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Understanding the Bible

– for ordinary Christians

Jacob Ninan

Chapter 4

Inspiration and authority

We believe that the Bible is a unique book which was inspired by God Himself. The Bible itself claims it, and also the experience of millions of Christians backs up that claim. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2Tim.3:16,17). But it is very important for us to understand what inspiration means and implies, in order to be able to interpret passages in the Bible accurately. Wrong interpretations resulting from a wrong understanding of inspiration have caused many serious problems for people, groups and churches.

While some people tend to neglect the supernatural factor (God’s inspiration) involved in the writing of the Bible, and treat it as a ‘good’ book containing many moral values, some others treat the Bible as a divine book while overlooking the contribution of the human authors in it. Both these approaches are wrong; liberal theologians tend to treat the Bible more as writings of man about God, and evangelical Christians tend to overplay the divine origin of every word of the Bible without accommodating any human element in the writing. These approaches are also simplistic in that they neglect the mysterious operation of God and human authors working together. If we examine the passages in the Bible carefully, it would (or rather, it should) become obvious to us that neither divine nor human operation alone can account for its overall character. In some places the divine element stands out and in other places the human element is obvious.

All the 39 books which we have in the OT were recognised by the Jews as sacred scripture before the time of Jesus. Jesus and the apostles have quoted from all of them as God’s word. The 27 books of the NT were recognised by the early church as being ‘scripture’ immediately after they were written and identified as such by later church leaders. Peter referred to the writings of Paul as ‘scripture’ (by implication in 2Pet.3:15,16). Believing Christians who have read these books over the centuries have also attested to the divine origin of these words as the words ‘come alive’ for them, ‘speak’ to them and demonstrate themselves as God’s ‘living’ word.

It is important to think about how this inspiration by the Holy Spirit took place, and what the role of the authors was. This is crucial for us when we seek to understand the true meaning of different passages and what God is telling us through them.

1. Were the words of the Bible dictated by God to the authors?
This is like a busy author dictating his words to his secretary. Though the secretary is the one who actually ‘writes’ the book, she is not the author. It is not her words that get written even though she is the one who does the physical writing.

It becomes very obvious that the Bible was not written like this. The different books of the Bible use different styles, choice of words and even grammatical forms, which could not have been the case if it was the same author (God) who had dictated them. If God had personally written every book (through dictating them to the human authors), there would have been an accurate choice of words, a precision of expression, a clear and systematic coverage of different subjects, no differences among different descriptions of the same events, or vagueness of expression in different places. Actually this approach would have minimised the role of the human authors and they would have been no more than tools in God’s hands without any possibility of expression from their side.

2. Did God just inspire the authors with ideas and leave it to them to write things in the way they chose?
This would have meant that the authors would only write what they could understand, and they would decide on the best words to use, the best way to express the ideas that were in their head, what to emphasise, etc. In such a case the Bible would have ended up as a book that contained the ideas of God but which, as a whole, could not be really referred to as the word of God. We can say that many Christian speakers and authors now also are ‘inspired’ by the Holy Spirit in this way, but none of them can claim their words to be the words from God.

3. Did God supervise the thoughts and feelings of the human authors in such a way that finally it was His exact words that came out in writing?
This is what many evangelical scholars teach, as they try to substantiate their doctrine of plenary and verbal inspiration of the Bible. Plenary inspiration means that the entire Bible (and not just some parts of it) was inspired by God, and verbal inspiration means that the final output (the autographs) contained exactly the words that God wanted. Even though, these scholars say, God did operate through the different personalities of the authors with their vocabularies and styles, in the end He managed to bring out the exact words He wanted to say. However, this appears to be a rather simplistic approach.

This approach does not take into consideration the diverse nature of the different parts of the Bible in terms of precision of expression or the lack of it, ambiguity of truths in some places, contradictions in the different accounts of the same events, etc., which cannot be understood as God bringing out the very words He wanted. At the same time we also need to recognise that God was involved in the process as the human authors did the writing, making sure that whatever He considered to be important—all things that we need to be clear about—would be expressed precisely and without ambiguity. We see Jesus and the apostles recognising that sometimes the particular word that is used will make all the difference in terms of meaning when they pointed out the significance of single words from the OT (Matt.22:32;Gal.3:16). But we must also remember that this approach cannot be applied ubiquitously to all the parts of the Bible because in many places words have to be understood as ‘human’ with their colloquial and not literal meanings.

