What is the Bible — this Book that has far and away been the best seller of all history and has been translated into more languages than any other book?
“Bible” means “book…But what kind of book is the Bible? Some suggest it is a record of man’s religious striving toward and encounters with God — an essentially human book. Until the latter half of the last century, however, the historic Christian Church had. always seen the Bible as far more than this – namely, as the written Word of God. There was no doctrine on which there was greater unity among Christians. Not until recently have widespread doubts beenraised.
The question of the Bible is a crucial one because it involves the whole issue of revelation. How can we know God exists? How can we know about Him, even if He does exist? It is clear that our finite minds cannot penetrate His infinity. Job asked, “Canst thou by searching find out God?” (Job 11:7) The answer is, Only as God takes the initiative in revealing Himself.
God has revealed Himself in several ways. Nature and creation are proof that God exists and that He is powerful (Rom. 1:19, 20). God has revealed Himself through history, particularly in His dealings with Israel and the nations surrounding her. Such Old Testament expressions as, “Then Manasseh knew that the Lord He was God” (2 Chron. 33:13), reflect recognition of God because of His activity in the affairs of men and nations.
God’s revelation came to man not only through events themselves, but through the words of the prophets who interpreted the events. “The Word of the Lord came to me” and, “thus saith the Lord,” are recurring phrases throughout the Old Testament (cf. Ezek. 7:1; 12:1; Zech. 8:1; Ex. 4:22; 1 Sam. 2:27) of what is called propositional revelation.
God’s fullest revelation came in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews summarizes it this way: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1, 2).
Written Record Needed
But what about people who were not present and so did not see God’s involvement in history or the events surrounding Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection? To reach all men, obviously, a written record was needed. God has given this to us in the Bible, through which He has revealed Himself.
The Bible consists of two sections: the Old Testament (or Covenant), consisting of 39 books, and the New Testament (or Covenant), consisting of 27 books. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of the Old Testament are arranged in three divisions – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.
In the Septuagint (often denoted LXX, the Roman numeral for the number of its translators), a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek made during the Third Century, B.C., the books are arranged according to similarity of subject matter. The Pentateuch ( the Law, or five books of Moses) is followed by the historical books. Then come the books of poetry and wisdom and, finally, the prophets. This is the order of the books in most Christian editions of the Bible today. The writing of the Old Testament covered a span of a thousand years.
The 27 New Testament books are in four groups: the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, 21 letters (epistles) , and The Revelation. These books were written within the span of a century. The earliest documents were the first letters of Paul, which, along with perhaps the letter of James, were written between A.D. 48 and 60, and the Gospels and other books between A.D. 60 and 100.
How did the Bible come to be written? Two clear statements from the New Testament answer this question: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not ill old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1: 20, 21); “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
Given by Inspiration
The Bible originated in the mind of God, not in the mind of man. It was given man by inspiration. It is important to understand this term, because its biblical meaning is different from that which we often give it in everyday language. The Bible is not inspired as the writings of a great novelist are inspired, or as Bach’s music was inspired. Inspiration, in the biblical sense, means that God so superintended the writers of Scripture that they wrote what He wanted them to write and were kept from error in so doing. The word “inspired” (2 Tim. 3:16) actually means “outbreathed” (by God). Inspiration applies to the end result – the Scripture itself – as well as to the men whom God used to write the Scripture.
This does not mean that the human writers of Scripture were practically machines through whom God dictated. Nor does it mean that they were human typewriters whom God punched. On the contrary, their full personalities entered into their writing. Their individual writing styles are evident, for instance. Their backgrounds also are often apparent in what they wrote. But though their human capacities came into play, they were superintended and borne along in a unique way by the Holy Spirit. Because of this, the Bible is called “The Word of God” (Mark 7:13; Heb. 4:12; etc.).
It is clear that some material in the Bible came directly from God; it could not otherwise have been known by the human mind. Genesis 1 and 2 are an example of this sort of material, which must have been made known to Moses supernaturally. In other cases, men recorded events which they themselves witnessed; e.g., John wrote about his approach, with Peter, to the empty tomb on the first Easter morning (John 20:3-10). Some writers used records that were already in existence, as Luke did in writing his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). In other instances, God put into men’s mouths the very words they should speak, or told them what to write: “The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, ‘Thus speaketh the Lord God of Israel, saying, ”Write thee all the words that I have spoken unto thee in a book.” ’ “ (Jer. 30:1, 2).
To say that the Scripture is inspired is not to say that all of the attitudes and ideas mentioned in the Bible are directly from God. Some of the record includes the words of evil and foolish men and even of Satan himself. Such parts are not revelation as such, nor are they the words of God, yet they are recorded in Scripture by God’s intention and inspiration.
