Episode 55: Inspiration – what is God’s word?
Josh and Paul tackle the far-reaching concept of inspiration. What does it mean for something to be the inspired word of God? Is it possible to explain how that happens, and if we can’t, what certainty can we have about divine authority behind the text of the Bible? As they consider these questions it becomes clear how important it is to treat the text with respect and be responsible and humble in how we draw out our interpretations of God’s word.
Josh and Paul begin the conversation by sharing personal reflections on why they might consider the Bible to be God’s communication to humanity before diving into a more detailed conversation about the topic.
God’s word is communication
Josh and Paul talk about the components of communication and where the authority of the message should be placed. Sections of text or sentences can require context before they can be fully understood. “That toilet’s out of order but you can use the floor below” could mean a couple of things(!) however the correct meaning is clearly that intended by whoever made this statement! This applies to God’s word as an act of communication. It is reasonable to assume that God intends a meaning to be conveyed by each section of scripture. Recognising that not all interpretations are equal when we think about what is inspired and what is intended by God.
Having some humility to try our hardest to understand God’s intended message is very important. Josh and Paul look at the example of Genesis 9:18-29 where Noah gets drunk after the flood and one of his grandsons, Canaan, is cursed. (See the Introduction to Genesis episode for how this fits into the overall narrative of Genesis). This passage was used to justify the slavery of black people, which is an abhorrent interpretation and a grossly offensive use of the scripture. As an extreme example, it is fairly clear that this wasn’t the intended message of God in this passage, therefore that interpretation most definitely doesn’t carry authority as God’s word.
How does inspiration work?
Continuing the conversation, Josh and Paul talk about the few passages that might tell us the process of inspiration. Starting with 2 Peter 1:20-21, and using examples such as Moses in Exodus 4:11 and David in 2 Samuel 23:2, they note how the prophets are speaking not from their own will, but moved by the spirit of God. However, the words they speak still reflect their own language, personality, context and customs. God has chosen to communicate his message to humanity via human intermediaries, in ways that will be effective. This is summed up in Romans 6:19.
Another key verse is 2 Timothy 3:15-16, which is specifically about the sacred writings, not just about spoken words. Again, there is no description of how this occurs, but inspiration is clearly about the whole chain of events from ideas spoken, to being written down and then assembled into a collection of books. The idea of God’s word being inspired is more of a holistic term for this whole activity, not just the initial event. Inspiration is therefore about God’s choice to communicate his message through humans. As one early Christadelphian wrote:
Doubt and inconsistency in God’s word?
Josh and Paul finish the podcast episode by briefly considering a couple of objections about the Bible being in any way the word of God. They notice that supposed contradictions often fail to recognise the narrative and context. They don’t give weight to the intended meaning of the author and therefore the contradictions are often not valid.
Most importantly, Jesus saw the scriptures as authoritative and this provides a benchmark for Christians. By treating the Bible with respect and discerning the meaning responsibly and humbly, we can follow the example of Jesus and learn to carefully hear God’s word.
- Why are there 4 gospels? – Dan and Jon discuss the differences between the gospels and whether they contradict each other. Does this mean we cannot trust the gospels?
- We also did a two part episode on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts.
- How to read and understand prophecy was the topic of our very first Bible Feed conversation!
Inspiration – what is God’s word?
Josh: So welcome everyone, and this week we are going to be covering a Bible theme. This time more of a concept and it’s a pretty far reaching concept: inspiration. This is Josh here and Paul is with me. How are you doing Paul?
Paul: Hi, I am great. It’s good to have you back on hosting for us, Josh.
Josh: It’s it’s nice to be back doing this online. We are talking about the Bible and inspiration. As a word you’d hear inspiration banded around a lot. If I was interviewing Paul after he had just released a music album or something like that, maybe I might ask, you know, what was your inspiration for writing such and such a song or on a baking program about who inspired this particular recipe that you’ve concocted?
But if we think about the Bible as being inspired, what does that mean?
Do we see that term in the Bible? How does inspiration work? That’s some of the things that we want to think about here in in this episode. [00:01:00]
Paul: I agree. And there’s very little direct information about this concept of the divine inspiration of anything, whether it’s the Bible or something else. There’s very little direct information about that. But as you read the Bible, you see it’s kind of there embedded as an underlying assumption, as you read it, you know, there are phrases like, thus says the Lord, or the word of the Lord came to me saying, and those kind of phrases, you see crop up a lot.