Evangelical scholars also claim inerrancy and infallibility for the autographs, which follow automatically when the inspiration is plenary and verbal. But different scholars define inerrancy and infallibility in different ways with different technical explanations to qualify their statements, in attempting to explain the different challenges we face when we examine some details in the Bible. The problem is that ordinary Christians who do not know all these technical explanations get confused when they simply believe in plenary, verbal inspiration with the accompanying inerrancy and infallibility, and then come across practical difficulties in the text they read.

One of the most serious implications of the assumption that every word in the Bible is exactly as God would have it, along with the concepts of infallibility and inerrancy, is that many people attribute unnaturally precise meanings to words that are not meant to be understood like that. Many people take different verses as standalone truths, like statements in a text book of science or a legal document, and get into serious error. For example, if something is found in one verse in the Bible and we assume it is completely reliable in itself because ‘every word of God is true’, we may make the mistake of not qualifying this truth with other parts of the truth found elsewhere in the Bible.

Think of taking the phrase, “and with His stripes we are healed” (Isa.53:5 KJV), to apply to physical healing, totally out of its context in the passage which is actually all about how the Messiah would suffer and die in order to deliver His people from our sins! Or think of how some people attribute a precision of meaning to words without understanding the literary style, e.g., interpreting Proverbs 18:21to mean that the tongue actually has power to bring life or death. Ignoring such realities of the human language because of the human contribution to the Bible has given rise to many extremist ideas, heresies and divisions of churches. It is the desire to warn against this type of mistake that has primarily motivated me to write this book.

The treasure in earthen vessels
What we find is that there is really a great mystery here, as to how exactly this inspired writing took place. When God chose to reveal His truths through the imperfect medium of human beings, He was, in fact, taking a calculated risk which He considered to be at an acceptable level. If He wanted His truths to come through perfectly He would have to practically dictate every word for the human authors to write down, giving no freedom for man to bring in his personality, understanding, knowledge, skills, etc., into the process. This would mean that the human authors would not have any way of corrupting the word of God.

But that is not how God has worked with man from the beginning. God’s sovereignty has always worked along with the free will of man. This process does have its consequences. If we understand the implications of God and man working together, we would also be able to account for both the reliability of God’s words as they have emerged from the process and some less than perfect forms that have also come in as a result.

Generally speaking, evangelical scholars try to extol the contribution of God by projecting unrealistic levels of inerrancy and infallibility which belie the facts, and liberal theologians major on the human limitations seen in the Bible and ignore the divine sovereignty in bringing out God’s truth in spite of human limitations. What we see in the Bible is a combination of divine inspiration and human authorship.

In several parts of the Bible the prophets have directly quoted words given by God. Many of the prophetic books in the Bible have many such passages. Many prophets of the OT also describe the origin of their writings with, “The word of the Lord came to …” There are many books that are mainly historical records written by people but still under the inspiration of God. In this case, the inspiration of God brings out what we need to know and learn from history, and things that teach us about God, His ways, people and their ways. The Book of Proverbs is a collection of proverbs which, by definition, are concise statements that are full of meaning and which are generally true (but which can have exceptions). But the additional factor is that the proverbs in this book have the sanction of the Holy Spirit of God. The Book of Psalms essentially contains songs composed by human authors (mostly David) expressing their prayer, praise and adoration of God, and their thoughts, questions and fears in relation to God and what was happening to them. However, the inspiration of God has worked along with the human composition in such a way that many of them became messianic (speaking indirectly about the Messiah or Christ), prophetic, and promises of God for comfort and encouragement to His people. Ecclesiastes is about the conclusions reached by a worldly wise man after his pursuit of truth and reality based on his own understanding, and some of these conclusions are also in line with God’s truths. God has inspired the people who compiled the books of the Bible to include this and the Song of Songs (which is a poetic writing about the human love between a man and a woman), apparently to teach us, among other things, the limitations of human wisdom and the essential purity and beauty of human love. Facts such as these tell us that we need to understand the existing diversity among the books of the Bible, and therefore be careful how we interpret the different parts.

