When we start to think about God, we soon come to a point where we say, “I can discover nothing more about God by myself. I must see whether He has revealed anything about Himself, about His character, and about the way to find Him and to please Him.”
From the beginning, the Christian church has believed that certain writings were the Word of God in a unique sense. Before the New Testament was compiled, Christians accepted the Old Testament as their sacred Book. Here they were following the example of Christ Himself. During His ministry, Jesus Christ made great use of the Old Testament, and after His resurrection He spent some time in teaching His disciples that every section of the Old Testament had teachings in it concerning Himself.
Any discussion of the inspiration of the Bible gives place, sooner or later, to a discussion of its interpretation. To say that the Bible is true, or infallible, is not sufficient: for it is one thing to have an infallible Book, and quite another to use it.
Is every statement we make actual fact? Is truth ever conveyed by other means? These, and other questions, are discussed as the author defines and comments on Literal Fact, Compressed Fact, Metaphor, Parable, Symbol, Type, Allegory, Myth, and Saga.
J Stafford Wright was a greatly respected evangelical theologian and author, and former Principal of Tyndale Hall Theological College, Bristol, England. More of his books from by White Tree Publishing are .
The Authority and Interpretation
of the Bible
©White Tree Publishing 2017
e-Book ISBN: 978-0-9954549-9-6
White Tree Publishing
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About the book
Part 1: The Authority of the Bible
Chapter 1. The Word of God
Chapter 2. Inspiration
Chapter 3. Difficulties
Chapter 4. Scientific Difficulties
Chapter 5. Moral Difficulties
Chapter 6. Discrepancies
Chapter 7. Conclusion
Part 2: Interpreting the Bible
Chapter 8. Introduction
Chapter 9. Literal Fact
Chapter 10. Substantial Fact or Compressed Fact
Chapter 11. Metaphor
Chapter 12. Parable
Chapter 13. Symbol
Chapter 14. Type
Chapter 15. Allegory
Chapter 16. Myth
Chapter 17. Saga
About White Tree Publishing
More White Tree books by J Stafford Wright
This book is an edited combination of two booklets written by J Stafford Wright for university students: The Authority of Scripture and Interpreting the Bible. White Tree Publishing believes that these booklets are relevant for all seekers of the truth and interpretation of Scripture.
Author’s Introduction to The Authority of Scripture
When we start to think about God, we soon come to a point where we say, “I can discover nothing more about God by myself. I must see whether He has revealed anything about Himself, about His character, and about the way to find Him and to please Him.” If there is a God at all, it is likely that He has made some revelation of this kind. Otherwise, we have to suppose that He has given us a desire to worship, and a sense of difference between right and wrong, without doing anything to satisfy our need. At any rate, it is reasonable to start with the idea that God has made us as we are because He wants us to know Him and to have fellowship with Him.
If we are left to our own devices to work out some sort of religion, as best we can, we shall not get very far. We may be able to draw up some moral rules for our lives, but a moral code by itself is a cold and cheerless thing, and does not satisfy our desire to have fellowship with the Creator of the universe. Quite obviously, we are left stumbling in the dark unless God has somewhere shown us, from His side, the way to approach Him and to know Him.
Of course, there are several great religions in the world that possess sacred writings, and if this book were longer we might have a look at them all and compare their claims to be the Revelation of God. The chief points to look for in any revelation would be the following:
1. Universality. It must be suitable for all humanity, and not merely for the Eastern rather than for the Western mind, or for the clever and civilized rather than for the simple and primitive.
2. The knowledge of God that it conveys. Since we are assuming that our desire for God is valid, and that there is a God to be known, we look for a revelation that claims to introduce us to God.
3. Ability to deal with our sin and failure. If we are really in earnest, we want something more than general ideas about life. Sin is a real problem and must be dealt with.
Tested by these three requirements, the Bible emerges far ahead of any of its rivals. Although it is an Eastern book, it makes its appeal to East and West, educated and uneducated, in a way that, for example, Hindu sacred writings and the Koran have never done. Moreover, the Bible is the only one of the sacred books of the great religions that professes to give us a personal knowledge of a personal God. It deals seriously with sin and its remedy in a way that has commended itself to the consciences of all types and classes of men and women.
At first glance, then, it seems that the Bible has the best claim to be the Revelation of the one true God, and it is worth our while to look further into the Bible to see whether it can substantiate its claim.
