The Message of Jesus is an incarnational message.
Jesus is the living word, and the God-breathed Scriptures resonate with the Story of God. A rational, literal approach misses the literary beauty of the Scriptures as a historical narrative and obscures its animating power.
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From Latin (scriptura), meaning the “act or product of writing”.
Thus, a body of writings considered sacred or authoritative.
From Greek (ta biblia), meaning “the books”.
Thus, the Scriptures sacred to Christians comprising the Old and New Testaments.
A Universal Gift
The Scriptures were written over a period spanning 40 generations. And every generation since has discovered its beauty and brilliance.
Since the Scriptures essentially tell a story, the story of God’s involvement in humanity’s story, it’s important for every generation to unwrap this universal, life-transforming gift. Without it, we have no founding or guiding narrative for understanding God’s character and His purpose, and our role within time-space reality.
This generation faces a unique challenge in unwrapping the gift of the Scriptures.
With all the benefits that the Internet provides, it has more than a few downsides. Aside from the obvious toxicity of misinformation and disinformation, it provides a deluge of biased and unfiltered opinion—where the loudest, hippest, most extreme voices thrive—that leaves one utterly swamped, overwhelmed and confused. And thanks to the ingenuity of search algorithms and remarketing technology, we are quickly locked into epistemic bubbles (or worse, echo chambers), environments of thought in which we only encounter information that amplifies and reinforces our own unfiltered musings and biased perspectives.
Adrift, rudderless and often disconnected from an integral relational and communal context, many find themselves lost, washed up on the bank of cynicism and scepticism: a deep-set suspicious, negative view of all things.
This article is an attempt to help you discover, or perhaps rediscover, the beauty and brilliance of the Scriptures by…
- looking at its purpose, inspiration and value,
- being honest about the many claims it never makes of itself and
- advocating for reading and studying the Scriptures as it was intended: as a historical narrative.
I hope it helps you fall in love with the Scriptures (whether for the first time or the umpteenth time). There is literally no other collection of stories like it. That alone is reason to cherish it.
What’s the Purpose of the Scriptures?
The Scriptures reveal God’s nature and purpose and thus speak to humanity’s nature and role as God’s representatives on the earth.
This purpose unfolds in three broad narrative phases:
Phase 1: Genesis 1-11
The Scriptures start with a wide-angle view of humanity’s origins, highlighting two things. On the one hand, it declares the goodness of all of creation and envisions humanity as God’s representatives, called to steward the earth on His behalf.
On the other hand, it explains the vast disparity between God’s good nature and intent and human beings’ selfish choices, a discrepancy caused by humanity’s forfeiting of the authority granted them. Yet, in the very midst of humanity’s fall from grace, a Messiah is promised.
Phase 2: Genesis 12 to Malachi 4
The Scriptures then focus on the history of the nation that emerges from a couple chosen by God, a people called to reflect God’s nature and fulfil His purpose. Importantly, God did not choose a favourite nation and attempt to force His will upon them. Instead, He makes a covenant with a flawed God-seeking couple and invites them, and their descendants (flaws and all), into a covenantal journey of discovering His nature and His purpose.
In the family, tribe and nation that emerges from this covenantal relationship, the need for the promised Messiah, a “God human”, becomes more acute as they struggle to faithfully represent God and do His will. In the unfolding history of this emerging nation, God points to the One who will reclaim humanity’s forfeited authority and restore their broken relationship with Him.
Phase 3: Matthew 1 to Revelation 22
The Scriptures then introduce the promised God human, Jesus, who restores all of humanity back to the Father and reclaims the once-forfeited authority. In doing so, He recommissions humanity as image-bearers and custodians, to steward the earth as God’s representatives. Jesus is not just the fulfilment of the redemptive plan of God, a thread visible throughout the story, but in His life, teachings and victory, Jesus is the Model and Promise of a new humanity.
The Scriptures wrap up with the seeds of the new humanity beginning to bloom. Secure in Jesus’ completed work and authority, the new humanity starts reflecting God’s nature and fulfilling their mission on the earth. And they do so amid the challenge of what it means to be human (in this present age) and in the face of brutal opposition from the corrupt Empire-Religion alliance. The new humanity stands firm by anchoring their vision in the knowledge that faithfulness to the Genesis-mandate will culminate in a coming new age on a restored earth.
Not only do the Scriptures reveal the majesty and character of God, informing our worldview, our values and our reason for being (the existential questions), it also serves as a mirror in which we see and reflect on our growth and development as human beings (the identity questions).
- In observing the struggles and failings of those who have gone before us, we learn about God’s grace and mercy, His patience and unfailing love.
- In observing Jesus, we see God’s Model for and Promise of a New Humanity.
- In imitating the life and teachings of Jesus, the Holy Spirit nurtures His Nature within us, enabling us to partner with Jesus and His new humanity in making a better world.
Are the Scriptures Divinely Inspired?
The Scriptures are unique, a simply brilliant collection of books. More so, there are at least three reasons to believe the Scriptures are divinely inspired:
- Internal Coherence and Thematic Consistency
- Fulfilment of Prophecy
- Seed-Fruit Principle: Testimony of Two Civilisations
Let’s look at each in turn…
Internal Coherence and Thematic Consistency
Consider the unique makeup of the Scriptures:
- It was written over a 1,500-year time span.
