Almost every professing Christians I’ve ever met or read or heard speak somewhere has claimed to have a high view of the Bible. Seriously, regardless of the dividing lines, it’s been rare to ever see someone come right out and say we need to chuck the Bible. Even those who aren’t so sure you can really know what it says usually don’t go that far.
And for them, the problem usually isn’t a high regard for the Bible. Their problem is the baggage we all bring to it. The problem is our presuppositions—the ideas and opinions we bring to the table and read the text in light of, whether we realize we’re doing it or not. And because of our presuppositions, some ask, how can we really know we’re reading the text correctly?
Can we really know what the Bible says?
Can we have any certainty whatsoever about what the Bible is saying on any major point, or are we stuck with what amounts to personal preferences and opinions?
The old question (and weak answer)
This is not a new concern, obviously. It’s one that’s been raised for decades. In fact, there are dozens of books addressing it from all kinds of angles available at your local Christian bookstore (and more published every year). And this was one of the attractive qualities of what was once called the Emergent Church. Its voices made it feel safe for the average Boomer and Generation X-aged Christian to ask these questions. (Unfortunately, there seemed to be a bit less comfort with finding answers.)
The tendency was to embrace a transformed view of the Bible, seeing it as a multi-colored, multifaceted document. A book depicting one people group’s evolving understanding of God, if you will. One we couldn’t really trust, even if we respected and honored it, because who can say what it really says, given the difficulties of textual transmission, and early church politics.
Read it, yes. Respect it, definitely. But rely on it… not so much. You can’t know what it says.1 If we can’t know for certain our gospel articulations today are identical in meaning to those of Christ and the apostles,2 if we cannot know the Bible we have today contains the same message it did when its various parts were first written, we should not be so arrogant as to presume there is one correct meaning or interpretation.
We can have opinions, but not definite or certain knowledge.
The good news about presuppositions and God’s planning
Regardless of the fact that we most definitely all do bring our own baggage to the table (along with our coffee and phone for a lovely Instagram photo), we shouldn’t take jump on the relativism square of the ol’ conclusions mat too quickly here. Because here’s the thing: yes, we have baggage. Yes, we have presuppositions. But even so, we should be able to have some idea of whether or not we can know anything in the Bible with any degree of certainty.
And here’s the good news: We can. Why? Because God planned for our presuppositions, too.
See, what Protestants have historically believed about the Bible is summarized in the phrase sola scriptura—Scripture alone is our authority for doctrine and life. It is the norming norm, as it were. Other authorities, such as tradition, church leaders, and voices from outside the church are not invalid, but they don’t hold the primary place. They are subordinate to and corrected by the Bible. The Word of God.
And inherent in this idea of sola scriptura is the belief that, while yes we do have to take into account our presuppositions, Scripture is actually pretty clear in all the essential things it says. Maybe not equally clear in all areas (after all, Peter said some of what Paul wrote was hard to understand), but basically clear.
The fancy word for this is perspicuity. And, really, all this means is we believe the Bible is basically clear on the essentials—so much so that even our presuppositions (unless our presupposition is the Bible is impossible to actually understand) can’t even mess us up so badly that we can’t know who God is and what he has done with any reasonable degree of confidence.
Think about it: yes, presuppositions can be a problem. But what do Christians believe about God? Fundamentally, we believe he wants to make himself known to his creation. This means he’s not going to shroud himself in mystery to the degree that he is completely unknowable in any meaningful way. And he does make himself known. Creation practically screams of his existence, according to Romans 1. What can be known about him is plain to all—the problem is we are blind.
And that’s where we have some good news, too. Because God wants to be known—he wants his people to know him—he does something pretty radical: he gives us his Spirit. And the Holy Spirit, our comforter and helper, is the One who helps us to understand what we read in the Bible.
And this was God’s plan. This is how he planned to deal with our presuppositions. He sent his Spirit to live within us, to be our teacher. He is the one who helps us understand the Scriptures, gives us a desire to submit to what we learn within its pages, and works through it to transform us into the image of Christ.
And yes, this too, is a presupposition.
But it’s the kind I hope every Christian would want to have.
- This has been the drum Bart Ehrman has been beating since the 1980s, for example. ↵
- As Brian McLaren outright said we cannot a number of years ago. ↵