From the beginning, the Christian church has believed that certain writings were the Word of God in a unique sense. Before the New Testament was compiled, Christians accepted the Old Testament as their sacred Book. Here they were following the example of Christ Himself. During His ministry, Jesus Christ made great use of the Old Testament, and after His resurrection He spent some time in teaching His disciples that every section of the Old Testament had teachings in it concerning Himself. Luke 24:27 refers to these teachings as being “in all the Scriptures,” while verses 44 and 45 refer to the threefold division of the Old Testament commonly used at the time, namely the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.
The Old Testament had gradually come into existence through the centuries. By the time of Christ, it existed in the form in which we have it today, and was recognized by the Jews as the inspired Word of God. In addition, there were some other books, a number of which appear in the Apocrypha, which were later accepted by some of the Jews in Alexandria, but which were not accepted by the Jews of Palestine as of equal authority with the Books of the Old Testament. Yet the Sacred Writings that Christ had in His Bible were those that we now have in our Old Testament, and though He accused the orthodox Jews of many things, He did not accuse them of having too many or too few Books in their Bible.
The Christian church, then, started with the Sacred Writings of the Jews. But, in view of the new teaching that had come through Christ, it was necessary that there should be Christian Sacred Writings too. Teachings of Christ and stories of His life, death and resurrection, were almost certainly written down soon after His ascension, though they were not immediately collected into complete Gospels. Then there were Christian prophets who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gave spiritual instruction that was especially suitable for the new Christian church. (1 Corinthians 12:28; 14; Ephesians 3:5).
Leaders of the church wrote letters. Paul, whose letters form a large part of the New Testament, is conscious that he teaches under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:13). In fact, in 2 Peter 3:16 Paul’s letters are ranked with the “other Scriptures,” a phrase which denotes the inspired Scriptures of the Old Testament. A little later, the four Gospels were compiled. The Acts of the Apostles was written to give an outline history of some of the more important events in the early church. In the Book of the Revelation, there was the further addition of a set of prophetic visions of the future.
We can see that very early in the history of the Christian church, there existed a collection of writings dealing with the new teaching of Christ. These were used side by side with the older writings, or Old Testament, which our Lord Himself had taught His followers to revere. It soon becomes evident, when these writings are examined, that they claim for themselves a special authority which distinguishes them from other books.
In the Old Testament, the claim of the Law is that it was given by God to Moses. The Prophets continually assert “Thus saith the Lord.” Christ’s use of the Old Testament shows that He accepted it as the Word of God. In the same way, the New Testament writers use it as the final court of appeal. They make such statements as “No prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21, Revised Version); and “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16, where the Authorized Version gives the natural translation of the Greek).
The New Testament writings are foreshadowed by Christ’s promises, in John 14:26 and 16:13, that the Holy Spirit would remind the disciples of all that He said to them (the Gospels); would teach them all things and guide them into all truth (the Epistles); and would declare to them things to come (the Revelation). There is also, as we have seen, the special reference to Paul’s Epistles as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
As with the Old Testament, there were a few other writings that some early Christians wanted to count as Scripture. Also, there were one or two books that are now in our New Testament that some Christians did not want to admit for one reason or another. The majority of Christ’s followers, under the influence of His teaching, had such a high regard for the Old Testament Scriptures, the sacred oracles of God, that they waited quite a long time before publicly recognizing the right of other books to stand side by side with them. Eventually our present books carried the day, and compelled recognition for themselves. This is the best way to express what actually happened. It was not that Christian leaders met and voted on the matter, but that the church submitted to the position that the books had assumed.
Sometimes people say that “the church gave us the Bible,” and by this statement they intend to convey the idea that, since it was leaders of the early Christian church who wrote the New Testament and recognized the Old, later Christian leaders have a similar right to interpret or modify the Bible teachings.
Instead of saying that “the church gave us the Bible,” it is more accurate to say that the Bible was given through individual writers specially commissioned by God to provide a permanent record of what He had revealed by His Son and by the Holy Spirit. The church in subsequent ages is “a witness and a keeper of holy Writ” as an Article of the Church of England says, and the life and teachings of the church in each age must be tested alongside this record.
We have seen that from the beginning, the Christian church accepted the Old Testament as the inspired Word of God, and rapidly realized that the Holy Spirit was inspiring a new group of writings to stand alongside the old. No official definition of Inspiration was ever issued by the church. It is not mentioned in the Creeds, because most of the clauses in the Creeds concern points of the Christian faith that had been disputed in the church, and the inspiration of the Bible never was disputed. Everyone believed it.
