The Authority of Scripture

By James L. Morrisson


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The Authenticity Of The Bible

Much has been written about the authenticity of the Bible. There has been an enormous literature of so-called "higher criticism", which often questions the authorship of various books, the validity of various portions of the text, etc. In the interest of brevity I shall just give a few highlights.

The Reliability Of The Texts

Without going into detail, I think it can be said that we have a great many more manuscripts, dating far closer to the time of the original composition, than for any other ancient document. There are some minor variations among the available texts, as is almost always the case, but from everything I have read I think we can be confident that the original Hebrew and Greek texts on which our modern translations are based are very close to the original.

There are a variety of translations available today. Translation is an art, and not a science, and hence different translators will render the same passage differently. It is unusual to find any significant difference in meaning among translations. Moreover, especially with the computer programs available, it is not difficult for the layman who does not know Hebrew or Greek to compare different translations, to consult dictionaries for the meaning of the original words, and to have access to commentaries, so as to get a pretty accurate picture of the meaning of a passage.

Authorship and Date

Much has been written about the human authorship and the date of composition of various books of the Bible. I shall only touch on two questions that have been raised which are of major importance, and shall deal even with them very summarily.

1. The First Five Books - The Pentateuch

The traditional view is that these were all written by Moses. This would place their dates somewhere in the range of 1450-1300 B.C., depending on which date you use for the Exodus. The view that Moses is their author is well supported by the words of Scripture, which say that Moses "wrote down everything the Lord had said" (Exodus 24:4), that he then "took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people" (Exodus 24:7), that he "wrote down this law" and commanded that it be read to the people every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:9,11), and that he wrote "in a book the words of this law from beginning to end"and directed that "this Book of the Law" be placed beside the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24, 26; see also Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 17:18). (The ark of the covenant was placed in the innermost part of the tabernacle, and later the Temple). Through Moses, God directed the people of Israel to "obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law" (Deuteronomy 30:10). Before the Israelites entered into Canaan, God told Joshua, "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it" (Joshua 1:8).

Beginning about 1750 A.D., a view began to develop which said that none of these books were written by Moses, but by four different authors, or groups of authors, beginning at a much later time. This view rested in part on an assumption that there was no writing in Moses' time. This assumption has since been proven false. We now know that there was writing in the Near East long before the time of Moses. Since Moses had been trained to become a leader in the court of Egypt, the greatest nation of that time, it is reasonable to suppose that he knew how to write.

Much emphasis was also placed in the use of two different words for God - Elohim and Jehovah - which was thought to imply two different authors. However it is not unusual for a single author to use more than one name for God, particularly where, as in this case, the text sometimes focusses on God in his universal aspect and sometimes on his special relationship with Israel. Jehovah and Elohim are not synonyms and have different shades of meaning. This is illustrated by the fact that the term Jehovah Elohim (translated "Lord God" KJV or "God" NIV) appears over 260 times from Genesis to Jeremiah.

It was also assumed that the religion of the Jewish people evolved and did not become truly monotheistic until the time of Amos, about 750 B.C. This assumption treats the Bible as a purely human product and denies that it is a revelation from God. There have been archeological finds that show that some Israelites had idols of pagan gods; these finds merely confirm the truth of Scripture, which tells over and over of the Israelites turning away from the true God and worshipping Canaanite or other pagan gods, a practice recorded as early as Judges chapter 2 and for which God repeatedly rebuked them through his prophets (see for example Jeremiah 2:11-13).

Modern scholarship has developed, I believe, persuasive evidence for Moses' authorship of these five books. (A good summary of this evidence can be found in Gleason L. Archer, Jr, "A Survey of Old Testament Introduction", Moody Press, paperback edition 1985, pp. 83-185). If this is so, then four of them - Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - are essentially eyewitness accounts of the events and words of God which they record. (Deuteronomy 34:5-12 would have been added by someone else.) Moreover they are eyewitness accounts by a well-educated man who had been trained for a leadership position in the court of Egypt. As such they are reliable evidence of the truth of what they record.

