In his second letter to Timothy, Paul wrote that “all Scripture is God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The older translations spoke of Scripture being inspired. Peter wrote in his second letter, “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).These passages point to the fact the Scriptures have their origin with God and therefore they have an authoritative role in our lives as Christians. At the start of another season of Bible study, we do well to reflect on this process of inspiration and how this will affect our study.
The Human Factor
As for the process, it needs to be stressed that pointing to the ultimate divine origin of Scripture does not exclude the role of human authors. In this respect, the Christian view of inspiration is quite different than the Muslim view. The Muslims believe that Mohammed was totally passive in receiving the Koran. He supposedly was in a trance when he received it. His function therefore was like that of a secretary writing down a letter dictated by an employer. The Christian view, however, wants to do full justice to the human factor, all the time realizing that the Spirit was behind their work. The men who spoke are not to be seen as zombies but as men fully engaged in their task.
A most vivid example of this is found in the opening verses of the gospel according to Luke. We know that he was not one of the apostles. How was he able to write about the life of our Lord? He tells us how he did it in his opening verses of his account. We read, “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account...” (Luke 1:3). When you read this, you realize that Luke approached his work in the same manner as a student who has received an assignment from a teacher. The first thing he did was to research the topic. Once he had his information, he organized it in an orderly way. From the opening verses in the book of Acts, we know that Luke can be said to have written a series. The first dealt with the ministry of our Lord on earth. The second dealt with the ministry of the Lord from heaven through his apostles.
The human factor is also very evident in the epistles. They are not abstract theological treatises dealing with various topics. Rather, they were written in response to concrete questions sent to the apostles or to deal with issues in the congregations that had come to their attention. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for example, sees Paul systematically working through a number of issues and questions that had come to his attention.
While we are not always able to determine the authors of the Old Testament books, the human factor is still very evident. We see this in the different writing styles among the prophets. Human authorship is very evident in the Book of Psalms. These were definitely human compositions, reflecting very concrete experiences. Human authorship is also evident in a book like Proverbs.
While only a little reflection reminds us of the real involvement of human authors, in practice we easily lose sight of this. What I mean is that we tend to use the Bible in a piecemeal fashion. For example, we have the good practice of reading Scripture at meal time, but due to time factors and attention spans, the tendency is there to read bite-sized pieces. As it takes weeks to get through a book, we easily lose sight of the flow of the book. The same applies to Bible studies where a week or two may pass between sessions. Further, in the weekly preaching, texts may come from different Bible books. Even when a minister preaches a series, a whole week passes between sermons. Further, it may not be possible to hear every sermon in a series due to babysitting or health issues. Finally, when we deal with a certain topic, there is a tendency to mine the Scriptures for handy references. All that seems to matter is that a verse has the appearance of relevance. All these have their place, but it does not do full justice to the fact that the Spirit did not just guide authors to write certain words, paragraphs, or chapters, but He guided them to write whole books. In this respect, it is good to remind ourselves that originally Scripture was not divided into verses and chapters. This was only introduced in the late middle ages. A proper understanding of Scripture therefore requires that we honour the Spirit by paying attention to the books as a whole and from there work towards the details.
What does this mean practically? It means that in essence we have to approach the books of the Bible with the same tools that we use when we read any book. In other words, you have to approach the books as literature. At this point one can see the value of skills learned in English class where a teacher will have shown how to analyze a book to understand the author’s intent. In some cases, this will be stated explicitly in the opening chapter. We can think again of Luke’s opening words. At other times it will not be stated till the end. We can think here of the gospel of John (John 20:31). Sometimes it is never explicitly stated but you will be able to figure it out as your read the book.
Besides looking for an obvious statement of intent, you also have to look at the way the author put the book together. In the book of Genesis, for example, you find that, after the introductory chapter, there are ten sections each beginning with the phrase, “This is the account of...” (e.g. 2:4; 5:1, etc.). You also start looking for key words and phrases, which will tip you off to a theme in the book as a whole or to a subsection in the book. When we keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author, paying attention to words, phrases, and ideas in one book will also show connections with other books of the Bible.
This literary approach to the books of the Bible may seem somewhat overwhelming. It need not be. There are helpful tools. For example, there are good “Study Bibles” or books with surveys of the Bible. 1 These will have an introduction to each book in which they spell out things like main theme, sub-themes, and structure. At the same time, while there are helps available, one should not hesitate to sit down to figure these things out for oneself. Most books of the Bible are not that long. They can be read through in a couple of hours. One will be amazed what stands out when a book is read in one sitting, with pen in hand to make notes on basic questions like theme, structure, keywords, and phrases.
At the start of another season of Bible study, here is then the challenge: take a literary approach to the study of the Bible. This in no way diminishes the fact the Bible is inspired and therefore authoritative. Rather, it is honouring the way the Spirit has worked, using his servants, the prophets, and apostles. It will require some work, but the reward will be insight and discussions that move beyond the superficial, discovering treasures old and new.