Various explanations have been given of the way in which God inspired the Bible. Some have believed that every writer of the Bible was like a typewriter “operated” by the Holy Spirit. Others have believed no more than that the writers had a general enlightenment from God.
What I will call the “Typewriter View” has been widely held in the past and is still held today by some. The chief difficulty about it is that it fails to account for the difference between the style of one writer and that of another. If I type this book first on one machine and then on another, the result will be precisely the same so far as the style is concerned. But each writer of the Bible has his own definite style, which makes it rather unlikely that the Holy Spirit used the writers like machines.
On the other hand, the “General Enlightenment View” is even more unsatisfactory, for it robs the Bible of much of its authority. The idea here is that, in the Bible, we have the record of man’s search after God, with some help from God Himself. In his search, man makes many mistakes, and wrongly imagines things to be God’s will when they are not God’s will at all. Even the New Testament writers are in the same position, and some people would go so far as to say that Christ Himself made mistakes. The result is that, in effect, we have a very fragmentary revelation in the Bible. It is not itself the Word of God, though it may contain the Word of God. We must pick and choose what seems to us to be helpful, and discard things that do not appeal to us, even though they may have been helpful to other generations of Christians. In other words, my mind and my experience must be the supreme authority, and the teachings of the Bible fall into a secondary place.
Many careful students of the Bible today believe that the truth lies in neither of these extremes, though it comes very much closer to the first than to the second. If the Bible is the Word of God, it is God’s revelation to man, rather than man’s thoughts about God. But the revelation is made through human agents, who show differences of style and outlook. This is what might naturally be expected of men living in different ages and under differing circumstances. But God chose His men. We can say either that He arranged, or that He knew, the circumstances and upbringing of each of those whom He chose to write a part of His Bible.
Amongst the qualities that God would need in each case would be such things as accuracy of observation and a first class memory. When these two faculties were still further helped by the Holy Spirit, God had a man whom He could use for this special task.
In addition, it is clear that the inspiration given to the prophets was of a special kind. The prophets themselves, both in the Old Testament and in the New, were conscious that their messages were not the carefully thought out reasonings of their own mind, but came directly from God, though they themselves had to set down in their own words what God revealed in the depths of their spirit.
Those who were in contact with prophets knew that there was a difference between them and ordinary teachers. Compilers of history and of proverbs also needed a natural sense of discrimination, in addition to such divine guidance as God gave, to enable them to choose the true and reject the false.
In other words, it is held that God made use of a succession of writers and fitted them by natural gifts and training, as well as by direct spiritual influence, to set down accurately whatever He wished to record in His Bible. This means that, although the style of the Books may vary, there is nothing included in them which God did not will to be there, and nothing omitted which God did will to be there.
This is a sensible view of Inspiration, since it takes full account of the natural abilities of the writers, but at the same time makes it clear that the supernatural power of God was needed to guide their minds and, where necessary, to reveal what they could not otherwise have known.
Here let us dispose of a difficulty, which is not serious, but which some people find rather alarming. If we hold this view of inspiration, are we not saying that a genealogy is as inspired as John’s Gospel? Undoubtedly we are. But when we say “inspired,” we do not necessarily mean “inspiring,” for we certainly do not hold that a genealogy is as inspiring as the Gospel of John.
The Bible is not all inspired for the same purpose, and although there are many helpful thoughts for Christian devotion to be drawn from Bible genealogies, the main purpose of including genealogies in the Bible is not for devotional use. They have an historical value, a value which the Bible student can often appreciate today, but which was even more important to the Jews in Old Testament times. After all, the Bible was not given only for English speaking people to use today!
At the same time, there is probably not a verse in the Bible which God has not, at some time, used to bring a spiritual message to a Christian, and through which He may not speak to you as you read it. But if you find that reading through the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles does not give you the same thrill as reading the first nine chapters of John’s Gospel, there is no need to say that the former chapters are less “inspired.”
Later on you may come to do some special studies on Jewish history, and be very thankful for the genealogies that God has caused to be included. All that is recorded plays its part in the wonderful story of God’s influence over human history so that, in spite of all our failures and sins, world events may finally lead on to the coming of the Kingdom of God.
