Christians accept that the bible is God's written revelation to us. Evangelical Christians call it 'God's word' and generally accept that it has been inspired by God. Nevertheless, there are theological differences in how we read and apply the bible in today's world.
I suggest that, underlying the alternate views held by people in their understanding and application of God’s written word, the bible, is what they understand by the teaching that the scriptures are inspired by God. Does this mean that every single word was ‘dictated’ to the writer by God through the Holy Spirit? Or does it mean that a general principle was given by God through the Holy Spirit and that the writer was able to compose it in the context of the times? Or was there some intermediate degree of direction by God?
Our understanding of ‘inspiration’ of the scriptures is probably based upon how we read 2 Tim 3:16-17, ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.’ NRSV
This seems clear (although it is a circular argument – i.e. assuming that 2 Tim 3:16 is inerrant in order to argue that scripture is inerrant!). But, is it the only way that these verses from the original first-century Hellenistic Greek can be translated? Apparently not! Whilst most bible translations translate these verses in this way, some scholars, e.g. those who produced the New English Bible (NEB) have translated this as ‘every inspired Scripture has its use’. Other similar translations are:
· ‘Every scripture inspired of God (is) also profitable for teaching, …’ American Standard Version (ASV)
· ‘Every holy Writing which comes from God is of profit for teaching, …’ Bible in Basic English (BBE)
· ‘All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, …’ Douay-Rheims Bible
· ‘Every writing inspired by God is profitable for teaching, …’ World English Bible (WEB)
The implication in these translations is that, whilst those verses that were inspired by God are good for teaching … etc, some parts of scripture may not have been inspired by God; hence, are possibly words or ideas added by the writer, or were written in such a way to align with the mores, customs and understandings of the writer’s community.
The Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms defines ‘inspiration’ as ‘a term used to describe the role of the Spirit in composition of Scripture ‘; and then goes on to say, ‘the inspiration of human authors, and hence of the text written by them, in no way deprives them even momentarily of their reason, their usual forms of expression, or the thought-patterns typical of their time in history and specific culture.
(from Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms Copyright © 1985 by Baker Book House Company. All rights reserved.)
So, where does this leave us? We know that the bible does not directly address, in a specific way, all issues that we must confront in the world today – particularly some of the ethical dilemmas. There are also some ‘grey areas’ where the interpretation is not crystal clear – leading to the different viewpoints of the theologians. We might also argue that the inspired word of God was written down by people who were influenced by the mores and traditions of their culture at the time of writing.
The good news is that God didn’t leave us without any further guidance. God has spoken (and continues to speak to us) not only through his written word, but also through his living word, Jesus Christ; and through the Holy Spirit. So, if we are confused or unclear about what guidance we obtain from the written word, then we would do well to look at the example and teaching that Jesus gave us on how to live as a Christian.