You Can't Just Read the Bible and Do What It Says
I hear a lot of Christians saying things like this:
“It doesn’t matter what I think, it just matters what God says in the Bible.”
Or, this well known idiom:
“The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
I cringe when I hear Christians say these things because they reveal an extreme lack of awareness.
Contrary to popular belief, it DOES matter what you think. The concept “what God says” is inherently a personal thought. In order to come to a belief about what God says, one must think in the first place.
In other words, a belief is rooted in thoughts.
You can believe the Bible is God communicating to you, and you can believe the whole thing functions in a particular way, but at the end of the day your thoughts still matter because you have to think in order to establish those beliefs.
Many Christians seem to be oblivious to this fact. They think they can simply read the Bible and just follow it.
But, even if you think that’s what you’re doing, you’re actually not.
How Communication Models Illustrate This Point
I studied communications in college, and one of the most basic lessons we learned is all forms of communication require participation by the person being communicated to.
This is important, so let’s dive deeper into this.
In the study of communications, there are many models that try to explain how communication works. One of the most popular models is called the SMCR model.
This acronym stands for SOURCE, MESSAGE, CHANNEL, RECEIVER.
The full model and explanation would take too long to explain in one post, so I'll be using a condensed version of it. If you want to learn more, check out this site.
With the typical evangelical framework of the Bible, God would be the ultimate SOURCE of the communication that is taking place. There are sub-sources of course (being the writers, editors, and contributors), but God is the primary one.
The MESSAGE is what God is trying to communicate to the RECEIVER. Humanity would be the ultimate RECEIVER in this scenario, though sub-receivers would be the specific communities and contexts that each Biblical text was written to initially.
The CHANNEL is the medium through which the MESSAGE is communicated to the RECEIVER. In the Bible's case, the CHANNEL is the written word (though oral tradition played a role in some Biblical texts prior to being finally written).
The SMCR model depicts a flow of communication as follows:
- The SOURCE has a MESSAGE it wants to communicate.
- The SOURCE chooses a CHANNEL through which it will communicate the MESSAGE.
- The SOURCE encodes its MESSAGE into the CHANNEL so that the RECEIVER will be able to obtain it.
- The RECEIVER obtains the message and tries to decode it.
Notice the words “encode” and “decode”. These two actions occur in every single act of communication whether you realize it or not. Decoding is basically interpreting or trying to understand what the SOURCE meant by the MESSAGE.
This is where things get tricky. Decoding a MESSAGE accurately usually relies upon an understanding of the CHANNEL and the SOURCE. Furthermore, the process of decoding is always limited and hindered by something called NOISE.
In communication models, NOISE is anything that hinders or confuses the decoding process. NOISE can come in many different forms such as differences in language, auditory signals, bad handwriting, poor hearing, etc.
Additionally, MESSAGES can decay over time. Or, to say it another way, MESSAGES become harder to understand as more barriers to the decoding process are introduced.
In the case of the Bible, the barriers and NOISE introduced into the decoding process are numerous and large. Here are few examples:
- Limitations of finite beings.
So, to understand what God says through the Bible, you have to factor in numerous things.
First of all, you might think the Bible functions in a particular way, but it might not actually be doing what you think it does. As long as you’re limited to just one perspective of how a particular text functions, your chances of misunderstanding or incorrectly DECODING the MESSAGE will increase.
Thinking Really Does Matter. A lot.
The main point undergirding all of this talk about communication is this: what you think matters immensely.
You cannot just read the Bible and do what it says. There is more to it than that, and many people seem to be oblivious to this fact.
You are an active agent in the communication process, and if you choose to be unaware of your role, then you are more likely to fail.
I mentioned a minute ago that having only one perspective also increases your chances of failure. This is why all Christians need to listen to voices which are different than their own so that they can become more aware about whats going on.
Do not limit your beliefs about God and the Bible to a white, western, hetero, masculine, post-enlightenment worldview.
Listen to older people. Listen to younger people. Listen to Chinese people. Listen to African people. Listen to gay people. This list could go on and on.
It would be nice if you could simply read the Bible and be able to definitively say what God is like and what God wants us to do (or not do), but this isn’t how it works.
Every belief you have about God and the Bible is a personal thought. And every thought was influenced by your biases, frameworks, and worldview. Even if you think you’re being objective in reading the Bible, you’re actually not because complete objectivity would require a perfect understanding of everything.
Even Paul the Apostle understood this reality:
“For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.”
Paul the Apostle understood that we as finite beings are seeing and understanding God through a cloudy and unclear lens. Paul the Apostle understood that there is NOISE in the communication process.
We will get God wrong. Some of our most cherished and tightly held beliefs will probably turn out to be wrong or incomplete.
This goes for everyone regardless of religion, race, sex, class, orientation, etc.
Israel even got God wrong in the Old Testament (this is, of course, a personal belief I have come to after much study). They thought God was leading them to do particular things that I now believe are incompatible with the character of God as seen in Jesus.
Perhaps that last paragraph alarmed you. It probably will alarm you if you’re use to just reading the Bible and assuming you know what it says. After all, if the Old Testament records God saying something, didn’t he really say it?
That’s a subject for another time though.
While the SMCR model might be helpful for getting a basic grasp on how communication works, it’s extremely limited in explaining how the Bible communicates.
The Bible doesn’t contain just one MESSAGE. The Bible is a collection of texts each containing multiple MESSAGES that were written by numerous SOURCES who Christians believe were inspired by a more ultimate SOURCE. Furthermore, these individual MESSAGES communicated within each individual text often say things that contradict one another. (This is a point adamantly denied and avoided by many evangelicals because their singular perspective of the Bible has no room for any such nuance and complexity)
We as Christians in the 21st century bear the burden of interpreting such a complex collection of texts, and this work is not easy in the slightest.
In the moments that we think it’s easy, we must remember that it seems easy because we’re more than likely relying upon the work of people before us. After all, most of us are reading English translations (interpretations) of the Bible. And we’re approaching those English translations with a set of presuppositions that were handed to us in churches or other environments by various other Christians and leaders.
There is a lot more that could be said about this topic, and I plan on writing more in the future.
If you have any specific questions you’d like me to discuss, feel free to leave me a comment below.