There are, however, two other difficulties which we probably feel to be rather more serious. One is practical, and the other intellectual. The practical difficulty is roughly this: If the whole Bible is inspired by God, does this mean that every part of the Bible is authoritative for me today? If not, how can I decide how much is authoritative, and how much is obsolete? Am I not back again at the position which we rejected just now, where I set up my own mind and experience as the final authority?
In accepting the Bible as fully inspired and as our final authority, we do not mean that we can pick any text at random and apply it to our own situation automatically. If we could do this, there would be no need for serious Bible study, and the Bible would be a kind of pocket witchdoctor, that would give us the necessary answers whenever we chose to consult it. But of course the Bible does not work like that, although there have been instances where a single text has caught the eye as the Bible was opened, and this text has proved to be just the help that was needed. But for all practical purposes, it is the Christian who has studied the Bible deeply and continually who obtains the fullest help from it.
The reason for this is that passages in the Bible need to be interpreted in the light of other passages. This is what the Protestant means by “the right of private judgement.” He does not claim the right to make any text mean what he judges it to mean by itself, but the right to search the Scriptures, seeking the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, so that he can judge what Scripture teaches as a whole.
This may sound as though we are setting newly converted Christians a hopeless task. Have they to start with an entirely blank mind, and build up their beliefs bit by bit as they read their Bibles year after year? Fortunately, the position is not as difficult as that. We can treat our Christian beliefs in the same way as we treat our scientific beliefs.
No scientist today starts absolutely from scratch. As a student, he or she accepts the instructions of an experienced scientist, and, though they learn to perform tests and experiments for themselves, they work on the assumption that certain basic scientific theories are correct. Later on they may find that a few of the theories do not appear to be true to the facts as he or she observes them. Whereupon they proceed to go over the whole ground carefully from the beginning, and may find that another group of scientists has stated the deductions from the facts in a more accurate way.
We need not press this analogy in all its details, but in general outline it is true of Christian doctrines. There is a statement of Christian belief, gathered from the Bible, which is common to practically all who call themselves Christians. This statement is found in the Creeds. The statements in the Creed, about the Trinity of God and the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, can be accepted straight away as an accurate summary of what the Bible teaches, and Bible statements can be linked on to the basic summary in the Creeds. Thus, there is no need to start from scratch with your belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
But naturally, the Creeds are no more than the bare bones of belief. Your reading of the Bible will clothe the bones with living flesh, and here the writings of Bible theologians will be helpful. The results of the studies of careful Bible students are available for any Christian today, and the writers do not demand that you should submit blindly to their opinion, but that you should test each statement by the Bible itself.
It is true to say that, amongst Christians who accept the full authority of the Bible, there is a common agreement as to the teaching of the Bible on the foundation beliefs. It is usually those who refuse to accept the full authority of the Bible who hold different beliefs about the Persons of the Godhead and the work of Christ.
But, to return to our young scientists. They may later find that certain theories are not in accordance with the observed facts. Similarly, Christians may find themselves introduced to teaching which is additional to the statements of the Creeds, and which does not seem to be consistent with what they observe in Scripture. Sometimes such teaching rests upon nothing more than a possible interpretation of a single text. Or perhaps those who propagate it are dogmatic about some point on which Scripture, as a whole, is silent. Then the Christian quite rightly feels that he or she must go into the whole matter for themselves, and search the Scriptures carefully to see where the truth lies, as the Bereans did in Acts 17:11, when they were faced with teaching that seemed to them to be different from that in which they had been brought up.
Perhaps we have wandered a little from the question with which we began, namely, How can I tell how much of the Bible is binding on me today? But our digression has answered a part of the question, by showing that any statement that comes with the authority of God behind it, if it concerns the Being and Character of God, is binding on us, whether it comes in the Old Testament or in the New. However much man and man’s circumstances may change, God remains the same. But man’s circumstances certainly do change, and we today are not in precisely the same situation as were the Israelites when the Law was given to them.
The fundamental difference between them and us is that, since the Law was given, our Lord Jesus Christ has come. This means that the blessings of God’s revelation are no longer confined to one nation. Jew and Gentile have been brought together into a new Body in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). Moreover, there are now entirely new resources of power available for God’s people: e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34 cf. Hebrews 8:7-13; Ezekiel 36:25-27 cf. John 3:5; Joel 2:28-32 cf. Acts 2:16-21. See also John 7:38-39.
