Many people hear contradictory and outrageous things from self-styled Bible experts who esteem themselves wise. In frustration, they say that the wanna-be teacher can prove anything from the Bible except the truth. They are right; a fraudulent or underqualified teacher can “prove” absolutely anything from the Bible if he abuses it, not because the Bible is a meaningless text, which it is not, but because the teacher is wrong and his teachings are meaningless. Pick a book, any book, any book at all: you can use it to prove anything if you abuse it.
The bare act of reading the Bible or any other text does not make a person into an expert, let alone a teacher, because the process of reading is only the process of decoding the letters on the page. One must read with understanding; understanding not just the meaning of the words, but the background of the text and the purpose of the author.
Why Does This Only Happen With The Bible?
To my knowledge, the Bible is the only book that suffers this sort of abuse, probably because of one passage. If a person fails to read this passage with understanding, but just decodes the letters on the page, they can come to the wrong conclusion:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light
—1 Peter 2:9, World English Bible
At first blush, this passage seems to say that all Christians are clergy, but it does not. The word mistranslated as priesthood is not presbytery, but ἱεράτευμα (hierateuma). Just as a presbyter belongs to a presbytery, a ἱερευς (hiereus) belongs to a hierateuma. The hiereus is a temple functionary who takes your sacrifice and sacrifices it in the Temple on your behalf. He is the intermediary between you and God.
The word “priest” comes from πρεσβυτερος (presbyteros), the Greek word for elder. The regular clergy of the ancient church were called presbyters. Over the centuries, frequently-used words get simplified. Accordingly, presbyteros became became presbyter, which became prester, which became priest, which is its form in English today. The presbyters (or priests as we say today) are the regular clergy of the church today. All three forms of the word are in use today. The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, uses the terms priest, presbyter, and elder interchangeably.
This passage seems to say:
You are a chosen race, a royal presbytery
It really says:
You are a chosen race, a royal hierateuma
This passage in 1 Peter does not mean that all Christians are clergy, but that all Christians have direct access to God, because we don’t need a hierateuma to act as intermediaries, we are the ἱεράτευμα, while Jesus is the ἀρχιερέως (high priest) who sacrifices Himself to Himself. The Holy Spirit does not make us into infallible theologians, because we can make mistakes or willfully disobey, and we are subject to our passions. We are authorized to approach the Throne of God, not to sit on it. As we are all embarrassed to admit, the emotion of the moment can overwhelm our better judgment.
Why the mistranslation? Because English doesn’t give the translator a way to distinguish between a presbyter and a hiereus. The unfortunate side-effect is that many people use this verse to give themselves infallible theological expertise. No matter what it says, neither a presbyter nor a hiereus is necessarily a theological expert.
If Bible readers know that their understanding is fallible, they know that their interpretation is not always correct. Since they realize they are not self-standing authorities, they feel that anyone who disagrees with them might have a point. They can find errors in their own thinking, because they know they are not always right. They are humble, able to live in peace with those who disagree. They can know the truth of the biblical message, because they measure themselves with the Bible.
If Bible readers think that their understanding is infallible, they think that their interpretation is always correct. Since they think they are self-standing authorities, they believe that anyone who disagrees with them is necessarily wrong. They cannot know when their understanding is incorrect, because they have already deemed it perfect. This makes them arrogant, living in strife with those who disagree. They cannot know the truth of the biblical message, because they measure the Bible with themselves.
I know that you belong to the first group, the people who are humble, because if you didn’t, you would have stopped reading by now.
We Need Two Witnesses
In geometry, it takes two points to determine a line and three to determine a plane. From those basic principles surveyors can determine the height of a tower without leaving the ground. In the courtroom, it works the same way. With one witness, the court cannot tell whether the witness is telling the truth, is honestly mistaken, is elaborating on the facts, or is even lying. With one witness, the court cannot even tell if it correctly understands what a completely truthful witness is saying. That is why the Bible, when specifying judicial proceedings, only allows a conviction on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
When we read the Bible, we only have one witness, the Bible itself. We need a second witness, not because the Bible is insufficient, but because we are. We sometimes forget that the Bible is infallible, but we are not. We have different backgrounds, viewpoints, experiences, and education, so we end up with many schools of thought and sometimes even come to contradictory conclusions. The problem is not within the Bible, it is within ourselves.
Surely God in His providential mercy would give us more than one infallible witness so that we could find the truth.
The First Witness: The Bible
The Bible is Infallible, but the Reader Is Not
If we affirm that God is fully incarnate in Jesus Christ, we must affirm that this incarnation took place at a specific time, in a specific place, in a specific society, in a specific culture, a specific political system, a specific legal system, and among people who spoke a specific language. And more. If Jesus does not fully share the context of His incarnation, there is no incarnation at all, just a sort of hologram. Since the New Testament is an ancient book, the modern reader does not share any of the biblical context, which is essential to understanding what the biblical writer wrote. For example, in reading the New Testament it is helpful to know that people in the holy land could only get water from wells and rainfall stored in cisterns, and that pulling a bucket up from a well or cistern was very strenuous work.
