Study No. 3: The Special Character of the Bible

Holy Bible   To study any subject properly we need to take its nature into account.  You would not study an oil painting by detaching the picture from its frame, by endeavouring to clean off the paint, by reducing its canvas to its fibres, and finally by subjecting each of these substances to chemical analysis.  In studying it from a chemical point of view you would have destroyed it.  The “Mona Lisa” or the “Haywain” would be no more, and the world would be the poorer.

This is true of the Bible.  Studies of some parts of it have sometimes been subjected to a kind of analysis not unlike our imaginary study of a great painting.  When I was a student, a particular type of biblical study was all the vogue, happily not in the two colleges where I studied, although it was important for us to know about it because it was going on.

In particular the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) was regarded as composed late in Old Testament days by bringing together four separate documents of different ages.  These were known as J, E, D and P, to which H was added by some scholars, and they were attributed to unknown authors.  The continuous account which resulted was then divided into the five books as we now have them.  Quite often, it was said, a familiar story, such as that of the Flood or the Exodus from Egypt, was pieced together in such a way that at times even one verse included clauses or phrases from more than one of these “sources”.  Interestingly, some sections, such as the story of Joseph in Genesis, tended to resist this kind of analysis.

Less arid, but still tending to divert attention from the books in their canonical form, was the focus on the literary analysis of the Synoptic Gospels (the first three Gospels).

Happily, the emphasis in scholarly Bible study these days is very much more on the Bible text as we have it.  This is the Bible that has been so used by God for the great blessing of his people; it is that same Bible that the church has always recognised as the Word of God.  It is the study of that Bible that is the subject of this course.

You may or may not have noticed that in our first two studies we have already been applying some important Bible study principles. This takes us into what is called hermeneutics, the identification and study of the proper principles of interpreting Scripture.  There will be more about this later, but let us at this stage set out those principles we have been applying so far:

i. We have been taking the Bible’s teaching seriously as the Word of God and not simply as human opinion or the human recording of facts.

ii. We have been taking the language literally, except where the passage itself makes it clear that it is to be understood figuratively, as in the parable of the sower.

iii. We have been asking about the meaning of particular words, especially key words in a passage.

iv. We have been interpreting words and passages in terms of their contexts.

v. We have been comparing Scripture with Scripture, where there is significant correspondence between the words or ideas in passages as, for instance, between Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16.

vi. We have been seeking analogies between the teaching of Scripture and our own situations.  We have assumed that what applied generally to the early Christians (and so is not limited to specific situations) applies also to us if we are Christians.

vii. We have been seeking practical application of what we have learned.

These principles should be constantly in our minds as we continue our study of Holy Scripture, and we will be thinking about some of them much more fully later.

So then, what kind of book is the Bible?

1.  It is a fascinating collection of literature

Rarely has so varied a collection of literature been put together in one volume.  A book like Palgrave’s Golden Treasury consists of many different pieces of English literature by a great variety of authors  but they are all poems.  Volumes of essays, brought together under the supervision of one or more editors, are usually on different aspects of one subject, are often of similar length, and are normally all in prose. Here though in the Bible is a most diverse collection of literary pieces, some short, some long, some in prose, some in poetry, and some that combine prose and poetry.  Yet in no sense is this a kind of “rag-bag”, a collection of items brought together somewhat arbitrarily, for which the only truly uniting category is “miscellaneous”.  As we shall see, its unity is just as notable as its diversity.   Even from a purely literary point of view, this is a remarkable fact.

I have often marvelled at the woeful lack of Bible knowledge shown by quiz contestants on television.  People who show great expertise in the most abstruse subjects tell the question-master that it was Abraham who led the people of Israel across the Red Sea or Paul who denied Jesus three times.   This is all the more astonishing when we consider the sublime literary qualities of the Bible, which ought to give it a high place among educated people.  Perhaps in our Christian witness to such folk we should advance educational as well as spiritual reasons for encouraging them to read the Bible.  We can then pray that God will show them that this is more than great literature, that it is his Word.