The Old Testament itself foretold that this would be so. The question of why God waited so long before He sent His Son and the Holy Spirit does not concern us now: but the fact that now His Son and the Holy Spirit have come does concern us vitally. Things that were commanded for Israelites living in Canaan under the Law may not be binding on us living under the New Covenant today. This is not because the Israelites had an inferior or mistaken idea of God, but solely because we are living in different spiritual circumstances.
The ceremonial Law is an obvious example. When Christ died, He abolished the need for sacrifices and for the other ritual of the Law. This truth comes out clearly in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The ceremonial Law was a parable picture of the death of Christ. Then what is the authority of the ceremonial Law? Why should we bother to keep it in our Christian Bibles at all? The answer is that the regulations of the Law help us to understand more about Christ, in particular more about His atoning death. Each detail of the ritual stands symbolically for some aspect of what Christ is, and of what He did on the Cross, and indicates what should be our attitude towards Him and to His death. So, although the regulations of the Law are not binding on us in a literal way, they have a spiritual authority for us today.
Another part of the Law consists of regulations for the national life of the children of Israel in Palestine. These regulations were to make the Israelites good citizens. In our different civilization we do not keep all these regulations. But the value of them for us is that they show the general principles of justice and righteousness that should underlie the laws of any nation. Even the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25) is the expression of the legal requirement that, if a man wrongs another, the court must make him pay full compensation for the injury.
The Law about clean and unclean food (Leviticus 9) may be mentioned here, though it involves rather more than purely national regulations. In general, most of us would agree with the list, and would not be tempted to eat bats and owls! But most of us enjoy our bacon for breakfast, whereas the Law forbids people to eat pork in any form. That is all very well for people living with fridges in the West, but in a hot country under primitive conditions, it would be quite a good thing to go back to the Jewish Law again; because, under unhygienic conditions, pork is one of the most dangerous meats you can eat.
So, here is an example of where a change in circumstances warrants our treating the Law with a little freedom. Nonetheless, the Law was right for the conditions under which it was given. The general lesson from the regulations about clean and unclean meats is that God is concerned that we should be the best that we can be for Him in spirit, soul, and body: and that there is such a thing as controlling our appetites for His glory.
But, in fact, we shall find little in this revelation about God’s will for man with which we shall want to disagree. After all, the Ten Commandments are still of supreme authority, though the seriously-minded Christian, like the seriously-minded Jew, will not be content to take the Ten Commandments purely superficially. Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48), showed that the moral commands of the Law went a great deal deeper than the surface. Both He and Saint Paul took the Ten Commandments and comprehended them all in the command to love God and our neighbour to the fullest possible extent. Note Matthew 22:36-40, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:28; Romans 13:8-10.
With regard to special commands and isolated statements both in the Old and in the New Testaments, their authority for us today must always be deduced from their context, and from a careful comparison with the rest of Scripture. Notice whether the statement claims to have the authority of God behind it. For example, if Jephthah in Judges 11 offered his daughter as a sacrifice to God -- and it is not certain that he did -- there is nothing in the chapter to say that God told him to do it, or that God was pleased with his action. Again, not everything that is said about God in the Book of Job is correct. The Book gives a poetical version of the arguments used by Job and his friends, and only in chapters 38-41 do we have the actual words of God.
Our practical difficulty then resolves itself into this conclusion. An isolated text, taken out of its context, may have no binding force upon my life. I must always think by whom the text was uttered, to whom it refers, and in what circumstances the writer or speaker was living. I must compare it with other passages in the Bible that bear on the same subject. If then I find that the text does not apply directly to me, I shall almost certainly find that there is some moral or spiritual principle involved in it that definitely does bind me.
Leaving, then, the practical problem, we come to the intellectual. No one pretends that the Bible is free from difficulties, but some are rather shocked to find that everything is not perfectly straightforward in a Book that professes to be the revelation of God. What effect do these difficulties have upon the authority of the Bible? Much depends upon whether we approach the Bible as reasonable or as unreasonable people. I should say that if we expect the Bible to be free from difficulty, we are being unreasonable -- that is to say, we are arguing from fancy instead of from commonsense.
As Christians, we believe that there are three great revelations of God: the universe, Jesus Christ and the Bible. The first two are difficult to understand, so why should the third be an exception? If you have read only a small amount of modern Physics, Biology, or Psychology, you know that the universe and the creatures in it are not the apparently simple things that earlier scientists imagined.