- It was written over 40 generations.
- It was written on three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe.
- It was written in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
- It was written by over 40 different authors, including kings, fishermen, poets, statesmen, philosophers, peasants and scholars.
- It was written in different places; from Moses in the wilderness, Jeremiah in a dungeon, Daniel in a palace, Luke while travelling, Paul in jail, John on the Isle of Patmos, and several in the rigours of a military campaign.
- It was written in times of both war and peace.
- It was written during vastly different moods: some writing from the heights of joy and others from the depths of despair.
The Scriptures address all the core issues of what it means to be human and a humane society, and it includes hundreds of controversial subjects.
Josh McDowell, the author of Evidence That Demands a Verdict, tells the story of asking a representative of the Great Books of the Western World to take just ten of his authors, all from only one walk of life, one generation, one place, one time, one mood, one continent, one language and just one controversial subject, and questioned whether they would agree. The man replied, “No,” and claimed that the result would be, “a conglomeration!” (That’s a polite word for hodgepodge.)
Yet, the Scriptures speak in harmony of mind and continuity of theme from Genesis to Revelation despite its authors writing their contributions unconnected from one another in terms of time, geography and setting.
Its internal coherence and thematic consistency are simply remarkable, and it points to inspiration beyond that capable of mere humans.
There is simply no book like it.
The Fulfilment of Prophecy
The Old Testament contains over 300 references to the Messiah that were directly fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and several hundred other prophetic references concerning the Jewish people, cities and other nations that have been fulfilled.
Take the Book of Isaiah as one example. It alone accounts for over 120 of these prophetic references to Jesus. The Book of Isaiah was written about 700 years before Jesus was born. There is simply no way the human author of this book could have predicted the details fulfilled in the historical Person of Jesus hundreds of years later unless he was divinely enabled.
Peter Stoner, in Science Speaks, took just eight prophecies relating to Jesus and used the science of probability to determine what chance Jesus could have fulfilled these eight prophecies, let alone the other 300+ prophecies, by mere coincidence.
His calculations? 1 in 100 000 000 000 000 000!
He illustrates this by supposing that “we take [this many] silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one?”
There can be no clearer evidence for the supernatural inspiration of the Scriptures than fulfilled prophecy.
Seed-Fruit Principle: Testimony of Two Civilisations
While we face significant challenges as a civilisation, we also live in the most liberated, prosperous and humane society in all of human history.
And modern civilisation is, of course, founded and shaped on values and principles revealed in the Scriptures, often called the Judeo-Christian values. They are the seed from which all that’s good and humane about our society has germinated.
To put it bluntly, the values revealed through the Scriptures work. The application of these values created the most humane society in the ancient world. While by no means perfect, ancient Hebrew society was a revolutionary step forward in terms of building a prosperous, more humane society that cared for the poor and advocated for the marginalised. Its imperfections and failures were due to the neglect or lack of implementation of these values.
The application of these same values, deepened through the teachings of Jesus, has produced today’s modern world, the most prosperous, humane society ever. And yet while far from perfect (again through neglect and lack of implementation), it’s the inbuilt values themselves that urge us to address our failings and contend for continual improvement.
These foundational values work. And they work universally. The corollary also proves the point: the most inhuman societies show a distinct absence of these values.
No mere collection of human writings, compiled across time and space, could beget such a body of synergistic values that, when faithfully applied, create a society that cherishes the dignity and worth of every person and allows chance and opportunity for all people to fulfil their potential.
The seed produces the fruit. And from the fruit, we know the quality of the seed.
While there are many values we could mention, let’s consider just one core value: the sanctity and worth of every individual life.
It’s hard to adequately stress how revolutionary Genesis 1:26-28 was in its historical setting.
For all of human history, only the king was considered a representation of God’s image. Every other human either took their worth from the monarch or was considered without value or worth. The Scriptures declare that every human—every man, woman and child—is made in the image of God in the very first chapter. What’s more, God declared all of creation “good” through each day of creation. When He ended day six, the creation of humanity, He declared, “it’s very good”.
The Scriptures teach the worth and sanctity of every individual, and it’s from this value that we derive the concept of the dignity and rights of every human being.
Now, it goes without saying that for many reasons, we have a long way to still go. Human society remains beset with injustice and inequality. The project is by no means complete.
However, not only have the Scriptures seeded the values that have helped us become the most liberated, prosperous and humane civilisation ever built, it has within itself the very mechanisms of self-reflection, self-evaluation and self-correction necessary to continue evolving into a better, more humane society.
When properly applied, values such as humility, accountability, forgiveness, restitution, responsibility, patience, community, collaboration, impartiality, liberty, justice and the like, are essentials to forging a better world. Only by continuing to water these seeds can we hope to harvest a fully realised humane and healthy society.
As former marxist Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist, powerfully states:
“For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.” (Italics added)
Think about it.
The ingenuity of the Scriptures means that while these values served ancient humanity, helping them change, adjust, evolve and become something better, these same values continue to serve modern humanity today, as we cherish and apply them.
The fruit we enjoy today, our freedoms and opportunities, is only possible because of the seeds sown yesterday. Yes, brave men and women have watered those seeds through the centuries at great personal cost. (And to them, we owe a debt of gratitude—one paid by appreciating our privileges and using them to create a better future for subsequent generations.) However, the quality of the seed determines the quality of the fruit. Without quality seeds, the best we can produce are weeds.