What kinds of literature do we find in the Bible?

There is a lot of historical writing in Scripture; in fact this is the foundational element both for the Old Testament and the New.

The first five books of the Bible, known as the books of Moses or the Pentateuch, are often referred to as the Law, but although there is much legal material in them, this is given in an historical context. We read the story of how the people of Israel came to be gathered at Mount Sinai before we encounter the laws themselves, and these are followed by the account of their further journeying towards the land of Canaan.

Without these books the historical allusions in many of the later works of the Old Testament would be meaningless to us, for such allusions are most frequently made to events recorded in these five books.   See, for example, Psalms 105 and 106, where almost all the material relates to events recorded in the Pentateuch.  There are references to these events also in the New Testament.   See, for example, John 3:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13.

Also the books of the New Testament from Acts to Revelation take the Gospels, or at least the major events the Gospels record, for granted. The Christ whose quite special relevance for us as Lord and Saviour is proclaimed  and explored in those books is the one whose life, death and resurrection are recorded and described for us in each of the four Gospels.  Without the Gospels, so much in the epistles of the New Testament would be quite mystifying.

Then there is the record of preaching and teaching.   There is a good deal of this embedded in the historical material, including both the laws in the Pentateuch and the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.   In the Acts of the Apostles we find a number of sermons and addresses.   This preaching and teaching element is the dominant one in the Old Testament prophetic books, although there is an occasional historical element in them, for instance in the Book of Jonah and in Isaiah 36 to 39.   Teaching is also dominant in the New Testament Epistles, although here too there are occasional historical features, as, for instance, when Paul makes reference to incidents in his life.

New readers of the Bible are often surprised to discover how much poetry it contains, particularly if they are reading it in a modern English version, as such versions normally indicate poetry by the form in which it is printed.  We would of course expect it in the Book of Psalms, which as is widely known is a collection of religious songs on a wide variety of topics, but it also occurs extensively in books like Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which are reflections on life.

Perhaps more surprising still is the fact that so much of the prophetic literature is in poetic form.  Also there are brief poems to be found in some of the historical books, such as the Books of Samuel, and also in the early chapters of the Gospel of Luke and the hymns in the Book of the Revelation.  Some sections of Paul’s Epistles, notably Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, have been identified by many scholars as early Christian hymns incorporated by Paul into his letters.  Interesting as this is, absolute proof is lacking.

The Book of the Revelation is obviously somewhat special as it is John’s God-given vision of the future and it is on a cosmic scale.  Some parts of the Old Testament are however somewhat similar to it, especially the visions in the Book of Daniel, but also parts of Zechariah 1-6 and parts of Ezekiel – for example, the vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37.

In the next two studies we will consider the implications of this variety for our study of the Bible.

2.  It was communicated by God through human authors

This is what is meant by the inspiration of the Bible.  This term is much misunderstood today and it is very important for us to be clear as to its meaning, so we will spend some time in considering this.

Sometimes people think it means that the Bible is an inspiring book.  Now a great deal of it certainly is inspiring and chapters like Isaiah 40, John 17 and 1 Corinthians 13 undoubtedly lift the spirits of the believing reader, but this is not what the word “inspiration” means when used of Holy Scripture.   Some of the lists of names in books like Numbers and 1 Chronicles or in the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke may not be very inspiring to modern readers, but they do in fact have important functions, which would certainly have been recognised by many of their early readers, and they are no less inspired than the well-known and well-loved passages.

Incidentally, I once heard of an Indian who had heard and understood the gospel but was not yet certain about the Christian faith and who decided to read the Gospel of Matthew.  Great light shone into his mind and heart when he read the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1. He at once saw what a difference there was between Jesus and the various figures who were revered and worshipped in his own religion. “This man is real,” he exclaimed, “He had ancestors. Only a real man has ancestors!”  This was what led to his conversion.  This shows that not only did this genealogy have a function for its original readers but that God`s Spirit made it significant for somebody who lived many centuries later.  The genealogy of Jesus had proved its inspiration, its divine origin, in its effect on him.

