Bible 1I received my first Bible — a New Testament (with Pictures!) — for Christmas, 1979 from The Gospel Den Christian Bookstore.

I still have that Bible close to forty years later. Indeed, I keep it in my seminary office on a shelf with a range of Bibles I’ve used throughout the last four decades. And while each of those Bibles is special for its own reasons, there is something unique about the first.

I still remember the excitement of receiving that modest children’s version of the New Testament. At long last, I had my own Bible, a timeless chronicle of the very words of God; or as my youth pastor would later say, the owner’s manual for the human person.

Bible 2That little Bible is not much to look at. It is diminutive in size, bordering on tiny. As I write now in 2017 that book is 38 years old, worn with the ravages of time: its binding has grown brittle, its spine is cracked, and its pages are yellowed. It has definitely seen better days.

While I greatly cherished that Bible, the truth is that I didn’t read it very often. But don’t blame me: the trade-off for having a pocket New Testament is a font so tiny it is barely legible to all but those with the best vision. To make matters worse, the book was written in the lofty and elegant but inaccessible prose  of King James.

And so, while I would open my little New Testament to read a verse here or there, the truth is that I never read much; nor did I typically understand what I was reading. In retrospect, it would seem that I loved that Bible more for its symbolic value and its talismanic status rather than for its readability and ability to inform and inspire.

And then came The Student Bible

Student Bible
Few Bibles embody a 1980s aesthetic as effectively as the original Student Bible. When I see this cover I feel like listening to Tears for Fears and wearing some acid wash jeans. Timeless.

Over the years I acquired other Bibles, but none had the impact of my beloved NIV Student Bible which I purchased in 1987, a year after it was first released. The Bible pictured here isn’t my Student Bible: mine fell into tatters a long time ago (see below).  The funky 1980s cover was a definite plus, but the real gold was found inside the covers, including the relative accessibility of the NIV translation (especially when compared to the KJV) as well as the eminently helpful readers notes composed by editors Tim Stafford and Philip Yancey.

Those readers notes were gold. Yancey writes that he and Stafford discovered that while many Christians have “a high view of the Bible and want to read it,” many of them “never get around to it”.  The main reason? Because they can’t understand it. (source)

My NIV Student Bible today.

Enter the NIV Student Bible. At last, a Bible that I could understand! (At least, I could understand it better than my KJV.) Clearly I’m not the only one who was enthusiastic: The Student Bible went on to sell in excess of six million copies (source). No doubt about it, the Student Bible was a quantum leap forward and I am forever grateful to Philip Yancey, Tim Stafford, and the editors at Zondervan for creating it.

The Explosion of the Specialty Bible Market

Since the success of the NIV Student Bible the marketplace has been flooded with specialty Bibles tailored to various market segments. There are now special Bibles for teen boys and girls, soccer moms and wild at heart dads, people who are concerned about the environment or apologetics, people who are in the military, people who are struggling with depression, the list goes on and on.

Soul Surfer BibleSome years ago I bought my daughter a copy of the Bethany Hamilton Soul Surfer Bible just like this one. She loved it: the handy size, the sparkly cover, and the reader’s notes about the famous Christian surfer Bethany Hamilton. Just the right stuff for a ten year old.

A few weeks later I saw my daughter reading her Soul Surfer Bible intently. I was filled with excitement to see the Word of God coming alive for her as I recalled my time reading the NIV Student Bible.

“What are you reading about?” I asked proudly.

She looked up and replied, “Oh, I’m just reading about Bethany. She’s amazing!”

Ahh, I see.

The truth is that I have nothing against Bethany, but frankly I’d prefer if my daughter had been reading about Jesus. From that point I couldn’t shake the nagging thought that the specialty Bible market is less successful at spurring biblical literacy than it is at making money for publishers.

The survey evidence supports this. For example, see Ed Stetzer’s article “The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches.” Despite the abundance of specialty Bibles crowding the marketplace, Christians don’t read the Bible often and they don’t read it well.

What is Bible literacy anyway?

How do sociologists purport to gauge Bible literacy anyway? Do they just ask questions like “How often do you read the Bible?” I hope not, because frequent reading doesn’t ensure successful reading. I first read through the entire Bible in high school. During that intensive Bible reading year I read the Bible more frequently than I do today as a seminary professor. In one sitting I plowed through thirty psalms. That’s a lot of reading! But did I understand what I read? Did I remember it five minutes later?

One might also survey Bible literacy by asking questions like “What are the Synoptic Gospels?” and “Can you name the five books of the Pentateuch?” and “What was the name of King David’s first wife?” But again, knowledge of various specialist terms and trivia does not ensure understanding of the primary themes and message of the texts.

My NIV Student Bible impressively marked up with a teenager’s intensive study.

