“The inspired Word of God”
When we talk in normal conversation about something being inspired, we generally mean that it has about it something of brilliance. That it is especially full of insight, or inspiring to us personally, or uplifting. The actual definition of ‘inspired’ is to exert a stimulating or beneficial effect on someone.
The literal meaning of the word has to do with the intake of breath: to ‘in – spire’. Spire being derived from the word for breathing. Hence the meaning – breathed ‘through’ – often used in connection with the inspiration of the scriptures. We say that God ‘breathed through’ scripture. I imagine that all Christians everywhere would agree with this term and with the idea that God was the source of scripture.
Unfortunately, however, we often go further than this and think of scripture as being more than just ‘God – breathed’. We begin to invest the Bible with more than being ‘just inspired’ – we begin to ascribe magical powers to the words of the Bible. In extreme cases this can mean that we actually believe that every word, dot and comma (of the translation we favour) has been put there by the direct intervention of God – we cross over an important line into the territory of believing that the Bible has magical properties such as being ‘Truth’ and ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ and suchlike.
I want in this article to briefly examine what happens when we read the Bible as ordinary Christians, and what the dangers are of taking a wrong attitude towards scripture – indeed the dangers of putting it on a pedestal. If we are in danger of getting a wrong view of scripture let us first examine how this happens. Let us first see what we do, as ordinary Christians, when we read the Bible.
The first thing to notice is how we actually read the Bible. What is the actual process that is going on? When, as Christians, we read the Bible devotionally, we are normally looking for what God wants to say to us. We read our daily portion, or read through the Bible on a regular basis, or we even just open it at random – but all with the idea of allowing God to illuminate to our hearts the words we read. There is nothing wrong with this – it is exactly how we should read the Bible – carefully, thinking ourselves into the situation described in the passage we are reading, and open to the Spirit of God to ‘open the Word’ to us. We don’t read lightly, or carelessly, or even hurriedly.
As we read, the Holy Spirit will open up the inner meaning of the words to us: he will apply what we are reading today to our situation today, touching our hearts and possibly our consciences. When we read the story of the Prodigal Son we are moved by the love of the father, and the Spirit shows us how that is but a pale reflection of the love of the Father in heaven.
This happens to all parts of the Bible – wherever we read, the Spirit takes what we read and applies it to our lives and our attitudes, thoughts and in any other way applicable. Without the Holy Spirit the Bible would be just like any other book to us. We would read and possibly benefit – but we would not get the benefit that God has planned for us.
This process is repeated as often as we read the Bible, except that another effect comes into operation. When, for example, we read the parable of the Prodigal Son a second time, we remember the blessing that The Holy Spirit brought us the first time. The words have become a little familiar. We ‘go along’ with the story because it has already made an impression in our minds and hearts.
The twenty-fifth time we turn to the gospels and read the story of the Prodigal Son, the initial impression has become a well-worn pathway in our minds and hearts. The old feelings of warmth and our previous response of self-giving to God that the first reading evoked is repeated all over again, possibly in an increased way.
Imagine what happens the seven-hundredth time that story is read by us. All the old feelings of gratitude to God plus many further complex emotions are stirred into remembrance. And the Spirit, each time we read it, brings fresh truth about it to our minds. It is an ongoing process and we never reach the end of it. That is one reason why every time we turn to the Bible for help, we receive it – the Holy Spirit takes the words and brings fresh truth to our minds and hearts.
Now this process goes on in respect of the Bible all the time, and with regard to whatever section we read. It does not matter whether it is Old Testament or New. It can be the story of Jonah or the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It can be the story of Noah or the story of how Paul was beaten up in Ephesus. The Holy Spirit interprets the words of scripture to our hearts and minds and applies them to our own situation.
When the stories of the Bible get a spiritual ‘shine’ on them like this, we can easily see how valuable and important the Bible is. And this does not apply only to stories – a phrase or a psalm or a word, even, can have the same effect. Over time the Bible becomes one of the places where we have met with God. It becomes a very precious book to us personally and it triggers off all sorts of memories and thoughts and feelings just as we pick it up and open it to read. We agree to calling it the ‘Word of God’ because the Holy Spirit has used it so often and so effectively in our lives. There is no doubt in our minds that it is a ‘holy’ Bible – it has become associated with the action of God in the innermost parts of our lives.
I have gone through all of this at some length because I think it is vitally important to recognize in what way the Bible is important to us. It is not because we get nice feelings from reading it – although we do get these, as explained above – or that frequent reading of the book makes it of great benefit to us. It is rather because God meets us in its pages and that becomes a very precious thing for us.
What it is also vital to see is that it is a wrong step to move from being grateful for the benefits of the Bible to putting the Bible on a pedestal – which is all too easy. It is so easy to say ‘the Bible is incredibly powerful for me; I find such help from it, it must be specially inspired, it must be ‘true’, it must be ‘literally true’. But to do this is to go one step too far. Yes, the Bible is inspired – it is ‘God-breathed’ – but it is not literally true. To claim that it is ‘literal truth’ is to misunderstand the part the Holy Spirit plays in interpreting the words of the Bible to our hearts.
