Many Christians refer to the entire Bible as the “word of God” and often base this on a few proof texts in the Bible. Two popular choices of proof of this view are found in two different books of the Bible and both attributed to Paul the Apostle.
Is the Bible the infallible word of God?
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)
To some the passage above settles the question. There we have it in clear English that the Scripture is “God-breathed” and therefore if God said it then there is little more to say after that, right?
But there is more to be said…
First off the Bible was not written in English and we rely on the work of translators to give us their best interpretation of the books of the Bible. And, as far as translation, the popular King James Version renders the “God-breathed” of the Timothy passage above as “given by inspiration of God,” which is an interpretation that could give a profoundly different impression.
Second, the most literal interpretation is not always the best for conveying intended meaning. For example, the word ‘Kindergarten’ translated from the original German that it is borrowed from literally means “children’s garden,” yet that is certainly not what the term actually means in common usage and not the original intent of the term either. So, when Paul coined “theopneustos” to describe Scripture, we need to understand what he meant by it and not just assume how it renders literally in English is the most correct interpretation.
Third, if we are to be completely literal, we know writing is not accomplished by breathing and therefore “God-breathed” writing would be an absurdity. I presume we all accept that “breathed” part isn’t completely literal; that Scripture was written by men who were in some way inspired (or led to write what God put on their hearts to share) and not literally air from divine lungs.
Forth, Paul did not consider all of what he wrote to be God’s own instruction. Paul himself distinguishes in his own writing that some of what he says originates from “the Lord” while other portions he denotes are “not the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:10-12) and that alone proves at least some of the Bible also contains instructions or ideas of men.
Fifth, one must consider the question of why the Bible contains hundreds of expressions like “thus saith the Lord” and “God said” if it is all the transcribed thoughts of God. If all Scripture were spoken directly from the mouth of God then why would it be necessary to denote what God said and use quotes? At very least there seems to be a difference between what is literally spoken by God in Scripture and Scripture in general.
So, in light of the evidence above, perhaps “theopneustos” should be taken to mean something less than literal. Because, although Peter does refer to some of what Paul wrote as being Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), it is even questionable if Paul considered all of his own writing in Timothy to be Scripture.
I do not believe Paul intended his words to be taken as many do and as an argument for the supremacy of Scripture. If anything it is proof that Scripture was of questionable importance to the Spirit-led church and needed his endorsement. What he says, in more basic terms, is that Scripture is useful to a Godly person and is writing inspired by God. To say more than that could be to assume too much.
Who gave us the Bible or has authority to interpret it?
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 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.” (2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV)
Note the passage above does not say all Scripture is prophecy. It tells us that did not originate “in the human will” or “by the prophet’s own interpretation” but it doesn’t say all Scripture is prophecy. We know the Scripture includes things spoken as prophecy and attributed to God, we also know Scripture contains the words of ungodly people and Satan. In other words, there is a difference between prophecy of Scripture and other things written Scripture.
The Bible we hold today is actually a collection of books and letters that were decided to be authentic and then compiled into one canonical book. It is perhaps ironic, but many of the same people who say the Bible is the ultimate moral authority reject the institution that decided the books belonged in the Bible and those that did not. They use Peter above to defend their own idea that the Bible is reliable without acknowledging their reliance on the determination of a tradition they reject.
The passage above is simultaneously used also by those who put moral authority in an institution or their own group. The King James Version renders “prophet’s own interpretation of things” as being “private interpretation.” Some use that to say we cannot understand Scripture as individuals and that we need them to tell us what it means. Oddly enough, some of these who claim this means we need them also rejected the institution that canonized Scripture and claims we need them.
I ascribe to the other view that the passage from Peter isn’t intended to put power in the hands of a group. I agree with those who interpret it to be talking about those who wrote the prophecy of Scripture and that their prophecy was given to them by God rather than their own imagination. I do not see this as speaking of our interpretation of Scripture but of inspiration and reliability the prophecy contained therein.
Furthermore, it is being used in the context of their own testimony as believers and those filled with the Holy Spirit. If we look immediately before the passage in quotations in verses 12-19 this is speaking in conjunction with the reliability of their own testimony and basically putting their own testimony on par with Scriptural prophecy. The earlier part of the chapter (verses 3-11) mentions promises and describes attributes which are strikingly similar to what Paul lists elsewhere as fruit of the Spirit.