While there are, of course, pockets of wisdom found in other societies, like the ancient Greeks for instance, one can only conclude that humanity received help from above in the seeds revealed in this unique body of stories we know as the Scriptures.
There is simply no other book, or more accurately, collection of books, like it.
Science Vs. The Scriptures: Who Started the War?
There should be no conflict between the Scriptures and science.
It’s a war that’s completely unnecessary.
Imagine you ask me to write a story of my life journey. I’ll record highs and lows, recall special moments and unforgettable memories, focus on some seasons of my life more than others and emphasise certain prevailing themes I notice in my journey to date.
Now suppose you ask my doctor for my medical history. You’ll get an entirely different take on my life. Aside from one or two small overlaps (for instance, maybe a serious health scare made it into my personal account), the two will have nothing in common. There’s a good chance that the only thing you’ll be able to conclude is that the two accounts refer to the same person. The name at the top of each account would be a giveaway.
Just as you wouldn’t expect the two accounts to answer the same questions, the Scriptures and science address completely different sides of the same story: the development of the dominant species on this planet.
Of course, the analogy is limited; however, it serves the point well. While science answers questions related to the natural, physical world through experiment and observation, the Scriptures answer existential questions of human experience through reflection and relationships.
Who Fired the First Shot?
Who’s to blame for the confusion? Who started the war?
The problem is not the scientist. Nor is it the Scriptures.
The problem is us. Christendom.
To put it more accurately, the problem is what we’ve added to the Scriptures.
We’ve ascribed attributes to the Scriptures that it does not claim of itself. For reasons we’ll touch on in a moment, we’ve wrapped the Bible in such venerated language and there’s a good argument to make that we’ve idolised it. And once something is deified, it must be defended at all costs.
What attributes am I referring to? These two: inerrant and infallible.
Inerrant means there are no errors.
Infallible means there can be no errors.
Nowhere in the Scriptures do the authors make such claims.
Yet, slave to these two terms, we believe this premise:
Since the Bible is not false, there are no errors.
Based on our own claims of inerrancy and infallibility, the scientist believes the corollary:
Since there are errors, the Bible is false.
Incensed, the fundamentalist retorts: “The Bible is not false! There are no errors! If you suggest there are errors or contradictions, you’re affronting God.”
“But there are errors,” counters the scientist, “therefore the Bible is false. And I’m not just affronting your God, I’m denying His very existence.”
Both sides of the argument have accepted the false premise. In fact, both assume a religious, dogmatic position.
And it’s completely unnecessary.
So, Are the Scriptures Not Inerrant and Infallible?
The highest self-claim the Scriptures make is found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, where Paul speaks of the Old Testament Scriptures:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
(2 Timothy 3:16)
Peter likens Paul’s writings to Scripture (2 Peter 3:16) and Paul quotes Luke’s Gospel, referring to it as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18 c. Luke 10:7). That’s it in terms of the apostles’ claims.
So, let’s focus on the phrase Paul used in 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…
“Given by inspiration of God” (Greek: theopneustos) literally means, “God-breathed”.
It’s suggestive and beautifully poetic but it’s certainly not prescriptive or dogmatic.
For one, Adam was God-breathed and, well, he was anything but inerrant and infallible.
So, is the Bible inerrant and infallible?
Inerrant? No, it’s not inerrant. Both the writing process (creating the original text) and the transcribing process (preserving the original text) are subject to human imperfection.
While most textual inconsistencies can be explained through apologetics, discrepancies exist. Yes, importantly, the overall revelation of God’s nature and purpose is in no way obscured by such inconsistencies. Indeed, as mentioned already, the internal harmony and thematic consistency of its message transcends human ability.
That said, in terms of the writing process, we’re dealing with human authors who were first and foremost concerned with telling a story, not with fact-checking every last detail. Factual correctness was not the objective.
In terms of the transcribing process, we’re dealing with documents handed down over millennia and despite the labour of love and reverence shown in the elaborate (almost superhuman) transcribing processes involved, human error is inevitable. Of course, the discoveries of various Old Testament scrolls through the centuries have verified the accuracy of the transcribing process. However, the term inerrancy is an overstatement and an unnecessary claim the Scriptures itself does not make.
Infallible? Yes, this term has merit but only to the degree the Scriptures are viewed and used for the purpose it’s written. In this regard, The Westminster Dictionary states brilliantly that the Bible is “completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose”.
In other words, the Scriptures are the complete guide and authority for understanding God’s nature and purpose, and humanity’s nature and purpose in His plan. However, don’t expect the Scriptures to serve as the complete guide and authority on the make-up of a cell, or the birth of a star, or the boiling point of water. While I’m being light-hearted in my choice of examples, it does underline how silly it is to expect the Scriptures to serve as an authority for matters outside its purview.
What’s the conclusion then?
Dropping the term inerrant and refining the term infallible is both the honest and smart way forward.
Therefore, we can drop the false premise:
Since the Bible is not false, there are no errors.
Instead, we can state:
The Bible is true in its revelation of God’s nature and purpose.
Yes, the Bible does contain human error, but it speaks with integrity and authority concerning the nature and purpose of God and thus, it speaks with integrity and authority concerning our nature and purpose as human beings.
