Yes and no.
Around AD 185, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “The entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them” (Against Heresies 2.27.3). But that famous pastor was describing a particular kind of student who was “devoted to piety and the love of truth,” who would “eagerly meditate upon those things which God has . . . subjected to our knowledge.” Such a student of Scripture would “make advancement in acquaintance with them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study” (2.27.1). The flip side of this is that the impious, the lazy, and those who fail to accept the limitations of our knowledge would not achieve even the basic level of proficiency in his or her understanding of the Bible.
Over a hundred years earlier, the apostle Peter gave us a similar warning about understanding Scripture. With reference to Paul’s writings, he said, “Some things [are] hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
How do we avoid becoming like those Scripture Twisters who wound verses of the Bible into a spiritual hangman’s noose? Peter painted a clear picture of them, and we ought to listen to his warning.
Untaught and Unstable
Peter said the “untaught” and “unstable” twisted Paul’s writings to their destruction. The Greek word translated “untaught” is the literal opposite of “discipled.” A discipled person was an apprentice who learned from a teacher over the course of several years. Thus, Peter said that one way to be a Scripture Twister was to be untaught by a teacher. The implication is clear: only those who have been trained can be expected to skillfully weave passages of Scripture together into a unified whole centered on Christ and faithfully representing the pattern of Christian truth. Paul called this skill “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Peter also described Scripture Twisters as “unstable.” They were ungrounded, off kilter, “tipsy.” Picture the difference between a trailer house standing on cinder blocks and a building resting on bedrock. The unstable were like reeds in the wind, waving to and fro with the changing winds.
What was true in Peter’s day has never changed. Today untaught and unstable people distort the Scriptures, often unknowingly. They misread and misunderstand the Bible because they lack the patience, the humility, or the endurance to pass from spiritual infancy to adulthood, from the rank of novice to the rank of master. Yet they rest their bad theology and practice on the Bible and claim to be masters and teachers of things they don’t really understand (1 Timothy 1:7). They scoff at authority, reject tradition, and throw out the perspectives of other believers. All the while they claim “the Bible alone” as their only source of authority, not realizing that they naively read into the Bible their own inaccurate ideas.
In light of Peter’s warning, Bible-believing Christians need to be particularly cautious about how we read the Bible . . . and how we tell others to read it. For example, I recently read a book suggesting that if my Bible has study notes I ought to throw it away and get a blank Bible to read with fresh eyes . . . the teacher’s notes might twist my thinking! For another example: how many times have you been advised not to consult commentaries until you’ve come up with our own, personal interpretation? In light of Peter’s warning, I can’t help but read such exhortations as encouraging Christians to be “untaught.”
Peter would not have approved.
Am I saying that we should stop reading our Bibles on our own? No. But I am saying we should never read our Bibles in isolation. Taking personal initiative to read and study Scripture is right. But rejecting training and accountability with others as we read the Bible is wrong.
Be Taught . . . Be Stable
What, then, are we to do to handle the Bible accurately? Peter has already given us the answer: be taught and be stable. But how? By submitting to the teaching of the Holy Spirit working through His gifted teachers in the Spirit-indwelled community. We often appeal to the Holy Spirit’s direct, individual, personal work in our hearts to teach us (John 16:13). But this is only half the truth. The New Testament emphasizes over and over that the Spirit not only indwells individuals (1 Corinthians 6:19), making them responsive to the truth (1 Corinthians 2:14), but the Spirit also indwells the church (1 Corinthians 3:16), promoting the faithful teaching of the truth. This corporate model of how we are to be taught and be stable through the working of the Body of Christ is most clearly expressed in Ephesians 4:11–16.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Did you catch all the ingredients for being taught and being stable? Learning under gifted teachers . . . being fitted together . . . each individual playing a part . . . growing from childhood to adulthood . . . attaining the unity of the faith. Instead of throwing out my study Bible, I ought to let it fill the gaps in my knowledge. Instead of making commentaries my last ditch effort, I should learn from godly scholars. Rather than reinventing the wheel or seeking out the latest fad, I should explore the rich heritage of Christians who have come before me. And rather than leaning on my own personal understanding, I ought to glean what I can from the insights of other believers around me.
If we want to avoid becoming Scripture Twisters, we need to balance our personal Bible reading with community study under gifted teachers. Only in the context of a Bible-believing community led by trained and gifted leaders, we will become taught and stable teachers of Scripture, “accurately handling the word of truth.”