Last time we left off with an unanswered question: given scripture is written or spoken by prophets, apostles, scribes, and “apostolically[sic] approved” people – then in what way is scripture divinely inspired? Does this not leave us with yet another book written by the hands of men?
Is the Bible simply dictated by God?
Some (broadly speaking “liberalists”, as the definition typically used within evangelical circles) hold that scripture is solely the words of man. There is, they claim, nothing that is necessarily objectively true – it is up to each reader to decide what is relevant and what is not.
On the far other end of the spectrum (if the spectrum is, for the sake of simplicity, only one dimensional) you have those who (broadly speaking “fundamentalists”) hold that everything is ‘mechanically inspired’. That is to say, every word, every comma, every full-stop and dash is literally – verbatim – God’s choice of wording.
Such fundamentalism historically saw significant popularity shortly after (and presumably in response to) growing liberalism.
The question then is probably better worded – “treating this spectrum as one dimensional – where on it does scripture tell us to sit?”. It’s not, fortunately, an either/or question. And scripture does give us some answers…
- All scripture is God breathed
2 Timothy 3:16 tells us scripture is breathed out by God
- The words were not the mere words of man
Galatians 1:11-12 and Revelation 1:1-3 clearly speak of the content and message originating in God, not man
- Prophets were directed by Holy Spirit
2 Peter 1:19-21 tells us the human prophets were directed by Holy Spirit
- Sometimes knowingly researched and recorded
Luke 1:1-4 – Luke introduces his gospel openly and honestly. He is a secondary source, citing primary sources.
- Sometimes personal (although apostolic in origin)
2 Timothy 4:13, Paul writes regarding his personal cloak and scrolls.
No the only conclusion we can come to, I believe, is scripture is unique. At one and the same time it is both divine in origin and content yet identifiably human in accent and inflection. Somehow, in ways I can only grasp by faith, Holy Spirit worked in the minds of these many individuals to have spoken and written and divinely maintained through many years of typesetting and copying – that God’s own thoughts would be brought to men and women around the world through human people in human readable text.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, a famous liberal, toward the end of his life said the following upon reflection of his ministry:
“Today, however, looking back over forty years of ministry, I see an outstanding difference between then and now with regard to what is standard and who must do the adjusting. What man in his senses can now call our modern civilization standard? It is not Christ’s message that needs to be accommodated to this mad scene; it is this mad scene into which our civilization has collapsed that needs to be judged and saved by Christ’s message. This is the most significant change distinguishing the beginning of my ministry from now. Then we were trying to accommodate Christ to our scientific civilization; now we face the desperate need of accommodating our scientific civilization to Christ.”Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Great Time to Be Alive, pp. 201–2
I don’t know where he stood theologically the day that he died, but it appears – at least based on the sample of one paragraph he wrote later in his life – that he had shifted considerably from viewing scripture as entirely and ultimately open to interpretation to being, at least in the matters of primary importance, objectively true and open to no difference in interpretation between cultures or generations.
Presupposition – given scripture is (originally) in Greek and Hebrew…
Then do *we* need Greek and Hebrew?
It may come as a surprise to some that the Bible was not natively written by Paul and Moses in ye’ ol’ English used by early King James versions! No, rather scripture was first written (and possibly in parts maintained verbally before that) in Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic.
So then rises the inevitable (and wise) question – do us common 21st English speaking Christians need Greek and Hebrew to study scripture?
Let me start by emphatically stating what I believe are 4 important facts*:
- Any Bible [study] has to be better than no Bible [study].
If we all wait until we achieve perfect level 5 scores in Greek and Hebrew – we’re going to lose (at least!) 5-10 years of valuable growth and fellowship with God in scripture. Any Bible and any level of Bible study has to be better than none at all.
- People chose to be burned at the stake – so we could have English translations.
(And similar martyrdom has occurred for other language speakers too…)
If we dismiss the plethora of faithfully and courageously translated English Bible versions we have today – I’d suggest these brothers and sisters who walked before us would be justified in their disappointment.
- A little Greek can be more dangerous than no Greek!
I’ll expand upon this … my point here is not to say “don’t try to study Greek”, but rather apply a sensible level of “brake application” on those who may draw theologically significant conclusions from a “learn NT Greek in 28 days” text-book!
- But no appreciation for the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic can (and likely will) lead us to wrong conclusions – and a lack of glory to God.
(After all, why are New Tribes Mission still sending brothers and sisters into remote corners of the world to translate scripture? Why did the Reformation ever happen? Why do we have such a plethora of English translation choices?)
(*These are facts, in my opinion. I bow to the wisdom of those who know better than me.)
Keep in the front of your mind that scripture is necessary for salvation, and believer’s sanctification.
The gospel message and therefore salvation can be brought about by God through a faithful but poor “first attempt” translation of scripture into a new human language (NTM for example, are faithfully translating scripture into very rare languages used by a few hundred or tens of people on the planet – a life-long task, undertaken by only few equipped missionaries). In the context of salvation, a “first-time best attempt” is sufficient.
But for sanctification, the on-going effort of producing ever better translations (and any individual who is so skilled honing their Greek and Hebrew skills) leads to ever-greater results. In the context of sanctification, ever-better translations are necessary.
So we’ve (hopefully) answered “What actually is the Bible (the canon of scripture)?” – and whetted the appetite for question 2-of-3: “What is a Bible translation?“