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The Word of God or the Meaning of God?
By Richard Gunther
From at least as far back as my twenties, and since then repeatedly for the last thirty years I have come across the same debate over the Bible. The debate is always much the same, and could be termed the Two Positions. On the one side are the Conservatives, who want to preserve every word of Scripture intact for all time, without altering it even fractionally, and on the other side are the Liberals, who quite freely paraphrase Scripture and change it into whatever form they feel comfortable with. The focus of the debate is always the same – whether or not the Bible is precisely God’s Word, or generally God’s Word. I use capitals here deliberately because the debate is so important, it needs to be emphasized.
If the Bible is precisely God’s Word, then every word, every phrase, every letter, and even every punctuation mark ought to be as perfect as a written language can be. But if the Bible is only generally God’s Word, then it is just a medium, in which is embedded some eternal truth – like the soft fruit around the hard stone of an apricot, or the fragile bread around the currants in a bun. The mass of words does not matter – it’s the principles which do. Whole chapters can be condensed to tiny statements, or essences, and the bulk of the Bible discarded as so much dross.
I am not in any way intending to denigrate or criticize those who hold the first Position. I admire their zeal and faith. Purity is an ideal which sits comfortably with God, and it seems the most logical path to take, since it seems to me unlikely that God would give Man a faulty, or mistake-ridden book, because that, logically, would reflect on His own character. On the other hand, Jesus himself did not use high Greek when he spoke to the people, but chose instead the local, ‘peasant’ language, the low Greek, the country tongue, yet within that simple and unscholarly framework he spoke the most wonderful and inspiring things. In this way Jesus suggests to us that God can be both precise and general.
But the belief in Scripture as being perfect in a precise, structural way, can lead down an ever- narrowing road to the point where (1) only the original Hebrew or Greek is accepted as perfect, and it is to this extreme that many Bible-believers have gone. Others, (2) like Ivan Panin have discovered, or interposed (the question has never been fully worked out) a numerical perfection on the letters, something called the gematria, displaying a bewildering array of sevens, while (3) others have discovered ‘railroads’, which show a striking series of patterns based on the words and sentences of Scripture. Another (4) extreme branch has discovered what they call a ‘Bible Code’, which consists of patterns of letters when the text is stacked in rows of selected numbers of letters. Depending on the number of letters in each layer, different key words can be found, as one finds words in a crossword puzzle. And yet another branch (5) of the extreme view holds firmly to the belief that Scripture itself has some ‘magical’ or mystical, or supernatural power within itself. Healings have been attributed just to the reading of Scripture, and some verses are used in much the same way as a storybook wizard pronounces spells.
One of today’s active groups of purists make the bold claim that only the 1611 King James Bible is truly accurate, and that all subsequent Bible translations which are not based on the texts used for the KJ contain fatal errors. More on this later.
When I was a student in Polytech many years ago I remember an incident which left a lifelong impression on me. I was in a classroom, and on friendly terms with all my classmates, when one of them, a young woman, asked me a question about salvation. It was a casual question, and she and her friends waited for my response, so I smiled and quoted “He that has the Son has life, and he that has not the Son of God has not life.” The immediate reaction was total puzzlement. Not a single student (and there were about six or seven listening) had the slightest idea what I was talking about! I was subjected to a barrage of questions, mainly aimed at making me explain what on earth I was talking about, and the more I tried, the less these young people seemed to understand. In the end I was reduced to baby-talk, and they showed that I was at last making sense.
This incident, and many others like it, demonstrated the fallacy of purism. It is utterly pointless just quoting the King James, if the words do not make sense to the listener. It may be a personally joyous thing to quote the KJ, and it may sound charming to our own ears, and it may please other readers of the KJ, but to the people of our own culture there are times when the KJ is about as useful as Dutch or Swahili. To what purpose do purists use the KJ? If their intention is to win souls, then they are using a very blunt axe to chop their trees.
At this point we must ask whether our intention when we use Scripture to win the lost, is to impress them with our command of 16th century English, or win them to Christ? A tremendous importance hangs on which of these two choices we follow.
THE INSPIRATION OF THE BIBLE
When I was at high school, a very intelligent but cynical friend came up to me and told me how Christians reasoned. He said they believed something because the Bible said it, and they believed the Bible was right because it said it was. This student, of course, was correct as far as the circular reasoning he described was concerned, but the reasoning loop he was describing was not as closed as he thought it was. There was a second loop connected to it, like the lower circle on a figure 8, which led through all sorts of evidence and back to the first loop – like a detour road winding its way down a long valley, passing various goldmines on the way. If that student had come with me for a ride down the second loop, he would have returned with a huge load of nuggets, all of which supported the original claim.
