CAN WE UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE ALIKE?
T. PIERCE BROWN
Those of us who believe that God gave us a revelation that can be understood and obeyed, and there is no room in it for denominational doctrines and practices usually answer the question something like this: “We must understand the Bible alike, for if we come up with different views, then one or both of us have not understood it.” When the Bible says, “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins” it is impossible for a person to understand it to mean, “Arise and be baptized because your sins are already washed away.” When the Bible says, “Baptism doth also now save you” it is impossible for a person to understand it to mean, “Baptism doth not save you.”
These kinds of statements may all be true, but they leave out something that is very important for us to realize. That is, one may understand properly what he does understand about a scripture without understanding all that he might understand. There may be a significant difference in MIS-understanding a scripture and not understanding its meaning or significance as deeply as one might. I do not remember anyone ever writing about this, but I think it significant enough to emphasize.
If you have ever grown any in your comprehension of anything, you can understand something of what I am saying. However, the implications or value of what I am saying may not have occurred to you. It would help us to overcome some arrogance, divisive tendencies and unnecessary bickering if we realized these truths.
Let us give some examples, so we may see more clearly some of the implications of these principles. Take the expression in 1 Peter 3:20-21 which partially reads like this in the ASV, “Eight souls, were saved through water: which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Both of us may understand the truth that baptism saves us, but neither of us understand some of the things involved in what that statement says. How it saves us, when it saves us, where it saves us and why it saves us are also important. Do you not see that it is possible for us both to understand the truth –and if we understand it, we understand it alike– yet not understand it alike in the sense that one of us may understand it more deeply than the other? To say it another way: If we understand the Bible, there can be no contradiction in what we understand, but there can be a growth in understanding, and therefore a difference in what we understand. If one of us claims to understand that baptism saves us, and one claims to understand that baptism has nothing to do with our salvation, one of us is wrong. It is not a matter of understanding differently, but a matter of misunderstanding.
This was suggested to me as I meditated on Ephesians 3:10, “to the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God.” The word manifold is from the Greek “polupoikilos” which means “many colored.” I may not be able to distinguish as well as you the various shades of blue and green in a picture, but that does not mean that either of us the right to deny that the picture is there.
This suggests some of the things that are wrong with the doctrine of “unity in diversity” which many of our brethren are now upholding. If it only meant that in a forest there are many different kinds of trees, yet they are all trees, or that in the church there are many different kinds of persons, yet all may be Christians, or that we may emphasize different aspects of truth differently because we have different degrees of understanding of those truths, we would have no objection to the doctrine. It is apparent, however, that it is often used to uphold the idea that one person may teach that baptism is sprinkling, another that it is immersion and both be satisfactory. One may teach that the Lord’s Supper is to be taken each Lord’s day and another that it may be taken whenever we choose, and both equally acceptable. One may teach that only acapella music is authorized of God, and another teach that mechanical instruments are equally pleasing, and both be right. This denominational concept of “unity in diversity” is as old as denominationalism, and is false and dangerous. The truth that a rainbow has diversity of colors, yet one rainbow is a different thing, yet is a kind of “unity in diversity.”
God’s wisdom is manifold (polupoikilos) — marked with a great variety of colors. You may see one more clearly than I and emphasize it. To that degree, and in that manner, we may understand the Bible differently. If, in emphasizing the green, you teach that there is no yellow, then you do not understand the rainbow, and it is not a matter of understanding it differently.
One of our problems is that we may have those who feel that if one emphasizes grace more than we do, he is teaching false doctrine. Or if he goes more deeply into an interpretation of a word or phrase, because he has a deeper understanding of it than we do, he has no right to do it, for we must all understand it alike. The “bottom line” is that if we understand it, we will all understand it alike in the sense that there can be no contradiction in our concepts of it. However, we may all understand it differently if we mean that there are different degrees or depths of our understanding.