In the Book of Job, for instance, the words of Jehovah, the words of Satan, the speeches of Job’s three friends, and the words of Job himself are given. All are not equally authoritative, but inspiration guarantees that what each one said was accurately recorded.
It is a striking fact that however the words came to be recorded, all Scripture is viewed by the writers as from God. Paul speaks of Scripture as “the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). Most significant of all, the apostles and our Lord Himself quoted the Old Testament – not merely as the counsel of a particular patriarch or prophet, but as the counsel of God, given through the writers: “Lord, Thou…by the mouth of Thy servant David hast said…” (Acts 4:24,25).
Other passages speak of God as if He were the Scriptures. For example: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing My power in you, so that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth’ ” (Rom. 9:17, NAS; cf. Ex. 9:16). Benjamin Warfield pointed out that these instances of the Scriptures being spoken of as if they were God, and of God being spoken of as if He were the Scriptures, could only result from a habitual identification of the text of Scripture with God speaking. It became natural to use the terms “Scripture says,” and “God says,” synonymously. In other words, “Scripture” and the speaking of God were seen as identical.1
Extent of Inspiration
The question of the extent of inspiration is frequently raised and is an important issue today. The terms plenary and verbal inspiration are used. Plenary means full. When used in connection with inspiration, it means that all of Scripture is inspired – not merely some parts. Some take the position that the only inspired (and therefore inerrant) parts of the Bible are those having to do with spiritual issues and salvation. These people maintain that to apply the claim of inspiration (and consequently inerrancy or trustworthiness) to matters involving human history or the physical world (science) is to encounter insuperable barriers.
Some scholars hold that the Bible “contains” the Word of God rather than is the Word of God. This view, however, confronts us with a serious problem. How can we know what parts of the Bible are trustworthy and what parts are not? How do we know which aspects have to do entirely with salvation and which are “only” matters of history? Often the two – salvation and history – are inextricably intertwined. For instance, if the Cross and the Resurrection were not historical events, of what value are they in salvation?
Moreover, if the Bible’s references to the physical world and to history are not trustworthy, on what basis can we be sure that those portions dealing with salvation are trustworthy? If we are going to pick and choose the parts of the Bible we can believe, we must depend on personal subjective judgment. On matters involving eternal destiny, this is a shaky basis on which to proceed.
There have been three bases of religious authority. The first is tradition, or the authority of the Church, to which Roman Catholics have adhered. The second is human reason, which liberal thinkers have adopted. The third is the Bible itself, which evangelicals have always recognized as authoritative. To take this third position is not to deny the value of tradition and of human reason, but to submit them, in case of conflict, to the authority of Scripture.
Evangelicals do not deny that there are problems in reconciling some statements of Scripture with what historical data we possess. But the evidence of modem archaeology has, with few exceptions, confirmed the Bible record, so it would not seem unreasonable to postpone judgment on the questions still in doubt.
The term verbal inspiration indicates that inspiration extends to the words of the Bible themselves, not only to the ideas. We have already seen that God did not “dictate” the Scripture mechanically, but guided and superintended the writers within the framework of their own personalities and backgrounds. This guidance would of necessity include their choice of words, since thoughts are composed of words, much as a bar of music consists of individual notes. To alter the notes alters the music. Verbal inspiration holds that God, by His Spirit, has guaranteed the authenticity and reliability of the very words that were written, without depriving the writers of their individuality. A Christian who has a high view of inspiration is, of all people, sincerely interested in using modem tools in textual study to determine the original text.
The inspiration of which the Scripture speaks applies only to the text as originally produced by the writers. There have been some errors in copying, though they are fewer and less significant than one would think.
We have observed that the Bible is the Word of God; it does not merely contain the Word of God, as many believe. Others say the Bible becomes the Word of God to an individual when the person has an “existential encounter” with God in his reading of Scripture – when the Truth of a passage makes a powerful and indelible impression on him. Those who hold this position are often in strong reaction to “dead” orthodoxy – to the profession of evangelical beliefs unaccompanied by evidence of the believer’s having been changed by God’s power.
Holy Spirit Illuminates
Scripture must be illumined in the heart of an individual by the Holy Spirit before it becomes meaningful to him. Before the coming of the Spirit, at Pentecost, the Father and the Son had revealed divine truth. When Peter answered our Lord’s climactic question, “Who do you say I am?” with, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said, “Blessed art thou, Simon BarJona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16:15-17). When Jesus was talking to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection, He “expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” As He sat with them, “their eyes were opened, and they knew Him” (Luke 24:27,31). “Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures” (24:45). In telling the disciples about His going away, He said, “Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth [the Holy Spirit], is come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).