There is nothing wrong with assuming the Bible is the Word of God. It pleases God when His children accept what He says by faith, and it is this evidence-free faith which has motivated many thousands, perhaps millions of saints, to do great deeds for Him. There is also a point where sufficient evidence is available. Like Gideon, we need to find the fleece wet, or dry, but a third test is not going to make much difference. In much the same way God has provided sufficient evidence to support His Word, leaving us to accept by faith the things we cannot prove.
But returning to the second loop, the journey through the valley of goldmines, we may, if we wish, stop to admire the goldmine of Archaeology. Here we discover the fossil record, evidence of a global flood, or the many geological evidences of sedimentary deposits, the fossil fuels and so on, all verifying the Biblical record. Or we may pause at the goldmine of History. Here we see that the entire Bible stands or falls on its historical accuracy. Every personage, every custom, every date, every description of language, every military battle, every succession of empire, every mention of architecture or dress, of money-systems and so on, all must be accurate, and they always are.
Other goldmines are found and mined, and we move on. Eventually we come to Jesus Christ, whose life, words, miracles, death and resurrection are all based on history. We have already found that all references in the Bible to history are accurate, therefore everything about Jesus in the Bible is underpinned by something we know to be dependable.
Logically, if we believe the Bible is accurate, and the Bible also says it is accurate, and the evidence which the whole Bible sits in is accurate, then we have only one conclusion to make.
But what do we mean when we say “The Bible is the inspired Word of God?”
There are three branches of thought on this question, and each has something valuable to say (though I must confess I much prefer the third point of view):
There are those who believe the Bible is ‘inspired’, but in a similar way to Shakespeare or any of the great Classics. These people will say that its inspiration is breathtaking, and it has lifted their spirits and encouraged people from all walks of life with its amazing words. They have been ‘inspired’ by its teaching in much the same way as some people are ‘inspired’ by Tchaikovski’s 1812 overture, or Beethoven’s 9th. Some people happily place the Bible on a shelf alongside Dickens, or Keats, Wordsworth or Tolstoy. They see it as a literary masterpiece – perhaps the greatest book ever written, but they attribute its wisdom and beauty to the greatness of the writers and not to some divine Being who may have had a hand in compiling its wonderful pages.
A second group will acknowledge some divine input into the Bible, but only in the form of kernels of truth, or great principles. They will say the Bible ‘contains’ the Word of God, but that along with this thread of pure truth, there are also many myths, legends, mistakes, false ideas, pagan teachings and personal thoughts. They will have no problem with any version on the market, and will happily accept any paraphrase, because they will not see the altering of the words as a violation of anything particularly sacred. These people are often quick to interpret the Bible and can make it mean almost anything they want it to mean. They are also, in some cases, quick to make their own interpretations, without consulting any reliable Bible-study books. For example, one sermon I heard, which was based on the feeding of the five thousand, was (said the minister) specifically designed to teach us not to be litterbugs. “Jesus told the people to collect the scraps after the meal in order to teach us to care for our environment,” He said.
The third group believe that every word of the Old and New Testaments is direct from God, but through the media of a person. This is why the Bible has a certain change of style according to the person who was writing, and also the subject. We can discern a change in style between the writings of Moses (the first five books) the poetry of Solomon, the historical narrative of Luke, and the fatherly care of Peter. God has allowed each of His writers to influence His Book with their different personalities, yet without losing any truth or making a single mistake. This alone is a miracle, but it also challenges us with one of those ‘divine contradictions’. Who wrote the Bible – God or Man? Well both, but God supervised all of it.
What does the Bible say about itself? In two NT verses it makes claims primarily about the OT, but by implication these verses also apply to the NT because it has been recognized and accepted by all the Mainline churches for nearly 2000 years as God’s Word too.
2Peter 3:16 “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction (and) for training in righteousness . . .” and in 2Peter 1:21 “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
In the first of these verses the word “inspired” is used. The Greek, ‘theopneustos’, means “divinely breathed in”. In the second verse “moved” in Greek is ‘phero’ meaning “carried along” which implies an uplifting and a filling by God, but definitely not some sort of robotic or mechanical method.