But as we explore the question and this concept, inevitably, because it is so foundational, it touches on all sorts of issues and raises all sorts of questions. So I’m going to say here up front, we are not going to be able to answer all the possible questions that you might have about inspiration and how it works and what it is.
You know, for example, we are not going to cover the canon of scripture. Why do we have 66 books in the, the Protestant canon, the Bible that we generally use? We’re not going to cover how that came together. And we’re not particularly going to think [00:02:00] about whether being inspired to write something or say something is something that happens to people today, we’re not going to address those, those kind of questions, we’ll address a lot of other things , but not those.
Josh: Still there’s plenty on the table to be getting on with. We are certainly not alone in concluding that God has communicated through the Bible and that we would view it as God’s word. And we would understand that, and we’ll go into detail about what we, what we mean by that.
But if you could just sort of start with what are some of the things that lead you to that conclusion, that have, have brought you to think that?
Paul: From a personal point of view, my belief in the existence of God as the best explanation for the universe in which we live and the way life is and the way we are as human beings, you know, my belief in a God because of those things comes largely from reasons outside of the Bible.
So, you know, when I think about the origins of stuff [00:03:00] and God being the best explanation for that, when I think of the historical Jesus event and the historical facts around his claimed resurrection and things like, you know, human views of what’s right and wrong and morality and how deeply embedded that is in human thinking and behaviour. All of that leaves me thinking God is the best explanation for that. And so I tend to think, if there’s a God for those reasons outside the Bible and he’s interested in right and wrong and morality and those kind of things, then it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a God like that to have communicated to human beings who also have this sense of right and wrong.
Josh: That’s a long and powerful list of reasons that would bring someone to take this book seriously. I suppose because there are, as you say, many things outside it [00:04:00] that would lead someone to think that God is interested in humans and would be more likely than not willing and able to communicate with them.
So when I think about the biblical text, one of the other things that I find winsome and interesting is the great range of songs and laments and characters and stories and narratives that it contains that have power to still shape and affect things in our world today. And throughout history have proved useful and and powerful, interesting and engaging to people all around the world as they used it to build lives and their communities as well as wage wars and you know fight for civil rights for certain groups. To create thousands and thousands of paintings of the same images that are contained in the Bible. Unlike, you know, any other collection of ancient texts has a power and an effectiveness that no other collection of work has. It’s old and remote in some ways, but yet it’s very close and engaging and personal [00:05:00] and challenging in today’s world as well.
Paul: You’re absolutely right. In addition to those kind of reasons from outside the Bible for a God to communicate to us, once you start exploring the Bible, you start to see that, the value and the power, and it reinforces some of those unique features. You know, its relevance to the human condition, the explanatory worldview that it presents, and then you start to see all sorts of patterns and echoes across these diverse texts, across these 66 books. And it becomes a sort of virtuous circle. If you started out thinking that, yes, I think there probably is a God, therefore I’ll look at the Bible and then the Bible confirms that you were right in concluding that there was a God in some ways.
Josh: Yeah. Okay. We’ve said that it’s something that can be approached as one, but also it’s 66 books and there’s a lot of range in there. Let’s start to think about what does it mean to say something is God’s word as we think about the Bible and the books contained within [00:06:00] it.
Where would you like to begin to, to tackle this?
Paul: Yeah. I think what I’d like to do is just consider three key words here and, and those key words are communication and then authority, and then accountability. And I think it’s useful just to think about those three things. So firstly, communication. If you just think about how communication happens, you know, I will have an idea in my mind, and I want to communicate it to you, Josh. So somehow I need the idea that’s in my head that my brain is forming, transferred into your brain,
Josh: but not by osmosis!
Paul: indeed, and by the time it’s got to your brain it’s pretty similar to how it started out in my brain. And so I try and express it in, in words. And I may do that well, or I may do it imperfectly, but I try and express it in words. And then you hear those words and you interpret and understand hopefully something of what I’m trying to get across.
So there’s kind of four stages there at least, that, [00:07:00] there’s what I mean to, to get across, there’s the words that I put together to express that. You hear them and then you interpret and understand it. And you can see, that can go wrong!
Josh: yeah. Well, that’s two people who speak the same language face to face and already. We, we could have some problems in that.
Paul: yeah. And so we can have some fun with some examples of how it might go wrong.