Human beings, as yet, hardly understand the hundredth part of what we see, and what we do understand appears to be full of difficulties and even of contradictions. The interesting thing, however, is that there is not a single scientist who does not believe that the universe somehow makes sense. When he finds a difficulty, or a discrepancy, or a contradiction, he does not give the whole thing up in despair. He refuses to admit that the contradiction is real, even though for the moment it appears to him to be a contradiction. He believes that fuller knowledge and further investigation will ultimately clear the matter up.
As Christians, we agree with him. We believe that the universe is the creation and revelation of God, and therefore that everything in it does make sense. We are puzzled about the difficulties as much as he is, but we do not call him narrow-minded and bigoted for trying to harmonize the difficulties.
The same thing is true about God’s revelation of Himself in the Incarnation, though here the argument does not have the same strength for those who do not believe in the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. But assuming that you do believe in His Deity, you know that there are all sorts of difficulties in understanding how He could be both God and Man. It is instructive to read the story of how the Christians of the first five centuries struggled to find a formula that would harmonize the Bible statements into a form that would express the Christian belief. People are still writing books about Christ’s Person and Nature. These books throw light upon different aspects of His Being, and help us to understand some of the Bible statements about Him, but they do not clear our minds of all the difficulties that we find when we try to comprehend how God could become Man.
Before we come to the difficulties of the third Revelation of God, it is worth noticing that although there are these enormous difficulties in the first two, they do not affect the ordinary person’s experience of the universe and of Jesus Christ. Both are incredibly difficult, and yet both are incredibly simple. You and I may accept the universe and accept Jesus Christ, and live our lives perfectly happily. Scientists are not the only people who can live to be seventy, nor are theologians the only people to have eternal life.
The third revelation is the same. Many simple Christians take the Bible as the Word of God, and live by it. They do not find that the difficulties worry them. Others notice the difficulties, and in the spirit of the scientist set to work to try to solve them, feeling that this revelation of God also would be free from contradiction and discrepancy if we could only find the key.
As a matter of fact, it is easy to exaggerate the difficulties in the Bible. Some books take a delight in collecting them together, so that the casual reader gets the impression that the whole Bible is a mass of problems and contradictions. Looking at the matter from a purely human point of view, it is a remarkable fact that there should be such unity and harmony in a book that was composed by so many men of all types during the course of so many centuries. Do not forget the striking unity by dwelling on the tiny percentage of difficulties.
The difficulties of the Bible fall into two main groups. There are first the scientific difficulties, where the Bible statements are difficult to reconcile with the findings of modern science. Then there are the apparent discrepancies, where one statement does not seem to agree with another statement in the Bible itself. In the second group, we can include the places where the character of God in the Old Testament appears to be different from the character of God as He is revealed in Christ.
Most of us would feel that the really serious scientific difficulties come in the early chapters of Genesis. But it is easy to get hold of quite a wrong idea about what these difficulties are. Perhaps you have been told that the Bible says that the world was created in six days of twenty-four hours each in the year 4004 BC. Of course, if this is what the Bible says, the discoveries of science flatly contradict it. But this is not the real difficulty. The main problem is that, so far, the evidence supplied by science and Biblical interpretation is insufficient to show how the two are related.
No one knows just how far the Bible account is true in an absolutely literal sense, and how far it is the truth clothed in picture language. Picture language may be just as “true” as the literal truth. For instance, if I speak of the sun rising or of a kettle boiling, I am not speaking the literal truth, but I am conveying a picture that is absolutely true. The fact is that, although the Bible is not intended to be a scientific textbook, and does not use the technical terms of science, this does not mean that it is inaccurate when it mentions matters that normally fall within the scope of science.
The story of the Creation in Genesis 1 is pictorial truth. If it had been written in the scientific terminology of Moses’ day or of any other day, it would soon have been out of date. If it had been written in the language of modern physics, it would have been incomprehensible to most people, and again would become out-of-date when the language of physics changed.
Hence, God told the story of Creation in a picture form, showing that it took place in six great periods, and that when these six periods were over, God ceased to bring any fresh things into being, though He still upholds all things in life. It has often been pointed out that the order of creation in Genesis 1 corresponds to the order agreed upon by modern Science. Was this a lucky shot on the part of the author, or did the account come through the direct revelation of God? The second seems the more reasonable.