Moses was, of course, not an eyewitness of the events recorded in Genesis. However, I believe a persuasive argument has been made that Genesis is a compilation, by Moses, of earlier written accounts, most of which could have been made by one of the participants. Some have seen, in the word toledoth (usually translated "these are the generations of" or "this is the account of"), which appears at various places in the Genesis narrative, an indication of the ending of one such document and the beginning of another.

2. The Gospels

Many questions have been raised about the authorship and date of the four gospels. I have discussed this in my paper "Evidence that Jesus Was Resurrected" and shall not repeat everything said there. Briefly, I believe that the first three gospels and the book of Acts were probably written in the period 55-75 A.D. and the gospel of John about 90 A.D. I believe their authors are:

1. Matthew, one of Jesus' twelve original disciples (Matthew 9:9).

2. John Mark, whom Peter called his "son" (1 Peter 5:13). Mark was a traveling companion of Paul on his first missionary journey, and also appears to have been with him during his imprisonment in Rome (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24). It was at the house in Jerusalem of Mark's mother that the disciples met for prayer when Peter was imprisoned by Herod (Acts 12:12); possibly they met there on other occasions. (Mark may well have been the "young man" present at Jesus' arrest, referred to in Mark 14:51). Several of the early church writers say that Mark's gospel reflects Peter's teachings.

3. Luke, a Gentile physician, who accompanied Paul on some of Paul's journeys and was apparently with him when he was in prison in Rome.

4. John, one of Jesus' original twelve disciples (John 21:24).

5. Acts was also written by Luke (Acts 1:1).

If I am right, the historical books of the New Testament (gospels and Acts) were written either by members of the original 12 disciples, or by men who had ready access to them and to others who had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry. They were written at a time when many would still have been alive who were alive during Jesus' ministry on earth. (Much the same can be said of most of the epistles.)

The New Testament emphasizes that it is based on eyewitness evidence. John wrote, "The Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory" (John 1:14). "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard..." (1 John 1:1-3) At the end of his gospel he refers to the disciple "who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper" (John) and then says, "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true" (John 21:20, 24).

Peter wrote, "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-18; see Matthew 17:1-8).

These writers are proclaiming "what we have seen and heard", what "we ourselves heard."

Luke begins his gospel, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:1-4). Luke says that he investigated carefully, collected eyewitness accounts, and then wrote it all down in an orderly way.

Part of Luke's account in Acts is an eyewitness account, as is shown by his use of the pronoun "we". It evidences that he was with Paul during the first part of the second missionary journey (Acts 16: 10-16) and during his trip to Rome (Acts, chapters 27-28). He was also with him during his imprisonment in Rome (see Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24). Whether he was with him at other times we do not know, but he was evidently very close to Paul, who referred to him as "our dear friend Luke" (Colossians 4:14).

Thus the historical books of the New Testament were written by men who had either been among the twelve disciples, or were in very close contact with those disciples. They say that they are based on eyewitness testimony. They were written within 25 to 40 years after Jesus' death, at a time when many who had been alive during his earthly ministry were still living. This gives them a high level of credibility as historical records.

The style of these records is remarkable. They tell of the most extraordinary events in a very brief, matter-of-fact way. For instance, Matthew's account of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8), when Jesus shone with a brilliant white, Elijah and Moses appeared, and the voice of God was heard, takes 8 verses. There is no "hype", no exaggerated rhetoric, no overblown language; just a simple recitation of fact. Also remarkable is the way in which they record the shortcomings of the disciples. They record several occasions in which Jesus told his disciples that they lacked faith (Matthew 14:31, 17:19-20) or understanding (John 14:9). They record many shortcomings by Peter, who became the apparent leader of the disciples after Jesus' death: He was confused and frightened on the mount of transfiguration (Mark 9:6); Jesus said to him, "Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me" (Matthew 16:23); he denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75). They record other times when the disciples were confused, lacking in understanding, or seeking personal glory.