Paul speaks of God’s revealing by the Spirit what He has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor. 2:9, 10). The illuminating work of the Spirit of God is necessary if we are to know anything about God. What the Holy Spirit illumines is “the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6;17). It does not become the Word of God; it is the Word of God.
A television set, sitting in the corner but not turned on, is still a television set. I won’t get any images or sound until I turn it on, but it is a television set, whether turned on or not. It doesn’t become a television set when turned on.
So, too, the Scripture is the Word of God, whether anybody ever responds to it or not. The Holy Spirit must illumine Scripture in a person’s heart before it becomes meaningful, but what He illumines is the Word of God, not something less. It doesn’t become something it wasn’t before.
Having seen that the Bible is the Word of God, we must now consider the principles of interpreting and understanding it. Considerable confusion has resulted because people have oversimplified the kinds of biblical interpretation as either “literal” or “figurative.” Those who take the Bible literally are made to look foolish by their apparent denial of any use of figures of speech in the Bible. Those, on the other hand, who take it figuratively often appear to be capricious in evading the clear meaning of statements they do not want to accept.
The fact is that some parts of the Bible are to be taken literally and other parts figuratively.
The key question is, What did the writer intend his readers to understand? We must ask to whom the passage was written. Is the promise or command, for instance, one that has universal application or one that has limited reference? Often there are primary and secondary applications. A primary application has to do with the person or people directly addressed. A secondary application relates a scriptural principle to those to whom the passage is not applied directly.
It is important to consider the context in which a Bible statement is made. What is the primary teaching of the passage? Statements must not be lifted out of context in such away as to cause misunderstanding. A skeptic once triumphantly asserted, “The Bible says, ‘There is no God.’ ” He was considerably deflated when reminded of the context: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’ “ (Ps. 14:1).
Literal or Figurative?
It is important to decide whether a statement is literal or figurative. The Bible uses such literary forms as poetry, allegory, and parable. Though there are passages on which there is strong difference of opinion, it is usually no more difficult to distinguish between figurative and literal statements in the Bible than in a daily newspaper.
The statement, “Two people were killed in an accident on Main Street,” is obviously literal. “He shot home from third in the last half of the ninth with the winning run under his arm, and the crowd went mad,” is readily recognized as figurative language. A player does not “shoot” home or carry runs under his arm. And the folks in the bleachers, though they may get excited, do not become insane.
A final word about Bible study. Simply using a dictionary to investigate the full meaning of the words of Scripture will reveal surprising riches. Try it! And consult several translations.
It has been said that the Scripture is its own best commentary. Often a verse or a passage becomes clear when studied in the light of other Bible statements on the same subject. Though humanly the Bible has many writers, in the final analysis there was only one Author – God Himself. As we compare Scripture with Scripture, we are guarded against becoming unbalanced in our views. We need to study individual books and we also need to trace themes through the whole Bible. This is the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology. One scholar compares biblical theology to “the profusion of nature in which the various plants and flowers are scattered with a bountiful hand in ‘ordered disorder: “He compared systematic theology to a botanical garden “where plants and flowers are gathered and arranged according to species.”2
Both kinds of arrangements are useful; both have their place in a study of botany. Both kinds of Bible study are useful, too.
The Canon of Scripture
A separate question from that of inspiration is that of the canon, i.e., which writings, or books, are recognized as inspired? It is important to realize that a book did not become inspired by being included in the canon. Inclusion in the canon was merely recognition of the authority the book already possessed.
We do not know exactly when the Old Testament canon was completed. The Old Testament itself says that collections of “authorized” books were put in the sacred buildings – the Tabernacle and then the Temple. Hilkiah rediscovered the Book of the Law there (2 Kings 22). The Jews recognized as their Scriptures certain books that recorded Jehovah’s dealings with Israel.
In our Lord’s time, the Old Testament was viewed as a completed collection. He and the apostles referred to this collection as “the Scripture.” Most of the books of the Old Testament are quoted in the New Testament, always as authoritative.
In tracing the canonicity of a particular book — that is, its recognition as one of the inspired writings – we must keep three questions in mind: (1) Is it mentioned by the Early Church fathers in the Christian literature of the first centuries of our era? (2) What attitude do these early writers take toward the inspiration of the book? (3) Do they regard it as part of a canon, or list of books recognized as inspired?
The definition of the canon was important, in the Early Church, because claims were being advanced for many writings which were patently spurious, and because heretics were attacking the validity of the genuine Scriptures. The canon, as we know it today, became fixed in the Fourth Century. Athanasius (A.D. 297-373), known as the father of orthodoxy, became patriarch of Alexandria. In his 39th Paschal Letter ( A.D. 367) , he listed the books of the New Testament as we know them.
