“How can imperfect, fallible humans claim to know, understand, and comprehend text they believe is divine? Isn’t this equating themselves with God?”
It was twentieth-century Christian apologist, Francis Schaeffer, who helpfully distinguished between true communication and exhaustive communication (First Appendix in He Is There and He Is Not Silent). An infinite God could not tell finite human beings everything about himself, because, as the classic theological principle goes, the finite cannot contain the infinite (finitum non capax infiniti). Nevertheless, the infinite-personal God can communicate truly to finite human beings created in his image.
Perhaps Schaeffer was borrowing from John Calvin in making this distinction. Even in the sixteenth century, the leader of the church in Geneva wrote, “For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness” (Calvin, Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1).
Christians do not claim any special rules for proper interpretation that are not common to hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) in the fields of law, literature, business, and common speech. Context is the greatest help for interpreters of messages, and in approaching the Bible, the reader should simply pay attention to literary, grammatical, historical, cultural, and theological contexts for understanding what God has inspired prophets and apostles to write. They write with their own personalities, styles, and emphases, but God’s Spirit preserves their words from error and helps the reader comprehend what they have written.
Even between human beings we cannot have exhaustive communication in which one knows “everything” about the other. Nevertheless, not knowing everything about one’s wife of 30 years does not mean one does not know many true things of great importance about this wife. Just because three-year-olds have very limited vocabularies and undeveloped capacities for reasoning, it does not mean that they are incapable of true communication with their parents. A child does not have to say that he knows as much as his doctorate-holding mother to understand that she loves him. His twin sister can also comprehend the mother’s instruction not to play in the street, even though she does not know enough to grasp, pronounce, or write the title of mom’s dissertation.
In the same way, we finite human beings are capable of understanding the accommodated communication of God that God gives us in the Bible without having to claim that we know everything about him and are equal to him. The classic Christian doctrine of revelation does not expect or demand exhaustive communication from God to humanity; only true communication.