In assessing these records we should also consider that most of the disciples died martyrs' deaths, often very painfully, for their Lord Jesus. Jesus had taught them that he is the truth (John 14:6) and that the truth would set them free (John 8:32), while the devil "is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). He warned against deceivers (Matthew 24:4-5, 24). Scripture records that Ananias and Sapphira fell down dead because they lied (Acts 5:1-11). It says that "all liars" will be excluded from the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:8). It teaches "do not lie to each other" (Colossians 3:9), speak "the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15), put on "the belt of truth" (Ephesians 6:14). It also warns against any form of deception (for example, 1 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 2:4; 1 Timothy 4:1; James 1:22; 2 Peter 2:1). I think we must assume that the writers of the New Testament made every effort to tell the truth and avoid any element of deception.

So-Called Discrepancies

Some have referred to seeming "discrepancies" in the Biblical accounts as evidence that the Bible cannot be relied on. Without going into detail, I would like to indicate the approach I take to such arguments.

(1). Eyewitness accounts often differ in unessential details without thereby losing their credibility. Witnesses to the same events may see what happened quite differently; and they may remember or choose to emphasize different aspects. A case in point is the account, in three of the gospels, of the healing of a blind man or men near Jericho (Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). Matthew says there were two men healed. Mark and Luke mention only one man, and Mark gives his name, Bartimaeus. Evidently he was someone known to them; it is not surprising that Mark and Luke focus on this one individual. (There probably were many beggars by the roadside, and a number of them may have been blind). Matthew and Mark say this happened as they were leaving Jericho. Most translations of Luke say it happened as they were coming to or approaching Jericho, but the Greek word Luke uses has the basic meaning of "nigh" or "near", and is not limited to "coming". All three accounts agree that there was a healing of blindness, that it happened near Jericho while Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem just before Palm Sunday, that the blind man (men) persisted strongly, and that Jesus commended his faith. There is no real inconsistency.

(2) Sometimes an apparent inconsistency turns out, on closer examination, to be no inconsistency. A case in point is the death of Judas Iscariot. Matthew says he "hanged himself" (Matthew 27:5). Acts says he fell headlong in a field and his body burst open (Acts 1:18). The two accounts seem quite inconsistent. But consider for a moment. Suppose Judas did hang himself, and his body remained hanging for several days. (This would have been quite possible in a land where criminals hung on the cross for days; this was during Passover and no one would have wanted to make himself ceremonially impure by touching a dead body; and many extraordinary things had happened on the day of the crucifixion.) During this time his body would have started to decompose (After four days in the tomb Lazarus' body "stinketh", according to John 11:39, KJV.) After some days of rotting Judas' body was taken down or fell down, rolled downhill to a field (Jerusalem is hilly), struck a rock or a tree and burst. One account tells how it began; the other how it ended. They are not inconsistent.

(3). At times there are accounts of teachings, or parables, by Jesus, that have some similarities but also differ in some respects. It is often assumed that these are different accounts of the same event, which necessarily implies either that one account has been inaccurately reported or, as some have suggested, that both have been inaccurately reported and that the true account is something else which the scholar has created by speculation. In real life teachers often, indeed usually, teach the same material on many different occasions, and teach it differently each time. If they tell stories they may use the same basic story materials a number of times, but vary the details and the emphasis to suit each particular occasion and audience. Why should we assume that Jesus was any different? If this common sense, real life approach is adopted, then there is no discrepancy.

Thus Matthew records a Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) and Luke records a Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49). They contain quite a bit of common material, but differ in some respects and are said to have been given at different locations and different points in Jesus' ministry. The reasonable assumption, I submit, is that these were two different teachings which cover some of the same material. Again, Jesus told two parables about a banquet, the Wedding Banquet of Matthew 22:1-14 and the Great Banquet of Luke 14:15-24. They differ in the place they were spoken, the audience they were spoken to, and some aspects of the story told. The reasonable assumption, I submit, is that these were two different stories which Jesus told, to different audiences and for different purposes, using some of the same material in both.

