Recently I was engaged in a conversation with a friend about the Bible. She asked me a question about how we got the English Bible we now have, how we know it is reliable, and how we interpret and apply it correctly for today’s world. She was concerned that so many things which in the past were considered settled about theology, ethics, and personal morality from Scripture, are now being revised by some interpreters to better fit contemporary cultural preferences. The one example she cited was the acceptance by many Christians and churches of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and same-sex marriage as valid for Christians.
Her questions prompted me to review some of my old studies on the subject of biblical hermeneutics. I came to the conclusion that there were actually ten sequential steps from what God originally conceived in His mind to how we can accurately apply it our lives today. In this two-installment article, we will examine those ten stages from Scripture’s origin in the mind of God to its appropriate application(s) for Christians in whatever culture or generation they may live. The ten steps include the following:
In this Part 1, we will study the first five of the above principles. In Part 2, we will examine numbers 6-10. It is not my intention to address any specific theological or ethical issue in this piece, only to delineate the principles for determining biblically how we should address any such matter we may face. We will humbly begin our exploration in the mind of God Himself.
“For who knows a person’s thoughts except his spirit within him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:11 Christian Standard Bible [CSB])
Step one is to recognize that all truth comes from God. That is to say, anything and everything that is by definition “true,” always has its origin in the divine mind. This can be said for mathematics, physics, and science. However, in those fields of inquiry, determining what is true is rarely absolutely established. New discoveries often cause mathematicians, scientists, and physicists to reconsider old theories and presuppositions. They then have to revise concepts that were once regarded by the scientific community as established laws of nature. So, the goal of a mathematician, physicist, or scientist, especially one who has a theistic worldview, is to continually seek more accurate information about what God has done and is doing in the material universe, and how He does it.
There are some things, however, that studying the material universe cannot tell us. How did the universe begin? How did life begin on earth? Where did we come from? How should we live? What is right and wrong? What is the value of a human being? What is the basis for human rights? Where are we going? Is there life after death? Those are questions that science cannot answer, therefore something more is needed for God to communicate those truths to us.
Scripture also has its origin in the mind of God. That is where, and only where, the answer to the above questions can be found. God has determined what He wants His people to know about Him. Only He has answers to the ultimate questions about life, and what behaviors and beliefs He expects of humanity. Thus, when God establishes a fact, it is absolute. That being said, we cannot look directly at the thoughts of God. This causes us to wonder, how, then, can we know what the mind of God is on any specific subject? That’s the point of step two.
“Since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:19-20 CSB)
Step two is divine revelation. That process is when God, having determined what is ultimately true and right, makes that knowledge available to mankind. Some facts are evident to all people through nature (if they are willing to acknowledge them). This concept is called General Revelation (see Rom. 1).
Facts about the nature of God Himself, the creation of the universe, what is right and wrong, and many other things, cannot be accurately discerned simply by studying nature. That is the great fallacy of the naturalistic worldview. Science, physics, and mathematics may learn much about how the world works, but they can never discern why anything exists, what is right and wrong, and what is the value of a human being. Those can only come from a supernatural divine source.
Thus God makes His will known to mankind through divine revelation. That is to say He speaks or reveals His truth about Himself through certain people at certain points in time by various methods. Sometimes He speaks audibly, sometimes He impresses thoughts in the minds of His servants, like prophets and apostles, and sometimes He does miraculous acts in history. This principle is called Special Revelation – meaning it is revealed in ways not available to all humanity by observation or reason, but only to those (individuals or groups) whom He chooses to reveal it. They then must communicate it to others.
How they receive and communicate God’s special revelations is where the work of the Holy Spirit comes into play for the first time in the process on the human side (He is, of course, active throughout the whole progression).
“Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel.” (1 Sam. 15:10 CSB)
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.” (1 Tim. 3:16 CSB)
The act of God revealing the content and meaning of His word to specific individuals is called “Inspiration.” This not a kind of psychological or emotional inspiration like falling in romantic love. That kind of inspiration may motivate a poet, a writer, or an inventor to create a poem, a novel, a piece of art, or a new machine. The kind of inspiration we are talking about comes only through the supernatural enlightenment of the thought processes of a specially selected person by God the Holy Spirit Himself. The Spirit, by a supernatural process, places the ideas, and even the words, into the minds of the biblical writers. In the Old Testament (OT) it is stated on many occasions that “The word of the Lord came to…” certain prophets. This kind of inspiration means the words and ideas are infallible and without error for the purposes for which God implants them.