And we rethink these terms, not as a cop-out to secular opponents, but because the terms as absolute statements were never true. We need to admit that these words arose out of a specific need at an important time in history, as we’ll see in the next section, but they are now nothing but sacred cows. They’re eating all the good pasture and stinking out the gaff.
Okay, let’s now investigate when and why the Bible became wrapped in terms such as inerrancy and infallibility.
When Did The Bible Become Enshrined?
Let’s go back to the darkest of ages. Church and State exist in an unholy alliance. Religion is corrupt and septic. There’s an argument to be made that humanity has slipped into a worse condition than some of the lowest moments of Old Testament Israel.
A few brave followers of Jesus contend for change. However, they face the might and power of papal Rome. To defy the corrupt all-seeing, all-controlling papacy, Luther and co. need a higher court of appeal, a higher source of authority, from which to confront and break the entrenched authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Bible was that source.
And without it, the Protest Reformation would never have happened.
And the many subsequent reformations would not have happened either. Indeed, the Enlightenment would also not have seen the light of day.
Aided by Gutenberg’s printing press, the Scriptures were wrenched out of the vice-like grip of the ruling clergy and made available to the common person.
Gratitude is the only response to such a development in human history. Today, we not only have access to the Scriptures, but we can access it through multiple translations and paraphrases in multiple, convenient formats.
However, the means necessary to confront Rome became the means that defined the Protestant Reformation’s very identity. The means became the End (with a capital E).
Appropriate reverence for the Bible turned into veneration and ultimately deification. The higher source of authority morphed into the highest source of authority. And in order to cut off every last tentacle from Rome, the Bible was viewed as the ultimate source of authority on all matters, not merely matters of faith.
In a sense, the Protestant Reformation pledged their loyalty to the Bible on a par with God Himself and lost the ability to separate their devotion for God from their devotion to the Bible.
Today, some denominational and church statements of faith begin their creeds asserting the primacy of the Bible even before mentioning God Himself. A Bible-believing Christian is superior to one who is merely a Christian, as though tacking on the adjective automatically adds authority and credibility.
Of course, we know that the Word of God is a Person, not a book (John 1:1-5, 14). Yes, the book reveals the Person, but it is merely an instrument, a beautiful, unique, ingenious, inspired instrument, but not to be equated with the Person Jesus.
To put it bluntly, when we equate the book with Jesus, we idolise the book.
Who Turned the Lights On?
The Enlightenment of the 18th century is aptly named. Out of the darkest of shadows, humanity leapt free from corrupt and exploitive papal control through the Protestant Reformation, and this became the catalyst for humanity to start to think freely and widely, to study the natural universe using the faculties of observation and reason. With this liberated and newfound inquiry, the first seeds of what we know as modern science began to blossom in the Age of Enlightenment.
Many of these pioneers were devout people of faith who sought to study their Creator’s creation. The importance of believers in the history and field of science is underscored by none other than Albert Einstein, who adorned the walls of his study with the pictures of three scientific giants: Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, God-fearing scientists who collectively spanned the 17th, 18th and 19th century.
The Enlightenment ushered in an age of world-shaping paradigm shifts. For the first time in human history, truth became associated with factuality; that is, the premise that truth must be verifiable as fact.
In other words, this view that truth = fact, in which we’re now thoroughly immersed, was not the view of humans for all human history.
Importantly, it was not the worldview of the authors of the Scriptures. Our obsession with questioning whether an event actually happened would be considered strange to the people of ancient times; in fact, to anyone before the 18th century. That’s not because things like honesty and integrity weren’t important. They were. To the ancient people, they were critical. They lived and died on the strength of their word and their honour.
However, fact checking and date keeping were very secondary in a time when neither was easy to do. Instead, they focused on narrative and storytelling, and through these means, they sought and wrestled with truth; specifically, the truth of God’s nature and His purpose, and humanity’s role within that plan.
As the Enlightenment began to shift the meaning of truth, and started fact-checking the Scriptural narrative under the new lens of observation and scrutiny, it’s hard to appreciate how uncertain and threatened many felt—and not just religious leaders but wider society, too. Today, we’re familiar with rapid change but even we struggle to process it.
And here’s the point.
It was in response to this monumental shift in how reality was perceived that the terms inerrancy and infallibility emerged.
To combat the new truth = fact mindset, mainstream Christianity doubled down on the idea that the Bible was the ultimate authority on all matters, a stance that morphed into strict adherence to Bible literalism.
To be clear, the ancient Hebrew people were not literalists. Neither were the early church fathers. Many of their writings freely acknowledge discrepancies in the minor details yet hail the Scriptures as true on matters of faith.
Even Martin Luther, the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, according to The Bible in the Reformation by Roland H. Bainton, recognised “mistakes and inconsistencies in Scripture” yet “treated them with lofty indifference because they did not touch the heart of the Gospel”.
It is only in the last two centuries that a formal doctrine of inerrancy and infallibility arose, and we can now see why it did. With the Bible already enshrined through the Protestant Reformation, cloaking it in an armour of words was an insecure and defensive reaction to combat the perceived existential threat posed by the Enlightenment.
Another Problem: Who Interprets the Book?