I want to add a comment here. Some Bible critics seem to assume that Biblical characters and writers behave differently from ordinary people. They assume that Jesus never told the same story more than once, or taught the same material more than once. They assume that two eyewitness accounts of an event must agree exactly in every detail. They assume that a Biblical writer, such as Paul, unlike any other writer the world has ever known, always used the same vocabulary, rather than tailoring his vocabulary to his audience and his subject matter. On this basis they reject as inauthentic any writing that uses more than a certain number of words that do not appear in his other writings. What grounds have we for assuming that Biblical people are unlike ordinary people in these respects?

(4) If none of these approaches works I still do not reject Scripture. Rather I say, "There must be an explanation but no one has yet been smart enough to figure it out." The fact that I can't explain something does not mean that there is no explanation. It may just mean that my understanding is limited - an assumption which I am quite willing to accept.

(5) At times there are teachings that may seem to conflict. For instance, there are passages that emphasize God's foreknowledge, that speak of predestination, and that say that everything works out according to God's plan. There are other passages that emphasize man's free will and the necessity for choice. Men have struggled for centuries trying to fit these two threads together into a consistent systematic structure. My approach is to say that since both are in Scripture, I must accept both and allow each one to keep me from carrying the other too far. If I can't work out all the ramifications of how they fit together, I still understand enough to know how I must live and what I must do, and I can keep chewing at it until I come closer to understanding it fully.

(6) There are also things in Scripture that I just don't understand. For example, I don't understand how Jesus could have been fully God and fully man at the same time. I don't understand how the one who participated in the creation of the universe, and who holds all things together by his powerful word (Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3), could also be a helpless baby in his mother's womb or her arms. But God's ways are higher than mine (Isaiah 55:8-9) and so I don't have to understand it; I can just accept it and rejoice in it.


How To Read Scripture

Much has been written on this. I want simply to give a few ideas that I have found helpful.

There are many ways to read Scripture. The most important thing is to read it. Find a dependable translation you can understand and are comfortable with. Some grew up with the King James Version and like to use it; I prefer a modern translation because I find it easier, with contemporary language, to see how the Bible applies to my life.

Sometimes I like to read large chunks of Scripture at a time, to get a sense of the overview, the continuity. Sometimes I will spend a lot of time on one or a few verses. Martin Luther said that in Scripture every daisy becomes a meadow, and I have often found that to be so. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will call a passage to mind and I will keep reading it or thinking about it day after day. Some people like to sing or listen to songs based on Scripture and let the words sink in. It's a good idea to ask the Holy Spirit to guide your reading.

I like to read Scripture out loud with my wife. We discuss it, look up cross-relationships with other passages of Scripture and read those other passages, etc. Sometimes we pray a passage through, putting it into the first person and applying it to our lives. We especially like to do this with the marvelous prayers in Ephesians (chapters 1 and 3) and Colossians (chapter 1). Some like to listen to tapes in which Scripture is read aloud.

There are times when it is good to read Scripture in a disciplined way, to set yourself a program for reading through the whole Bible in a certain period of time, for example. There are also times when it is good to feel free to go wherever you feel led to go. There are no set formulas. I would caution you, however, not to confine your reading to a few favorite or familiar passages. We need to become familiar with the whole counsel of Scripture. Work through some of the difficult or unfamiliar passages. Don't just stay with the familiar and comfortable.

Some like to use a commentary or guide in reading Scripture. I usually prefer to let the words of Scripture speak for themselves. It's a matter of choice.

