The Bible we hold in our hands is special for one reason. It is like other ancient writings in that someone scratched an ink-laden tip across a piece of parchment or papyrus. Others have painstakingly copied those manuscripts for distribution and retention. At some point in time, the words were translated into other languages, English in my case. A journey which is similar to the writings of Plato or the histories of Tacitus (a Roman historian). The difference however between the Bible and other surviving writings of the Ancient Near East is the inspiration of God.
We often think of something inspired as being clever or having depth. An inspired work of art moves our soul, lifts our spirit, and says things we feel but are unable to find the words to adequately express. The artist or writer often refers to the seed of an idea, song, or painting as inspiration. But when we are talking about the Bible the word inspired means something different. Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, NASB95). That word “inspired” in the original Greek is “theopneustos” or literally God-breathed.
It is this quality of inspiration that sets the 66 books of the Bible apart as the Word of God. But not the Word of God dictated to the writers. There’s much more nuance to the Bible. Sometimes the words we read are the very Word of God spoke prophetically or from the mouth of Jesus. At other times the stories and events portray the Word of God. Even the verses that seem local to that moment when the words were written, such as Paul’s greetings to individuals, reveal something of God’s heart.
Portions of Scripture which seem highly cultural and irrelevant for today still ring with God’s inspiration. Consider this verse from Ephesians, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” (Ephesians 6:5–6, NASB95) It seems like a throwaway verse written only for those held in slavery. But the Word of God still speaks since the same principles apply to all who work for someone else (be that an employer or a customer).
There are several principles of interpretation which will be explored in this section of The Basics. The first principle could be called “plain over all else.” We understand the more difficult passages through the plainer passages. Other principles include keeping the contexts of a passage, identifying the genre, recognizing the voices of the writer and the speaker in the passage, along with remembering the intended original audience. If the beginning Alpha principle is to look to the plain meaning, the ending Omega principle is reading out of the Word instead of reading into the Word – also called reading exegetically. We’ll cover that in our next article.
These principles of interpretation may seem daunting but once understood they become natural. We do many of them without thinking whenever we’re reading something. We know, for instance, when reading a novel that we’re reading a work of fiction which may be enjoyable but may not be historically accurate. Violating these principles when reading the Bible blinds us to the Word of God or worse yet we end up changing it into something God never intended.
It is this God-breathed inspired quality of the Bible that has impacted more lives than can be counted. But the Word of God has also been abused in harmful ways to dominate and control and fleece others. By holding to the principles of interpretation and the illumination of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-16) we will move, grow, and abide in God’s living, holy, and inspired Word.