By Mike Willis
For years, we have had to deal with the question, “Can we understand the Bible alike?” Denominational folks have argued that our differences are caused by our inability to understand the Bible alike. When we tried to discuss water baptism with them, they showed little interest in participating, thinking the discussion was futile, because we cannot under the Bible alike. The evangelical denominations reduced the things essential to salvation to a few arbitrary points which they consider the “core gospel”; only these few points in the “core gospel” are revealed with sufficient clarity to expect all men to agree upon them. The rest of New Testament revelation, which they labeled “doctrine,” is not revealed with sufficient clarity to expect agreement, according to this theory. In response to these doctrines, our brethren wrote numerous articles and tracts on the theme “Can We Understand The Bible Alike?”
In more recent years, this denominational argument has surfaced among our own brethren. The unity-in-diversity brethren have argued that we must have unity in “gospel” with diversity in “doctrine” because we cannot understand the Bible alike. Their argument went something like this:
Can anyone perfectly understand the Bible? Does anyone know all of the truth? Is it possible that there is one thing taught in the Bible that you do not know? If you can be accepted by God with your imperfect understanding of the Bible, so can those in the institutional churches of Christ and the Christian Church. Peace will never be restored by universal conformity. The minds of men can no more all think alike than their faces all look alike.
The conclusion was that we must have unity in diversity because we cannot under the Bible alike.
Leroy Garrett expressed the idea that men cannot understand the Bible alike and must, therefore, have unity in diversity as follows:
We likewise question the practice of rejecting any brother on the basis of his misunderstanding of scripture. There are surely grounds of excluding a brother from the fellowship of the congregation, but a sincere and well-meaning misinterpretation of the Bible is not among them. Whether a brother is right or wrong in this or that interpretation of scripture is beside the point whether I receive him as a brother beloved (“How Men Use The Bible To Justify Their Divisions,” Thoughts On Unity, p. 104).
Ira Rice quoted an advocate of unity-in-diversity as follows:
Can we understand the Bible alike? Well, it all depends on what you mean by “can.” There is theoretical possibility and there is possibility of the most realistic sort. Can a person playing dice, throw seven for a thousand times in a row and do it fairly? It’s technically possible.
Can Willie Mays play the complete season next year and hit a home run every time he comes to bat? It’s possible. Can Johnny Unitas throw a touchdown pass on every single offensive play? It’s possible. If we say that all people can understand the Bible alike we can only mean possibility in the most theoretical sense. Anything else is impossible. For the truth is that it is not realistically possible for even two people to understand the Bible alike or the Constitution or Hamlet, unless one of them should let the other do the thinking (Axe on the Root, Vol. II, p. 59).
The argument for “unity-in-diversity” on the grounds that the revelation of God is not sufficiently clear is an attack upon God’s ability to communicate clearly, adequately, and effectively with man. The implication is that God was either incapable or unwilling to speak in words which men could understand alike.
Man Can Understand the Bible
The writings of the Bible are called a “revelation” (Eph. 3:3). The word from which. “revelation” is translated, apokalupsis, means “prop. a laying bare, making naked . . . a disclosure of truth, instruction, concerning divine things before unknown” (Thayer, p. 62). In order for something to be called a “revelation,” it must be something that can be known, once having been revealed. Unless man can understand the Bible, it is not a revelation!
God says that a man can understand his revelation. Paul said,
If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ). . . (Eph. 3:2-4).
This passage plainly affirms that man can understand God’s revelation of his will to mankind.
God commands a man to understand his revelation. In Ephesians 5:17, Paul commanded, “Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). God has not commanded of man that which is impossible for man to do – to understand his revealed will. Hence, we are forced to the conclusion that man can understand the revelation of God.
God made salvation contingent upon understanding his revealed will. In John 8:32, Jesus said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. ” One’s freedom from sin is conditioned upon his knowing the truth.
Men Have Known the Truth
Not only does the Bible state that men can know the truth, the inspired record shows that men have known the truth. Here are some examples:
1. Nehemiah 8.- 7-12. The Lord commanded Nehemiah to read his word to the people. “So they read the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8). Later, the book adds, “And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.” These Jews understood the revelation of God.
2. Timothy. Paul said that Timothy had known the Holy Scriptures from the time that he was a child (2 Tim. 3:14-15). The revelation is so clear that even a child can understand it. this is also confirmed by the prophets. Isaiah foretold the way of holiness which the Lord would reveal saying, “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring man, though fools, shall not err therein” (35:8). Regarding this last phrase, Edward J. Young wrote,
The way will be so clearly marked, so well constructed and so easy to follow that even fools would not go astray thereon. Again, the contrast with the actual condition is vivid. One who travels in the desert without guide or without knowing the way that he must go, may very easily lose his way. The path is sometimes obliterated by the sand; it is not clear-cut and well defined. The way of holiness, however, is one that does not lead astray; it leads to its destination. “The circumstance that even the foolish cannot miss the way, indicates the abundant fulness of the salvation, in consequence of which it is so easily accessible; and no human effort, skill or excellence is required to attain the possession of it” (Hengstenberg) (The Book of Isaiah, Vol. II, pp. 453-454).
3. Some apostates. There are some men who apostatized from the truth, although they had known the truth. In Hebrews 10:26, the author condemns those who “sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth.” The apostates in 2 Peter 2:20-22 had “known the way of righteousness,” but turned away from it and were likened to a dog returning to eat its vomit again.
These examples confirm that men have been able to know the truth. Material emphasizing this point can be multiplied through a study of the following passages: Luke 1:1-4; Acts 17:11; Matthew 13:23; John 7:17; 8:31-36.