I enjoy seeing how different passages of Scripture fit together. For example, compare the following: Deuteronomy 4:29 (about 1350 B.C.); Psalm 9:10 (about 1000 B.C.); Jeremiah 29:13 (about 600 B.C.), Matthew 7:7-8 (spoken about 30 A.D.) and James 4:8 (about 45 A.D.). I delight to see how 5 different people, over a period of almost 1400 years, are saying essentially the same thing. The margins of my Bible are full of this kind of cross-reference. (Incidentally, I mark up my Bible quite a lot, with underlining, cross referencing, marginal notes etc.)

I enjoy doing word studies - seeing how the same word is used in different passages in Scripture. Anyone can do these with a good Concordance; with today's computer programs they are easy to do.

The important thing, however, is that with Scripture you don't just want to read it. You want to immerse yourself in it, let it sink in to your very being, let it change your attitudes and the way you think, let it transform you, let it challenge you and convict you. Sometimes you want to let it really bother you.

Sometimes, in reading Scripture, I come across something I just don't understand. I may want to dig into it then, look up definitions of words, consult a commentary or other source, talk to a mature Christian about it, etc. Quite often, however, I find that if I just put the question aside and go on with what I do understand, when I come back to the passage a few months or years later, after having read other portions of Scripture, the difficulty seems to have disappeared. My sense is that there will always be passages in Scripture that I don't understand, and I don't want to let them distract me from working with what I do understand. I like the comment (I think it was by Mark Twain), "It isn't the parts of Scripture I don't understand that bother me; it's the ones I do understand." Learning to adjust our lives by what is clear in Scripture is more important, and usually more difficult, than unraveling every obscurity.

The most important thing is the attitude with which we come to Scripture. Scripture can do much for us, as I have pointed out earlier. But it can do these things only if we come to it in a spirit of humility and of seeking. Jesus said "Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7). The tense of the Greek verbs means "keep on seeking", "keep on asking", "keep on knocking". Jesus expects us to persevere. "Always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1). James says, "you do not have, because you do not ask God" (James 4:2).

If we approach Scripture in a spirit of humility and seeking, it will be a "discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12, NKJV), it will change us, it will do all the things I have mentioned earlier. I try to come to Scripture asking God to "Search me, O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts" (Psalm 139:23). I ask, "Open my eyes, that I may see wonderful things in your law" (Psalm 119:18). Our spirit in coming to the Scriptures should be that which Paul expressed in Ephesians 1:17-18: "I keep asking that [God] may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened." If we approach Scripture in that spirit, there is no limit to what we can get from it. God "is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20). "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Psalm 119 is a wonderful Psalm about God's word. Its author wrote "Oh, how I love your law!" (verse 97; also verse 163). "I delight in your commands because I love them" (verse 47). "Your statutes... are the joy of my heart" (verse 111). "Great peace have they who love your law" (verse 165). He spoke of the words of Scripture as worth "more than gold, more than pure gold" (verse 127; see also Psalm 19:10). My experience, and that of others I know, tells me that if we come to Scripture with the right attitude of humility and searching, we shall find all these and more in it.


Interpreting Scripture

A great deal has been written about this. It has a scholarly term - hermeneutics - and courses are given in it. The ordinary lay reader does not need to familiarize himself with all this scholarly literature. Let me suggest, in very simple terms, a few basic principles.