So I’m, in my workplace and I’m taking a toilet break heading to the toilet, and the caretaker says to me, “I’m sorry, Paul, that toilet’s out of order, but you can use the floor below.”
Now the caretaker’s been perfectly clear in what he intended, what he means to say, and he’s not particularly ambiguous, but you can see, you could see how that might be misunderstood!
Josh: Sure. With dire consequences. Yeah, You’re absolutely right. There’s lots of examples of that where clearly the original idea has been communicated effectively, but might get mixed up. I’m a big fan of garden path sentences, so [00:08:00] something like “the barge floated down the river sank”, which even as you read it, were you to look at it on piece of paper, you sort of get confused by the end of the sentence and you realize, actually should have sort of read it as “the barge, floated down the river, sank”
Or, “stolen painting found by a tree.”
Josh: is this, you know, an anthropomorphic elm that’s recovered the Rembrandt? Or was it just left perched or propped up next to it?
Paul: Those kind of examples are a bit frivolous and they’re just playing around with some of the ambiguities of the English language and sentence construction there.
But, and you perhaps might expect if there’s a divine involvement in expressing a meaning, an intended meaning in words, that some of that ambiguity you might expect not to be there. But, but even without that, it’s possible for kind of deeper cultural setting misunderstandings to occur.
So maybe the classic example of this is if I was to say to someone, [00:09:00] “I think we should get married” then that, I mean, apart from the fact of expressing it in that way, that sounds terribly unromantic and therefore the answer should be clear, but if I was to say that, so “I think we should get married”, you know, in one cultural setting, that means I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.
But in a different cultural setting, even today, or certainly in times past or in parts of the hierarchy of society. It means something more like, “I think that our families should form a mutually beneficial alliance for our financial benefit”. So you kind of need to know where the cultural setting is for a statement in order to really understand what it means.
Josh: Sure, in isolation, you lose out on quite a few things possibly without the wider picture.
Okay. So that highlights some of the challenges that there are with communication that we that we can be aware of. Communication was your first point. Your second word that you wanted to approach this with was authority. What do [00:10:00] you, what do you mean by that?
Paul: Yeah, so in that chain of communication, now let’s think about what part of that chain do you treat as authoritative, you know, where does the authority lie and what do you attach authority to because of who said it? Obviously, particularly relevant when we’re coming to something being treated as God’s word and attaching the authority of God to it.
So what part of that chain should be treated as authoritative? Now it seems pretty clear to me that the authority lies in what the communicator intends to mean right at the beginning, the meaning that is intended. So, in the example that I gave about the toilet not working, if I leave a mess on the floor, around the toilet that doesn’t work. I can’t say, I can’t claim, well, the caretaker said I could use the floor below, you know, the authority of the caretaker [00:11:00] saying that, rests in what he meant, as in go down a floor below and use a toilet on the floor below. So the authority rests on what he meant, not on how I misunderstood it or misinterpreted it.
So, again, trivial example, but it is exactly the same when we come to think about looking at the Bible and thinking about where the authority lies for it to be God’s word. And it’s obviously in what God intends to communicate and we can take an example, and I chose this example because we’ve referred to it recently in the podcast on Genesis that Dan did with Laurence, because otherwise you might think, what a strange example to choose.
It’s the example in Genesis, right at the end of the flood when Noah comes out of the ark at the end of the flood. And he plants a vineyard, grows some grapes, makes some wine, gets terribly drunk. And then there’s a really awkward event with Ham, and his son, Canaan the son of Ham, in which [00:12:00] Noah is found in a compromising state in, in his tent.
And as a result of that, there’s a statement about a curse on Canaan the son of Ham. So, so there’s a strange event, but believe it or not, that event has been used to justify the slavery of black people, because, Ham, father of black people in the genealogy as it unfolds and there’s this curse, and so therefore it’s okay.
You know, it’s a horrible perversion, you look at it and you think, how could you reach that conclusion? How could you look at that, interpret that, and take that meaning from it? It’s far worse than leaving a mess on the toilet floor for the caretaker, you know. You cannot conceive that that is what God intended the meaning of that passage to be.
The meaning [00:13:00] is much more about here’s Noah emerging from the ark, this kind of renewal of creation. And immediately something goes wrong. Somebody does something that they shouldn’t and there’s a curse. So humanity just after the flood is just the same as Adam and Eve were in the garden kind of message.