Aside from the small matters of idolatry and fear, another problem with making the Bible the ultimate authority on all matters is that it still requires interpretation.
We, therefore, again need a human agency to make the final call, and so we protested and protested (and kept on protesting), forming multiple denominations whose interpretations became the sole authority for our members. There’s some truth in the claim that we’ve settled for a new variant of the papacy: myriad smaller manifestations of it. While not corrupt and controlling like the Imperial Church of the Dark Ages, the same susceptibility to systemic corruption and religious control exists.
Furthermore, since our interpretations then form our dogmatic position, and our identity, any challenge to it is deemed as an existential threat. To fend off the barbarians at the gate, we not only ascribe terms like inerrancy and infallibility to the Bible, but we often project those same overstatements onto our interpretations of the Bible, with the lines between the two easily blurred.
Even our best translations are themselves interpretations of the original languages. And even those skilled in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, are distanced from the original languages by thousands of years.
And let’s not forget, those who knew the languages firsthand, those who actually spoke the languages, were the ones who crucified Jesus.
Are We Meant to Read the Scriptures Literally … or as Literature?
The Scriptures are a collection of books, each with a genre of their own, that together form a historical narrative brimming with prose and poetry, metaphor and simile, idioms and symbolism, personification and paradox, allegory and parable, and all crowned with one of the ancient writers’ favourite figures of speech: hyperbole. It’s what makes the Scriptures such a beautifully written collection of stories that are engaging, fascinating and, yes, sometimes confusing.
Together, all these elements—genre and style—make for a reading and study experience that is meaningful to every generation, content that can be savoured over and over again. Personally, I’ve spent the best part of twenty-five years studying the Scriptures and I’m still left humbled (and sometimes brought to tears) at the marvel and wonder of it.
Let’s look at a few examples, and we’ll start with the ancients’ favourite: hyperbole.
I’ve obviously taken a tiny snapshot of the rich use of figures of speech in the Scriptures, yet it’s more than enough to show that no one reads every word of the Bible literally.
Anyone with even a hint for how prose and poetry work, with even a small appreciation for figures of speech, understands that we are to read much of the Scriptures figuratively. And, yes, that still means a good deal of it should be read literally, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The reality is, most Christians don’t believe that every word of the Bible is to be read literally. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, only 24% of American Christians believe that the Bible “is to be taken literally, word for word”. A full 50% believe the Bible is the inspired word of God but that not all of it should be taken literally. That’s one in two. And the remaining 26% view the Bible as “a book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man”.
So, How Do We Read the Scriptures: Non-Literally?
For some, Bible literalism means strict adherence to the exact letter of the text. For the Christian fundamentalist, it means that every letter, every word and every sentence is the actual Word of God and must be read literally word for word. As already mentioned, this approach fails on several levels.
Not only would you need to know the original languages and be able to speak them as they were spoken in their contemporary setting (time travel, anyone?), but those who ended up crucifying Jesus were experts in these languages.
The religious faction that led the charge against Jesus were the Pharisees, a group of religious experts well versed in the original languages and in the Scriptures themselves. Their error, of course, was precisely fundamental literalism, something Jesus exposed again and again (Matthew 23:1-39). It was with this sort of fundamentalism in mind that Paul penned the words, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Distinct from strict fundamental literalism, the historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics offers us a valuable starting point.
First Seek the “Plain Meaning”
This method of interpretation asserts that the biblical text is to be interpreted according to the “plain meaning” expressed by both its grammatical construction and historical context. The idea is to be true to the intention of the author, as best as we understand it (and which might evolve as further evidence comes to light), and the audience addressed.
That’s a fantastic start. It keeps us from speculation and making a verse or passage mean anything that we want it to mean. The danger of this carelessness needs no comment.
Plus, built into that definition is a respect for the construction of the writing, which is not limited only to the grammatical construction but also to the literary genre. Poetry, for instance, is a different animal compared to prose. Ancient apocalyptic literature is a vastly different beast to a historical document. It hardly needs saying, but one cannot approach every book in the Scriptures the same way.
In the majority of cases, trying to discern the “plain meaning” of the text while appreciating both the genre and style (figures of speech and the like) yields an enriching experience in which we discover more about God’s nature and purpose, and our nature and purpose within His plan. Seeking to understand the writer’s intent through both the figurative and literal language employed, we ask two questions:
- What did the original audience learn about God’s nature and His will?
- What do we learn today?
And we’re served well by accepting that there will be things we don’t yet understand or even may never fully know given our historical distance to the context in question.
So, What’s the Issue?
“So, what’s the problem?” you may ask. “Sounds straightforward. What’s the issue?”
Well, let me answer those questions with a few more questions:
- Did God really create the cosmos in seven 24-hour days when the overwhelming scientific evidence dates the cosmos at 13.8 billion years old?
- Did Jonah really get swallowed by a large fish for three days?
- Did Job really exist or is the Book of Job an allegory, a message for the nation of Israel personified in Job’s tale of suffering?
Of course, Christian Apologetics offers valid answers to the above questions and to the many questions that arise. And you’ll get excellent, valid answers from both sides of each argument. For example, young-earth creationists will make a compelling case for yea to the first question while evolutionary creationists will also offer a compelling case for nay. You’re free to pick a side. We’re actually spoilt for choice. There is just one rule: respect those who make a choice that differs from yours.