Take Scripture At Face Value

As with any writing, we start by trying to see what the author intended. Usually, but not always, this means taking it literally. (1) There are times when Scripture uses metaphors; they should be read as metaphors. Thus Jesus is variously referred to as the lamb of God, the lion of Judah, the bread of life, the light of the world, a stone of stumbling, a cornerstone. Obviously these statements do not mean that Jesus was literally a four-legged beast with wool or a mane, or that he was made of flour and water and cooked in an oven or pan, or that he is a lamp burning oil, or that he is made of granite or limestone. They mean that he has some of the qualities of these things to which he is compared. (2) Jesus often taught in parables. These are not things that actually happened; they are stories he invented to make a point, and are best interpreted by looking to see what point he was trying to make. He showed us how to do this by giving the interpretation of some of his parables. (3) Sometimes Jesus used very vivid language to make a point. When he said we should cut off a hand or foot or pluck out an eye that causes us to sin (Mark 9:43-48) he was not really telling people to mutilate themselves; he was simply expressing very graphically how essential it is to get rid of sin. There is no example in the Bible where anyone actually mutilated himself in response to this teaching. When he told his disciples to "hate" their father, mother, wife, and children (Luke 14:26), he could not have meant hate in the usual sense, for elsewhere he told us to love our neighbor and even our enemy. The Greek word can mean "love less", and that is how the same thought is expressed in Matthew 10:37. His meaning is that we should love Jesus more than we love our own flesh and blood. (4) Parts of the Bible are poetry. Not everything in poetry is meant to be taken literally.

We need to look at what kind of writing we are dealing with in order to know how to interpret it. But my "fall-back" position is always to take it literally unless there is a good Scriptural reason not to.

What we must not do is to read our own preconceptions, or desires, into Scripture. Scripture was written in the Near East by Jews (and one Gentile) during the period of about 1350 B.C. to 90 A.D. Its human authors believed that God does supernatural things. If it says that a miraculous or supernatural event occurred, what right have we to impose our 19th-20th century Western mindsets on it and either seek to find a naturalistic explanation, or interpet the words contrary to their evident intent, or find some plausible or implausible ground for rejecting them as inauthentic because they do not fit our mindsets?

Jesus made many extraordinary statements about himself. I believe he clearly said that he was God. (See my paper, "Who Did Jesus Say He Is?") I believe that in interpreting Scripture we must accept those statements at face value. We cannot ignore them, or interpret them to mean something other than what they say, or reject them as inauthentic, and say that we are being true to Scripture. We need to take Scripture at face value. If we cannot accept what it says, then we have chosen to reject Scripture and, I believe, to reject Jesus Christ. Scripture itself warns against those who distort or twist Scripture "to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16).

Draw The Meaning Out Of The Text

Two Greek words that I find helpful are exegesis - drawing the meaning out of the text (ex means "out"), and eisegesis - putting a meaning into the text (eis means "into"). In exegesis we look at the text, the meaning of the words used, the grammatical structure, the context, and perhaps parallel passages to find the meaning. In eisegesis we impose on the text a meaning derived from our own preconceptions and mindsets. It's a matter of mental attitude. Are we coming to Scripture to learn, to see what God wants to say to us, to see how we need to change? Or are we seeking to use (and sometimes misuse) anything we can find to justify where we are now?

It is sometimes said, "You can find support in Scripture for anything you want." The statement implies a totally wrong attitude. If you are looking for support for a preconceived position, you can often find in Scripture a verse which, if distorted or taken out of context, could be thought to support whatever you want it to support But if you are genuinely looking for the truth of Scripture, and seeking to draw the meaning out of what is written, you will often find that it convicts you that your preconceived position or attitude is wrong and needs to be changed.

It is easy to see instances in the past where people used Scripture to justify a wrong position. For example, before the Civil War many southern pastors sought to justify the slavery of blacks by Scripture. We now can see how false their reasoning was, but at the time they were persuaded by it. Today there are "white supremacists" who seek to find support for their position in Scripture, despite the clear statement of Galatians 3:28 that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." We need to be careful that we do not fall into similar errors.

One of the most serious forms of eisegesis today, I believe, is the attempt of some to make Scripture conform to our 19th-20th century Western scientific/materialistic mindsets. I believe that to do this is to distort the intention of its authors and to destroy its power and value. Paul wrote, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world" (Romans 12:2). I believe we make a serious mistake if we try to conform Scripture to any pattern of this world, or to any philosophy other than that which it itself expresses. We need to conform to Scripture rather than distort it to conform to our way of thinking.