Here’s my Student Bible again, opened to the book of Romans. In high school I spent more time in this book than anywhere else in the Bible. I thought I understood it. And judging by the highlighting, underlining, and marginalia, I must have, right?

Not surprisingly today as a seminary professor I understand Romans far better than I ever did as a pimply faced teenager. I can expostulate on the New Perspective on Paul; I can share my thoughts about Paul’s use of diatribe; I can opine on the interpretation of hilasterion in Romans 3; I can wax eloquently on the Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of Romans 9.

At the same time, I am also that much more aware of all that I don’t understand when it comes to Romans. It now is clearer than ever to me that I’m only scratching the surface in grappling with Paul’s argument. And I have hardly begun to match that argument up to the various doctrinal affirmations of Christian confession (theology; ethics; soteriology; ecclesiology; eschatology, etc).

And if that’s where I am when it comes to Romans — a book that I know as well as any in the Bible — it should be no surprise that I haven’t even begun to wrestle with large tracts of the Bible (Leviticus, Isaiah, Nahum…). If the Bible is an ocean, I fear I’ve only barely dipped my toes in the water.

Is God partly to blame?

So this is where we are: biblical literacy has never been great among the laity. And ironically, despite the market saturation of various specialty Bibles and teaching aids, that literacy — modest though it may be — is on the decline. And even where there is marked improvement over time, as in my own journey to becoming a seminary professor, the growth of knowledge is overshadowed by how much I do not yet understand.

We could spend time beating ourselves up over this sorry state of affairs. But the truth is that God should take on some of the blame, shouldn’t he?

Let’s think about the issue in terms of publishing.

When you plan to write a book the first thing a good editor will ask you is who is the audience? So you answer, “I am writing for a general audience. I want to reach everybody!” You know what an editor will say next? They will point out that if you want to reach a general audience, you better keep the book simple and engaging. In short, you should stay at a grade 8 vocabulary and you should ensure that it is a page-turner.

Christians believe God wrote the Bible for everybody. And yet, he completely dissed the editor’s good advice.

Simple? Far from it! Instead, God gave us a library of bewildering complexity: cosmogonic creation narratives, ancient near eastern law codes, cryptic apocalyptic revelations, perplexing prophetic exhortations, pithy wisdom sayings, highly contextualized letters, lofty poetry, Greco-Roman biography, and much more besides.

Engaging? Some parts definitely are: many Psalms are glorious; some biblical narratives like Esther and portions of the Gospels qualify as page-turners. But let’s be honest: large tracts of the Bible are ponderous. At least they are for the average reader who is looking for the equivalent of an engaging Tom Clancy novel, not arcane levitical law, abstruse prophetic utterances, and impenetrable symbolic revelations.

Needless to say, no editor would have green-lighted God’s approach to a mass market publication. And that means that while we must shoulder some blame for widespread biblical illiteracy, God should probably take on some blame as well.

And this brings us to the real puzzle. If God were just another fallible human author, we might chalk up his decision to a uniquely poor assessment of the capacities and interests of his target audience. But God isn’t just another fallible human author. He’s God. So why did God forgo the conventional wisdom by giving us this difficult and woefully complex library of ancient texts?

In short, what is God up to?

For further discussion see my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?

6 thoughts on “If this is God’s Word, why isn’t it easier to understand?

  1. Many times I’ve been in a Christian bookstore and felt tempted to buy some attractive-looking bible. Then I sadly realized that it is not going to make me read it more. When I first became an evangelical, I was very into reading it since it was all new for me coming from a Catholic background.

    My skeptical friend has commented many times that the way God went about revealing Himself seems stupid. I told him I agree 🙂

    I know your goal is not necessarily to provide your answers here, but I have often wondered what your rationale is for trusting the bible. Obviously, you have a lot of trust and confidence in it despite all the complexities of the various types of literature.

    As for me, I think I mostly focus on the arguments for the historicity of the Gospels and the various arguments for the resurrection.

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    1. Thanks for the comments Dave. If you base your trust in the Bible on arguments for historicity then you will end up with a very uneven commitment to plenary inspiration given that (most) events narrated in the Gospels are far better attested historically than (most) events narrated in (for example) the Deuteronomic history.

      I would suggest a different approach. If you begin with a commitment to God being the primary author/redactor of this holy collection of ancient texts, then irrespective of debates about historicity and evidence, you have a prima facie commitment to defer to (and so trust) the collection as you have received it.

      In that context the burden of proof is on the skeptic to establish to you that God is not, in fact, the primary author/redactor of every portion of Scripture.

      Finally, I’ll simply add that this is not an instance of special pleading. Rather, it is one of the countless times that we defer to the wisdom of a tradition, in this case the Christian tradition that recognizes just this canon as God’s holy works.

