The Word of God: How to Read the Bible, part 1 (2/5)
How to Read the Bible, part 1
All Scripture is breathed out by God
This is the second post in a five part series considering what the Bible teaches about itself. The previous post in this series is 1. How Not to Read the Bible. The remaining posts in this series are 3. How to Read the Bible, part 2 and 4. How the Bible Reads Us and 5. Reading the Bible, a practical guide.
It is clear on reading the Apostle Paul’s first and second letter to Timothy that the church in Ephesus (where Timothy is based) is under severe attack. The little we know from historical documents and the letters themselves indicate that the attack came from both outside and within the church and it appears that the attack was particularly savage.
Paul’s intent in writing his letters is to encourage Timothy to continue to defend and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In what is perhaps the most well known passage within these letters, Paul reminds Timothy that,
‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
It is interesting that, in the context of serious criticism and persecution, Paul should direct his friend to this fundamental truth of the Christian faith, ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God’. In doing so, Paul is reminding Timothy that whatever the nature and apparent persuasiveness of these criticisms and attacks, Scripture is more sure and more certain.
Paul distinguishes the Bible from all other philosophies, literary texts and earthly knowledge; Scripture is breathed out from the very mouth of God.
The Breath of God
How, we might reasonably ask, can this be? We know, for instance, that the individual books of the Bible, both Old and New Testament were written by human hands. Indeed, much of the New Testament was written by the Apostle Paul himself. What does Paul mean then when he writes that ‘Scripture is breathed out by God’?
The first thing we should be clear about is that when Paul refers to Scripture in this instance he is referring to the Old Testament. We know this because he writes earlier,
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
Paul reminds Timothy that, even from an early age, he read, was taught and became familiar with the writings of Scripture. Although we do not know Timothy’s precise circumstances, it is clear (given the New Testament canon was not yet established or, indeed, complete) that Paul must be referring to the Old Testament.
To paraphrase, Paul is reminding Timothy that the Old Testament he was taught as a child is ‘breathed out by God’. (I add here, for clarity, that there is little doubt that Paul and the other New Testament writers consider their writings and authority to be equivalent to the authority of the Patriarchs and Prophets; I return to this later.)
Let us, for a moment, think about what Paul means when he writes that Scripture is ‘breathed out by God’. In order to understand this reference to the breath of God, we must first go back to the Old Testament.
In Genesis chapter 1 we have the first reference to God speaking as he declares, ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3). And so, God speaks creation into being from nothing.1 The Apostle John expands upon this event in the first chapter of his gospel and explains that as God speaks creation into being,2 his Word goes forth. John identifies this Word going forth in creative power as the Son of God himself.3
This is why John is able to conclude of Christ with such confidence, ‘All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.’ (John 1:3). When John reads the creation account in Genesis 1, he sees God the Father and God the Son working in unity. The will of God is expressed in word (‘Let there be light’) and such is the unity of purpose that, as God the Father speaks (or more properly, wills), God the Son acts.
But how does this help us understand what Paul means when he speaks of Scripture as ‘breathed out by God’; where is the breath of God in all this?
We know from the Genesis account that,
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. (Genesis 1:2a)
As we read on, the writer adds an interesting detail,
And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2b)
We find, therefore, that in the act of creation, God the Father speaks, God the Son acts and God the Spirit is also present hovering over the face of the waters.
Now, before we move on, it is important to note that both the Hebrew word, ruah and the Greek word, pneuma can be translated as ‘breath’, ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’. Indeed, the word ruah is used in Genesis 1:2b.
So too in Psalm 33,
‘By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath [ruah] of his mouth all their host.’ (Psalm 33:6)
Here we find echoes of the creation account in Genesis and foreshadows of John’s revelation of Jesus’ part in creation as detailed in the first chapter of his Gospel. How were the heavens made? God spoke or, more properly, God sent forth his Word. But look, the text goes further, the Psalmist adds, ‘by the breath of his mouth all their host [were created]’.
Now remember, the word translated ‘breath’ is the Hebrew word ruah which we find translated as ‘Spirit’ in the first chapter of Genesis. We see, therefore, God speaking creation into being, the Word of God going forth to bring creation into being and, as he speaks and as his Word goes forth, the Breath of God breathes creation into being.