Interpret Scripture By Scripture

I believe Scripture is basically consistent with itself. The more I work with it the more convinced of this I become. One of the principles of interpretation is that we try to avoid putting a meaning on one passage which makes it conflict with another.

When Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, the devil quoted Scripture at him, saying "it is written" Jesus replied with another passage, saying "it is also written" (Matthew 4:5-7). I believe we need to look for the "it is also writtens" of Scripture. I think one major cause of false teaching is a tendency to rely heavily on certain passages in Scripture and ignore others that tend to qualify or limit their scope.

At times there are passages in Scripture which, to our limited human logic, may appear inconsistent with themselves or each other. My experience is that often, as I mature in my understanding, I come to realize that they are not inconsistent at all. For example, Philippians 2:12-13 says, "Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." I used to say, "Wait a minute. Do we do it? Or does God do it? Isn't this contradicting itself?" Now I realize that this passage is a beautiful example of a basic principle called co-laboring. In most of our Christian life we and God are working together. "We are God's fellow workers" (1 Corinthians 3:9). Jesus gave the image of being yoked with him, as two oxen would be yoked together (Matthew 11:29). We can't do it without him, and he (usually) chooses not to do it without our participation. So a passage that I once thought self-contradictory turns out to be an excellent illustration of a very basic principle of how God works.

Where I still find an inconsistency, or have difficulty in reconciling two principles, I simply say, "God, I don't see how these two principles fit together, but you do. I hope some day you will show me. But even if you do not, I will work with both principles as best I can. I cannot reject anything that is in your Scripture just because it does not fit my limited logical understanding."

God did not give us a tightly organized, logical system of theology. He gave us living principles to work with and live by. I think he did this deliberately. He did not want us to be controlled by rules, but by an active love for him. He wanted us to be dependent on him rather than our own intellects. Our primary faith needs to be in a person - Jesus Christ - and not a set of doctrines. Paul wrote, "I know whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12). Even when we are not sure about doctrine we can put our faith in the person of Jesus.

Theology is important. We need to have as clear an understanding of God as we can. But our theology is only man's attempt to describe who God is and what he does. Sometimes God has acted to shake up men's theology. Acts chapter 10 is a beautiful example. God told Peter to go to a Gentile's house. He also told him, "do not call anything impure that God has made clean." Both statements must have shocked Peter to the core; they violated all his training and everything he had lived by. And then the people of Cornelius' household began speaking in tongues before they had been baptized or made any profession of salvation! (This one has puzzled many theologians ever since.) God has often said, "See, I am doing a new thing!" (Isaiah 43:19). That's his privilege, as God. He is not bound by our theology. If he does something that seems contrary to our theology, he is not breaking the rules; he is merely showing us that our understanding of him was incomplete. We need to distinguish clearly between the words of Scripture, which are true, and the intellectual systems which men have erected on those words, which are useful but fallible.

Stay With What Is Written

God said through Moses, "Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it" (Deuteronomy 4:2; see also Deuteronomy 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19). "Every word of God is flawless... Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar" (Proverbs 30:5-6). Paul wrote, "Do not go beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus rebuked those who "nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matthew 15:6). I think sometimes today we come very close to doing this.

I believe this is a very basic principle. We must not ignore or disregard anything that is in Scripture, just because we do not like it, or it does not fit into our logical schemes. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, said, "If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you do not like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself." Scripture tells us that we are a very unreliable authority (see Jeremiah 17:9-10).

There is also a danger in adding to Scripture. Sometimes, without meaning to, we seem to give to a fallible human interpretation of Scripture an authority equal to or even greater than the very words of Scripture themselves. If we learned it in seminary, or if our pastor has taught it, we tend to think of it as "gospel truth." This can become a form of idolatry. If we set human teachings above the word of God, are we not serving "created things rather than the Creator" (Romans 1:25)? It is good to be like the Bereans, who "searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11, KJV).