Then sometimes the term “inspiration” is used of the Bible in the way it is often employed of works of art, when we say that a picture or a poem or a song or an idea is inspired, or that the persons producing them are inspired.  We mean that the artist, in the particular medium in which he or she was working at the time, was given some special insight or skill to make her or his product somewhat special.  Again this may be true of the biblical authors, but it is not what the word means.

Rather it means that the books of the Bible are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), meaning that they consist of words God has uttered, that he has “breathed out”.  The Greek word translated “God-breathed” (theopneustos) has connections with the word often translated “spirit” (pneuma), so implying that the Spirit of God was at work in this connection.

Certainly God breathed these words out through human authors, certainly these authors may have been given special insight, but to say that the books are inspired means nothing less than that they are the Word of God.  It follows from this that they are totally trustworthy.  No doubt this assertion will raise questions, quite legitimate questions,  in the minds of some readers.  I will seek to address the more important of these questions in Study No. 7.

To say that the Bible is inspired in this sense is a very great claim indeed and it means that the books of the Bible are in a quite special, indeed an unique category.  That presumably is why you are taking this course, because you are hoping for some guidance to enable you to get more deeply into this unique literature.

It is important for us to address another misunderstanding and to say that this does not mean God simply dictated words to the authors of the biblical books.   Certainly such dictation took place at times, for instance when God gave many of the Mosaic laws that follow the Ten Commandments in the Pentateuch, but it was by no means invariable. If it had been, we would not expect any differences of style, but a survey, for instance, of the letters of Paul and John shows that each had his favourite words, his characteristic ways of putting things.  In fact God worked through the thought-processes of the writers in such a way that all they wrote was truly theirs and at the same time truly his.  Read Luke 1:1-4 and notice what diligent research by Luke lay behind the writing of his Gospel.

Sometimes this high view of biblical inspiration is criticised because it is said to be based on just two passages in the Bible (2 Timothy 3:14-17 and 2 Peter 1:19-21), and also because the argument used to establish it is said to be circular.  So we must now consider what these two passages teach, then we must ask if they really do stand alone, and finally whether the “circularity” argument is true and, if so, whether this means that it is not valid.

I suggest that you read these two passages now.

As we have already seen, in writing to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14-17), Paul lays emphasis on the purposes of the Scriptures.  They are given in order to lead us to salvation in Christ, to instruct us in Christian truth and its moral implications, and so to fit us for Christian service.   There is a marvellous comprehensiveness about all that despite the brevity of the passage.

In 2 Peter 1:19-21, Peter is writing about Old Testament prophecy and he emphasises its divine origin, just as Paul does in the passage we have just considered.  The prophecies came through human channels, not in the direct speech of God from above.  This was in contrast to what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, to which Peter refers in 1:17.  Nevertheless, what was said was not the prophet’s own interpretation, by which Peter probably meant the prophet`s own understanding of events, whether past, present or future.  Instead, no less than at the Transfiguration, when the audible voice of God was heard, it was speech from God.  This was because the prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God.

So these verses indicate to us that both the content of the prophecies and the motivation for their utterance came from God.  Did the prophets themselves have a motive?  Of course they did, just as Jude had in writing his epistle (Jude 3), for they were not robots but human beings, but behind and through their motivation was the motivating urge of God.   It was God who took the initiative.

Notice too that verse 20 shows that Peter is writing specifically about prophecies of Scripture, not simply spoken prophecies but rather those we now have in written form.  This makes what he says highly relevant to our present theme.

We will soon be considering how essential it is for us to observe the context in all our study of the Bible, and this is important here.  These verses should not be taken in isolation.  We notice that immediately after this passage, at the opening of chapter 2, Peter goes on to write about false prophets.  We see then that the reason he is interested in the Old Testament prophets at this point is because their utterances were true.  It is for this reason that he says the readers should heed them (1:19).