Think about this for a moment, when we speak we utter forth words and, as we do so, we exhale. Try speaking and not breathing; it is difficult if not impossible. Try long enough and you will eventually pass out, fall over and look stupid. We speak and as we speak our words are projected and in the same moment we exhale.
This helps us picture the unity of purpose and activity of the Godhead in creation. God the Father speaks/sends forth his Word/Son and, as he speaks/sends forth his Word/Son, his Breath/Spirit is exhaled.4
God the Father, God the Spirit and God the Son
Before I return to the matter in hand, Paul’s assurance that ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God’, I want us to consider the relationship between the Spirit of God and the Son of God as this will prove essential when we consider how the Spirit of God works through men in the writing of Scripture.
As we have thought about the harmonious activity of God the Father, Spirit and Son in creation, I want us to take a moment to think about the relationship within the Godhead as seen in the incarnation.
The New Testament is clear that God the Son shares absolute equality with God the Father (as, for that matter, does God the Spirit). Indeed, in his gospel, John emphatically states from the outset that,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
As we think about Jesus life, his relationship with God the Father is characterized by joyful submission.
…the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. (John 5:19, see also John 12:49-50; Matthew 6:9-10; Luke 22:41-42)
As in creation, again we see that God the Father wills and God the Son acts.5
This leads us to question, how is it that Jesus acts? The answer, I believe, is that Jesus acts in the power of the Spirit.
Indeed, throughout the gospels we are told that Jesus is conceived by the work of the Spirit (Luke 1:26-35), baptised with the Spirit (Matthew 3:13-17), is filled with the Spirit without measure (Luke 4:1, John 3:31-36), is led by the Spirit, (Matthew 4:1, Mark 1:12), that he preached and ministered in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-21, Matthew 12:22-28), rejoiced in the Spirit (Luke 10:21-22) and was led to the cross empowered by the Spirit (Hebrews 9:13-14).
In Christ, therefore, we see the perfect man (and indeed, the perfect Spirit-filled man), who, empowered by the Holy Spirit, perfectly obeys the will of God.
To make us wise for salvation
This is where we return to Paul’s assertion that ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God’. How does any of this help us understand the relationship between the breath of God (or more properly, the Spirit of God) and the word of God as contained in Scripture?
At a most basic level, we see the way in which the Spirit of God accompanies the word of God in creation and empowers the Word of God (Jesus Christ) in incarnation. We absolutely see this same dynamic in the inspiration of Scripture. The Spirit of God empowers and inspires (I will define this word more clearly later) men who then write down words as if breathed by the very mouth of God.
But how can this be possible? Again, I think John’s gospel helps us understand the way in which this inspiration works in relation to the writers of the New Testament.
You will remember that following the resurrection, Christ appeared to the disciples, breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22-23).
This, in terms of John’s gospel, is the culmination of series of teachings regarding the Holy Spirit. Jesus has already taught that the Spirit will bring Jesus’ words to remembrance,
… the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
There is an answer here to refute the charge of those who question the accuracy of the gospel accounts. How is it that mere men can write words that are then held as being the very words of God? This is possible because the Spirit of God supernaturally brings to remembrance the words and actions of Jesus. More than this, the Spirit of God teaches the disciples the significance of these words and actions so that they are able to communicate the will and heart of God accurately and, indeed, infallibly.
Later Jesus elaborates with regards to the inspiration and empowerment offered by the Spirit of God,
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)
How can we be sure that the words of the Apostles (as recorded in Scripture) are true? We can be confident of this because Jesus promises these same men that the Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth and that he will lead these men ‘into all truth’.
Let us pause for a moment and think back to the work of the Godhead in creation and in the incarnation and consider how this might apply to the way in which the Spirit of God inspires Scripture.
We see in both creation and incarnation that although the Godhead are co-equal in every respect, there is a sense in which God the Spirit and God the Son submit to God the Father. So we see this same economy of relationship in Jesus’ explanation of the work of the Spirit. What is the origin and source of the Holy Spirit inspired information? Jesus assures us that God the Spirit ‘will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak’.