I said earlier that the real difficulty lies in knowing just how the Bible account is to be interpreted. I have given the interpretation of Genesis 1 that is accepted by most Bible students. But it is quite possible to find another interpretation by translating verse 2, “And the earth became waste and void.” In that case, we have an original creation which perished, and a new creation over a period of six literal days. All the fossil remains can then be put in the original period of the earth’s existence. This seems less likely, but it is a possible view.
Another difficulty concerns Adam and Eve and their connection with Primitive Man. Here again, the real difficulty is lack of evidence. We can push the date of Adam and Eve back into the remote past, and make the ape-like men a degenerate branch of their descendants. Or we can see in Adam and Eve the first pair of “modern” human beings, to whom God gave, at their creation, spiritual and mental capacities that the ape-like creatures lacked, and whom He taught the art of cultivation of crops and food.
Cultivation is the subject of Genesis 2. Anthropology and archaeology have shown that civilization began in the Mesopotamian area not much before 6000 BC, and that the cultivation of food crops was probably unknown to the Hominids or ape-like men. We cannot follow this up here, but an interesting book along these lines is “The Origin of Mankind” by the late Sir Ambrose Fleming. Sir Ambrose Fleming may or may not be right, but his book illustrates the point that much more work will have to be done by scientifically minded Bible students before we can say just how and where the Bible account links on to the scientific. But, in the meantime, no scientific discovery (I do not say theory) contradicts the Bible accounts. The gradual fitting of the earth to be suitable for life; the order of the emergence of plant life and living creatures, with man as the last to come into being; the descent of modern civilized humans from a single pair in the Mesopotamian district; all this is in the Bible, and modern science has no quarrel with it.
If you are interested in mathematics, you might work out the odds against anyone in the time of Moses guessing these things correctly. I imagine that most of us would find it less strain on our credulity to believe that Moses has the facts of Genesis correct because he, or some earlier writer, was shown the truth by God the Creator, while the facts of Genesis 2 and 3 were probably handed down orally, or in written form, from the beginning.
Apart from the early chapters of Genesis, the only scientific difficulties of any importance are some of the miracles. Not many miracles involve the upsetting of what we call the “Laws of Nature.” Suppose, for example, that you had been present with your scientific instruments and notebook at the time of the entry into Canaan. You would have recorded an earthquake on a certain date, and noted that it caused a landslide, which blocked the flow of water in the Jordan for a time. Actually, the same thing happened in AD 1267 and again in AD 1546 (but probably not in 1927 as claimed by some. See:
There is nothing unscientific in an earthquake, but it was a strange coincidence that it happened just as the Israelites needed to cross the river. As a scientist you would look for associated earthquake shocks soon afterwards, and in your notebook you would record that another violent earthquake did take place. This time it threw down the walls of Jericho. There is nothing unscientific in this. But it was a strange coincidence that the walls fell just as the Israelites, who had no siege engines, needed to go into the city. These coincidences are rightly called Miracles.
Some people think that all miracles can be explained rationally. This is a matter of opinion, and the case can be argued either way. But in any case, the Christian cannot believe that God is completely bound by the laws of nature that He has created. Certainly He is not a glorified conjuror, doing freakish things to make us gasp with surprise. But there are times when for some wise purpose He may bring a natural law suddenly and unexpectedly into operation in some striking fashion, or else may modify some natural law in order to produce a desired result.
[Publisher’s note: The following links, concerning Jericho, will show the difficulties in jumping uncritically on archaeological discoveries to prove or disprove parts of the Bible, especially where the excavating team has a strong bias or preconception.]
These difficulties arise when God appears to sanction something that is inconsistent with His character in the New Testament. Here again it is possible to exaggerate the apparent difficulty. In interpreting the Old Testament, it is necessary to try to understand the circumstances of the time.
God’s character is eternally the same. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the Jehovah of the Old Testament. But man’s sin, and his slowness of spiritual growth, make it necessary for God to emphasize different aspects of His character at different times. When the Israelites marched out of Egypt and entered Palestine, they had to encounter the religious influence of the inhabitants.
They were confronted with beliefs and practices that were calculated to produce a low and degraded idea of God, and a religion that was morally bad. In this situation, God could not emphasize the love-character of His Being. The people needed to be overwhelmed with the Sense of His majesty and glory. But, at the time when Christ was born, God had become something of a remote and unknown Deity. So the Lord Jesus spoke continually of Him as Father, and thus restored the balance. But the severity of God is fully in evidence in the New Testament, just as His love is fully in evidence in the Old.