Also we should note 2 Peter 1:16-18, where he stresses that “we” did not make known fanciful things but that he and others were eye-witnesses and auditors of the great fact of Christ.  He uses the word “we” again in verse 18 and moreover with special emphasis, and it is an obvious allusion to the three apostles who went up the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus.  So then this whole passage, from 1:16 until well into chapter 2 asserts the divine authority of both the revelation in Christ, communicated through the apostles, and also the Old Testament prophetic literature.

In the early days of the post-apostolic church, the Scriptures were not known as the Old and New Testaments but were often referred to as “the prophets and apostles”.  A passage like this could have been the basis for that description of the Bible.

The passages we have been looking at are impressive, but do they stand alone?  No, there is much supporting evidence.

We are told, for instance, that Moses was commanded to write what God gave him on Mount Sinai (e.g. Exodus 34:27, Numbers  33:2;  Deuteronomy 31:9). The  prophets also often declared, “The word of the LORD came to me” (e.g. Jeremiah 1:4; Ezekiel 30:1) or words to the same effect.  John, in his First Letter, also in the context of comments on heresy or falsehood, says that “we” (again almost certainly the apostles: see 1:1ff) have the Spirit of God.  In 1 Corinthians 7:40 Paul says, in view of the false claims being made by some at Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:13), “and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.”  This is surely ironic, especially when we see in 2 Corinthians 11-14 what a  gift for ironic writing Paul had.

We will be looking at those chapters in a later study.

The teaching of Jesus about the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is highly relevant to this issue.  It is clear from the way this Gospel is structured that John’s record of the public teaching of Jesus has been completed by the end of chapter 12.  Jesus there says to his listeners, “Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light”, and then John  says, “When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them” (John 12:36).  We can hardly miss the implication of that.

The teaching he now gave, recorded in chapters 13 to 16, was addressed to his apostles, and it was to them that the very specific promises about the Holy Spirit  recorded there were addressed.  A little reflection shows that they fit the writings of the New Testament remarkably well, for Jesus said that the Spirit would bring his teaching to their remembrance, that he would take of the things of Christ and show them to them and that he would show them things to come (John 14:25,26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15).  We can see a fulfilment of these promises in the Gospels, the Epistles and the Book of the Revelation.

So then, memory of the past, interpretation of the great events that constitute the fact of Christ, and disclosure of the future, would equip them for their task as authoritative communicators, and all this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Without doubt, they will often have given this teaching in oral form while they were alive.  The sermons in the Acts of the Apostles  show, in the apostolic preaching, how the Spirit interpreted the fact of Christ and showed his relevance for those who heard.   Now, however, we have that teaching in the writings of the New Testament.

What about the objection that this is a circular argument?  What it means is that we believe the Bible to be inspired on the basis of its own assertions of its inspiration.  Now we should freely admit that this is circular, for this is true, but this does not mean our acceptance of Scripture is invalid.

A little thought will show that we can never argue for the ultimate ground of something,  because, if we did, that ground would not be ultimate; we would be arguing from something beyond it or beneath it.  Kurt Gödel, a mathematician, was awarded an Einstein prize for demonstrating that this is the case.  To try to find conclusive proof of the inspiration of the Bible therefore is fruitless.  In fact in life you always have to start from somewhere.  If you have a credit card, the one bill you cannot pay by that card is the bill from the credit card company.  It’s the principle of the base line.

Even if we could do the impossible and find such proof of the Bible’s inspiration, we would be basing our conviction of biblical authority on humanly-devised arguments.  Moreover, if we have been argued into such a conviction, we may later be argued out of it.  Arguments from reason can be helpful but they can never constitute the ultimate grounds for our belief.

The fact is that it is only God who can properly convince us of the divine origin of his Word, and he does so by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This is what happened to the Thessalonians when Paul preached the word of the gospel, which is the Word of God, to them on his first visit to their city (1 Thessalonians 2:13). This means that authentic Christian faith by its very nature is divine in its origin, not merely human.  It is a gift of God, a very marvellous gift.