I think what Jesus is saying is this; God makes known his will, God the Spirit listens and communicates this to the Apostles. Where, we might ask, does God the Son feature in this economic relationship? Jesus says that God the Spirit ‘will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you’.
Let us first take this Christ-glorifying dimension to the work of God the Spirit, for it leads us back to Paul.
How is it, in practical terms, that God the Spirit bringing to remembrance the words of Jesus and communicating word of God results in Jesus being glorified? Paul absolutely hits on this in his encouragement to Timothy,
…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:15)
Paul is saying this, as we read (with our hearts awakened and minds opened by the Spirit)6 we come to understand that Scripture is in fact a spotlight pointing toward, illuminating the face and glorifying the Son of God. In this way, Scripture makes us wise for salvation that we might come to faith in the Son of God.
Pulling these strands together then, God the Father breathes his words through the work of God the Spirit which are then recorded by human hands the end resulting being that the Son of God is glorified.
The first part of our answer to the question, how should we read Scripture, is this: we should read Scripture with a confidence that the words written and now read are inspired by God that we might see the Son of God. To read Scripture any other way is to dishonor the purpose and will of God.7
What do we mean when we say that Scripture is inspired of God?
Paul’s confidence that Scripture is inspired by the Spirit of God is crucial in as much as Paul’s intention is that Timothy, and by extension the church, have absolute confidence in the authority of Scripture.
Before I unpack this further, I will address a technical matter.
There is a debate currently raging in academic circles regarding what is meant when we think about Scripture as a divinely inspired manuscript. One reason for confusion and a lack of clarity regarding this matter results from the word inspired. Today we use the word inspired casually and loosely. We might say, for instance, that Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance for Manchester United FC was inspired. We might say that the performance of a particular actor in a particular film was inspired. You might suddenly discover the solution to a question or dilemma that has been troubling you for some time and refer to this solution as inspired.
Is this what we mean when we say that Scripture is inspired by God? I think not.
For clarity sake, therefore, I want to introduce a technical term which I will then seek to explain and apply to the matter in hand. I just want to warn you, however, this term ain’t easy and it sure ain’t pretty. Are you ready for it?
The term is ‘verbal plenary inspiration’…
There, I have said it. After checking that you are still with me, I want to take a few moments to define the term, I will then explain why I think it is so important that we understand the concept (for the term is really neither here nor there).
The term verbal plenary inspiration is used to describe the conviction that ‘God wrote Scripture in concert with human authors whom he inspired to perfectly record his words’.8 This is what verbal plenary inspiration means. That God the Spirit so inspires the authors of Scripture that they are able to write words that God-breathed in the fullest of sense. Indeed, this is what the plenary means, that the words are fully inspired of God.
One of my favorite writers, the Puritan John Owen, phrased it like this:
The writing of Scripture was another work of the Holy Spirit which began under the Old Testament. This is a distinct kind of prophecy. The inspiration of the minds of these prophets with the knowledge and grasp of things revealed was essential. They would also need to have the words suggested to them in order that they might infallibly declare what had been revealed to them. Their hands would also need to be guided as they wrote down the words suggested to them. These things together made Scripture infallible. [emphasis mine]9
Owen hits on three elements with regards to the way in which God the Spirit works in concert with human authors.
Firstly, Owen maintains that the Holy Spirit inspires the minds of the human authors in such a way that the human authors understand the profound things of God as revealed in Scripture.
Allow me to clarify. In writing this, I do not believe that Owen is suggesting that when, for example, Isaiah receives and speaks forth the prophecies concerning the suffering servant (e.g. Isaiah 52:13-15, 53) he fully comprehended all that the Old and New Testament reveals about Jesus. Owen is, it seems, concerned with a more basic truth: that this working in concert with human agents does not involve a possession of their human faculties, whereby the Holy Spirit bypasses the mind and takes control of the hand guiding it across the paper.
