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Why are Some Parts of the Bible So Hard to Understand? (And How Can we Interpret the Bible Rightly?)

Christians in the Reformed tradition agree that the Bible as a whole is sufficiently clear – perspicuous – for ordinary people to understand its message of salvation. But at the same time, Christians disagree strongly on the interpretation of certain passages.

In fact, the very first disciples of Jesus found both their Old Testament and Jesus’ own words extremely hard to understand at times. Jesus famously called his followers “foolish” and “slow” to understand and believe the Old Testament (Luke 24:25). He also said that they were blind and deaf to his own words (Mark 8:18). At times the disciples were mystified by Jesus’ ambiguous wording (John 16:18), but even when he was speaking plainly, the disciples were not always able to understand him (Mark 9:10, 32). To some extent this changed after the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit (John 2:24; 12:16). But Peter admits in his second letter that some of the apostle Paul’s writings are still hard to understand, and that some people misinterpret them (2 Peter 3:16). Paul himself recognizes that some of his own recipients misinterpret his writings (1 Cor 5:9-11).

But not only do genuine Christians disagree about the interpretation of certain passages, they also hold diverse opinions about the means by which right interpretations should be reached. Some say that exegesis must come before hermeneutics. Others say that hermeneutics must come before exegesis. Some say that the Bible must not be subjected to “general hermeneutics,” as though it is an ordinary book. Others say that it is essential to view the Bible from the vantage point of general hermeneutics.

So what do we do? Why is the Bible apparently so hard to understand in parts, and why is it so hard to agree on what we should do about it?

Let’s consider the second part of that question first: why is it so hard to agree about what we should do in interpreting the Bible?

Why is it so hard to agree about what we should do in interpreting the Bible?

My own view is that many disagreements in this area arise from people using the same terminology in very different ways. In particular, the word “hermeneutics” is used in vastly different ways. Some people use the word to mean “application of the Bible to today’s circumstances.” Some people use it to mean “rules for interpretation.” Some people use it to mean “a particular approach to interpretation.” Some people use it to mean “theory about what happens when people conduct interpretation.” So if one person thinks that “hermeneutics” refers to application of the text, it will be obvious to them that hermeneutics must come after exegesis. But if another person thinks that “hermeneutics” refers to rules for interpretation, it will seem obvious to that person that hermeneutics must come before exegesis.

There is particular confusion and disagreement about the term “general hermeneutics.” Some people take this to mean “general rules for interpreting texts.” They may then be hesitant about applying “general hermeneutics” to the Bible, because they rightly recognize that the Bible is a special book – it’s God’s word. But other people take “general hermeneutics” to refer to the analysis of those factors that are generally operative whenever humans attempt to understand something. For such people, it seems straightforward that this field will be very relevant for interpretation of the Bible.

I think most Christians would agree that it is helpful to be aware of general features of human language and understanding when we approach the Bible, and that Christians should make a reverent effort to hear the Bible on its own terms, while remaining eager to consider the ways in which it will impact us today.

As I say, I think most Christians would agree about this – but confusion is compounded when we use ambiguous terminology to talk about it. So what should we do? The most obvious thing we should do is to be clear about what we mean when we use these contested terms! For me, I find it most precise and fruitful to run with the sense of “hermeneutics” used in the field of philosophy. That is, “hermeneutics” refers to the study of what is happening when effective interpretation or understanding takes place. In other words, it is not about rules for interpretation, but rather the analysis of what happens when interpretation occurs. At its best, such analysis is informed by theology. I have no hesitation in seeing interpretation of the Bible as being rightly conducted in the context of (general) hermeneutics if this is what we mean: we want our interpretation of the Bible to be informed by a proper awareness of what is generally taking place when interpretation happens.

The meeting

So what can the field of hermeneutics tell us? What does happen when humans seek to interpret and reach understanding of the Bible? In brief, a meeting happens. To use the technical language of hermeneutics, it is a “meeting of others.” For our interests, it is a meeting between the reader and the Bible. As basic as this sounds, it is crucial to recognize: interpretation involves an engagement between the Bible, in all of its God-given particularity, and the reader, in all of my God-given particularity. In other words, who I am is important to the process of interpretation. As an example, think back to the Bible passages mentioned at the beginning of this post. Those who misunderstood the Old Testament were said by Jesus to have slow hearts (Luke 24:25). The disciples who couldn’t understand Jesus’ words were said to have hard hearts (Mark 8:17). Clearly, interpreting the Bible is not just a matter of rightly unpacking grammar and syntax (though that is certainly necessary). Interpreting the Bible to Jesus’ satisfaction apparently involves listening to it as someone who has a right heart. Who I am is important to the process of interpretation.

If we want the insights of hermeneutics to prepare us for fruitful exegesis of the Christian Scriptures, then, we should do at least two things:

(1) respect the God-given particularity of the Bible: What is this book of the Bible? Why was it written? How does it speak, in its own languages and customs? How has it been heard by others before us?

(2) acknowledge my own God-given particularity: Who am I? Why am I reading this? What are the languages and cultures that I feel at home in? What are the church traditions in which I am situated, and that nourish me?

For Christian interpreters, it is particularly crucial that we consider the state of our hearts in relation to Jesus: do we regard him as the climactic revelation of God, and our Lord? If so, how does this heart-regard for Jesus impact our interpretation of the Scriptures?

What can we do about it?

Well then, what of the question that we left hanging earlier: Why is the Bible so hard to understand in parts, and what can we do about it? Perhaps one reason that we can find parts of the Bible so hard to understand is this issue that I have been calling “otherness” or “particularity.” Those difficult parts of the Bible come from somewhere particular – in a particular language, within particular cultures, as the Spirit inspired particular people to write for particular other people. And those of us who read these passages (ever since they were first read) also come from somewhere particular – with our own particular locations and heritages. Sometimes this makes for difficulty or uncertainty. But we might reflect (and, in fact, Augustine did reflect) that this is not entirely problematic – we can see it as God’s gift to us. He has created us with particularity, and called us to help one another to learn from his word together. Augustine pondered that perhaps God wanted to keep some parts of the Bible difficult, in order to curb our pride, drive us together, and consider the different possibilities that each of us hears.

What I would advocate, then, is that biblical interpretation should begin with hermeneutics (meaning the development of an awareness of what happens in interpretation) and move to exegesis (meaning a practice of interpretation that does justice to God-given particularity). And throughout, we should pray for soft hearts!

Matthew R. Malcolm

Matthew R. Malcolm is the author of From Hermeneutics to Exegesis: The Trajectory of Biblical Interpretation, released this month from B&H Academic. He lives with his wife and three children in Indonesia, where he is the Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Universitas Pelita Harapan.

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