Josh: So in this example, then you would say that the authority of the message intended in the text there has been ignored by these particular interpreters, and they’ve instead rested on their own authority to justify the answer that they were looking for and found something that they can manipulate in order to do that.
Paul: So in that chain, there’s the intended meaning expressed in the words that we see in Genesis chapter nine…
Paul: …somebody’s read, heard those words, and then put a completely different interpretation on it, and then said: that’s where the authority lies. It lies in my interpretation, not in what God’s intended meaning was. So, it just illustrates [00:14:00] how important it is that we approach this in the right way.
There’s a few words, a quick quote from the beginning of a book that’s actually designed for teaching children the stories of the Bible by John and Kim Walton. And the phrase is this: “only the things that scripture intends to teach carry the authority of the text”, which is kind of getting to that point.
Josh: Yes. That’s very good. Okay, so that was the authority, the second of your three words. What about the third word? Accountability?
Paul: So this is just simply that if we’ve taken the time and the care to try and get to a genuine understanding of the meaning behind this communication from God and we attach the authority of God to that. Then we make ourselves accountable to that, because we’ve attached the authority of God as creator to that and we have to do something in response to it.
It also, I guess, means that we should, we must avoid [00:15:00] putting the authority in the wrong place as that example shows and putting it on our interpretations, particularly if we can’t honestly be sure about what the communicator meant.
Josh: Right. so clearly yes, these three are closely linked. And so the point, when you add the three up, is that the authority rests in the meaning intended by the communicator. In this case the communicator is God and the authority does not rest in the particular interpretation of the hearer or the reader.
And so as we approach this subject, a level of humility about our interpretations is, is appropriate.
All right. So, let’s dive in now. Let’s explore, you know, how God may have communicated and, and sort of get into what inspiration might mean and what it might look like.
Paul: As we said at the outset, there’s, there’s not a lot of information about how inspiration happens. There’s, there’s a couple of verses that we’ll look at that are key in this, and, and anyone who’s [00:16:00] familiar with this subject won’t be surprised that we start off in the 2nd letter of Peter and chapter 1. From 2 Peter chapter 1, just the last two verses I think.
Josh: Sure. So 2ns Peter chapter 1 starting at verse 20. “First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
Paul: Okay, so, the first thing to note from that is, is that it’s talking about people speaking, men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit in that quotation. So when we think about the Bibles that we have in front of us, a large proportion of that text was actually spoken before it was written.
It was something delivered by Moses or the prophets, the psalmist sang [00:17:00] the psalms. So a large proportion of it was spoken before they were written. But that uses this phrase “that men were moved by the Holy Spirit”. It’s quite a strong word that “moved”. It’s the same word that’s used when Paul was on a ship in the Mediterranean and they had to let it drive in, in the storm.
It was kind of compelled or propelled along by the storm. So it’s quite a strong, strong word. But, still not very much idea about. What that means and what it, what it might have been like.
Paul: But there’s a couple of things, a couple of examples. One from Moses and one from David.
So Moses in the book of Exodus when he is in front of the burning bush, and he is being asked to go and, and lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He says, I’m not a great speaker. I’m not, not good at this kind of thing.
Paul: Perhaps someone else can do it. And the answer of God in Exodus chapter four is along the lines of, well, I’m the creator of all things [00:18:00] and I made man’s mouth. So don’t you think I can ensure that you have the right words and the right things to say if I’m with you? But again, yeah, how exactly that works we don’t know.
And there’s something similar with the producer of the Psalms. So, a lot of them written by David, and in 2 Samuel 23 he says “The spirit of the Lord speaks by me. His word is on my tongue.” So it’s a similar kind of thing that there’s some sense in which these people understand that they are speaking things given to them by God, by some means.
But I don’t think that should lead us to the conclusion that, physically, the movement of the mouth and the tongue and the larynx is kind of independently controlled, and they have no control of this because as you read the Psalms, you find things like the words of Psalm 73 which says,[00:19:00] “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” and things like that.
And he’s complaining about seeing the prosperity of the wicked. And you think, I can imagine David did feel like that and it’s a genuine reflection of the personality of the individual. And there’s another example in Psalm 51 of David again. He says, “have mercy on me, oh God, according to your steadfast love.