Rather, God worked through the human authors in such a way as to engage with their mental and critical faculties. This explains why, for example, the Apostle Paul’s personality comes across so strongly when we read his letters. If we think about this process mechanically for a moment, when, for example, Paul receives questions from the church in Corinth, the Spirit of God moves his heart to respond and, as he sits down to write, the same Spirit illuminates his mind with wisdom and knowledge from the very mind of God.
Secondly, Owen recognizes that these human authors would ‘need to have the words suggested’. Think about Chinese Whispers for a moment and how quickly the original message becomes confused and distorted. The most sensible and intelligible phrase so quickly becomes garbled nonsense. Owen understands this and that in order for us to be confident that the Scriptures are indeed infallible, the text must be God inspired, indeed, God-breathed at the very level of the individual words.
Thirdly, Owen understands that ‘Their hands would also need to be guided as they wrote down the words suggested to them’. Owen is arguing that the degree of inspiration extends even to the level of grammar and syntax.
These three elements combined result in a text that is God-breathed and infallible. Owen has thus provided us with a neat and succinct summary of the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration.
Now this is the aspect which is most strongly challenged by some wings of modern academia (although the challenge is, of course, in itself nothing new). The counter argument proposes, therefore, that although the ideas and concepts behind the words of Scripture may be inspired, the actually words are not. This, of course, will not do.
To loosen the ties between signifier and signified, word and meaning is exceedingly dangerous and opens up every sentence of Scripture to undue uncertainty. When Paul uses the word propitiation, for example, how can we be really sure that this word is the most appropriate word to communicate the concept that lies behind the word? How can we be sure that the real mean has not been lost in transmission or translation?
The word of the Lord came…
The doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration is crucial, therefore, if we are to have any confidence in the reliability of Scripture in communicating the will, thoughts and heart of the Living God.
We can be confident that Scripture confirms the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration to be true. If not, we would be presented with difficulty each time an Old Testament prophet said, ‘Thus says the Lord’. This pattern of words is used over 400 times in the English Standard Version (for example, see Exodus 5:1, Joshua 24:2, 1 Samuel 10:18, Isaiah 38:1, Jeremiah 5:14, Ezekiel 37:5). To say, ‘Thus says the Lord’, clearly indicates that the words spoken by the Prophet are conveyed directly from God (indeed, much Old Testament prophecy is conveyed and recorded in first person (for example, see Leviticus 25:38, 1 Kings 20:13, Psalm 81:10, Isaiah 45:5, Jeremiah 32:27, Ezekiel 12:15).
Perhaps even more emphatic, is the assurance that the Lord spoke through the Old Testament Prophets. Indeed, the Scriptures specifically state that the Lord spoke through Moses (Exodus 9:35), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 37:2) and Hosea (Hosea 1:2).
Furthermore, it is evident that Jesus had the highest possible view of the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed, Jesus himself said,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
There is much here and to attempt to cover it all would lead us far from our topic, but for our purposes Jesus’ view of scripture is illuminating. The issues is this, Jesus arrives on the scene and preaches a radical message, that mere letter observance of the law is not sufficient unless the heart is pursuing God and the things of God and that a mere intellectual understand of scripture is not adequate unless it illuminates and leads us to the Son of God (I speak more of this elsewhere). The charge could be leveled that Jesus is somehow devaluing scripture and that his teachings promote a casual disregard of the rules and statutes of God.
Jesus categorically refutes this charge by stating that he has come to fulfill the Old Testament laws, regulations and observances. Jesus’ words are emphatic: ‘For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.’ This is a difficult passage to understand, but ‘iota’ refers to the Hebrew letter, yôd, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and ‘dot’ probably refers to the stroke, or crown, used to distinguish between certain Hebrew letters. The NIV clearly conveys Jesus’ meaning,
I tell you the truth […] not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:18)
In other words, Jesus has the highest possible view of Scripture, down to the smallest letter and least stroke of the pen. It indeed appears that the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration reflects Jesus’ own view of Scripture.
The things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord
As we have seen, Old Testament Prophets unashamedly framed their utterances with phrases, ‘Thus says the Lord’, that clearly invoked the authority of God himself. What then of New Testament writers, is there any evidence that they believed their authority to match that of the Old Testament writers?
