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