A word used to describe this belief in the perfection of the original documents is “plenary”. This word is used to mean that, even though humans were the agent by which the Scriptures were written, yet the Holy Spirit supervised and controlled and guided every word they wrote to make sure all the documents were perfect and free of error
The wonder of the Bible is its dual human and divine origins, both working together to produce a book which has never admitted a mistake. This of course confounds the skeptics, because the fact that humans had a hand in writing the Bible gives them an opportunity to accuse it of fallibility, yet God has over-ruled so effectively, the human agency has not managed to include any mistakes! All other books written by humans contain mistakes, but the Bible has none, despite the fact that it was written by dozens of different people over a span of thousands of years. God seems to delight in providing things that can be seen in two ways, as a challenge to skeptics and a challenge to faith.
Another example is Jesus – was he a man or was he God? When the Pharisees looked at him they saw “the son of the carpenter”, a mere man, but those who had a deeper revelation fell at his feet and worshipped him. Another example is the stone which the Israelites carried with them – to some it was just an old rock, to others it was a miraculous source of water. The serpent on the stake was another example – those who looked at it in faith were healed, but those who would not look at it died. In science we have similar seeming contradictions: is light a wave or a particle? And who does the work here on Earth, is it God or is it the Church? We live in a universe which has no limit to size, in either largeness or smallness, since infinity meets us in whichever direction we look, and it is small wonder then that God’s book the Bible should also present an enigma. Its inspiration is just one of these insoluble problems.
Which Bible is inspired?
For a small percentage of the Church, the KJ version of 1611 is the most perfect version, despite the fact that since 1611 many words and phrases have had to be revised because of imperfect understanding of Greek or Hebrew. Nevertheless these extremists consider the antiquated English of the KJ to be so divinely inspired they cling to that version as the only true Word of God – in much the same way that people will not suffer Shakespearean plays to be updated or modernized. Consequently, as modern English naturally evolves and adapts to changing times, the words of Shakespeare and the words of the KJ are becoming increasingly obscure. Eventually, if current trends continue, Shakespearean and KJ Version purists will find themselves so isolated by their preserved language they will be unable to make themselves understood. A person who attends a play by Shakespeare in a few hundred years from now may not understand a single sentence, and a purist who quotes the KJ may be as intelligible as a computer repair manual in the hands of a child.
Even further along the extreme path is the purist who would, if they could, read and quote only the original Greek or Hebrew texts, but even they usually recognize how untenable that would be. Not that a working knowledge of these two languages is useless, but to say that because God wrote the original Word of God in these languages we ought to stick with them is to miss the point about God’s plan to reach the world with His message of love and reconciliation. Just one aspect of the extreme view should be enough to show how unworkable it would be: missionaries would need to teach people Greek before they could share the Gospel!
So even those who maintain the KJ is the best version of God’s Word have had to concede that it is (already) a translation, and therefore constitutes a big step away from the original text. They have had to compromise in order to understand it themselves, and they must compromise further if they want to convey it to the unsaved.
So which Bible is inspired – the original Greek or Hebrew, or the KJ, or the modern-day translations in every major language of the world? In my opinion, all of them, because they are all linked together in one continuous translation process.
Returning to the word “plenary” we have several NT verse which support this claim: Paul says in 2Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is inspired by God . . .” and in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 he says “For this reason we also thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but what it really is, the Word of God.”
Again, the Bible ends with this warning: “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book (or booklet, i.e. Revelation): if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.” Revelation 22:18,19.
And in 1Corinthians 2:13 Paul says: “Which things also we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.”
Old and New Testaments.
There is one small school of thought which claims that only the OT is inspired, and that whenever the NT speaks of “God’s Word” it is referring to the OT, since at the time the statements were made, the NT was not a recognized body of work as we have it today. Here is some support for this claim, but it is far too narrow a view because there are NT references which look beyond the OT and recognize another body of work – a body which we now call the New Testament.
2Timothy 3:15,16 “Since you were a child you have know the holy scriptures . . . . all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable . . .” This refers to the OT scriptures. Yet Paul equates his own words with the OT as in the above, 1Corinthians2:13.
The expression “It is written” occurs 24 times in the OT, and 69 times in the NT. This shows how important every word written by God is, that the Holy Spirit constantly quotes it as an authority.