When we read the writing of, say, the Apostles Paul or Peter, we find an incredible self-awareness that the words they are writing possess a degree of authority which originates beyond the author themselves. And so, for example, when Paul writes to the church in Corinth reminding them that his words are a ‘command from the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 14:37), we are clearly in the same territory as when Moses, Samuel, Isaiah,. Jeremiah or any of the other Old Testament Prophets declare, ‘The Lord says…’.
Peter too has the highest possible view of Paul’s writings,
…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 (2 Peter 3:15-16).
For Peter, the teachings of Paul fall within the wider category of ‘other Scripture’. Similarly, Paul implies the same of Luke when he prefaces a quote from his Gospel with, ‘For the Scripture says…’ (1 Timothy 5:18).
Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit
Why does any of this matter and what has this to do with how we read the Bible?
Scripture makes remarkable, even unique claims about itself. It claims to be perfect, true, the very word of God. If we are to read it properly, it is important that we grasp these truths at the level of both intellect and heart.
The Apostle Peter writes perhaps the most astonishing statement with regards to this authority of Scripture and the implications for living it out:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:16-21)
Think about what Peter is saying here. He reminds us that he was on the mountain while the Son of God was transfigured and unveiled in all his brilliant white shining glory. Peter was there and saw the Son of God standing beside Moses and Elijah. As a good Jewish boy, he would have understood the significance of the cloud that covered the mountain top, he will immediately have associated this with the theophany that accompanied the dedication of Solomon’s temple. Peter was there and heard the voice of God resound, ‘This is my Son, listen to him’.
Peter saw with his own eyes and Peter heard with his own ears, and yet…
…and yet Peter makes the most astonishing claim, ‘And we have something more sure, the prophetic word’. More sure, part of me wants to challenge Peter and say ‘you must be kidding, what could be more sure than that which you witnessed with your own eyes and heard with your own ears?’ Peter’s answer? Most emphatically, the word of God.
But how can this be? Peter is able to make such an astonishing declaration because he knows, ‘that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’
The truth is we will be ill equipped to discern the will of God in our own lives until we ‘pay attention’ to Scripture and receive it as the very word of God, perfect, infallible and true. Furthermore, we will be ill equipped to live the life God has called us to live until we understand that because ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God’ it is both utterly reliable and the standard of truth in a crooked and perverse world.
Because Peter knows this and he sees that the word of God is ‘a lamp shining in a dark place’. When we understand this, even in the darkest night of the soul, even when faced with seemly impossible choices, even when compelled to act in a way which confounds earthly wisdom, we will see the word of God shine forth most brightly and light our way.
‘Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.’ (Psalm 119:105)
1 The doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) is evidenced by the use of the Hebrew word bārā which is used exclusively in Scripture to describe God’s creative activity. There is broad (though not total agreement) that bārā is used to describe creation from nothing (rather than reordering existing materials). Paul’s reference to God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Romans 4:17) similarly implies creation ex nihilo. See W. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, 1994, ), pp. 262-264 for a more detailed discussion.
2 For clarity, when Scripture refers to God speaking, this speech act always denotes activity. You and I, for example, can easily be accused of being all talk and little action. When God speaks, however, he always acts. To do otherwise would run contrary to his nature.
3 For further discussion of the meaning of logos (here translated Word) see, D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, 1991, ), p. 114-117
4 For more on the relationship of the Spirit of God and the word of God, I commend, J. Woodhouse, ‘The Preacher and the Living Word’ in When God’s Voice is Heard: The Power of Preaching, ed. C. Green & David Jackman (Inter-Varsity Press: Nottingham, 1995, ), pp. 55-59
5 I speak on the Trinity and the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit extensively elsewhere. To listen, click here.
6 Again, I discuss the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration in detail elsewhere. To listen, click here.
7 I write on this more fully elsewhere, to read more click here.
8 M. Driscoll, A book you will actually read on the Old Testament (Crossway Books: Wheaton, Illinois, 2008), p. 20
9 John Owen, The Holy Spirit, abridged and modernised by R.J.K. Law (The Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh and Pennsylvania, 1998), p. 17