I’d like to share a brief thought on an issue that comes up with surprising frequency. Very often, when discussing the Bible’s teachings with others, I am told that I am going about it the wrong way by trying to understand what the Bible says using my reasoning. There are many variations on this theme:

  • You can’t understand the Bible with your intellect because the Bible is spiritual.
  • You can’t understand the Bible using reason because God is beyond reason.
  • You can’t understand the Bible on your own because you need ______________ (our church, our bishops, the magisterium, a living prophet, additional scripture, the priesthood, a burning in the bosom, revelation from the Holy Spirit, our organization, our literature, etc.).

You get the idea. Suffice it to say, I’m doing it all wrong. Or so I’m told. We’re talking about the Bible, I make some point about what it’s saying in context or some such thing, and all of a sudden a penalty flag is on the field. The ref announces “Offside!” and the ball is taken by the other team. (I almost never use football analogies, so that one’s for my friends in Alabama.)

I have objections to all of these arguments, but I’m not going to go through them all here. Otherwise, this will turn into one of my infamous overly long treatises. Instead, I want to address a particular sort of claim that is often made to prove I’m erring by trying to read the Bible with my mind. The claim is that the Bible itself teaches that you can’t do it that way. You’ve probably heard some of these:

  • You can’t understand the Bible with your mind because the Bible says “lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).
  • You can’t understand the Bible using your intellect because the Bible says “if any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God” (James 1:5).
  • You can’t understand the Bible on your own because the Bible says “no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). (This one came up just the other day.)

Again, you get the idea. You can probably add others. Now, here’s my observation: These appeals to the Bible to prove I can’t understand the Bible using my mind are all or self-referentially incoherent. That is, they are assuming the very thing they are supposedly proving. Here’s how. Someone points me to one of these verses, let’s say Proverbs 3:5. He wants me to see that according to this verse I can’t understand the Bible using my mind. But in making this appeal, he is assuming that I can understand Proverbs 3:5…with my mind. Yet Proverbs 3:5 is itself in the book that supposedly cannot be understood using the mind.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

I could present (and have presented) an exegesis of Proverbs 3:5 to show that it doesn’t teach that the Bible cannot be understood using the mind. But if my interlocutor is right, exegesis is an invalid way of understanding the verse. Bummer! But on the other hand, I don’t need to do any such thing to refute his argument. His very act of appealing to a verse in the Bible presupposes that the claim is false. It’s like someone telling you, “You cannot understand a single sentence in English.” The act of making the claim belies the claim.

Of course, it is hypothetically possible that the Bible might say something to the effect that it’s wrong to use your mind to understand something in Scripture. If it did say that, it would be self-defeating. Fortunately, the Bible doesn’t say anything nonsensical like that.

The point I’m making applies to the whole class of arguments. Anyone who tells me I need his church, pope, prophet, book, or whatever to understand the Bible is safe—until he makes the mistake of adding, “because the Bible says so right there,” pointing to some verse or other. At that point, he’s stepped in his own quicksand. He’s hoisted himself on his own petard.

At this point you may be thinking, But what about the Holy Spirit? Surely you aren’t denying that we need the Holy Spirit to understand the Bible, are you?

No, I’m not. But who says I don’t have the Holy Spirit? For that matter, what do you mean by “need the Holy Spirit”? The Holy Spirit is at work wherever people are reading the Bible. But the Holy Spirit’s work is not a substitute for the use of the mind. Rather, the Holy Spirit works in and through our minds to get us to accept what the text says, not to circumvent our minds to get us to accept something that cannot be found in the text. Sadly, some of us don’t really want to know what the text says.

The next time someone throws this sort of argument at you, just remember Wile E. Coyote sawing off a tree branch while he’s sitting on it.

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This entry was posted on Friday, July 11th, 2014 at 6:10 pm and is filed under apologetics, Biblical studies, philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 comments so far


“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD. . .” Isaiah 1:18a
God invites us to understand Him. I have found this to be one the greatest differences between God Almighty and lesser gods.
Paul states it clearly in Ephesians 3:14-19. In verse 18 God’s people are admonished to “comprehend” (GR. katalambano – to seize with the mind) the love of Christ; to “know” ( ginōskō – to know experientially) that which surpasses “knowledge” (gnōsis – mature understanding). That verse electrifies me! He wants me to know Him with my mind so that I experience Him! That takes in all that I am! Heart, mind, soul, and strength! How awesome is that? And I am empowered to “{know” that which “supasses knowledge” by the power of the Holy Spirit who brings the word of God to life in my mind.

July 12th, 2014 at 8:28 am

Nice comment, Tracy! Thanks for reading and responding.

July 13th, 2014 at 10:42 am

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