It is the Holy Spirit who actually makes the printed words of the various books of the Bible so relevant and true for you. Not the words by themselves. To invest the printed words with magical properties – to say that they are literally true – is to misunderstand what God intended the Bible for and how we should use it.
The reason why I have written at length about this is because if you begin to say that the Bible is literally true, what you are doing is actually profoundly anti-Christian and unbiblical.
These might sound like harsh words – and you may disagree - but I believe them to be true and I will try now to justify them.
Firstly, I believe that if we put the Bible on a pedestal we are actually doing what all the Old and New Testaments abhor – we are making a god out of it. It is not an inanimate object worthy of worship. It is a book – or rather a collection of books – but it is not to be bowed down to and worshipped. You think that is exaggeration? It seems to me that some conservative evangelical Christians are far more bound by the Bible than they are by the Spirit. They concentrate on trifles and ignore other important matters, just like the Scribes in Christ’s day.
The reasons they do this are several, but one important one is that they are attributing ‘literal truth’ to every word of the Bible – and thus putting all the words on an equal footing - irrespective of their place in the Christian scheme of things. They tithe mint and dill and cumin but neglect the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23.23). Some have even insisted on women wearing hats in church. Some close ranks against other Christians (e.g. gays). This is where a lot of the rigid adherence to dogma comes from. ‘The Bible says it, therefore it must be right.’ They strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:24) To do that is profoundly unbiblical and, I believe, deeply un-Christian.
Secondly, it is wrong because all reason tells us that to think that the Bible has somehow landed on my desk, magically correct in every detail and literally true is not credible in our day and age. That is not the way God or human beings are. Nor is it the way the world is. To believe that, we would have to believe that God had stepped in and created the perfect books (sixty six of them!). One can believe that if one wants, but to my mind, in that way lies error. I prefer to go along a more moderate and sensible route.
If you do assert that God has stepped in to produce the perfect record, word perfect and literally true, then you are saying that when the various authors wrote their script they did not write as normal people. They were more than ‘guided’ – they were controlled by God to write exactly the correct words, the correct punctuation etc. so as not to commit normal human error. How absurd! Do we really want to say that they were controlled in this way, so that they did not write ‘normally’, i.e. with mistakes? If you believe that, what you are saying is that such writing would be ‘automatic’. Do you really believe that the Bible is automatic writing? I don’t. And neither does the vast majority of ordinary, sensible, Bible-reading Christians throughout the world.
Not only that – you would have to believe that God also controlled the scribes who copied the original documents – for they were copied many times. They could not act as normal humans – they would have to be prevented from making even one mistake by God, as they worked. In the New Testament documents were copied over hundreds of years before the Canon was fixed. Was each scribe also automatically transcribing and writing? And then what about the translators? Were they automatically controlled so that they got exactly the right translation? The idea becomes more preposterous as you think about it.
No, the Bible is inspired – God-breathed – but it is not literal truth. That brings us again to the translation issue. As any who have ever translated will know, there are two competing principles in every translation: there is the pull of the literal translation and there is the contrary pull of the colloquial translation. To give a simple illustration. If you are translating the gospels for a tribe in deepest Africa – where no one has even seen or even heard of a sheep – how do you translate the story of the good shepherd? If you say ‘sheep’ they will have no idea what you mean. You might as well say ‘alien’. So what do translators do? Instead of the literal translation they substitute some commonly known local animal, as near as possible to a sheep – but not a sheep. Is that translated gospel ‘literally’ true? And, in fact, this conflict happens every time any part of the Bible has ever been translated – including all our current translations.
I want to finish by being positive. How should we read the Bible once we have relinquished any idea that it is divinely, literally true?
We lose nothing at all by asserting that the Bible is not literally true but is inspired by God. Immediately we can look at it as a special book, a holy book, and a precious book for every Christian who has ever lived or ever will live. In it we find the record of man’s search for God and of God’s revelatory response and redemptive action. Without God revealing himself to us we would know nothing. But with His revelation – in the Bible and in other books, but most of all in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the Fatherhood exposed. We accept the truth of the story of the Prodigal Son, not because we hold some strange idea that the words are literally true on the page, but because the Holy Spirit in our hearts tells us as we read that this – yes this – is the truth of God as revealed through Jesus Christ.
So we offer a short prayer before we read, ‘Please Holy Spirit reveal your truth to me as I read your Word now’. And as soon as some word or phrase stands out of the page we stop and reflect. What is God telling me in what I am reading? How should this change the way I live? What does God want me to do about this insight, this truth I now see?
In a further article I want to spell out the implications of this belief in the inspired word of God. Inspired but not literally true.
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