Look at it another way.  Our basic understanding of life comes from people we believe we can trust.  My father and mother did this for me in all sorts of ways.  So my mother said things like, “It`s an apple. Eat it because you will enjoy it and it will do you good!” and “The fire is hot; don’t put your hand in it or it will burn you!”  I would never have questioned any of this but if I had she might have said, “You can trust me; I’m your Mum!”  That was the base line.  The Holy Spirit is even more trustworthy and he witnesses within our hearts to the Word of God.  Again it’s the principle of the base line.

Does this mean then, as some might suggest, that our acceptance of Scripture as God’s Word is purely subjective, not much more than an expression of our personal preference for this book over others?  No (and this is very important), because the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts is confirmed by his testimony through the writers of the Bible themselves.  We are not indicating personal preference but showing that we believe the testimony of the writers to their inspiration to be true.

In fact, there may be some parts of the Bible we would rather not believe because we may find their teaching somewhat unpalatable, but we do believe them because we have confidence in the writings of the inspired authors.  Everybody has to begin somewhere and as Christians we start from Scripture because the Holy Spirit has convinced us that it is the inspired Word of God.

If Scripture is given to us by God himself through a special work of inspiration, this means that we need to take its teaching with great seriousness.  This then leads us on to consider its authority.

3.  It comes to us with the authority of God

This follows from its divine inspiration.  God brought it into existence in order to address us with authority.  The Old Testament books had authority for the Jews and both the Old and New Testament books have authority for the church.

This authority is implied every time Jesus or the apostles ask, “What says the Scripture?” for their quotation of the Old Testament in this way clearly implies that to discover what it says on a particular matter settles all argument.  God has spoken; human beings should keep silent, listen to what he says. and act on it.  Now that we have the New Testament, of course, this applies to both testaments.

The appeal of Jesus and of the New Testament writers to the authority of the Old Testament is no small thing, but is very extensive.  As far as the Gospels are concerned, it is perhaps particularly noticeable in Matthew and John, and in all four it increases in the closing chapters, but it is never far away.  We find it also in the remainder of the New Testament.

This applies not simply to express quotations, when such formulae as “What does the Scripture say?” or “this happened that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled”, are used, but in countless allusions, some of which only become clear to the reader as she or he gains further knowledge of the Old Testament itself.  The Book of the Revelation, for instance, never uses such formulae of quotation at all, but it is absolutely saturated with Old Testament allusions.

This means that the Old Testament really provides a most important context for the life and ministry of Jesus.  The more we understand this earlier revelation, the more we are likely to understand the significance of his life and work.  Could there be a better reason for giving ourselves to Old Testament study?

The authority of a person does not always work in exactly the same way.  A mother may order a child to cross a road only at a pedestrian crossing, while she may permit the same child to buy some sweets on the way home from school.  There is authority in the permission as well as in the order.  If her father asks her why she has bought the sweets, she will say that her mother told her she could.

The mode of the Bible’s authority too is not always exactly the same.  It is clear enough from the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, that the old sacrificial system has been done away by the sacrifice of Christ. After a very full exposition of this theme, the writer says, “there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:18).  For this reason, the commands addressed to the people of Israel to bring sacrifices to the tabernacle do not apply to us.  If they did, where would we find the tabernacle?  They do however still help us to understand more fully the sacrifice of Christ, for they show us what in God’s mind a sacrifice is.  This means that we are not to prefer some unbiblical explanation of Christ’s death, for the divinely ordained means of understanding it is there in the authoritative Scriptures.

If the Bible is inspired and authoritative, what is its extent?  How many books are there in it and what are they?  This leads us on to think about what is known as the canon of Holy Scripture.

4. It consists of the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New 

Jesus has a special place in relation to the Scriptures, for he placed his imprimatur on the Old Testament by his attitude to it, and he appointed the apostles and endued them with the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth so that they could communicate his truth.  Christians consider both facts to be highly significant, because, as Jesus is our Lord, his attitude should be authoritative for us.