Men Can Understand The Bible Alike
To say that men can understand the Bible is to affirm that men can understand the Bible alike because the Bible does not teach 100 different things on any given subject. Its revelation is consistent with itself. It does not teach both “Thou shalt not commit murder” and “Thou shalt commit murder.” Hence, if two people understand God’s word, they necessarily will understand it alike.
To illustrate this truth, if two people add a given set of numbers and both of them correctly understand the sum of those numbers, their answers will agree. In a similar way, if two people correctly understand God’s revelation on a given subject, their answers will agree.
When men state that they cannot understand the Bible alike, we should raise the question, “Why can they not understand the Bible alike?” I suggest to you that, if men do not understand the Bible alike, the fault does not lie with God. God made man as he is and he inspired men to write the Bible as it is. The inspired revelation (made as it is) was designed for man (made as he is) as an all-sufficient revelation of things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
To charge that God wrote the Bible in an unclear manner’ ambiguously, is to lay the fault for our misunderstandings at the foot of God – to charge him with blame. To attack the clarity of God’s revelation implies that the Scriptures have a multiplicity of interpretations and meanings, any one of which is just as good as any other. If God wrote ambiguously, he either did it willfully or unwillfully. If he willfully wrote ambiguously, and yet holds man responsible for knowing his truth as a condition for salvation (Jn. 8:32), then God is not good. If he unwillfully wrote ambiguously, he is not omnipotent, being unable to write with clarity.
Does the fault for men understanding the Bible differently lie in the fact that we are finite, human beings? Let us not forget that God created us as we are and that he is aware of the limitations of human language and the human mind. Knowing this, God would have to take this consideration in communicating his will to us; otherwise it would no be a revelation. Revelation is nothing else than God accommodating his message to man in human language – language which man can understand clearly. If God failed in this purpose, in accommodating his revelation to man’s ability to understand, he is not the omnipotent God he claims to be.
Problem Not New
That men understand the Bible differently is not a knew problem; it existed in the first century. Some men thought that the Scriptures affirmed that Jesus was the Christ and others disagreed. Some men taught that the resurrection was already past (2 Tim. 2:17-18) and others disagreed. Some men taught that men could have fellowship with Christ and walk in darkness (1 Jn. 1:6) and others disagreed. To what were these differences attributed? Did men propose a unity-in-diversity based on man’s inability to understand the Bible alike? Not in the New Testament!
Differences in understanding the Bible were attributed to prejudice (Acts 17:32), obstinate refusal to submit to God (Matt. 13:15; Acts 7:51), jealousy (Acts 13:42-44; 17:5), lack of study of the word of God (Matt. 22:31-32), and other failures by man – failures for which God held him accountable. On no occasion in the Scriptures when men differed on doctrinal matters was an implication made that God’s revelation was unclear or ambiguous on the subject. Repeatedly, man was indicted; neither the ambiguity of the Scriptures nor man’s constitutional makeup was ever used to explain or justify differences regarding what the Bible taught.
When men begin attributing the cause of doctrinal differences to lack of clarity in God’s revelation, based on good men disagreeing on some subject, and when they appeal for unity-in-diversity on that grounds, there is no logical place to draw a line beyond which unity-in-diversity cannot be allowed.
If our differences over divorce and remarriage can be attributed to a lack of clarity in the revelation of God, because good men disagree, then our divisions over church support of human institutions, the sponsoring church arrangement, church sponsored recreation, etc. fall into the same category for the same reasons – good men have disagreed on what the revelation of God says on this subject. The same can be said about our divisions over premillennialism and instrumental music. The principles used to justify unity-in-diversity on the marriage question can be and have been applied to justify unity-in-diversity on each of these themes.
But, why stop at this point? Why not apply the same principles to baptism? Good men disagree on the action, purpose and subject of baptism. If good men disagree on these subjects, the revelation of God must lack clarity. Therefore, we should be tolerant of our differences. “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). We can have unity-in-diversity on the subject of baptism with “Christians” in all denominations.
But, why stop at this point? Why not apply the same principles to the deity and lordship of Jesus Christ? Good men disagree on whether or not Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. If good men disagree on these subjects, the revelation of God lacks clarity. Therefore, we should not pass judgment on the faith of our Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist friends. We can no more expect all men to think alike than we can expect all men to look alike. We must therefore have a unity-in-diversity on the subject of Jesus.
But, why stop at this point? Why not apply the same principles to the existence of God. Good men disagree on whether or not there is a God. If good men disagree on this subject, God must not have clearly revealed himself to mankind. Therefore, we should not pass judgment on our atheist and agnostic friends. We should practice a unity-in-diversity as our friends in the United Church of Christ have done.
How Clear Are the Teachings of God?
No doubt some are reacting by saying that God’s teachings on baptism are sufficiently clear that we cannot tolerate diversity of doctrine on that subject. Would someone like to compare Mark 16:15-16 and Luke 16:18?
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved
Whosoever putteth away his wife and marrieth another committeth adultery
How can we expect men to agree that conformity in doctrine is demanded on one verse but not on the other? If we can practice a unity-in-diversity on the one verge, we can practice unity-in-diversity on the other.
I do not want to leave the impression that I know everything. I do not. However, I do not have to know everything absolutely and exhaustively to know some things certainly. I do not understand everything about mathematics, but I certainly know that 2 + 2 = 4 and can demand conformity on that truth. The things which are revealed to us in God’s word can be known. We have every right to expect that men can understand them. And, if they understand them at all, they will understand them alike.
The appeal to lack of clarity as the reason for unity-in-diversity totally undermines Bible authority, using disagreements among men to release men from responsibility to the plain statements of God’s revelation.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 23, pp. 706, 725-727
December 7, 1989