The online journal of Luke Dockery

Scripture Is Like The Ocean

Scripture is like the ocean.

People appreciate the ocean at all different levels of depth:

  • For some, simply seeing the beautiful array of blue colors in the water and being near the waves is enough. Some take vacations to the beach to be near the water, but never actually get into it.
  • Others get into the water and play in the shallow surf. As a non-swimmer, this is what I like to do when traveling to the beach: I spend hours on a bodyboard, riding the waves and making sure that I don’t get too deep.[1]
  • Some enjoy getting in deeper water, where they can swim in the ocean. They may use goggles and a snorkel to see all kinds of fish that aren’t visible from the surface of the water. Safely navigating deeper water requires skill, and hours of practice are necessary to develop that skill.
  • For those who have put in a lot of hours of training and receive certification and have access to the right equipment, scuba diving allows you to go even deeper, and make all sorts of discoveries that most of us will never get to see in person.
  • And for the very, very few who have incredibly specialized training or, perhaps, VIP access to those who do, a trip in a deep-sea submarine allows glimpses of all sorts of amazing things near the ocean floor. Even so, the reality is that the vast majority of the ocean remains unexplored.[2]



The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture basically holds that you don’t have to be a theologian or scholar to understand the Bible’s teaching on salvation: in His Grace, God has made the revelation of His will clear enough for us to understand. I believe that this is true, but at different times in my life, I have heard a more simplistic version of this doctrine that I do not believe to be true: that Scripture is easy to understand.

I have basically spent my adult life studying Scripture and seeking to understand it better. I have learned so much doing so, and I understand it so much better than I did twenty, ten, or even five years ago. But the better I come to understand the Bible’s teachings, the more clearly I realize that I will never fully understand it.

In one sense, that is incredibly frustrating; you are pursuing a goal that you know you will never obtain. Furthermore, as you learn more, you uncover more and more things that you don’t know; paradoxically, the learning process seems to reveal your own ignorance in exponential ways.

Yesterday, though, it struck me: Scripture is like the ocean.

Yes, it is vast and mysterious, and in our human limitations, there are areas that we will never explore, indeed, huge territories of which we are totally ignorant. But also like the ocean, you don’t have to be in a deep-sea submarine to appreciate it:

  • We can admire its beauty—the powerful stories it shares, the moral vision it puts forth, and the revelation of the nature of God through Jesus—even from a distance.
  • We can also wade into the shallow waters of Scripture, and clearly and safely enough, learn how God calls us to respond to His work in the world, how we can receive His grace, and how we can live as His children.
  • It takes more work, but we can go deeper. We can dive in and swim, learning about biblical history and biblical genres. Tools like concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries are like snorkels that help us to see things that weren’t visible on the surface.
  • Like scuba diving, a relative few are able to put in a lot of hours of training. That training involves all sorts of elements—learning biblical languages, studying ancient culture and history to learn about the contexts in which Scripture came to be, reading about Christian interpretation of Scripture and doctrine throughout the centuries, etc.—and with the new skills it provides and with access to the right equipment, new frontiers for personal learning and discovery are opened up.[3]
  • And for the very, very few, who have been gifted with brilliant minds and have devoted themselves to decades of study, occasionally new discoveries (or, more accurately, the discovery of things that were once known, but had been forgotten or lost over the years) are made, and our collective understanding is expanded. Like with those who plumb the ocean depths in a submarine, these sorts of discoveries may be inaccessible to us in a first-hand way, but we can still receive benefits from what is learned.

I do not believe that every Christian is called to learn Hebrew and Greek, to understand how the creation story of Genesis compares to those of Israel’s neighbors in the Ancient Near East, or to be able to explain textual criticism. In fact, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 about how Christians are all part of the Body of Christ and how we have different roles and perform different functions would seem to speak directly against the notion that all of us are supposed to be biblical scholars. God has gifted us in different ways and expects us to use our gifts to His glory, but not everyone has the gift of learning Hebrew and Greek (especially after the first few years of life!).

However, that reality is not an excuse for a lack of study or a sense of complacency. We have different aptitudes and different opportunities, so of course, we won’t all interact with the biblical ocean in the same way. But the call of Christian discipleship prompts each of us to stretch ourselves and gradually go deeper so that we can better understand what God has revealed to us, rather than to remain all of our lives where we are comfortable. Put differently, not all Christians are called to be scholars, but all are called to be students.

That is a challenging process. It takes a lot of work and it can be disconcerting, but it is also valuable and wonderful.

Scripture is like the ocean.

It is beautiful and comforting, but also vast and mysterious. We will never fully explore or understand it, but we will find unsettling and thrilling adventure in our lifelong exploration of it, and untold blessings at each new level of depth.


[1]  Did you know that I can’t swim? I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it on The Doc File. This is a great source of shame for me, and I am determined to remedy this.

[2]  Andrea Mustain, “Mysteries of the Oceans Remain Vast and Deep,” Live Science, June 8, 2011.

[3]  For what it‘s worth, in this extended metaphor I would consider myself to be a novice scuba diver.

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Towell

    Good observations. At risk of stretching the analogy, both oceans and scripture…
    – Give us nourishment
    – Can be dangerous if not approached with humility

    • Luke

      Towell,

      Yes, absolutely! Regarding your second point and humility, I think it is important that we approach the text not to master it, but with the desire that we let it master us.

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