What were we promised by Jesus would teach us?
“Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:2-4 NIV)
Before the book of second Peter mentions prophecy of Scripture and the authenticity their own testimony it alludes to something else. It mentions “divine power” and a “knowledge” of God and Jesus that allow us to “participate in the divine nature.” Those steeped in Biblical fundamentalism could assume these things are references to the Scripture, but I believe from examining Scripture that it is a reference to something bigger than Scripture and the actual source of Scriptural inspiration itself: The Holy Spirit.
Of the promises Jesus made, the one that most fits the description in 2 Peter is not a book knowledge. Jesus promised believers something extraordinary:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:16-18 NIV)
Followers of Jesus weren’t promised a book of truth or an institution to guide them, but something much better. Jesus promised them he will return, but not in physical form, and will provide help that will last forever: “the Spirit of truth.” It is something that will neither seen nor known by those who do not believe. It is an advocate, and advocate that will teach us all things, as Jesus explains:
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26 NIV)
This promise is further explained in more words, attributed to Jesus, in the Gospel of John:
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (John 16:13-15 NIV)
I believe this truth ‘known’ from the “Spirit of truth” is the same knowledge of what 2 Peter speaks about. It is also what 1 John 2 says keeps us from being deceived by antichrists:
“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.” (1 John 2:20-21 NIV)
It seems to be speaking about the same thing promised by Jesus in the Gospel of John:
“As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (1 John 26-27 NIV)
We aren’t promised a book or an institution to teach us, we are promised “a Spirit of truth” that will teach, guide and remind us of what we need to know to keep from being deceived. Paul speaks extensively about this in his letters to the Corinthian church, he contrasts “human wisdom” and that which is derived by the Spirit:
“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:13-14 NIV)
Paul continues in that chapter to describe a wisdom of a different origin and having the “mind of Christ” which allows us to transcend mere human judgment. He quotes Scripture “it is written” as evidence and yet says that the was not known except as it was revealed by the Spirit. In his second letter to the Corinthian church he speaks of a different type of book better than the Scripture that gives life rather than condemnation, is a source of competency and confidence:
“Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (2 Corinthians 3:4-8 NIV)
Have you been baptized in the Spirit?
Many Christians today seem to be living in the old rather than new covenant and are under the law of death rather than Spirit. Many prioritize their own knowledge or understanding of a book, still wait for a second coming of Christ and live spiritually powerless. It reminds me of those whom Paul encounters in Acts 19 who he acknowledges as disciples, who were baptized in repentance by water and still had not received baptism in Jesus or the Spirit. If you are unsure, consider what Jesus is recorded to have gave as final instruction:
“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5 NIV)
Maybe you are one of those who are baptized in water and repentance. Perhaps you are sincerely trying to use the Bible as an instruction manual or guide book. It could be you read diligently, you might even speak the name of Jesus and travel the world on a mission to prove yourself before God or others. You can be doing all those things without God’s word alive in you, the Pharisees did those things (Matthew 23) and we are told some who shared the name of Jesus are not known to him (Matthew 7:21-23) despite their works.
Read John 5:16-47. There is no salvation found in diligent study of Scripture. One can have vast knowledge of Scripture and still not have ever known God’s word. That was the case with those who rejected Jesus despite knowing the Scripture and it is the case for those who still believe a book knowledge can save them. It is not the Bible that Christianity should center on, it is something else bigger, better and more unifying than a book:
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)
Note that one of the one things not listed above is Scripture. If Scripture were central to our oneness with God and unity together it seems something that should be mentioned. We have mention of Spirit twice, mention of one Lord, one God and Father, one body, one faith, one hope, one baptism, but not a mention of a one book and Scripture. It is Spirit emphasized throughout Scripture.
So what is the “word of God” mentioned in Scripture?
Books are powerful and there is little doubt of that. Their words carry ideas far beyond those who wrote them. The power of books is widely recognized and that is why they are written; that is why books are removed as a potential threat. Books have undoubtedly had a huge influence on the course of history.
Books carry both good and bad messages. Books have popularized ideas that have led to hate and harm of people. If one were to list the most dangerous books in history there are many titles that might come to mind. Books such as Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Communist Manifesto can be linked to political purges, religious persecutions and genocide. With each title one could discuss the human causalities related to each and try to rank them.