And here’s the point.
Whether you answer yea or nay to the above questions does not affect the message of the Scriptures nor does it make you an inferior or superior Christian.
Whether God created the cosmos in seven earth days or whether the words “day” or “week” were merely concepts the audience could relate to in conveying what is still an unfathomable, mind-boggling reality does not detract from the creation account in the slightest.
“But,” you might interject, “if we’re saying that Jonah didn’t actually get swallowed by a fish, aren’t we saying that the story is fictional? Fantasy even?”
Firstly, those who believe in the miraculous, that God performs supernatural wonders in the human experience, find it easy to take such accounts at face value. “Granted,” they state, “it’s impossible on a human or natural level but God does the impossible to reveal His glory”.
Good for you. Your faith is admirable.
However, if others don’t have the same outlook, and question whether God intervenes in human experience in those ways, the story and lessons learnt from the Book of Jonah are in no way reduced by viewing Jonah’s three days in the belly of a large fish as metaphoric for his crisis of faith.
“Jonah was a real person,” they say, “a historic person who, in facing the prejudices of his own heart, endured a crisis of faith. His whole journey, in the opposite direction to that which God called him, might be metaphoric of the change required in him. Or perhaps he did board a boat fleeing God’s call. After being ceremoniously dumped overboard, both the humiliation and the ordeal itself was metaphorically captured in the imagery of a three-day stay in the belly of a beast. Either way, the Book of Jonah speaks powerfully to me.”
What’s going on here? How is this person making sense of the story of Jonah?
The answer: allegory and archetype.
Next, Consider Allegory and Archetype
Allegory is a narrative in which a character, a place or an event is used to convey a broader message to an audience. The writer often uses a historical character, place or event, yet creates a broader (we might say, larger than life) narrative to illustrate comprehensive ideas and concepts.
Allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures was a common early Christian practice, and the concept is built on the premise that the Biblical authors used allegory to convey the nature and purpose of God in larger-than-life ways to help people engage with broad, complex themes.
In the examples above, Job’s terrible suffering and Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a fish may well be allegorical stories.
Furthermore, in origin or seminal accounts (such as the creation account, the Exodus event, and the like), the use of allegory may serve as an archetypal story, an account that didn’t literally happen, yet one that conveys a comprehensive revelation true for all people regardless of time and space.
Archetype refers to a “representative” or a “standard” (from arche meaning a “primitive” and type meaning “a model”). It stems from the Greek word arkhetupon meaning, “something moulded first as a model”.
For some, the account of Adam and Eve may well be an example of an archetypal story. Did actual human beings named Adam and Eve exist or do they represent every man and woman who, made in the image of God, misuse their volition (the gift and power of choice) entrusted to them? For those who hold this view, the account holds as much meaning, value and truth as it does for those who believe Adam and Eve were actual people who lived in time and space.
Of course, the allegorical interpretation is not without its challenges. For example, who can say with certainty which accounts are allegorical and which are historical? And without a foundation of first seeking the “plain meaning”, it can become a rudderless voyage into conjecture and confusion.
If this kind of talk is making you uneasy, that’s understandable.
What I’d like to say to you is that you can rest in the confidence you have in seeking the plain meaning of the Scriptures, enjoying the genre and style of each book, as you learn more about God’s nature and purpose, and your identity and role in His beautiful plan.
I do encourage you to continue to offer the hand of fellowship to other followers of Jesus who allow allegory and archetype to explain some of the accounts in Scripture as a second layer on top of the plain-meaning approach.
Feel free to skip the next section and jump down to What Does Divine Inspiration Mean?
How Far Can You Take This?
“Does this mean I can believe that the story of Adam and Eve was an archetypal story? The worldwide flood? The Red Sea Crossing? Israel’s wilderness journey? The fall of Jericho? The expansion of the kingdom of Israel? The Babylonian captivity? How far can you take this? And at what point does it undermine the validity of the Scriptures?”
Those are good questions. Very good questions.
Let me offer a suggested way forward.
Our starting point is the “plain meaning” of the text (discerning the intention of the author through the grammatical construction and historical context), factoring in genre and style (figures of speech and the like).
Then, if and when you feel that an incident or account drifts into the realm of make-believe, the intersection of human impossibility (beyond human capacity and historicity) and supernatural improbability (yes, God can do the impossible, but would He do this?), allow yourself to view it allegorically. That is, don’t let what you perceive as make-believe detract from the message conveyed.
Make-believe is an apt phrase. When an account in the Scriptures pushes your confidence in the plain meaning of the text beyond what you feel is reasonable belief, interpret the incident allegorically.
And do yourself a favour. Don’t stop. Keep reading. Appreciate the wider context and discern the message intended by the author, tying it back to the plain meaning of the passage.
What’s the Difference Between Mythology and Archetypes?
“This talk about archetypes sounds a little like mythology. What’s the difference?”
In one sense, not much.
For example, Genesis 6:1-4, where we’re told that angels consorted with human women to produce a race of giants, might be likened to the ancient Greeks belief in the mythological gods of the pantheon. To this you might say, “Yes, I get that. It is a rather strange passage.”
“It’s completely possible,” you might continue, “that the account is a human way of speculating why a certain race was so large in stature. Like the Dinka people of South Sudan perhaps, who are known for their above-average height.”