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      1. Several works from Yale U Press discuss the evidence that ancient Israelite writings were “canonized” for sociological and cultural reasons:

        1. The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis by Joel Baden
        2. How the Bible Became Holy by Michael Satlow
        3. The Formation of the Hebrew Canon by Timothy Lim

        Baden surveys the history of the documentary hypothesis, observing that subsequent scholarship has provided better evidence for the hypothesis than did the original theorists. Baden thoroughly summarizes the “problem”: The text as we have it is rife with factual and doctrinal contradictions, repetitions, omissions and errors. Some are well known, such as the two versions of the Ten Commandments, and the stitched-together narrative of Joseph being sold into slavery, which makes no sense as a single narrative. Others only reveal themselves upon close inspection.

        Satlow makes a convincing case that the scribal class only came to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. Judea was a backwater, but when the Assyrian-influenced Israelite scribes arrived, they brought sophisticated traditions that transformed Judean religion.

        If you were an average Jew in ancient Israel, you gave authority to family traditions first and foremost. These probably included the worship of multiple gods, from El and Baal to familial “household gods” who protected house and hearth. Priestly elites competed for authority, with the Jerusalem cult only one of many such institutions. Some kings were pluralistic; others favored one cult over another.

        It was in part an accident that the Jerusalem group’s traditions — which, of course, privileged their god, YHVH, and their sacrificial cult — took primacy. Those imported-from-Israel scribes had a lot to do with it. Eventually, when the exiled Judeans returned from Babylonia in 539 B.C.E., it was the YHVH-centric traditions that were consulted for authenticity — and the texts’ authority became central.

        After the Babylonian conquest (and later, the return of Jews to Judea after the Persian conquest of Babylonia), there were no direct family traditions anymore; everything had been uprooted. These old scraps of texts suddenly became the repository of ancient wisdom.

        And Lim points out that far from being a straightforward adoption of texts universally acclaimed to be holy, the composition of the Bible proceeded in fits and starts, with multiple competing agendas.

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      2. Does “tradition” answer the question of which writings are canonical? Jews and Christians throughout the centuries have produced bibles that vary in content and organization. This chart is a sampling of the different bibles used today: http://www.biblestudymagazine.com/extras-1/2014/10/31/whats-in-the-bible

        What canon did the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls recognize?

        What canon did the apostle Paul recognize?

        Even after Paul, Christian leaders, different councils, and different churches, adopted slightly different canons as seen in the chart linked to above. And even though the majority of writings chosen for those canons overlap greatly, no singular definitive Christian canon is recognized by all Christian denominations.

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      3. Isn’t it selective of you to rely on early Christian tradition for the canon but to not also rely on early Christian tradition when it comes to holy days, popes, celibacy, church orders, confession, transubstantiation, sainthood, veneration of Mary, relics, excommunication, and justifications for why rulers must coerce/persecute pagans, heretical Christians, Jews, blasphemers?

        Much of the above was given to us by tradition around the same time as the notion of a traditional canon.

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      4. When and how does non-canonical become canonical?

        Authors of the New Testament employed—and even appealed to the authority of non-canonical ideas, oral traditions, deuterocanonical, extracanonical writings, and varying textual recensions (like the Greek Septuagint Bible where it said something different from the Hebrew Bible).

        By the time Christian churches finalized and canonized their New Testament it was 300 years after Jesus had died and they were editing it right up to the last minute–including three known different endings to the last chapter of Mark, and a few letters that appeared so late that the apostles who allegedly wrote them were already dead. For additional “last minute” changes see, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, and, Misquoting Jesus, both by Bart D. Ehrman.

        One can’t help but note how quietly the Deity endures the writing of innumerable books all claiming to speak for Him/Her/Them/It. Surely any Deity that thought their exact words were vitally important would have “zapped” scribes, printing presses, websites, that dared to put false ones into the Deity’s mouth. But such “zapping” only appears to have taken place on extremely rare occasions, while new words of the Deity (as well as controversial translations and interpretations of older words) continue to flood the world in a veritable deluge of “God said this, God teaches that-ness.” Could it be that the Deity’s exact words do not matter as much to the Deity as they do to those who believe in “religions of the book?”
        ____________________________

        It is not easy to account for an infinite God making people so low in the scale of intellect as to require a revelation. Neither is it easy to perceive why, if a revelation was necessary for all, it was made only to a few.

        Robert Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses
        ____________________________

        All that God wants us to do is clearly revealed in the Bible… and the Talmud and the Koran and the Book of Mormon and the works of L. Ron Hubbard. These holy writings tell us what God want us to do, often in the form of revealing anecdotes…The problem is that many of us don’t have the vaguest idea what these anecdotes reveal.

        Dave Barry, “At the Risk of Being Smitten”
        ____________________________

        Holy Scripture: A book sent down from heaven. Holy Scripture contains all that a Christian should know and believe provided he adds to it a million or so commentaries.

        Voltaire, Dictionary of Theology

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