One implication of this is that where the divine element is obvious it becomes entirely reliable and trustworthy, and when the human element is obvious we need to look at it more carefully.

To reiterate, God has inspired the writing of the Bible, but He used imperfect human authors to pen it down. The divine source has found expression through an imperfect medium. Without taking absolute control of expression through dictation, or leaving it to people to express things their own way, God has revealed His truths through His word in a very special way. We need to recognise, or take into account in a balanced manner, the treasure of God’s word as well as the earthen vessel that contains the treasure in order to avoid extremes of error. There will be an error if we neglect the human part and assume only divine inspiration (which many evangelicals seem to do), and another error if we focus on the human element and ignore the divine inspiration (which many liberals seem to do).

How can we understand this mystery?
Clearly there is a mystery here that cannot be fully understood. This is similar to realising that we do not know how the one and only God has three Persons in the godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, or that we do not understand how Jesus could be fully God and Man at the same time. However we cannot afford to neglect one part of the truth in order to emphasise another. Just because it is difficult to understand we must not opt to take an idealistic or an extreme position which then becomes unrealistic.

Think of the situation where God is in full control of the universe which He has created. He can or He is able to do whatever He wants (omnipotence), and in fact He does whatever pleases Him (Ps.115:5). However in His wisdom He has given demons and men a limited amount of free will and power to do whatever they please. We can understand this as a small circle of free will within a huge circle that represents God’s will. We do have some free will, but there is a limit to what we can do with our free will. God’s will overrides everything that we or demons may do. There are some things He may permit us to do, but He will not allow things to go beyond His permissible limits (1Cor.10:13; Job.38:11).

But as a result of this free will that is given to men and demons, God has to live with a certain amount of sin and chaos in the universe as Satan and man misuse their freedom. For us who live within that chaos it might look like a huge amount of chaos. To many people it might even appear as if things are not within God’s control any more. But we know that God maintains His sovereignty and control in spite of this. And He continues to work out His original plans for the world and man in spite of all that man is doing. At the same time we must recognise that it is not God who is responsible for the problems in the world. We are tempted to consider it as if He is, if we place one-sided attention to the sovereignty of God without considering the human element.

Should we not see a similarity with this, and the way the Bible has been written? God has inspired the authors to write down what He wanted, but He has also not taken away their freedom to express things in their own words and according to their style, skills, etc. Therefore some authors have been able to express ideas in a more precise manner than others, some follow better chronological order, some follow a more logical and progressive method of teaching, some tend to be repetitive, some use more figures of speech, some tend to become rather abstract in their expression, etc. These are some of the resulting problems. The Bible is not always orderly, systematic or chronological. Some truths and instructions are not as clear as we would like them to be. Some even appear to be ambiguous. When we get down to details, there are also some differences among what different authors say about the same events, which look even like contradictions.

Some of these are the result of copying errors as old manuscripts were copied entirely manually to create new copies (in the absence of digital storage or printers). Some later manuscripts show signs of editors who have probably tried to ‘correct’ or ‘clarify’ what they felt to be in error. Some discrepancies such as differences in details among the four different gospel accounts may be explained by thinking that those four authors had different target groups of readers in mind. But at the same time it would be unrealistic to claim that all textual controversies can be explained in this way.

When we talk about ‘discrepancies’ we must keep in mind at the same time that whatever ‘problems’ we find with the Bible are not of such significance or intensity as to cause error in our understanding of God or our life with Him. For example, if it was one or two angels that appeared on the day of resurrection, or one or two demoniacs who met Jesus at Gadarenes (or Gerasenes!) how does that matter to our salvation? In other words, even though there are textual problems that hostile people love to point out, they are not of the type that should unsettle our faith. Therefore, the final fact is that God message still comes through loud and clear, even though the human authors have added some ‘noise’ of their own. In other words, when God chose to use human authors to write down His book, He has made allowance for a certain level of ‘error tolerance’ just as He did when He gave angels and men some level of free will which would result in a certain permitted level of chaos in the world.

