no one reads in a vacuum, all come to the reading with presuppositions, that may be flawed to begin with (passed on by religious tradition).

    I would add to your exposition:

    Luke 10:26
    He said to him, What is written in the Law? How do you read it?

    Notice that Jesus wants the person to engage in the reading directly, not with a previous understanding.

    Note that Jesus did not say: “what did Gamaliel think?”, nor “what does the doctrine of the Pharisees affirms?”, nor “what does the creed of the Saducees say?”, nor “what do the written oral Torah interprets?”…

    We are to go with a blank slate, and let the Scripture talk to us.

    Blessings.

    • Not a Rev. Just a Dr. =)

      I completely agree that commentaries and journals are not on the level of Scripture. Every article I write is an exercise in deciding what goes without saying and what must be said. Thank you for the clarification.

      However… I like what you said first before what you said second. You said, “All come to the reading with presuppositions” I agree there. And, as you said, those presuppositions may be flawed. Again, agreed. But then you said “We are to go [to Scripture reading] with a blank slate, and let the Scripture talk to us.” I don’t mean to nitpick, but again I like what you said first better—we all come with presuppositions. No one is a blank slate. No reader has a mind empty of ideas; no person has a heart empty of loves. I encourage you to read Moisés Silva’s excellent chapter in Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. The key is not to go with a blank slate but to go with one waxy enough to be reformed, one that isn’t granite where it shouldn’t be.

  2. Excellent series of articles. Thank you for this resource!
    The only thing I would add, is the importance of clarifying our own hearts before God when trying to find clarification of Scripture. Part of being sinful and fallen creatures means that we tend to bring personal philosophical and political biases to our reading, often without realizing it. As David said, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
    We should come to God’s word first and foremost with a sense of humility and a willingness to be changed by it, and have our preconceptions challenged by it.

    • Agreed. Particularly when I was young, I used to pray that portion of Psalm 139 often. But now that I’m a bit older I still need it. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting.

    • Hamilton Ramos says:

      Keen insight Paula, I have been thinking about this lately.

      I have found that many Christians have a heart for God, and good disposition, but somehow the doctrine that they hold on to seems to be just “sincerely mistaken”.

      To explore a little further, I got the following L7 resource, maybe it will let me understand more about this:

      The Hermeneutics of Doctrine
      Author: Anthony C. Thiselton
      Publisher: Eerdmans
      Publication Date: 2007

      From the overview:

      “Drawing on the resources of contemporary hermeneutical theory, Anthony Thiselton in this volume masterfully recovers the formative and transformative power of Christian doctrine.

      The past 35 years have witnessed major steps forward in the use of hermeneutics in biblical studies, but never before has hermeneutics made a comparable impact on the formulation of doctrine and our engagement with it. Indeed, no other book explores the interface between hermeneutics and Christian doctrine in the same in-depth way that this one does. Throughout the book Thiselton shows how perspectives that arise from hermeneutics shed fresh light on theological method, reshape horizons of understanding, and reveal the relevance of doctrine for formation and for life.”

      Blessings.

  3. Darron Khan says:

    Excellent material and presentation. But what I really enjoyed is your sense of humor. Thanks for mixing it up!

    • Many thanks. The humor is added via a software program we’ve developed here for preachers who are deficient in that area. I wish I could take credit for it, but I just push a button.

      =)

  4. Hamilton Ramos says:

    Got it Dr. Ward, thanks for the input.

    What I meant was to set aside previous understandings, and then see if what we so dearly hold on to, matches to what is revealed, so not to do Eisegesis.

    Will check the resource mentioned.

    Thanks again for the good articles.

    Blessings.

  5. Fr. John Hamm says:

    2 Tim 3:16 is an awkward passage to cite regarding “New Testament” scripture. Paul could not have meant scripture that would not be written for decades yet. He could only have have been referring to the Hebrew Scriptures.

    • As I’m sure you’re aware, this isn’t a new discussion. But I’ll point out one thing and then ask you a question. I’d mention 2 Pet 3:16 and its description of Paul’s letters as γραφή, “Scriptures.”

      And here’s my question: 2 Tim 3:16 doesn’t appear in the Catholic catechism, but none of the comments at that passage in the ACCS bring up a distinction between the NT and OT among those particular church fathers. Does church tradition, in your judgment, apply 2 Tim 3:16 to the OT and not the NT? Does it view the NT as profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness? I note that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does use the word “inspiration” to describe the whole Bible, a word which comes from 2 Tim 3:16. Curious to know if the view you imply is common in Catholic tradition.

      • Fr. John Hamm says:

        My only point was that Paul would have been referring to the Hebrew scriptures. There is no implied view as you call it. I merely state that Paul could not have been referring to the NT. Of course I believe in the inspiration of all Scripture, Old and New.

  6. Rick Mackoy says:

    Hi Dr. Ward.
    I always thought the Bible is a good source for interpreting and understanding commentaries!!
    I just ranted to a friend about Ph 2:12 and the US Christian approach to say “Paul really did not mean fear and trembling, but awe and wonder”.
    I will continue to read and pray for His guidance!
    Thank you,
    Rick

  7. Thank You for a great article. Reading in our modern technological culture is becoming a series of tweets and quotes that fit in with our presuppositions. Politics, church and culture are divided into camps about who is right and who is wrong. The Church itself is so much like the world. Preaching the Bible according to the interpretations, upbringing and training we have received.
    I read a devotional today that included Colossians 2:6 -8 … “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him…” It finally impacted me to a great degree that as a church, a collective boy, we do not!

    How did we receive Christ? By Grace through faith in our deepest despair, sin and anguish. AT the right time (in the fullness of time) we received revelation and came to a saving knowledge of Christ Jesus; becoming awakened to who we are and who and what we need. We did not work for it, earn it, or organize our own salvation.IT WAS FREE, no conditions but once we accept Him, we are to grow and walk in Him in the same manner in which we received His mercy, Grace and Truth. Therefore we must be careful in reading scripture by not doing it quantitatively, but qualitatively; meditating and reflecting and praying to understand what we read. We must preach, teach and witness, NOT to get our point across but to reveal the little we know about Our Heavenly father and Saviour.

    Without critical thinking, we simply push forth an agenda of our own that many times we believe is the right one, divinely inspired and correct. You are right Sir, reading is a moral activity and when it comes to the Bible and doctrines we must always tremble and remind ourselves to think critically and without prejudice and be ready for divine detour in our faith walk

  8. And the Bible gives it to me. Paul strikes an intriguing note in his second letter to Timothy:

    Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7 ESV)

    Here’s an inspired comment in an inspired letter, and it expects Timothy to give careful attention to what Paul wrote: “Think it over.” Give some attention and meditation; exercise your mental capacities; take some notes; use commentaries and journals. (The Greek here uses an aorist of intensity and literally means, “fire up Logos Bible Software.”)

    Where is the “aorist of intensity”? There is an imperative “Think over”; a present “I say” and a future “will give”; no aorist — of any kind — even in the Logos Bible Software.

    • Sure enough, it’s an aorist of necessity, not intensity. Everyone *needs* to open up Logos Bible Software.

      (No, it was entirely a joke, and I apologize to any readers who went trolling through grammars looking for this new category of aorists.)