Jesus referred to the words (or actual text of the OT) when he needed evidence to verify his claims: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke 24:25-27, and also see verse 44 “These are the words which I spoke to you, when I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” Note the emphasis on the actual written text.
Another example is in Hebrews 10:7 “Then said I, Lo I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do your will, O God.” In this verse Jesus is speaking about his mission and the written word of God on which his mission was based.
Jesus referred his enemies to the Scriptures in Matthew 21:42 – “Did you never read in the Scriptures, “The stone which the builders rejected . . .”
“For whatsoever things were written previously were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort (drawn from) the Scriptures might have hope.” Romans 15:4
The OT was, in Paul’s day, just as prone to misinterpretation and abuse as the NT is today. See 2Peter 3:16.
As far as the accuracy of Scripture was concerned, Jesus even claimed that the punctuation marks were important: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Matthew 4:18. (Incidentally, this is hyperbole. Jesus is not saying that heaven and earth will pass away, but that it is easier for that to happen than for any detail of the Scriptures to fail. We have some modern equivalents, such as “Once in a blue moon. Till hell freezes over. Pigs might fly.”)
Paul calls the OT Scriptures “the oracles of God” Romans 3:2. Oracles are spoken words, or utterances. See also Hebrews 5:12.
God told the prophet Jeremiah to speak “all the words that I command you to speak to them, and diminish not a word.” Jeremiah 26:2. This scrupulous care of every word is also commanded in Revelation 22:18 and 19. The broader view of this command is that God intended Jeremiah to speak an unadulterated, or complete message, and not to reduce it or water it down. The narrow view is that God intended Jeremiah to be precise to the finest degree in a technical sense. I think we have to be careful how we understand this because to follow one path could lead us away from what God said, and the other could lead us too close. It was the message which mattered most of all.
I once met a sincere Christian who told me he would never place the Bible on the floor. This wonderful but, I think totally misplaced zeal captures the sort of approach which some Christian have towards Scripture. The Bible itself, that is the cover, the pages, the typeface and the binding, has become a sort of precious relic, and the message it carries has been placed within a museum glass case, where it can be preserved for all time. It matters not to these people that when they quote the KJ to the lost very few understand it. It matters not to them that they appear as ‘irrelevant’ to our modern world as a vintage car on a modern highway. The KJ has, for them, become part of the Age of Steam. It belongs in an antique shop, along with all the bric-a-brac the Victorian times – porcelain dolls, wrought iron wheels, tin toys and lead soldiers.
The KJ translation was a very good translation it its day, there is no doubt about that. It was the work of 47 scholars, all appointed by James the 1st of England. It took seven years to compile. The scholars divided into 6 groups and each group was assigned a particular portion of the work. The renderings of each group were then reviewed by the entire body of scholars. At every step in the process the scholars tried to weave their translations together with word-meanings as close to the original Hebrew or Greek, yet at the same time preserving idioms and rhythms embedded in the original language. The result was a Bible which matched the kind of English spoken by people of 1611, and much of that translation still rings with a unique sound today. Many people are attracted to the KJ simply because of its beautiful language, just as many are attracted to Shakespeare or the Classics for the same reason. But to claim that the English of 1611 is “God’s Word” for all time is completely unwarranted.
This is why we need to distinguish between what God wrote and what God means – the title of this essay. It is easy to prove the accuracy of the text, and it is easy to show that every word of both the OT and the NT are inspired, but if we stop there, we run the risk of turning ourselves and our Bibles into museum pieces.
I have no problem with people who like to study the text. The exegetical and linguistic branches of theology are fascinating and important, and the results are often relevant to the Church because of the new discoveries, and the modifications they contribute to our understanding of the Bible. But if we do not take the message out and present it to the lost in a way they can understand, then we might as well lock ourselves away in a monastery.
Jesus himself, a man who knew all the Scriptures perfectly, spent most of his time preaching to uneducated and illiterate people. There is not a single instance of him urging his hearers to get busy with “textual criticism” or “a study of linguistics”. Jesus had a simple message, which he housed in simple language, and it is highly unlikely that anyone went away thinking “What a remarkably technical message that was” or, “I would have understood him better if I had previously studied Hebrew because he used a very outdated style of language.”
Time is precious, and life is alarmingly short. It is all very well for someone to hammer away at some obscure text, but while they are doing that there are lost souls perishing. The question we ought to be asking is “Will my studies help me with my evangelism, or are they an end in themselves?”