The books of the New Testament are those accepted as authoritative by the churches in the early Christian centuries.  They recognised them as apostolic and they believed the majority of them to have been actually written by apostles.

Apostolicity was, however, more a criterion of doctrine than of authorship, for some important books (such as the Gospels of Mark and Luke) which were not actually written by apostles, were recognised as Scripture.  This was because they were written by men closely associated with the apostles, were believed to be perfectly in line theologically with those actually written by apostles, and showed evidence of distinctive Christian value, like those written by apostles.

It is true that there was some discussion among the Jews about the authority of a few Old Testament books (such as Ecclesiastes, Esther and Ezekiel) and also among Christians about the authority of a few New Testament books (such as James, 2 Peter and Revelation), but these issues were resolved and the Jews at large (for the Old Testament) and the church at large (for the New Testament) came to view the books we have, and no others, as Holy Scripture.  Not surprisingly, in the general theological upheaval of the Reformation, some of these questions were raised again, but once more, when the dust had settled, the same canon was reaffirmed.

It is sometimes said that it was the church’s decisions that created the New Testament canon.  This is not true any more than it was the decisions emerging from discussions of rabbis in the First Century AD that created the Old Testament canon.  Rather, they recognised the consensus that obtained among the Christians and Jews respectively as to which books were Holy Scripture.  It was the Holy Spirit who imparted this conviction, not the decisions of Jewish or Christian councils.

What are we to say then of the books known as the Apocrypha, which are printed in some Bibles between the Old and New Testament books?  They are sometimes regarded as useful in helping to show us the culture of the people of Israel (the Anglican position, set out in the Thirty-nine Articles), and there is no doubt that they do have value from this point of view. There are however some who regard them as having divine authority (the Roman Catholic position).  Why then are they not accepted as authoritative by Protestants?

For one simple reason: they were not part of the Palestinian canon of Scripture, the list of books written in Hebrew (with some small parts in the kindred language of Aramaic) which were accepted as Scripture by the Jews living in the Holy Land in the time of Christ.  Incidentally, these thirty-nine books are also accepted as canonical by modern Jews.

The books of the Apocrypha, written in Greek, were valued by the large Jewish colony in Alexandria (although there is still debate as to how high a status they gave them), but Jesus was a Palestinian Jew and it was the books of the Palestinian canon which he so often quoted or alluded to.  He referred to a large number, although not all, of the thirty-nine books in that canon.  There is no suggestion that he did not regard the few books he did not quote as uninspired.  Rather, we can assume that they did not contain teaching he needed to expound or allude to.

The books of the Apocrypha are to be found in the Septuagint, the great Greek version of the Old Testament, which was translated by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, and the whole Septuagint was translated into Latin by Jerome around AD 400 in the version now known as the Vulgate.  His comment on the Apocryphal books, indicating that they are to be valued “for example of life and instruction in manners” is quoted in Article 6 of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles.  Both Jerome and this article make it clear that they are not to be used to establish doctrine.

These books are certainly interesting and their exclusion from the canon accepted by Protestants should not be taken as an indication that the Reformers regarded them as evil books, but simply that they did not accept that they had divine authority.  First Maccabees, in particular, is a valuable piece of historical writing dealing with an important period in Jewish history in the second century BC.  There are however occasional passages in the Apocrypha that are out of step with the Scriptures; for instance, there is a passage in Second Maccabees that refers to prayer for the dead.

5. It contains the major principles of its own interpretation

If the Bible is intended by God to have authority for the Christian church and for the individual Christian believer, it is obviously of great importance that it should be properly interpreted.   There was a time when many books were written on the inspiration and authority of the Bible but very few on its interpretation.  Happily, that situation has changed and hermeneutics, the study of the principles of interpreting the Bible, is now a subject of major interest.  We will address this subject in Study No. 7.

For further reading: D A Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture, Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2010; F F Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1988.



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