It can be argued that interpreting the Bible is more complex than most people comprehend. In their book entitled Inerrancy and Common Sense, Roger R. Nicole and J. Ramsey Michaels state on page 81,
[Grammar] is indispensable for the purpose of communication and . . . people of culture will manifest a certain conformity to the usage which is characterized as correct. A complete disregard of rules of grammar breeds ambiguity. . . . We find that the Scripture was not written with cavalier disregard. Yet there are at times puzzling cases, particularly in the state in which the texts have reached us, where it is difficult to ascertain the precise construction intended by the authors.
Furthermore, interpretation of the Bible is made more difficult due to the fact that the writers used terminology that was natural to them to express themselves. On page 8 of Gleason L. Archer’s book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, the Foreword states,
In writing the Bible, its authors used figures of speech, allegory, symbolic language, and the various genre of literature employed by other human authors. Moreover, because they wrote in the language of the common man of two or more millennia ago, they frequently chose not to provide specific technical data where that was not important to their purpose. . . . Divine inspiration guaranteed only the truth of what they wrote. God preserved them from error both of ignorance and of deception. But He did not prevent them from speaking as humans.
James I. Packer on pages 221-222 of Inerrancy, a book edited by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., says,
The men who wrote the biblical books had in view a readership contemporary with themselves and wrote to be understood by that readership. So our task in biblical interpretation is twofold: first, to fix the historical meaning of each book (what it was saying to its first intended readers) and second, to apply to ourselves the truths about God and man that the original message embodies.
In addition, Archer declares on page 15 of his book,
[N]o interpretation of Scripture is valid that is not based on careful exegesis, that is, on wholehearted commitment to determining what the ancient author meant by the words he used. This is accomplished by a painstaking study of the key words, as defined in the dictionaries (Hebrew and Greek) and as used in parallel passages. Research also [involves determining] the specific meaning of these words in idiomatic phrases as observed in other parts of the Bible.
On page 16 of his book, Archer provides the following modern-day illustration:
Consider how confused a foreigner must be when he reads in a daily American newspaper: “The prospectors made a strike yesterday up in the mountains.” “The union went on strike this morning.” “The batter made his third strike and was called out by the umpire.” “Strike up with the Star Spangled Banner.” “The fisherman got a good strike in the middle of the lake.” Presumably each of these completely different uses of the same word go back to the same parent and have the same etymology. [Note: Etymology is the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found.] But complete confusion may result from misunderstanding how the speaker meant the word to be used. Bear in mind that inerrancy involves acceptance of and belief in whatever the biblical author meant by the words he used. If he meant what he said in a literal way, it is wrong to take it figuratively; but if he meant what he said in a figurative way, it is wrong to take it literally. So we must engage in careful exegesis in order to find out what he meant in the light of contemporary conditions and usage.
[Note: For a discussion of several statements by Jesus Christ that we believe should not be interpreted literally, click on “Should Everything Christ Said Be Interpreted Literally?”]
Also, the Bible contains statements that should be regarded as generalities, not absolutes. For example, in the New King James Version of the Bible, Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Although this statement is generally true, there are exceptions.
Furthermore, the Bible gives accounts of visions experienced by several followers of God, and it is sufficiently clear that some of these visions are symbolic (i.e., they should not be interpreted literally). Examples of such visions are found in chapters seven and eight of Daniel and Acts 10.
John W. Wenham, on page 18 of the book entitled Inerrancy, which was edited by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., says,
No definition of interpretation could be more fundamental than this: To interpret we must in every case reproduce the sense the Scriptural writer intended for his own words. The first step in the interpretive process is to link only those ideas with the author’s language that he connected with them. The second step is to express these ideas understandably.
Then, on page 19 of the same book, Wenham asserts,
All our own notions of truth and principle must be set aside in favor of those the sacred writers taught if we are to be valid interpreters. In fact, the basic teaching of all of sacred theology is inseparably connected with the results of our hermeneutics [i.e., the methodological principles of interpretation]. . . . [T]he way to ascertain what Scripture teaches is to apply the rules and principles of interpretation. Therefore it is imperative that these rules be properly grounded and that their application be skillfully and faithfully applied. If the foundation itself is conjecture, imagination, or error, what more can be hoped for what is built on it?
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., indicates that the Bible is sufficiently clear for those who want to understand what it says to be able to do so. On page 128 of Inerrancy, the book edited by Geisler, he states, “The principle of perspicuity means simply that the Bible is sufficiently clear in and of itself for believers to understand it.” He goes on to say that “the principle implies . . . Scripture is clear enough for the simplest person to live by it.” Subsequently, on the same page, Kaiser explains,
Scripture, in any faithful translation, is sufficiently perspicuous (clear) to show us our sinfulness, the basic facts of the gospel, what we must do if we are to be part of the family of God, and how to live for Christ. This does not mean, however, that in seeing (and even understanding) these truths we have exhausted the teaching of Scripture. Neither does it imply that the solution to every difficult question in Scripture or life is simple, much less simplistic. It only affirms that, despite the difficulties we find in Scripture, there is more than enough that is plainly taught to keep all believers well nourished.
On the following page, Kaiser raises the following question: “How can the principle of perspicuity be squared with the wide divergence of scriptural interpretations in Christendom, even among equally committed believers?” He responds to this question with the statement that “the amount of agreement in Christendom is really large and impressive.” Perhaps, he is correct, but probably there are many people who would disagree with him.
In this regard, in their book entitled Answers to Tough Questions, Josh McDowell and Don Stewart argue on page 16,
As for the matter of the various denominations, it must be stressed that they are not formed because of division over the central teachings of Christianity. The differences are a result of a variety of factors, including cultural, ethnic, and social. When closely compared with one another, the doctrinal differences are not always that crucial.
Although the Bible seems to be sufficiently clear with regard to the most important matters that it discusses, proper interpretation of some scripture passages necessitates more than casual reading. If a person wants to really understand what the Bible teaches, he (or she) needs to be willing to devote substantial time not only to diligently studying the scriptures, but also to objectively considering what reliable sources say about the passages being studied.