However, there is one book that perhaps is more dangerous (especially spiritually) than all of those titles combined and that is the book this blog is about. It is a book so powerful that it has been used to create sectarian division within the very group it was written to inform. Knowledge of this book has historically caused some religious experts to reject as a false teacher that others believe it was written about. It is a favorite source of ridicule of those skeptical of the truthfulness of the ideas it contains. This is a book that was used as a means to tempt Jesus. This one book is actually a combination of books that were compiled into the single book which is now called The Holy Bible.
The Bible is arguably one of the most influential books in all of human history. The Bible carries both great potential for good in the right hands and also a terrible power for evil used wrongly. It has inspired some to great acts of self-sacrificial love. It has been used by others as justification for violence. The power and potential of the Bible is in the hands of the interpreter.
Biblical reformation, the division in the church and the interpretation question
Biblical fundamentalism is branch of Christianity that has become popular since the Protestant Reformation. It is a belief system made possible with the invention of the printing press and widespread availability of Biblical texts to the general public. This wresting of control of the church from the institutional church and new emphasis on a written text was a significant development in church history; it seemed necessary at that time as a reaction to the abuses of the institution of church.
Unfortunately, as reactions often do, the resultant bibliocentrism has also created a great deal of other problems. The biggest of those problems is the all too obvious explosion of sectarian divisions within the church. The confusion is evidenced in the reality of the over 30,000 separate church denominations in existence today. The widespread availability of the Bible has clearly not created church unity. It has rather clearly created the opposite and a spirit of division.
Those of the Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) view cannot agree on how Scripture should interpreted and let alone how it should be applied. Those who believe the Bible is sufficient alone put the interpretation of their own group and own personal interpretation above all others, each believing they are more correct than the others. Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
Bible based faith produces results that are wildly different from person to person. I know a guy who believes sincerely that the Bible teaches that Christians should basically be like ISIS and should either remove (kill) unbelievers entirely, subjugate them or enslave them and he has many proof texts to support his position. I know of many others who believe that the Bible teaches pacifism, endorses state socialism or forced wealth redistribution and they too can produce many supporting texts. I know some who based in their own understanding of the Bible believe Jesus was not God.
We could go through Scripture with a variety of people and get completely contradictory perspectives on what it actually says in many significant areas. On the basis of a few snippets of text, on a specific definition of a word or two and on the base assumptions they brought into their reading people have built whole doctrines. Different hermeneutic (or interpretive) approaches produce greatly different theologies that are contradictory in their extremes. The Bible is a great source of confusion.
People in the church cannot even agree on an appropriate translation of Scripture. Some will insist an earlier Old English translation of the Bible is more accurate than others and can give complex rationals in support of their position. Some even teach the one version they believe in is the only acceptable ‘inspired’ version. Varying degrees of literalism have led to many disputes within the church. Some believe the Bible teaches that the world is flat based in their dogmatic literalism. Others see more figurative speech, more allegories and metaphors.
Whole doctrines built off of words or phrases that aren’t clearly understood and yet are assumed to be understood in ignorance. The Bible, according to 2 Peter 3:15-16, describes concepts that are difficult to understand and words which can be misused in ignorance:
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
In the hands of “ignorant and unstable people” the Bible is potentially destructive. I believe we do not need to look far into history to find many examples of where this has been the case. If you do not know examples, then I will present the Münster Rebellion and the Bible-based predictions of Harold Camping as examples of Biblical application gone badly.
So, to my friends of Christian faith: Be humble, be diligent and do not ever believe your own knowledge of Scripture is without potential error. Faith cannot be in reading the Bible alone, there must be source greater than the Scripture that guides us spiritually and that is where the Spirit of God comes in.
Biblical literalism, the rejection of Jesus and the Elijah Question
Error is not a new problem with those attempting to interpret the written text of Scripture for themselves. Jesus himself was rejected on the basis of the Scriptural interpretation of those who knew the bulk of the book (we call Bible) better than most of us probably ever will or can hope to so many years removed from the culture and people it was written to. The Pharisees knew their Bibles well and also knew what it said about the Messiah.
Based in Malachi 4:5-6 there was an expectation that Elijah would return before the Messiah. According to Jesus the prophet John the Baptist was Elijah and he is recorded having said that in Matthew 11:13-14:
“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”
However, the experts on Scripture, who rejected Jesus, were evidently looking for some more literal. Perhaps they were envisioning Elijah returning in a spectacular way and hoped for a kingdom of physical world importance, who knows? But the answer Jesus gave did not satisfy them.
