I was reading about Origen (d.254 AD), one of the ancient church fathers in a recent Christian history magazine, and it got me thinking. My church has taught for years that the Bible is pretty easy to interpret, and in many cases that is certainly true. "Unless you repent, you will perish," "Do not commit adultery," and so on. Origen's teaching that scripture has different levels of meaning is both interesting and dangerous. Certainly the NT fulfillment of some OT prophecies seem odd to the casual eye. I am curious about your thoughts on the subject. Have you written on this or studied it out? -- Joe (New York)

As for Origen and what came in time to be the Roman Catholic approach to scripture (literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical interpretations), yes, I have studied this but have not written about it. Perhaps I will do so in the future. For years I have insisted that the Bible is not easy to interpret (except the dead easy doctrines), nor does it "interpret itself." Bible study is hard work. (Do we want milk, or solid food?)

Most scriptures, I believe, have only one level of meaning. Some prophecies appear to apply to more than one situation. Many scriptures have a single meaning, but are illustrative of various life truths. Overall, I would urge all to avoid a mystical approach to reading the Bible.

I stated my view that Bible study is hard work. If the Bible is not "self-interpreting," then how can we be sure we are not twisting it to our own destruction (2 Peter 3:16)? Fortunately, the vital biblical doctrines are hard to miss. They do not require advanced education. Nor are they many in number. On the other hand, since the Bible has hundreds -- if not thousands -- of possible doctrines, I think it is fair to say that most doctrines are hard to understand without serious study. 90% of the Bible will probably remain opaque to the reader who has not striven to study scripture on a theological level. (Note again, this 90% -- my arbitrary figure -- does not include any doctrines central to salvation.) Which brings me to a distinction I would like to make, which may help you to process the many doctrines of scripture.

I distinguish between peripheral, important, and central doctrines. I have been elaborating on the differences among them all year. Here is what I mean. Central doctrines are matters of salvation (repentance, the incarnation, baptism). Peripheral matters have little or no consequences (which year did the Exodus take place, how many sisters did Jesus have, was Ephesians originally a circular letter). And yet there is a middle category -- doctrines that are not matters of salvation, but about which we may feel very strongly and indeed have a good biblical case (how the Spirit works, men rather than women serving as evangelists, etc). In other words, there are a number of very important doctrines that are not necessarily matters of salvation.

Imagine a simple target, with three rings. The inner ring contains those doctrines that define us as Christians. They are essential to what it means to be right with God. No doctrine in the inner circle can be ejected without loss of salvation. (E.g. Jesus is Lord. If we cannot make that confession, are we right with God? Of course not.) The middle circle contains the important -- but non-central -- doctrines. (E.g., Jesus was Jewish. After all, much of the N.T. makes little sense unless we understand Jesus' Jewishness, fulfillment of the scriptures, etc.) The outer circle is everything else (e.g., Jesus was born in 6 BC). So the closer to the center of the target we go, the more vital the teaching is.

My purpose is not to populate each ring with the doctrines I believe belong there. My aim is simply to suggest this paradigm for reading scripture and evaluating doctrine. If this paradigm is right, it certainly has consequences for Bible study. And for how we judge those who may disagree with us. Such a model should help us to draw lines where God draws lines, and maintain a posture of grace towards those who may differ on important issues which are not salvation issues.

None of us can humbly claim that all our doctrines are "true." To that extent, all of us are "false teachers" -- though that epithet is unhelpful since, were we to use it, we would not be using it in the biblical sense of the term (involving willful or serious error, spiritual destruction, massive compromise, etc). In other words, just because a man does not agree with my views, he is not thereby a false teacher! Only if he has rejected the core doctrines of the faith.

[Note: The thought expressed in this article has been greatly amplified in my 2007 audio series, Anchored For Life, in case you are interested.]

This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 2004. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.