No modern reader knows the entire context of any particular biblical writer’s world. Some modern readers understand it more completely than others, but even perfect knowledge would not make a perfect reader, because a human being with perfect knowledge is still a human being, subject to mistakes, opinions, and passions. We cannot read without interpreting, and interpretation adds meaning to reading. Reading gives us the dots, interpretation connects those dots, and even two human beings with perfect knowledge can connect the dots differently, even if the difference is slight.
It is no surprise that no interpretation of the Bible hits the nail squarely on the head.
In the act of reading the Bible, the reader unwittingly fills the gaps in his knowledge about the biblical context with information from his own context. For example, very few Bible readers have experienced any social context other than their own, both their present social context and the social context of their youth. Since we all remember good things better than we remember bad things, and we long for something that is better than what we have, the past always seems like a golden age. It is also quite common for people to confuse the recent past, which they know, with the distant past, which they do not know. As a consequence, they unwittingly interpret biblical writings in the social context of their youth. The biblical prophet exhorts the people to switch between two alternatives; the pagan fertility cults or their own religious heritage, both of which exist at the same time as the prophet, but to the modern reader it sounds like a call to reject what is modern and return to what what they knew in their youth. Nostalgia becomes a biblical commandment in their minds, and that translates into a divine call to return to the social injustices of the recent past.
There is no amount of Bible reading that exempts us from being humble, teachable, and correctable.
Obviously we cannot have perfect knowledge of the biblical writer’s context. Some of the things in the biblical context were less than ideal, otherwise there would not have been prophets, and we might have difficulty separating the good things from the bad things. Obviously we do understand many things correctly by the bare act of reading the Bible; we interpret what we read, and our interpretation cannot be perfect.
We could say that in reading and interpreting the Bible:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12, World English Bible
I am not saying that the Bible is meaningless, or that it conveys no information. It does. The Bible is an infallible, perfect witness to the Truth, but it does not make you an infallible, perfect reader and interpreter. No matter how much you read and study the Bible, no matter how close you come to perfect knowledge, it does not remove your need for the gift of humility, because your knowledge is still incomplete.
The Second Witness: The Creation
The Creation is Infallible, but the Observer is Not
From the Bible, we learn these four things:
- God created the universe. Genesis 1:1
- Nothing exists except that God created it. John 1:3
- Everything God created is good. Genesis 1:31
- The devil is powerless to create anything to mislead us, because Jesus defeated him on the cross.
God created the world through His Word and pronounced it good. The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). The universe is good (Genesis 1:1-31), thus its testimony about itself is true. The creation is the second infallible witness. The Bible contains the Word of God, it is the first infallible witness. That is where we find the two witnesses. We are not witnesses, we are not sources of truth but observers of it.
Just as the bare act of reading the Bible does not make the reader an infallible theologian, the bare act of observing the creation does not make a person into an expert, let alone a scientist, because the process of observation is only the process of recording data. One must analyze the data, understanding not just the meaning of each piece of data, but the relationships among the data and the structure of the whole.
Just as we cannot read the Bible without interpreting it, we cannot observe the universe without interpreting it. Neither the theologian nor the scientist has perfect knowledge.
Listening to the Testimony of the Two Witnesses
If someone says that he can prove from the Bible that the sun rises in the north, we don’t need to read the Bible to prove them wrong. We just have to wait until sunrise and observe where the sun rises. If the sun persists in rising in the east, then which is wrong? The sun, the compass, the Bible, or the interpretation? Hint: it is the interpretation that’s wrong. Anyone who insists that his interpretation is right and the physical evidence is wrong is either a false teacher or a teacher of false things—or even delusional. Interpreting the Bible without observing the creation brings us to a wrong conclusion.
In the past, people read the Bible and developed a proof that left-handedness was a disorder that needed correction. That belief survived until the 1950s, when people started paying attention to the second witness, the creation, and realized that their interpretation was wrong. The creation taught them that while left-handedness is not the norm, it is normal.
Thus we can misinterpret the creation just as we can misinterpret the Bible, but if we hear the testimony of the two witnesses, we are more likely to find our errors and remove them. If we have humility, we are aware that we are fallible and we are open to new information and correction.
The Nature of Truth
The truth of God is the same in all places and at all times.
There is no such thing as a ‘new truth,’ because if a proposition is new, it means there was a time when it was not true. The fundamental characteristic of truth is truthfulness. Nothing that is, was, or will be false is a truth in the proper sense; therefore, a ‘new truth’ is not a truth. It might be news to me, it might be a surprise to you, but it cannot be objectively new. It must have been there all along, escaping our notice.
If we want to prove the truth of a biblical interpretation, we have to find it in all ages and places; it might be a thin trickle of a minority view in one century and a wide rushing river of a majority view in another, but it should always be there.
Truth did not begin when your church was founded. It did not begin at the Reformation. It did not begin when Peter became bishop of Rome, or Andrew became bishop of Constantinople. It did not begin when Jesus rose from the dead, or when He preached on the mountainside, or even when He was born in the manger. Truth did not begin when Moses brought the Law down from the mountain or when Abraham heard God’s call.
Truth began when God said, “Let there be light,” and it never ends. We know in part, and we see in part, but the perfect is coming…