Let me illustrate with two examples. (1) Scripture speaks, in several places, of men being "elected" or "predestined" for salvation. From this some have drawn the logical inference that there must also be those who are "predestined" for eternal damnation. Scripture never says this. It never speaks of being elected or predestined for damnation. The teaching may be valid, although I find it in conflict with passages in Scripture that say that God wants everyone to be saved (see, for example, John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9) But we need to recognize that it is based on human logic and not on the words of Scripture. There are a number of other teachings of which the same can be said. We need to be very clear as to what is the revealed word of God in Scripture, and what is human teaching. The human teaching may be valid, but it should not be given the weight or authority of Scripture.

(2) Some years ago I read a book by a highly respected British pastor and author in which he said that he could not accept as authentic the account of Jesus judging the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) because it was inconsistent with his concept of Jesus. A loving Jesus, he thought, would not condemn people to "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46). (Actually he did not go far enough; by his criterion he should also have rejected a substantial number of other passages that talk of judgment, and eternal punishment and the wrath of Jesus. Usually, when we start trying to edit something out of the Bible, we find that we end up by having to make a lot of changes because the Bible is so tightly interconnected.) The basic issue is this: How can I reject a part of what is in Scripture simply because it not consistent with my idea of how God ought to do things? Since the Bible is the word of God, we cannot apply to it some standard of "political correctness" and rewrite it - adding here, taking away there, rephrasing there - to make it correspond to our ideas or wishes We have no right to tell God, "You made a mistake; you should have said it this way." God said, through Isaiah, "Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker" (Isaiah 45:9). "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" (Romans 9:20). We need to take the Bible as it is, understand it as it is, and not try to impose our ideas upon it.

Recognize That We Do Not Have All The Answers

Paul wrote that while we are on this earth "we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" and we "know in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12). We shall not see clearly or know fully until we are with God in heaven. I believe these statements apply as much to our understanding of Scripture as they do to anything else in this world. We seek all the understanding we can, but recognize that it is still incomplete.

Paul wrote much of the New Testament and was probably the best educated and intellectually most acute of its human authors. Yet he keeps talking about the mysteries of God's ways. He writes, "Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out" (Romans 11:33). He speaks of the love of Christ "that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:18), and the peace of God "which transcends all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). The Psalmist wrote that "no one can fathom" the greatness of God (Psalm 145:3). He wrote of knowledge of God's ways that is "too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain" (Psalm 139:6). God's ways and his thoughts are vastly higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). I believe that, no matter how profound our knowledge of Scripture may be, there will always be this element of mystery, of things that are beyond human understanding.

God has given us "everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3). He has not answered all the questions our fertile minds can come up with. The Book of Job is instructive. Job asked all sorts of questions of God, deep questions that came out of his intense suffering. God answered none of them. He simply said, "Job, look at who I am." Job replied, "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.... My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myeslf, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:3, 5, 6). Then God put an end to his suffering and blessed him richly.

This helps explain something which often troubles many. They say, "How can we believe Scripture when Christians so often disagree as to what it means?" I have said that Scripture is true. But our human interpretations of Scripture are fallible. Hence we humans can differ in our understanding of Scripture. (Actually most of the disagreements, while they attract a lot of attention, do not deal with the basics.) We need also, I think, to recognize that any human interpretation or teaching is probably incomplete and may be seriously wrong. This is not because the Bible is confusing or unclear. It is because anything humans do is subject to error.



This paper is longer than I intended it to be, and yet it has only scratched the surface of many issues. I would encourage you to read and study further on these issues.

Primarily, however, I encourage you to let the words of Scripture speak to you. Read them, reflect and meditate on them, memorize them if you can, and allow them to become a very part of you. You will find that they change your life. At one point Jesus asked his disciples if they would leave him because of a "hard" teaching he had given. Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). I believe the words of the Bible are the words of eternal life, and that all who truly immerse themselves in them will be richly blessed.



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Copyrightę 2001 by James L. Morrisson