“I need fifteen hours to understand the text with clarity. It’s hard to get to the point of clarity.” So says an international and well known preacher. Though challenging, this statement is not unexpected. For those of us from the conservative and Reformed tribe typically sing from the same hymn sheet. We extol expository preaching and appreciate that sermon preparation is hugely demanding and time consuming. At face value, there is nothing too provocative or controversial about this statement. To understand the Bible, it’s assumed, we need to invest serious time and study.

Can’t a ‘regular,’ untrained believer connect the dots? What about ‘ordinary’ believers understanding the text?

However, I have a few tangential comments to make. And I have some questions. Fifteen hours? Can’t a ‘regular,’ untrained believer connect the dots? What about ‘ordinary’ believers understanding the text? Many might ask: “If the Bible specialist—with all his knowledge, experience, gifts, and study resources—needs fifteen hours, how much time do I need?” Unless afforded vast amounts of study time and resources, will my understanding of a biblical text always be second rate? What does understanding the Bible even mean?

Are we unwittingly implying that laypeople cannot understand the Bible with clarity? Are we suggesting that, at best, they can only achieve a superficial understanding of God’s word? While we ought to appreciate our pastor’s diligence, we must simultaneously be careful not to imply that the rest of us can’t read and understand scripture.

Hermeneutics and Rocket Science

We hold to the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, taught by all decent works on hermeneutics, such as Duvall and Hays’ Grasping God’s Word. This method affirms that the text must be understood in context. It upholds the analogy of faith principle, and states that the clear, literal meaning of the text is the correct one. One very notable caveat is that every believer comes to the Bible humbly and prayerfully, depending on the enabling and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.

Reading the Bible isn’t rocket science. Though it is far more important.

On one level, this isn’t rocket science. Though it is far more important. Yet I worry that we’re sapping people’s confidence to read the Bible by overemphasising time spent studying, in training, and reading commentaries along with technical theology. I can recall doing English comprehension and literary studies at school. The principles I was taught then are not that different from those we use to read the Bible today. Plus, I’d choose Isaiah over Shakespeare any day.

The Bible: An Open or Closed Book?

Is the Bible an open book? Or is it a closed one? Are we not creating ‘understanding by proxy’? Have you reduced those sitting the pews to comments like: “I don’t understand the Bible. I can’t. But thankfully my pastor does”? Worse still, aren’t we unwittingly absolving laypeople of their responsibility to meditate and wrestle with the sacred text? Can’t ordinary folk prayerfully read and get to grips with the Bible? Does more time equal more understanding?

Aren’t we actually discouraging people from getting into God’s word?

Isn’t one of the purposes of expository preaching to model how to handle and interpret Scripture? Only, I wonder, is that happening? After a year of sitting under expository teaching, shouldn’t the regular pew-sitter also have basic hermeneutical tools? When we suggest that understanding the Bible is an incredibly difficult task, aren’t we actually discouraging people from getting into the word? Yes, we are deeply saddened and concerned by the feeble levels of basic Bible knowledge and doctrine. Yet, counter-intuitively, aren’t we unwittingly fuelling that same problem?

A Psalmist, Ploughboys, and the Pope

Is Psalm 119, with all its repeated affirmations about reading, meditating on, understanding, being blessed, and corrected by the word of God written for all the people of God? Or was it written mainly for the expert expositors? “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes (Psalm 119:99).” So writes the psalmist. Sure, this is not referring to New Testament teachers. But certainly some general principle applies? I don’t know. Maybe my understanding is defective. Perhaps I should have spent more time studying the text.

Wycliffe said, ‘A ploughboy shall know more than the Pope.’ Amen!

John Wycliffe, often called the Morning Star of the Reformation, was the first person to translate the Bible from Latin into English. In 1382 he challenged the Pope, making a sensational promise. He said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws…If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that drives the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou does.” A ploughboy shall know more than the Pope! Amen! By Wycliffe’s translating work, the Bible was unshackled. He put the Bible into the hands of ordinary people, regular believers, and untrained readers. By letting the Bible loose Wycliffe changed the very course of history.

Let Me Make a Few Clarifications

Obviously there are different depths and degrees of understanding. Generally speaking, teachers should have a deeper understanding of the Bible than laypeople. Even so, there are no reasons why a mature believer should not have sharper understanding and greater insight into scripture than their pastor.

Teachers are a gift to the church. They have a critical ministry which we must affirm.

Of course, some parts of the Bible are very difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16.) So we can never have a gung-ho or cowboy-like approach to understanding the Bible. We are always to be humble, prayerful, and careful when handling God’s word. The Bible has authority over us—not vice versa.

Teachers are a gift to the church. They have a critical ministry which we must affirm (Ephesians 4:11). It follows that we should listen to and respect Bible teachers (Hebrews 13:17). Those who work hard at preaching and teaching must be honoured (1 Timothy 5:17). Their task is a matter of life and death, which is why those who teach will be subject to stricter judgement than the layperson (James 3:11).

Beware Overcorrecting, On Both Sides

As in so many matters, this is a case of balance. Let’s not overcorrect. Consider this matter as a very wide spectrum. On the one extreme, teachers are considered superfluous. It’s argued that a Spirit anointed believer can gain complete understanding by themselves. This smacks of arrogance. A rejection of teachers and teaching is manifestly unbiblical and downright heretical.

As a preacher and teacher I’m rooting for the ploughboy. May God be pleased to raise up millions of them.

On the other end of the spectrum, the scriptures are believed to be so complex that it requires a seasoned, gifted pastor fifteen hours of study just to understand the text. Then what chance has the layperson got without seminary training? Should he even bother with a fifteen minute devotional? In a strange, almost imperceptible way, the Bible becomes shackled again. We’ve unwittingly undone Wycliffe’s work.

We who are conservative are well aware of the first extreme. But perhaps we’re unaware of the dangers on the other. For that is our pitfall, elevating preachers and Bible teachers to the extent that we no longer believe we can read the Bible for ourselves. As a preacher and teacher I’m rooting for the ploughboy. May God be pleased to raise up millions of them.