An assumption of ‘verbal, plenary inspiration’ implies that each and every word in the Bible is precisely chosen by God to reveal His truths. Should we take it that God did this by telling the authors exactly what they should write (which would amount to dictation), or that within the limits of freedom He gave to the authors and the ‘imperfection’ it resulted in, He still ensured that the choice of words was entirely within His permissible limits? The latter view would be explained somewhat like this.

In any manufacture, specifications of sizes of the components would be precisely defined, including a specified tolerance level. For a particular application this could be stated as 500 mm +/- 0.01 mm; the actual size may be anywhere between 499.99 and 500.01 mm. For another higher precision component, the specification would be more stringent. Perhaps in a somewhat similar way, God has placed some error tolerance factor for human authors producing His word in such a way that the final result is what He wanted to the level of precision which He has prescribed for that subject. In places where it really matters, the specifications He has put down would be stringent, but in less precise situations, the tolerance levels could be higher. Overall, God has generated a product that meets all His functional requirements.

Let us look at an example. The descriptions given by the gospel writers on what happened early morning on the day of resurrection differ in detail, as to who all went to the tomb, how many angels were seen there, what the angel said, and the sequence of events. This raises many controversies if only the divine inspiration is assumed, leading some to wonder how the inspired word of God could have such ‘contradictions’. But once human authorship is also taken into consideration it becomes possible to think that different authors have expressed different parts of the story, from their knowledge and understanding. The parts which each one shared were true in themselves, and we can see that if we construct a bigger picture by putting all these pieces together.

For another example, look at Matthew 21:10 which says, “When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’” If we take the human element into consideration we would really take this to mean that a lot of people in the city were stirred up, and if we were to take the true implication of verbal inspiration into effect this would imply that every single person in the city was stirred up! (Is it critical to our faith or life whether we understand ‘all’ to mean ‘all’ in this case or do we have enough flexibility and maturity to understand that this is not really important in this particular case?) This is probably an example where everyone, including those who insist on verbal inspiration, automatically knows that this is a human expression not to be taken literally. But this nevertheless serves to prove our point.

Look at another example where Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt.5:3), and Luke quotes Him as, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Lk.6:20). Are these a demonstration of God’s error tolerance level while working through human authors? It is obvious from other parts of the Bible and common sense that Luke’s words have to be interpreted in a special manner and not in their plain sense. Did God allow this discrepancy to remain in the Bible because He knew that the first statement would easily clarify what He meant, while He was tolerating an inaccurate or incomplete statement from Luke?

Shall we sit in judgment?
Some scholars take the approach of proclaiming a ‘flawless Bible’ possibly to avoid having to take a position of ‘sitting in judgment’ over the Bible, to decide which part of the Bible is to be taken as coming from God in a reliable and trustworthy manner without error and which part has to be treated as having a lack of clarity, consistency or accuracy because of the human element creeping in. They try to manage this by saying that every single word in the Bible is there exactly as God Himself has wanted it, thereby preventing further arguments. But as a result they remove the human element in the process of writing, and this actually results in a lot of confusion! Surely we need to submit ourselves to the authority of the word of God as given to us in the Bible. However, this kind of approach mentioned above does not actually manage to eliminate the need for our thinking and exercising judgment. Do we not have to use our mind still to understand, for example, which part is directly applicable to us now and in what way, and which part is a historical narrative given to us mainly for our information and learning? The other concern some people may have is that if verbal and plenary inspiration is not insisted on, it will throw open the possibility of different people accepting only whatever each one likes from the Bible. Obviously there is such a possibility. But in order to totally eliminate that possibility shall we go on to an extreme position (and it is really an extreme position), of completely eliminating the human element in the process of writing?

