When it Comes to the Bible, Sometimes It’s Best To Say, “I Don’t Know”

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named 'Luther.' Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

This is Idris Elba playing a guy named ‘Luther.’ Martin Luther said this quote. Ergo, I feel justified using this picture to get you to read the article.

The Bible can be a hard book at times. And that’s so for a number of reasons. In the first place, we’re sinners and so we don’t always like listening to what God has to say through it. Kind of like when your mom would call you to take out the trash from up the hall–you manage not to “hear” the message.

Beyond that, sometimes even when you want to understand it’s just plain difficult. It’s a grown-up book, translated from a different language (two or three, actually), at a remove of thousands of years, across cultures, and shared histories. What’s more, this collection of narratives, poetry, visions, and letters concerns itself with the most sublime and transcendent Subject of all: God and his works.

Of course, that’s not to say we can’t understand it all. That would be rather extreme. No, much of the Bible can be read and understood by most, and there is enough that can be understood by all so that they may know what they need to be saved and live life with God. God has can and does reach us through his Word. That’s the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture.

All the same, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not teach that no part of the Bible is difficult, or that it will always be equally obvious to all (2 Pet. 3:16). There will be much that is beyond us. And this is important for believers to admit, at times, for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

But first, I was reminded of this point as I was reading some Luther the other night. At this point, he’s preaching through the John 3 and he comes to the line about being born again of water and the Spirit and the difficulties of interpretation. Luther thinks that Munzer has badly misinterpreted the Scriptures here and he moves to correct him, but before doing so, he makes an important point:

But let these words stand, and do not indulge in subtle arguments, even though they appear foolish and strange to reason. Take them in their simple sense, just as they read, not as some have interpreted them. Munzer, for example, declared that water here symbolizes affliction and temptation. One must not be willful with the Word of God. It is better to say: “I do not understand the words,” than to alter them. It is better to leave my hands off and to commend it to God than to add to or detract from God’s words. Holy Writ must be treated with veneration and profound awe. In their impudence, however, the schismatic spirits do not do this; they are forward, as we read in the second chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Peter. They consider the Word of God nothing else than the word of man (2 Peter 2:10). But don’t meddle with God’s Word. If you do not understand it, accord it the honor to say: “I shall wait until I do understand it.”

Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, pg. 283

There is a wisdom in slowing down in your interpretation of Scripture. God’s Word is holy. It is the set apart of his apostles and prophets–heralds of the Holy One–for the divine purpose of drawing his people into fellowship with the Triune God. It is, therefore, as a Kingly proclamation, nothing to be trifled or meddled with. It must “be treated with veneration and profound awe.” In which case, Luther says there will come times when it’s entirely appropriate to say, “I do not understand the words.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think it’s especially important for those of us called to teach the Bible–whether in the classroom or the pulpit–to give heed to Luther’s here.

There is a pressure for the pastor or the teacher to be the one who knows everything all the time. Now, of course, it’s quite reasonable for us to expect the pastor to know some things. Maybe even more things than most in the congregation. (Though, as any pastor knows, there are usually a number of saints who can give you a run for your seminary education sitting in the pews). Still, whether it’s self-imposed or put on them by others, the pressure to “know it all”; to have every verse down, ready to comment on, and every theological equation solved is there.

And so the temptation is to spout off an answer when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. Here are some reasons it’s better to just say “I don’t know,” sometimes.

First, as Luther says, we avoid dishonoring God’s Word that way. When we say God’s Word says something it doesn’t, we’re altering it. We’re changing what God’s written to us and that is no small thing. Now, to be sure, every preacher has done this at some point, even in their earnest desire to preach the Word. And I believe God understands and has mercy on these things. But to do so, not out of earnest conviction, but merely because one hasn’t given enough thought to the issue or simply in order to have something to say and prop up your pride is sinful. When faced with a passage too difficult, better to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Second, by doing so, not only do you honor God’s Word, but you teach your people to honor God’s Word. You teach them humility before God’s Word that they then take with them to their own study. What’s more, by admitting your own lack of knowledge at certain points, you give them permission to “not know” things and yet continue to study nonetheless. I think that was one of the more helpful things I did for my students. They all knew I read and studied like crazy, but I’d still have moments where I’d have to look at them and say, “You know, I have to go look that up more. I’m just not sure.”

Finally, it should help prevent you from discrediting God’s Word in the ears of your hearers. Unfortunately, your bad teaching that flows from your inability to just admit you’re beyond your depths can turn people off from the Bible because of the distortion you inject into it. Speculative, shallow, half-cocked answers to difficult questions don’t make you sound smarter, they only make the Bible sound worse. Being willing to simply admit you don’t know avoids that danger.