So divine revelation and inspiration are the key links between God’s mind and the mind of the Scriptural writer. It then becomes the writer’s responsibility to commit the revelation to writing so that it is preserved.
“If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, he should recognize that what I write to you is the Lord’s command.” (1 Cor. 14:37 CSB)
“Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting.” (Gal. 6:11 CSB)
The word “scripture” literally means “writings.” It obviously refers to the written word of God we have in the Bible, both in the OT and NT. But we understand that the Bible did not simply fall out of the sky in its completed form. It actually took over 1500 years for it to be written and collected. Thus, it had over forty individual writers who lived in various times and places in the history of Israel and the Hebrew people.
So how then did the biblical authors actually write the books ascribed them (some of the Bible’s writers are not known. Eg. The Book of Hebrews). As with inspiration, it involved the power of the Holy Spirit. He enlightened the author’s minds with divinely inspired thoughts and words. The authors then wrote down (or dictated to a scribe) what God was impressing them to say infallibly and without error. That being said, when we say the Bible is divinely inspired and inscripted, we do not mean that God by-passed the author’s minds, personalities, and experiences. They did not always simply write down what God dictated to them word for word (though sometimes they did: “Thus says the Lord…”).
We must also consider the kind of literature the writer was composing. The Bible consists of historical narratives, poetry/songs, proverbs, sermons, prophetic utterances, apocalyptic visions, prayers, statistics, genealogies, curses, laments, love songs, personal and general letters, essays, laws, and other literary types not easily categorized. It contains metaphors, figures of speech, parables, symbols, allegories, and idioms. As we seek to understand accurately what God is communicating, it is crucial to take the literary form into consideration. We will address this issue further when we analyze the principles of interpretation.
When we read the Bible, we can plainly see that the words, ideas, and diverse historical cultures of the authors are evident. For instance, the Bible books were written in three different languages: Hebrew (OT): Aramaic (parts of Daniel in the OT and a few places in the Gospels); and Koine Greek (NT). As the authors wrote, the Holy Spirit guided their thoughts to write down or recite exactly the right words He wanted. Yet, He did not completely over-ride the author’s personalities and vocabularies. Thus, the Bible has both a divine element and a human element that enhances its meaning and relevance to its readers.
This human-divine interaction actually makes the Bible more credible than the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Muslims maintain that it was dictated word-for-word in Arabic by an angel to Muhammad who recited it to scribes who wrote it down. Thus they say no human involvement taints its pure divine contents. They argue that the Qur’an should only be read, and can only be understood, in Arabic. Christians (and Jews in the OT) see the Bible’s human element as giving it a more authentic relevance to humanity. Instead of being dropped down from heaven, the Bible is written in the midst of the grittiness of genuine human experience.
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard a loud voice behind me like a trumpet saying, “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” (Rev. 1:11 CSB)
So we can assert that the actual texts that the biblical writers penned were infallible and inerrant. Those first texts are what scholars call “the original autographs.” That being said, we have to acknowledge one limitation we have in the present era. As far as we know, no original autographs written by the original authors of any of the Bible books still exist. Nonetheless, literally thousands of copies of those texts were made (by hand) shortly after they were written and distributed throughout Israel and the world. Scholars now have many thousands of textual copies, some OT ones date back as early as two centuries before Christ (eg.: The Dead Sea Scrolls). More than 5,000 early texts of the NT, portions of which date as early as AD 135, are still extant. Thus, the extant ancient texts of the Bible are far more numerous and date much earlier than any other ancient writings.
Therefore, it is accurate to say that the texts of the Bible have been handed down remarkably (some of us might say miraculously) pure from ancient times. This copying and spreading of the texts from the originals is called “transmission.” In regard to the NT especially, we are more than 99% confident that the original words of the autographs have been preserved in the various texts now available.
In the next installment we continue our exploration of how we can be sure we have the divinely inspired and reliable word of God in the Bible. We will consider the five other steps from origination to application.
6. Translation – how we got the Bible into our and other’s languages.
7. Publication – how Bibles are put into readable forms and distributed.
8. Interpretation – what principles must be applied for accurately determining what the Bible actually says and means.
9. Illumination – how the Holy Spirit supernaturally makes the Scriptures understood and meaningful to the reader.
10. Application (all the others are useless without this one) – how Christians can and should correctly apply the Scriptures to the situations of their lives.
© 2017 Tal Davis