This is the third in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century. It is important we begin not with what people say about the Bible, but what it says about itself.
The Bible comprises 66 different writings (or books) written over a period of centuries by many different authors. Each of the Old and New Testaments was only compiled in its present form several centuries after the books were written or compiled.
The books include many different genres of writing – history, biography, poetry, prophecy, proverbs, visions, etc. We cannot therefore assume that what is said by one book necessarily applies to all the others.
What the Bible says about itself
Many of the books of the Bible recount what are claimed to be historical events, whether in the life of the nation of Israel, or in an individual’s life. In several places they claim to be telling the truth or recording events accurately.
Many books of the Bible claim to describe the actions of God in human history, whether through the Israelite nation or in the ministry of Jesus and his apostles. God is seen as the hidden, and not so hidden, hand behind Jewish history. In many places, Old Testament books interpret events from God’s viewpoint. The writers don’t always say how they know this. Sometimes they were apparently present at the events but don’t always give an indication of how they know God was acting, or why.
But in many places, the writers say God has spoken to them. This is most seen in the Old Testament prophets, but also occurs in many other books in both Testaments. And of course the teachings of Jesus were understood as communications from God via Jesus. These claims generally don’t extend to the books themselves, only to the original oracle or vision which the books record.
However there are a few places where New Testament writers quote Old Testament books, and say “The Holy Spirit says ….” – see for example Hebrews 3:7 & 10:15. There are also some occasions where the prophet or seer is told to write the vision down – e.g. Jeremiah 36:2, Revelation 1:19.
Two New Testament passages are often quoted to support the teaching that the Scriptures were inspired by God:
2 Peter 1:21: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
This passage doesn’t really make the process very clear, although it may perhaps imply that the Holy Spirit led the writers’ thoughts without giving them the actual words. However this statement only describes how prophecy occurs, and doesn’t necessarily extend to all the books of the Bible.
2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”
This passage doesn’t specify which scriptures Paul had in mind, but it must have been the Old Testament. It has been interpreted several ways:
- The most common explanation is that “God-breathed” means that God ‘breathed out’ the words so they are his words given to the writers. However this doesn’t easily account for the fact that the writers have distinctly different styles, and sometimes even make grammatical mistakes.
- There are several places in the Bible when God is said to have “breathed” (e.g. Ezekiel 37:1-4, John 20:21-23), and in each case he breathed into something that already existed and gave it life. On this interpretation, God enlivens the human writings and uses them to reveal truth, thus saying more about our reading than the original writing.
- I have also read that the image of “breath” or “wind” describes how the wind fills the sails of a ship. This meaning would be similar to that in 2 Peter 1:21, that the Spirit motivated the writers without necessarily giving them exact instructions – just as the wind powers a sailing boat but the sailor still steers it – and is perhaps similar to the normal modern meaning of inspiration.
- Finally it is sometimes said that the best translation is “All God-breathed scriptures are profitable”, which could perhaps fit any of the above interpretations.
The meanings may not all be mutually exclusive. I feel drawn to the second one, while the first is the most common among christians. However, while it is tempting to choose the meaning that most fits what we’d like to be true, the truth seems to be that the Greek isn’t clear and we cannot be sure what Paul meant.
The Greek word graphe, translated ‘scriptures’ is used more than 50 times in the New Testament, generally referring to the Jewish scriptures which we know as the Old Testament. It literally means ‘writings’, but generally in the sense of sacred and/or authoritative writings for a community who wishes to follow God’s teachings. We will see in my next post how Jesus and his apostles used their Scriptures.
In one interesting New Testament passage, 2 Peter 3:16, the writer compares Paul’s letters to “the other scriptures”. Many scholars think 2 Peter was not written by the apostle Peter, but the passage still shows that the church began very early to equate the writings we have in the New Testament to the Jewish scriptures.
Teaching for life
As an authoritative writing, the Bible claims to give good advice on how we should live (e.g. Isaiah 58:1-10). But we should note that this guidance is not always absolute, as Jesus updates the Old Testament on some ethical matters (e.g. Matthew 5:21-22), and Paul says we serve God in a less legalistic way than before (1 Corinthians 3:5).
What the Bible doesn’t seem to say
I am not aware of any unambiguous statements about the Bible being “inerrant”, is not a word or concept used by the Biblical writers. The closest I can think of are statements like “the law of the Lord is perfect” (Psalm 19:7), and Psalm 119 which is all about keeping God’s laws and precepts. But very little of our present Bible was probably written down at that time and it seems too much to extrapolate these very general statements to the inerrancy of the whole Bible.
Word of God?
The phrase “word of God” is used many times, but, despite common usage, it is never explicitly used to describe the Bible (some passages could be interpreted to mean the Bible but don’t say this unambiguously). Rather it is used of:
- the actual words of God recorded by the writers (e.g. Ezekiel 30:20), or
- Jesus himself (e.g. John 1:1), or
- in the New Testament, the gospel message (e.g. Acts 13:49).
Sometimes the Bible is described as God’s revelation, but the Bible seems never to describe itself in this way – the word generally means something revealed by the Holy Spirit.
These three concepts arise from consideration of statements that are in the Bible, and I will consider them again in a later post. But they cannot be included here as Biblical statements.
So what do we have?
1. Possibly the most important conclusion is that the Bible doesn’t seem to try to define itself in the sort of detail we would like.
2. We can say that the Bible contains the sacred scriptures of Christians and Jews, it claims to have the authority of God behind it and to be in some sense be inspired by him, to record events accurately, and to communicate people’s experiences of God, including times when God spoke through prophets, apostles or Jesus. And it claims to be able to help us live more truthful and moral lives, and to know God.
3. But the Bible doesn’t explicitly say several things that christians sometimes say about it, and we will have to look at those claims separately.
- Explanations of 2 Timothy 3:16 by Ben Witherington, Brad Anderson and LO Richards.
- NT Wright on the Authority of the Bible.
- Discussion of NT Wright’s views on the Bible from Anglican and Reformed perspectives.
- Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns
- Biblical Inspiration in Wikipedia
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