‘Hermeneutics’

The Ambiguity and Certainty of Scripture

April 20th, 2010

Many years ago I was admiring the knowledge of a trusted teacher. He said to me,

I’m still confused, just at a higher level!

Sometimes I feel this way in my studies of the Bible. I have been reading the Bible regularly for 32 years and studying it seriously for 21 years, and there are so many things that I still can’t explain. Don’t get me wrong, hard work and diligent study has paid off. I love knowing the Word of God as I do. It is transformative, life-changing. It is sharper than a two-edged sword. Every Christian should study the Word passionately. But I’ve also seen that there are many things in Scripture that are ambiguous, confusing, and hard to explain.

It used to bother me when people talked about the difficulties of understanding the Bible, because oftentimes the people seemed to me to be lazy, or unwilling to diligently study. It is true that many people use the complexity of the Bible as an excuse, but I’ve discovered that, like my wise teacher, there are people who understand an important truth about Scripture. It is both ambiguous and certain.

If you say the Bible is “too hard to understand” and don’t study, you are missing many of its wonderful riches.

But if you say the Bible “can be completely understood by hard study”, you too are missing many of its wonderful riches.

Expert theologians work very hard to remove ambiguity. Translators of many of the modern English Bibles in attempting to create an “easy to read” version have intentionally removed ambiguity that was there in the original language. Again, don’t misunderstand me, much confusion IS cleared up by proper translation and good theology. However, an honest student of God’s word will confess that tensions remain. When I am honest, I must admit that even my most solid doctrines contain some elements of uncertainty. In fact, if we don’t admit that, we run the risk of developing strange, even ungodly, ideas. And on the other hand, if we cannot admit that there IS certainty in Scripture, we also run the same risk. There is both ambiguity and certainty in Scripture.

The proponents of study often quote 2 Timothy 2:15

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

And on the other side, many quote Isaiah 55:8-9

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

But both are true! These are both quotes from the same Bible.

Consider Romans 11:33

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!

and Ephesians 1:17-18 where Paul was praying

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints

So what of it? What can be said in conclusion? God wants us to relate to HIM. The facts of scripture tell us something about HIM. But He leaves enough ambiguity there that we should not put our faith in facts, but in Him. The ambiguities also tell us something about Him, but He presents enough facts about Himself that we are not lost in confusion. So, study hard, read diligently, pursue wisdom and knowledge, but never forget that His ways really are higher than your ways!

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