Obviously, none of this is an argument for simply shutting up and never preaching anything. As I said, I think there’s plenty that’s clear, and with some study, we are able to truly understand, preach, and teach the Bible. All the same, it’s okay to admit there are times it’s beyond us. It may be that in precisely that way we treat it as we ought: as God’s Holy Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm: “Taste the Goodness of Your Redeemer”

christ-on-the-cross-1587Anselm of Canterbury is credited with having invented with what is called the “satisfaction” theory of atonement in his classic work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In a severely condensed nutshell, humanity sins against its Creator, incurring an infinite debt of sin, having slighted the infinitely worthy Triune God’s honor and marring the beauty and order of his universe. This moral debt is owed to God and yet is unpayable twice over, not only because the debt is infinite, but because humanity has wounded itself and is now no longer even able to render the obedience it still owes, much less the outstanding debt. And yet, humanity is the one who owes the debt and so is the only one who ought to pay it.

God, though, being faithful to his creation and to his purposes for the good of his humanity aims to reconcile humanity to himself. To do so, the Son comes, assumes our human nature alongside his divine nature, lives a perfect life, dies a death he does not owe, and in virtue of his infinite goodness, offers it up as a good exceeding every debt in order to settle the debt of sin. He can do this on our behalf because he is true man. But the offering of this man can cover our debt because it is also the humble offering of the infinite God.

Now, there are a number of objections that have been lodged against it over the years–some of them which I myself share. One which I think has been quite unfair, though, is that Anselm’s logical presentation is of a “rationalist” sort, with one of the implications being that it’s connected to a rather cold sort of faith, narrowly concerned with ledgers and miserliness. That it’s the kind of faith that cuts the nerve of piety and true spiritual vitality.

I think it’s unfair because, first, it ignores the way the form of Anselm’s argument–the dialogue–shapes the presentation. Second, it ignores the deep beauty and grace which shapes his other works, many of which are written in the form of prayers to God, or spoken to the Christian soul.

We were given one such work in my seminar on atonement at Trinity, “A Meditation on Human Redemption” and I thought it worth sharing an excerpt we read in class the other day:

O Christian soul, soul raised up from grievous death, soul redeemed and freed by the blood of God from wretched bondage: arouse your mind, remember your resurrection, contemplate your redemption and liberation. Consider anew where and what the strength of your salvation is, spend time in meditating upon this strength, delight in reflecting upon it. Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind toward this end. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Savior, chew His words as a honey-comb, suck out their flavor, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.

Where, then, and what is the strength and might of your salvation? Assuredly, Christ has resurrected you. That Good Samaritan has healed you, that Good Friend has redeemed and freed you by sacrificing His own soul life. Yes, it was Christ. Therefore, the strength of Christ is the strength of your salvation. Where is the strength of Christ? Surely horns are in His hands; there His strength is hidden. Strength is indeed in His hands because His hands were nailed to the arms of the cross. But what strength can there be in such weakness, what majesty in such humiliation, what worthy of reverence in such contempt? But surely because it is disguised in weakness it is something hidden, because veiled in humiliation it is something concealed, because covered with contempt it is something inaccessible. O hidden might! A man appended to a cross suspends the eternal death impending over the human race; a man fastened to a cross unfastens a world affixed to endless death! O concealed power! A man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with demons; a man stretched out on a cross draws all things unto Himself! O unseen strength! One soul yielded up in the torment [of crucifixion] draws countless souls from the torments of Hell; a man undergoes bodily death and abolishes spiritual death!

It’s been a while since I’ve read something that thick with spiritual vitality. The doctrinal content is rich, but this is not the language of detached doctrinal discussion, but that of prayer, praise, and adoration.

What’s funny, though, is that he continues from there in a similar mode of prayerful reasoning, to work through much of the same logic of salvation as he outlines in Cur Deus Homo. For example:

For the life of that man Jesus is more precious than everything that is not God, and it surpasses every debt owed by sinners as satisfaction. For if putting Him to death [is a sin which] surpasses the multitude and magnitude of all conceivable sins which are not against the person of God, clearly His life is a good greater than the evil of all those sins which are not against the person of God. To honor the Father, that man Jesus – who was not obliged to die, because not a sinner freely gave something of His own when He permitted His life to be taken from Him for the sake of justice. He permitted this in order to show to all others by example that they ought not to forsake the justice of God even because of death, which inevitably they are obliged to undergo at some time or other; for He who was not obliged to undergo death and who, having kept justice, could have avoided death, freely and for the sake of justice endured death, which was inflicted upon Him. Thus, in that man human nature freely and out of no obligation gave to God something its own, so that it might redeem itself in others in whom it did not have what it, as a result of indebtedness, was required to pay.

This same “logic” of satisfaction is what leads Anselm to comfort the believer with the beauty of their redemption given in Christ. No dry, detached piety here, but rich, spiritual truth.

I’ve nothing more to say except to close with one more excerpt which I hope encourages and comforts you today:

Behold, O Christian soul, this is the strength of your salvation, this is what has made possible your freedom, this is the cost of your redemption. You were in bondage, but through the cross you have been redeemed. You were a servant, but through the cross you have been set free. You are an exile who in this manner has been led back home, someone lost who has been found, someone dead who has been revived. O man, let your heart feed upon these thoughts. Let it chew continually upon them, let it suck upon them and swallow them whenever your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. In this life make these thoughts your daily bread, your nourishment, your provision. For through these thoughts and only through them will you remain in Christ and Christ in you; and only through them will your joy be full in the life to come.

Soli Deo Gloria