According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions, wash me throughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before you.” And so, you know, he’s done something wrong. He knows he’s done something wrong, and that’s a genuine expression of regret. Quite natural to come out of the mouth of someone. So there’s a great deal of the circumstance, the personality of the individuals involved here.
Josh: I mean, even [00:20:00] just thinking back to your first example with Moses in Exodus, chapter 4, you know, that’s Moses saying, I’m not a very good speaker. You’ve given me this big task, but I’m not one for standing on the soapbox and projecting so that the people in the back of the room can hear me. That exchange and the fact that God then says, Okay, well let’s look to Aaron, and he’s a great speaker, let’s get him. But you are still part of the plan.
There is this interaction that the men and women will speak, they’ll speak in their own language and they’ll use the vocabulary of the day. They’ll use the method and the means of the day. So you look at the Psalms you know, that’s a style of writing, of putting something to music, makes it great and easy to memorize, easy to sort of take and travel with you.
And so, those sorts of things, I think we need to, to take those into account when we think about the authoritative meaning of what it is that we are reading.
Paul: Yeah that’s nicely summed up I think in some words that, that Paul wrote to the Romans he said about [00:21:00] the analogy that he’s using in Romans chapter 6, he says, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.”
And, that’s what we have, it’s communication through human intermediaries. Whatever God has communicated here, it’s through human intermediaries in human languages. With words meaning the same as they mean in normal usage. Because that’s an effective way to communicate to human beings.
Josh: Certainly. Okay. Well, should we have a look at another verse, another key example?
Paul: the second key one is 2nd of Timothy chapter 3.
Josh: Mm-hmm. . Okay. So should I read a couple verses from
Paul: Yeah. Versus 15 and 16 will do us there.
Josh: Okay, so verse 15, “and how from childhood you, Timothy have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God [00:22:00] and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
Paul: Yeah. so different from the first one that we looked in, in the epistle of Peter. This is explicitly talking about scripture as in the writings. And, the version that you read, did it say God breathed?
Josh: It said all scripture is inspired by God. I have here in my New Revised Standard Version.
Paul: Okay. So, yeah, so in the New Revised Standard Version that you just read from there, Josh, it used the word inspired. In the English standard version that I’ve got in front of me, it says God breathed and that is actually the only place where this word is really used in, in the Bible. And it’s, it’s a unique word, theo-pneustos, which is a word Paul has invented, he’s just stitched together two words and it means God-breathed.
Josh: Huh. Great way to communicate by inventing words. Of course. [00:23:00]
Paul: And there’s no explanation of how, particularly there, how scripture is God-breathed, but as we’ve already seen, there’s a great diversity of voices and writers who are in different circumstances using different languages in different backgrounds, different, you know, some very poor in the stratas of society, some in the elite of society, different cultures, you know, whether it’s Canaanite or Egyptian, or a Syrian, Babylonian persian, they’re all there. But all in their different ways is God-breathed.
And I guess the other thing that’s in there is Paul is writing to Timothy and he is saying, Timothy, you’ve been acquainted with these “sacred writings”. So there’s a collection of texts, there’s a collection of writings that he’s familiar with. Which now gets also to, well these texts have been collected and they’ve been handed down, and now Timothy’s got them and he’s become well acquainted with [00:24:00] them. So that introduces a whole range of, of different issues.
Josh: Absolutely yes. The end of the previous verse, verse 14, is reminding him that these are things you’ve learned and you firmly believe and you also know from whom you learned them. So this has come to Timothy. And so then I suppose if we add all that up, that extends the communication chain a bit further, certainly much further than the example we had earlier where it’s you talking directly to me.
You know, we have the spoken words. We have those words written down. We have the collection of those words over time, geographically, brought together, we have copies made of that, we have those works edited or put together, put into an order, perhaps reordered, translated then from the original language into the language that you are then going to read and then you are going to understand.
So that is a longer chain of steps and events than a simple two people over a table having a chat.
Paul: But still consistent with our earlier [00:25:00] shorter chain…
Paul: …the authority rests at the beginning of that chain with what God, with what the communicator meant, but now you’ve got this long chain of, you know, collection, copying, editing and reordering and translation and so on.
And you know, I think we are back to the point that if there’s a God, and he’s communicating. If God is involved and he’s interested in communicating to us, then he’s interested in that whole sequence.
Josh: Right, Okay.
Paul: And if he’s God then he has the ability to, however, by whatever means that we don’t necessarily understand, but because we believe there’s a God we can trust that he can do it.