“So, what the difference?” the sceptic might probe. “Isn’t this passage just myth and legend?”
“Could well be,” you might agree, “the Scriptures do contain some passages that border on myth and legend. And we should expect that. It’s written by humans authors after all. However, the Christian faith is not founded on these incidents. In fact, if you discount all the supernatural accounts in the Scriptures as myth and legend, or allegory and archetype, it doesn’t undermine the revelation of God’s nature and purpose.”
And then you’d pause for breath because the next thing you’re going to say is the most important:
“All these ‘mythological incidents’ are anchored in the Scriptures’ unfolding historical narrative. While allegorical, they are connected to actual people, actual places and actual events. And they don’t detract from the internal coherence and thematic consistency of the Scriptures, the amazing fulfilment of prophecy and the values that have built the free and prosperous civilisation we enjoy today. Allegorical and archetypal stories are just different literary tools to convey the message. Along with things like symbolism, personification and hyperbole, they help bring the message to life, especially for an ancient audience for whom reading was their only form of learning. For us, today, spoilt on multimedia, those elements might not be our cup of tea.”
And then you might even go so far as saying the following:
“Even if the entire Bible is allegorical, and it is not (because most of the accounts actually happened in history), based on the evidence of divine inspiration, why would you not put your confidence in a message that has produced the most liberated and prosperous time in human history, a message that if cherished, will continue to guide us in our evolution as a humane society?
Yes, religion has made a pig’s ear of it. But why let flawed humans and their misguided attempts at understanding the Scriptures rob you and me, and the next generation, from discovering its life-changing values for ourselves?”
Is the Resurrection of Jesus Merely Archetypal?
This question is possibly the reason many believers fear any discussion around allegory and archetypes. “Surely,” they say, “this is the logical conclusion. People who struggle to believe in the supernatural accounts in the Scriptures will chalk them up to myths, one by one, until finally doing the same to the resurrection of Jesus, the centre point of our faith.”
The reality is, if someone is seeking a loophole, they’ll find it somewhere. Anywhere. If they do use allegory and archetype to deny their faith, it’s because they already came to that conclusion and if not this, they’ll find some other reason to justify their decision.
That said, the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus cannot be described as allegory or archetype. The Scriptures themselves are not ambiguous on the matter.
If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty … if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! … But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
(1 Corinthians 15:14, 17, 20-22)
Remember, the Scriptures are anchored in history and none of the central themes concerning God’s nature and purpose, and humanity’s nature and purpose within that plan, are diluted or undermined by an allegorical interpretation when layered on seeking out the plain meaning of a text.
And the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are, likewise, unaffected.
Why? Because Jesus was a historical person and His death, resurrection and ascension was a historical event. He happened and it happened. In history. In time and space.
Albert Henry Ross was a journalist and self-confessed sceptic who set out to prove that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was a myth. His investigation led him to discover the validity of the biblical record in a life-changing way. Under the pen name Frank Morison, his book entitled Who Moved the Stone? has become a classic work known for its thorough research and accuracy. He concludes his investigation, as a professional journalist, with these words:
“There may be, and, as the writer thinks, there certainly is, a deep and profoundly historical basis for that much-disputed sentence in the Apostles’ Creed: ‘The third day he rose again from the dead.’”
The interested reader can read the entire work online free of charge here.
While there are many reasons for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, let me just mention two of them, as time and space prevents a fuller explanation in this article.
- If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the religious and political authorities would have simply hauled his dead body from the grave, a tomb they’d sealed and guarded, and displayed His corpse publicly and indecently (as was often done). They would have quickly and bluntly shut down all rabble-rousing over the false notion that Jesus was anything but dead.
- Nothing can explain the complete and utter emotional, mental and psychological transformation of the disciples other than the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead and then presented Himself alive to them. No amount of self-hype or self-delusion could instantly transform terrified and timid men and women into bold, fearless advocates of the life and resurrection of Jesus, especially given that they had no incentive to do so, and they knew it would cost them their lives.
What Does Divine Inspiration Mean?
So, what does inspiration mean? Let’s return to Paul’s words to his protégé Timothy.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
(2 Timothy 3:16)
As mentioned earlier, the phrase “given by inspiration of God” (Greek: theopneustos) literally means, “God-breathed”.
This means that God’s Spirit animated the writers, using their lives, their personalities and their experiences to reveal His nature and purpose.
We can come to two conclusions from this phrase.
Firstly, we can be certain that God’s nature and purpose is revealed and articulated through the Scriptures. Yes, God reveals Himself through other sources, such as creation, other people’s lives and counsel, personal conscience and intuition, providence (the ordering of circumstances) and the like.
The Scriptures, however, are unique in that they articulate His will. They give words and pictures to it. And they do so with an objectivity and clarity not possible through other sources. For this reason, the Scriptures are the primary and governing source of our knowledge of God and our relationship with Him.
Secondly, we simply cannot be dogmatic about what the writing process between God and human author looked like.
We can speculate that God’s Spirit moved the authors to write what they did. He may have stirred their minds and roused their hearts. He may have shaped their thoughts and influenced the words they chose.
But that’s just speculation. And the lack of prescription on this matter is informative in itself.