Also, this very assertion (of verbal and plenary inspiration) can become a stumbling block to thinking people. When people get the impression that these Bible scholars are insisting on making unrealistic and unreasonable assertions about the Bible, when it is only very plain to them that there are obvious problems with these assertions, people are tempted to throw away all confidence in such scholarship and perhaps in the Bible itself which these scholars promote!

Those who hold tenaciously to the verbal, plenary inspiration approach (who minimise the human participation) go to great lengths to provide explanations for the several doubtful aspects of the Biblical text. However, would it not be more comfortable and natural to recognise some limitations (as compared to a fully divine responsibility), due to human participation in the process of divine inspiration? With this approach too we can still believe that God has conveyed whatever He wanted to, so that the text is still “able to teach, reprove, correct, and train us in righteousness.” The doubtful elements, whatever they are, have not been able to detract God from accomplishing this purpose. Therefore we do not have to labour for proving for God’s word some attributes that appear to be straightaway unrealistic. Our laboured explanations may smack of intellectual dishonesty when we try to defend these attributes ‘at any cost’.

Actually, when we do recognise that there is a human element involved in the writing of the Bible, it requires only common sense in most cases to figure out how to understand different passages in the right way!

Let us therefore hold to the understanding that the Bible was entirely inspired by God in an overall sense and written down by people in a way that His truths are preserved. God has revealed Himself to us through His word, shown us His way of salvation to us and told us how we ought to live. His word is ‘living’ by which we mean that God speaks to our hearts as we read His word, meets our needs and guides us in our life.

Authority of the Bible
Since the Bible is the word of God, it asserts authority for itself. It becomes the ultimate standard and the final reference for our life. If God has said it, that settles it. (How we are to interpret what God has said is the subject of later chapters). Biblical authority is usually described by scholars with respect to three aspects—inerrancy, infallibility and authoritative-ness. It is important that we understand these terms clearly because different Christians mean somewhat different things when they use these words. Many Christians use ‘inerrancy’ as relating to the absolute correctness of the Bible in factual assertions (including historical and scientific assertions). We have already seen how there are discrepancies in the way different authors describe events which make this definition unrealistic. We must also remember that many descriptions are given in poetic or figurative ways and are not meant to be understood literally. For examples when the Bible talks of the four corners of the earth it only refers to the extent of the earth in every direction, and it is not meant to allude to a picture of a flat earth. Obviously inerrancy should not be expected in terms of typographical accuracy of the Hebrew or Greek manuscripts which are available now, or the words used in translations into modern languages. But can we not understand that whatever God tells us in the Bible is true, even though we may need to make some special efforts in some cases to understand what exactly God means?

Infallibility relates to the absolute correctness of the Bible in matters of doctrine. Of course, if we were to assume that the doctrines taught by the Bible could be wrong, the Bible would immediately cease to have any authority for us. If the moral teachings of the Bible are, as some say, relative to the existing culture when they were written and are not necessarily applicable to us, then again the authority of the Bible would take a hit. But it is not really difficult to discern in most cases what are given in the Bible as supra-cultural principles of God for man that will be true for all time. In that case, they stand there with the authority of God Himself. But needless to repeat again, when we try to understand doctrines from the Bible we should also take into consideration their context, to whom it was addressed, how the terms of God’s dealings with people have changed from the OT to the NT, etc., if we are to avoid errors. Here it is especially good to remember that many passages cannot be understood in isolation but only in the context of the whole Bible, and this also applies to doctrines which need to be understood in their relationship with all other doctrines.

Authoritativeness relates to the correctness of the Bible in questions of practice in morality. This follows from the infallibility of biblical doctrines, the recognition of the divine authorship and our need to submit to them. One implication is that whenever the ‘world’ or society tells us something which is opposed to what the Bible teaches us in terms of moral values or behaviour, we will choose to stay with the Bible. For example, when people begin to redefine ‘marriage’ in terms of relationships between any two people irrespective of gender, we can hold on to God’s definition in the Bible as an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman. In other words, we shall consider the Bible to have the final authority for us in terms of values, principles, ethics, morals, teachings and practices.

Chapter 5 – Literary styles

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