He has the ability to ensure that through that whole chain, the text ends up where he wants it to end up and in the form he wants it to end up in. And so I think it is helpful when we’re thinking about the concept of inspiration, not just to think of it as, [00:26:00] you know, there’s that spark, initial whatever thing that the Bible doesn’t really explain how it happens and it’s a one hit event. And then everything else is just history you know, I think it’s helpful to see it as a much more holistic process.
Josh: sure. Okay. So it’s key then, yes, God is able, if we believe there is a God, then he has the ability to ensure that we have the texts that we are intended to have. And the ability to read them and to understand them.
Paul: Yeah. And I think that is a really helpful way to look at it to, to see it holistically like that, because it might be tempting as we look at the Bible, to sort of try and break it up into pieces and say, Well, these words, these parts a human being could have produced, and so they’re just words, they’re just man’s words. But then these bits are a bit more difficult for humans to produce, so God was involved there and that bit’s God’s, you know, and to break it up like [00:27:00] that. And seeing, if there’s a God with that sort of interest in the whole process, removes the need to think of it like that.
So, and actually in the words of an early writer from the Christadelphian community that I just picked out, and I’ll just read them out now. he says,
“it would then in our view, be holding very erroneous language to say certain passages in the Bible are man’s, and certain passages in the Bible are God’s. No, every verse without exception is man’s, and every verse without exception is God’s. Whether we find him speaking directly there in his own name or whether he employs the entire personality of the writer in the scriptures, God has done nothing but by man, and man has done nothing but by God.”
I think that’s quite a useful way of seeing the, the whole.
Josh: Absolutely. Yes. That’s brilliant, isn’t it? Yeah. So we have in summary, God’s words in human words.
Paul: Actually, that’s a very much more succinct way of putting it, isn’t it?! God’s word in human words.
Josh: Okay. So [00:28:00]that’s really helpful. But obviously let’s stress other people would see things very, very differently. They would object to the idea that the Bible can, in any way be seen as God’s word. And there might be number of different reasons for that.
One very common objection might be that there are contradictions, there are inaccuracies within it. And so those ruin all the rest of the parts that might otherwise, have gotten past the censor as, as it were. How should we think about a challenge like that?
Paul: Yeah. And I’m sure you’ve probably seen the kind of lists of contradictions that, that people put out to discredit the Bible and, for that very reason to object to it being seen as God’s word. And this isn’t going to be, in any way, a comprehensive treatment of the lists of contradictions that you can find.
But often when I’ve reviewed those lists what I find is that many of them are short statements taken from different parts of the Bible.
Josh: [00:29:00] Mm-hmm.
Paul: You know, one taken from the law of Moses in Exodus or Deuteronomy or something, and then something from the words of Jesus or the, the letters in the New Testament and saying, you know, those short sentences appear to contradict each other.
And, and often when you do take into account the context, when you take into account the type of writing that’s involved, the contradiction isn’t really a contradiction. It’s just two statements made in different contexts by different people in different circumstances for different reasons that end up just giving, you know, a different perspective on an issue.
So, that does happen a lot with many of those claimed contradictions being like that. And similarly with inaccuracies that are claimed about the Bible, you know, often that just boils down to the language is fitting for the particular genre of writing or the cultural setting. [00:30:00] So it might refer to the earth being balanced on pillars, the foundations of the earth on pillars or something. Well, that, you know, if that’s the way people in ancient times thought of the earth, then that’s the way they communicated about the earth and particularly when that’s expressed in a poetic sense.
Josh: So for those types of things that may well help us understand why we might see things that are yes, taken from two very different places and then sort of awkwardly put together.
But there are some actual inconsistencies though that you might see in two very similar passages that are not clearly down to totally different context and genres put together. But some that just seem to be a regular inconsistency.
Paul: Yeah. I guess the other thing to say about potential contradictions is they’re treating the Bible as this kind of flat, homogenous text from beginning to end. and that’s not what it is.
And [00:31:00] actually, just as it’s inappropriate to use it in that way to find inconsistencies, and contradictions, it’s actually inappropriate to think of it in that way if you genuinely think it’s God’s word. It’s not going to help you understand and interpret it well if it’s treated as this kind of homogenous thing that doesn’t reflect the underlying circumstances and personalities of the human writers involved. So, but to your point, yes, there are other genuine inconsistencies.
