I often hear this: “but you shouldn’t have to be a theologian to understand the Bible.” This is usually said by those who hold to inerrant, infallible, God-breathed understanding of the Bible.
Even if I were to accept this—which I don’t—there is a little problem of translation from one language to another across thousands of years, and from the Bronze Age to whatever age we now live in. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of other languages knows that word-for-word translations between two modern languages is all-but-impossible.
When colloquialisms, literary allusions, allegories come into play, it gets even murkier. A common phrase in the United States, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” requires an understanding of baseball and the opera to fully comprehend. Without either one in a society, it would be hard to convey the meaning of the phrase with all its cultural under-pinnings.
The meanings of words matter, especially in religious discussions, where we stretch the language to express things that are beyond our understanding (we have as much chance of truly understanding God as does an ant of understanding the Interstate System). The word “saved” means one thing to a Baptist and quite another to a Mormon, and without an understanding of the differences, it is hard to really communicate.
The mistranslation of the words originally used in the Bible have had profound and irreversible effects on religion and worship.
The world “alma,” which means literally “young woman,” but was translated as “virgin.” No way that changes, ever.
When Greeks, for whom Matthew was written read about the eternal punishment, what they read was of an indeterminate time (what we read as “eternal”) during which they would be refined like metal in a refiner’s fire (“punishment”), and the lake of fire was where this refining happened. Knowing this might change views of individuals, but the church as a whole probably cannot change.
Other concepts we read as “perfect,” and “righteous,” and so many others did not have the meaning we ascribe to them, and when understanding the original meaning of the words, the Bible and its message flowers.
Many who believe that we who do not read the bible as inerrant or literal are too smart for our own good, that we are reading into it things that are not there. They say we take a literal bible and expand it into allegory, allusion, analogy and so on, to make it say what we want, replacing God with man.
I believe the writers of the Bible were men, humans who had experienced something of the divine and wrote about this experience from the position in which they found themselves and with all the tools they had around them, including literary allusion, analogy, allegory, short story narratives, history, poetry (which to me is neither true nor untrue) and expected the readers to understand their writings this way. It is not that we have gotten too smart to read it literately, but that we intentionally turn off certain thinking processes to read it literally, and in doing so miss the majesty, wonder, the awe of meeting God.
Getting away from the inerrant literal reading of the Bible makes it flower and removes from us all the need to defend things contained in the Bible that are odious to us today, or are just wrong: the earth has corners, the sun came to a halt for Joshua, the nature of stars and the “firmament”, pi=3.0, and so on. The Bible predates what we know as science and to expect it to literally correct in these matters demeans the Bible.
Free the Bible from the shackles of men who can only see literally and open it to the divine experience to be found when you allow it to speak freely to you. If you dare, you may slip the surly bonds, .