It is interesting that even John the Baptist himself denied being Elijah when questioned in John 1:19-21:
“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
So, should we take John’s own words recorded in Scripture at face value? Should we believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:13-14 that contradict them? This is a serious problem for a literalist. This irreconcilability of message can easily explain the angst of those looking for a literal fulfillment of Malachi. Considering that John the Baptist himself would not claim to be Elijah probably caused some of the critics of Jesus to be even more secure in their own understanding of Scripture.
Luke 1:13-17, however, offers us this view of John the Baptist:
“But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
What Luke suggests is a literal return of Elijah, but not a literal physical return of Elijah and a spiritual fulfillment instead. John the Baptist was a return of Elijah, in that he embodied the “spirit and power” of the prophet, and yet he was not literally Elijah in physical form. To reconcile John 1:19-21 with Matthew 11:13-14, we can probably assume that John the Baptist was being humble in his answers, not even claiming to be a prophet, and that Jesus was exalting him as he should have been.
But, those who rejected John the Baptist as Elijah also rejected Jesus as Messiah and their knowledge of Scripture did not save them as they apparently believed it would. In John 5:30-40 this type of misplaced faith in Scripture is confronted by Jesus:
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
For those who believe that the Scripture is God’s own voice, I think they need to take heed of what is written above and understand what Jesus is trying to explain. The people Jesus spoke to were experts on Scripture, they were extremely knowledgeable of the books of the Bible they had and put faith in their knowledge of the text like many religious people do today.
Unfortunately, what their knowledge of the book could not give them is true faith that can only come from the Spirit of God. The passage above in some translations tells us that they “searched diligently” the Scripture and yet before that tells us they have never heard from God or had “his word” in them. This passage flies directly in the face of those who think the written words of Scripture are themselves the word of God.
Biblical temptation of Jesus and the authority question
I’ve had Christian friends post on social media a message similar to this:
“When you carry the Bible, Satan gets a headache. When you open it, he collapses. When he sees you reading it, he faints. When he sees you living it, he flees. And just when you’re about to re-post this, he’ll try to discourage you. I JUST DEFEATED HIM! Copy and re-post if you can. Any takers?”
I do appreciate the enthusiasm. But it is perplexing to me that a person who has read the Bible themselves can believe that. The account of the temptation of Christ should put that idea to rest. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all give an account of a conversation between Jesus and Satan that proves the exact opposite.
Satan is not afraid of Scripture. Satan cited Scripture and tried to use it to deceive Jesus. This is a version of that temptation in the Matthew 4:5-6:
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
That is a quote of Psalm 91:11-12 used by the devil to tempt Jesus!
We don’t actually defeat our spiritual enemy through our enthusiasm for the Bible. Evil is not afraid of the Bible. Evil men have long used the Bible to accomplish their own selfish ends and have deceived many using the book. It is not a book that will save us from temptation. It is not a book that will give us the right answers or knowledge to defeat those who attempt to deceive us. What we need is the same authority dwelling in us that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted in the first place. What we need is the word of God in us or the Spirit of God and then (and only then) Scripture will become profitable in our hands. We need the authority that gave authority to those who were inspired to write the Scripture.
It is a bit paradoxical that I am trying to explain this using Scripture what I do not believe Scripture alone can explain. But, it is because I believe those who are Biblically religious and yet truly spiritually seeking will understand through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many simply give credit to the wrong source unknowingly. They allow the true authority to speak to them and still do not understand they are actually receiving their understanding through that authority. So, to them, those who are listening to the voice of Jesus in their heart even unknowingly, Paul gives us a solution to understanding Scripture in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16:
“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”
To understand God in Scripture you must have the ‘mind of God’ in you first. It is not enough just to have knowledge of Scripture. Even the best Biblical doctrines and theology all will fall short if they are practiced by a person not also under subjugation to the Spirit of God. The words of the Bible are not magical in themselves, the words themselves are dead and the interpreter is the one who gives them life. And, to give the words of the Bible the right life requires that one have the “mind of Christ” while reading them and not any other.
The Spirit of God is the ultimate authority, the ultimate teacher and is the one we should trust when we claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Stay tuned, this will likely be a multiple part series…