You know, for example, there’s Jesus overturning the tables in the temple. In John’s gospel it appears right at the beginning of his ministry. In the other gospels it appears at the end. And you know, Jesus goes into the wilderness and is tempted and there are three temptations described in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s gospel. But in those two gospels, they’re in a different order.
Paul: And so what actually happened to Jesus in the wilderness? Something actually happened in a [00:32:00] particular order you know, is one of them right, and one of them wrong? Or maybe neither of them are a completely accurate reflection of the experience of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days.
Paul: It’s a record that is created and constructed for thematic reasons. And we cover this in a couple of other podcasts. “The reliability of the New Testament” and “Why are there four gospels”? And it may be worth looking those up if you want to delve into those. But that just shows that what’s more important to the communicator through these texts, that God as the communicator is communicating those themes and those messages rather those kinds of details of perhaps chronology, location and so on.
Josh: Yes. Which I suppose then that takes us back to one of your early points about the humility we need to bring to the table and [00:33:00] ourselves in what it is that we’re expecting. You know, as moderns, we wish there was someone with a 4K camera there to just take something and upload it so we could just watch it.
And then we’d know exactly what order things had happened and we could fulfil our modern expectations. But it might be, because we don’t have that and instead we have to think carefully about what it is we’re reading.
With that said, what then can we know as certain as we read the Bible today, as we might approach it for the first time or re-approach it after a long time? Are we left with inherent doubt about what is God’s word? Do we have the tools and the ability to actually get at what that authoritative meaning is, or do we just feel that it is a bit hopeless or it’s a massive sort of hill to climb and we’ve got to read lots of other, academic books to sort of get ourselves prepared just to not fall at the first hurdle when we open it up and start to read [00:34:00] ourselves?
Paul: Yeah. And I guess there’s two things there. The first is around, you know, how certain can we feel when we pick up our Bibles and read it, that we are reading something in which we can perceive God’s intended communication, if you like and treat it as authoritative?
And, I suppose a sort of overarching answer to that question is well, Jesus treated it as authoritative, you know, or the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible as he had it, and the apostles did.
So perhaps Jesus is more important. As the son of God and evidenced outside the Bible by the circumstances around his life, his death, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. Jesus as the son of God, if he is treating those texts as authoritative and referring to them as the word of God and as truth, [00:35:00] then that gives us the assurance that we can also pick it up and treat it as authoritative.
And actually when Jesus refers to his Hebrew Bible, if you like, he refers to the three sections when he’s talking on the road to Emmaus with those two people he’s demonstrating from Moses, from the prophets and from the Psalms, all the things that are spoken about him.
And those are essentially the three parts of the Hebrew Bible, so identifying the texts that he’s going to and treating as authoritative.
But to the second point, the second part of your question, can we so many centuries afterwards, can we get to enough of an understanding of the original cultural setting in order to be confident in understanding that meaning.
I think, what we can say is that the language, you know, much of it is clear and much of it is able to cross those cultural and time boundaries, if you like. [00:36:00] Particularly when we’re talking about the basic message, the key truths that are being communicated about, what is human nature? What does it need saving from? How is it to be saved and, and why and what the end goal is for the purpose of God. Understanding those things come through clearly.
But it’s still good to be aware of those cultural settings, particularly, before we nail down a particular interpretation of a detailed part of scripture or before we go into deeper things it’s good to be aware of those cultural implications that that might be at play.
Josh: So that then again, brings us back to that overarching point that we established: if there is a God we can trust in his ability to communicate. And so we are able with confidence to think that what we have is precisely what we were intended to have.
And yet there still is some responsibility that rests with us to treat what we have in front of us with respect [00:37:00] to take it seriously and to discern that meaning responsibly and humbly as we read, as we discuss, as we think about it on our own and with others.
Okay. Well Paul, thank you very much for your time and your thoughts.
That’s time for us to wrap up. You mentioned that we have some other podcast episodes and articles on the website that might be useful resources for people who want to dig a bit deeper into this. There are some earlier videos on Why and How to read the Bible that touch on this subject.
And there’s a two part episode on the Reliability of the New Testament text and there’s also some on how to read and interpret prophecy, again which touch on the inspiration question. So we would encourage you to look up those episodes.
Let us know what you think via the comments via email through the Bible Feed website. And thank you very much for, for joining us in this session and we’ll be back very soon.