The canon of the New Testament was also confirmed at a Church Council held in Carthage in A.D. 397. The Council used three criteria in recognizing canonicity. First, Was a book apostolic in origin? Mark and Luke were accepted, for example, because they were recognized as the work of close associates of the apostles. Second, was the book used and recognized by the churches? Third, did the book teach sound doctrine?3
It is on these bases that the orthodox Protestant Church today does not receive as canonical the 12 books of the Apocrypha (1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and the Prayer of Manasses), which the Roman Catholic Church accepts. The Jews never recognized these books as part of their Old Testament.
To accept the Bible as the Word of God today is not fashionable. Some, even within the professing Church, deny its reliability. Generally, attacks on Scripture follow certain lines. Perhaps the foremost is that of contending that the Bible is incompatible with 20th Century science. Many conflicts are said to exist between scientific facts and statements in the Bible. There are, admittedly, some problems. But the following considerations usually bridge what on first sight may seem a yawning chasm.
Understanding the Bible
First, the Bible speaks in phenomenological language – that is, it describes things as they appear to be rather than in precise scientific terms. To say the sun rises in the east is a phenomenological statement. Technically, we know the sun does not really “rise,” but even the Naval Almanac uses the term “sunrise,” and we would not charge the Almanac with error. The Bible has been understandable in all cultures and throughout history because of the phenomenological way it describes things. It does not claim to be textbook on science, but where it touches scientific matters, it does not give misinformation.
Second, when Bible information is incomplete, it is not necessarily incorrect. Science is always building on previous knowledge. Advancement on incomplete theories does not mean the theories were incorrect.
Third, we must always guard against making the Bible say things which, on closer examination, it really doesn’t say. And it is most important to determine whether, in a given instance, the Bible is speaking figuratively or literally.
Fourth, we must carefully investigate to see whether the supposed conflict is between biblical teaching and scientific facts or simply between an interpretation of Scripture and an interpretation of the facts. Often an interpretation at variance with biblical truth is more philosophic than scientific.
Fifth, it would be foolish to “freeze” the points of conflict and assume the Bible wrong. The Bible has not changed in 2,000 years, but science admittedly is a moving train. To have reconciled the Bible to scientific views current a century ago would have been to make Scripture obsolete today! Far better to admit an apparent conflict and await the development of additional evidence.
That there is no basic conflict between science and Scripture is suggested by the fact that modem science was born and developed largely by earnest Christians. Believing in a personal God as Creator, they were convinced that the universe was orderly and therefore capable of meaningful investigation. In scientific research they felt they were thinking God’s thoughts after Him. There can be no ultimate conflict between truth of biblical revelation and that discovered by science, for all truth is from God and is therefore consistent. In our day, when some 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are alive, many outstanding scientists are also earnest Christians.
Dating Problems Explained
In another line of attack it is contended that the Bible is not reliable historically and that there are “internal” contradictions in parallel accounts of the same event. Some apparent numerical errors may be due to mistakes in transmission of the text over many years. Recent archaeological discoveries, however, show that the ancients’ system of dating explains many numerical problems. If one king, for example, ended his rule and another began ruling in a given calendar year, both were given credit for ruling the entire year. Also, it is important to remember that the biblical writers often used round figures which, though not precise, are at the same time not incorrect.
Admittedly we do not presently have complete explanations for all seeming Bible discrepancies. But it would be unscientific, in the light of modern archaeological discoveries, to adopt the prevalent assumption that the Bible is wrong until proven right, rather than the reverse. Dr. W. F. Albright, one of the world’s leading archaeologists, has said, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament tradition.”4
Nelson Glueck, famed Jewish archaeologist, writes, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”5
We do not “prove” the Bible by archaeology. The Holy Spirit confirms in our hearts the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God. But it is gratifying to know that scientific evidence is consistent with Scripture.
We can with confidence affirm, with the hymn writer:
The Bible stands like a rock undaunted
‘Mid the raging storms of time;
Its pages burn with the truth eternal,
And they glow with a light sublime.
The Bible stands though the hills may tumble;
It will firmly stand when the earth shall crumble;
I will plant my feet on its firm foundation,
For the Bible stands!
“Forever, O Lord, Thy Word is settled in heaven” (Ps. 119:89).
For Further Reading
Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1960.
Henry, C. F. H., ed. Revelation and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker
Book House, 1958.
Mickelsen, A. B. Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Co., 1963.
Packer, J. I. Fundamentalism and the Word of God. Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1958.
Ramm, Bernard. The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1955.