God certainly did not override the humanity of the authors. The writers were not mere puppets nor were they under a spell or put in a trance. They wrestled with contemporary issues that affected them in their day and with existential issues that affect every human in every age.
We should expect what we get.
A very human telling of events, and a very honest, gritty take on those events. Flawed heroes and doubting believers. They said what they felt and did not hold back. No soft soap here.
Take for example, King David, the man described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). Here’s a moment when he’s particularly charming, as he rants and rages at his enemies:
Break their teeth in their mouth, O God! … Let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, like a stillborn child of a woman, that they may not see the sun.”
Just awful. That last line is abhorrent.
And that’s what he said to God in prayer. Can you imagine what language he may have used to a close friend or confidant?
But who hasn’t felt like that at some point in time? Who hasn’t entertained hateful thoughts in a moment of rage?
Thankfully, it’s recorded. It gives us permission to drop the religious stuffiness and to be real with God. To likewise bear our soul.
We should expect what we get and be glad. Anything less human (aka: above human) would be aloof, remote and detached from us and our experience of what it means to be human.
In all this raw, unfiltered and uncensored humanity, we get a crystal-clear picture of God’s character and of His purpose for His created world and the human creatures He entrusts to represent Him.
God didn’t override the humanity of the authors, yet something more than human was the result. The Scriptures are something beautifully human but resonate with the divine.
And as we engage with each story, each account, each chapter, each passage, we see ourselves more clearly. More honestly. We’re left humbled and open. Hungry for God and His truth. And then we find ourselves in the story where something amazing happens: the Scriptures read us.
This is not about finding a principle or a lesson or a moral law or about mining for gems of wisdom. Yes, there is much wisdom to be found and many principles to be absorbed and lessons to be embraced. However, the Scriptures are primarily a historical narrative and above all, it speaks of a relationship between God and humanity.
Between God and you. Between God and me.
And just as importantly, between God and us. And between God and us and others.
What’s The Best Way to Read the Bible?
The best way to read the Scriptures is to read it for what it is: a historical narrative.
What is a historical narrative? For one, it’s not purely a historical account. None of the writers set out to chronicle history for history’s sake. Rather they told the story of God as He interacted with human beings inside their history.
It’s a narrative nested in history.
The biography of a well-known figure you admire and respect is also an example of a historical narrative. How would you approach reading such a book?
You’ll open your heart to the author and buckle up for the journey they’re inviting you to take. You won’t be hunting down principles and lessons, but you’ll recognise them when you see them. You won’t expect their story to answer all your questions in one read and you’ll accept that some questions won’t be resolved to your liking. You certainly won’t expect their tale to satisfy a scientific board of enquiry, but you’ll discover wisdom often when you least expect it.
Approach the Scriptures in the same way. Remind yourself that you’re not dealing with a look-it-up encyclopedia. It is neither a self-help guide nor is it a rule book.
We might say it’s a love letter, but it’s a love letter written to humanity as a whole, and individuals in the context of that whole. Yes, it’s written for you and me, but we aren’t lonely pilgrims doing a solo trip on a deserted planet.
We’re part of a story that started long before us and will continue long after us. We’ve inherited a legacy from those who’ve preceded us, and we’ll leave a legacy to those who follow us. We’re beautifully connected to our predecessors because, despite differences in time, culture, geography and the like, we’re alike in all the important ways that make us human beings created in God’s image.
Read the Scriptures as a historical narrative and you’re a part of the story.
You’re reading about your forerunners in the human race, as flawed and struggling but determined and growing as you are. And you’re reading to understand God’s will for our generation and our leg of the race. The goal is a fully realised new humanity made possible in Jesus, the Model and Promise of this new humanity. The Old Testament points to Him and the New Testament celebrates Him. Look for Him in your reading and celebrate Him in the insights you receive.
Don’t get tripped up with things you don’t understand yet. Don’t get hung up on any inconsistencies or apparent contradictions you come across. Enjoy it as you’d eat a serving of your favourite fish. Savour the flesh and spit out the bones.
As we read and read and read, entering the story, we start to connect dots, piece together themes, weave one topic to another, unwrap layers, parse complex subjects and grasp the nuances involved. And we find a desire for God and His will grows within us.
Through the process, we are illumed by the mind of God, we become enlarged by the heart of God, and slowly, bit by bit, we see the nature of Jesus forming in us.
The Scriptures are both beautiful and brilliant.
Need Some Help?
I don’t often make outright recommendations, but the BibleProject is such a wonderful resource that I will make an exception.
Tim and Jon are simply geniuses at explaining and sharing on both the books of the Bible and on various topics in the Bible. Leaning on Tim’s outstanding knowledge of the Scriptures and Jon’s passion for visual storytelling, they have over 150 animated videos that will give you valuable insights into the Scriptures.
I cannot recommend their How to Read the Bible YouTube series enough. There are nineteen videos, each no more than six minutes.
Here’s the first to get you started:
If you haven’t yet explored the Message of Jesus series, I recommend starting there first, as it provides the platform for all we cover on this website.
Otherwise, I recommend the below articles next.
The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to all people.
Jesus smashed the bounds of family, communal and national love, modelling a boundless love that includes everyone: our neighbour, the stranger and our enemy.
The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to government.
As citizens of a higher domain, we remain grounded in this domain through humility and servanthood, living lives of unimpeachable integrity.