When I was in my twenties my mother began to die of cancer. It was two years before she succumbed, after several huge operations, but during that time she began to show more and more interest in spiritual things. At one point I offered her my Bible but she said she could not understand it. Having been raised during the times when the KJ was the prevalent version in most churches, her only memory of ‘the Bible’ was the obscure Shakespearean English common when she was a child. I offered to buy her a Living Bible, a paraphrase that had just recently appeared, by Kenneth Taylor. It was not a version that I personally liked, but I realized that it was simple, and easy to read, and for my mother it might form a bridge to more accurate versions. With her assent I bought a copy and gave it to her.
After a few days I asked her how she was getting on, and with eyes wide with wonder she said “they never told me that in Sunday school!” She related some of the events in the book of Acts including the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, and expressed amazement at how much of the Bible her Sunday school teachers had failed to tell her.
At this point the ‘Scripture Preservation Society’ or some such group might have jumped in and, with great annoyance, whipped the Paraphrase out of her hands and replaced it with a KJ version. “That is the only Bible you should read!” they might say, “Because that spurious counterfeit, that disgusting paraphrase is a Man-made forgery, a sham, an adulterated deception!”
For my mother, the meaning of the Bible was far more important than the text. She continued to read sporadically until, eventually, she received Christ, and shortly after that, died. I will be for ever grateful to Kenneth Taylor for his work.
As C.S.Lewis said “You can’t lay down any pattern for God. There are many different ways of bringing people into His Kingdom, even some ways that I especially dislike! I have therefore learned to be cautious in my judgement.” (Christian Reunion and other Essays, page 87)
In 1947 Lewis wrote an essay entitled ‘Modern Translations of the Bible’ (See ‘First and Second Things’, page 85) in which he raises several good points. These are the points, in summary:
1. When the KJ version was proposed, many people shuddered at the thought of what they called a “barbarous” English version of their precious Latin Vulgate. To them the Vulgate was the best translation in the world, and the KJ came as a poor second, or a usurper.
2. The Greek NT is not a work of literary art. It was originally written in a rather ordinary language, the common tongue of people who used it for ordinary conversation.
3. When the KJ appeared, it was translated into the language of its day, but it has ceased to be as relevant as it once was because today’s English has moved on.
4. Much of the KJ has become so ‘Shakespearean’ the real down-to-earth impact is lost to us. We enjoy the sound of the phrasing but miss the meaning.
The need for preserving the original texts is without a doubt extremely important. Since all the Bible is based on copies of some first text, we need to know, to the closest we can get, what exactly God wrote. For this reason we need the purists, and we need to be sure that what we hold in our hands today is as close to what God originally wrote as we can be. Otherwise we can never have any assurance that what we believe, and what we urge others to believe, is reliable.
Thanks to the labours of many scholars in many different fields, the Church has a substantial deposit of supportive works, and it to these that many Christians go when they need some further information, or evidence. The Word of God must be clearly defined and presented as such, and all Christians ought to be grateful for the millions of hours that have gone into Bible-related research.
But the question, what is God’s message still remains. If we want to win the lost into God’s Kingdom, we need to be able to present what God means, and use the vernacular, or common language of our own day. And this is exactly what we do when we teach children – unless we are Professor Gradgrind the supreme Purist, who reads from his big, black, musty old KJ Bible to his wondering, blank-faced two and three-year olds! But in Sunday schools and in homes, the message of God’s Word is presented in a language suitable for the age group it is designed for. And with the message there are usually songs, pictures, and activities – the interminable cutouts and colouring in sheets – and colourful charts. The Bible is simplified, paraphrased, padded out and turned into an entertaining experience. The same sort of thing happens when the Bible is taught to semi-illiterate adults, or to people from another country who have only a slim grasp of English. The text of the Bible must take second place to the clarity of the message; because God’s first and most important aim is to explain His message to the lost.
Conversely, imagine the ‘scholarly’ approach to soul-winning. Uninformed lay people, ordinary people of the street, listeners such as these who form the majority of the population, would find the reading of obscure texts quite irrelevant, and the Gospel would be buried and hidden from their sight. Perhaps one or two more intelligent listeners would grasp the message, but most would not, and so all the zeal for purity would actually form the greatest barrier against the very work which God requires! The ‘best friends’ of God would, like the Purist Pharisees, actually form a barrier between God and the lost.
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