As an example of the severity of God, we might look at the command to destroy all the Canaanites (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:16-18). Sometimes people think that because we cannot imagine God giving such a command today, He cannot have given this command to the Israelites. Therefore, it must have been that they mistook their own inclinations for the voice of God.
Earlier in this book, we saw that the coming of Christ has meant the release of far greater power for God’s people. The Holy Spirit applies the power of Christ crucified and risen to our hearts in such a way that we have the power to do things that the Israelites could not do. Christ’s command to us as Christians is to go and preach the gospel. But we may doubt whether it was possible for the Israelites, going into the land of Canaan, to evangelize the Canaanites.
Careful study of the Old Testament, combined with the findings of Archaeology, has shown that the Canaanites were in the lowest state of moral and religious degradation. Knowing, as we do, how very easily the Israelites fell away from God, we can see that the destruction of the Canaanites may well have been necessary, not only for the sake of the land itself, but also for the spiritual and moral survival of the Israelites -- and hence for the survival of true religion. In fact, the Israelites did not obey the command to destroy the Canaanites, and the Old Testament is the story of how they kept sinking into the degraded practices that they found in Canaan.
An analogy may be helpful. Sometimes a part of the human body is so seriously affected that the only way to save the whole body is to amputate the limb. The surgeon who does the operation is not a cruel man, though if an uncivilized man were to see the operation he might go back to his friends and tell them that British doctors were as bloodthirsty as any head-hunter, because they deliberately mutilated their fellow men.
Similarly, some people, without understanding all the circumstances, put God’s command to destroy the Canaanites on a level with the barbaric actions of heathen nations, done to please their gods. But we should notice that there are to be no tortures or atrocities in the judicial execution of the Canaanites, and the command did not apply to other peoples whom the Israelites might conquer (Deuteronomy 20:10-11).
In these two respects alone, the command of God to the Israelites differs greatly from the practices of the barbarous nations of the ancient East. The surgeon analogy may be carried a further step. Although in the present state of medical knowledge an amputation may be the only way of saving the whole body, the probability is that in years to come doctors will find ways of curing the diseased organ without an operation. When these new ways of healing are discovered, we should certainly feel that a surgeon was doing wrong if he removed the diseased organ or limb when he had well-tried methods at hand to save it. But before those methods were known, he acted rightly in performing the operation.
Thus, we can see that God’s character is perfectly consistent when, at a certain stage in the revelation of Himself and His power, He tells men to act in a certain way. Then, when He makes a far fuller revelation of Himself and His power, He tells men to act in quite a different way.
But even in the command to destroy the Canaanites there is a principle that is binding for the Christian. It is the principle that God is prepared to go to all lengths to eliminate evil, and in the spiritual warfare in which we engage there must be no compromise on our part. Christ said that we must be prepared to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if they were leading us into sin. Of course, He was using the vivid picture language of the East, but what He meant is also pictured by the treatment of the Canaanites.
There are some passages in the Bible that are difficult to harmonize with other passages. But the cheering thing is that, if you are in earnest about harmonizing them, you can. By this I mean that every single one has been tackled by careful Bible students, and some solution has been found for them. Sometimes there are several suggested solutions. Obviously, these cannot all be right. But where we have very little evidence to go on, we have to be content with several tentative solutions. A detective, who finds several apparently contradictory pieces of evidence in a crime, may work out several theories to explain them. One will ultimately prove to be right, but several may be possible.
Or suppose we approach the matter from the point of view of the writer. If you keep a diary and also try to write interesting letters home, you will know how easy it is to make a perfectly true statement which someone else could interpret wrongly if they did not know all the circumstances. You might, for example, in describing something that ran on over several days, such as some trouble that you have been in, compress the essential parts of the story together so that the person who reads your letter might assume that everything happened on the same day. Although your diary would have shown them that events were separated. This is the sort of thing that happens in the Gospels. There is a great deal of compression.
Here is an example. In Mark 5:21-42 and Luke 7:40-56 we read of the ruler of the synagogue coming to Jesus to ask Him to heal his daughter. While Jesus is on His way to the house, a message comes to say that the girl has died. Matthew, however, in 9:18-26, compresses the story, and says that the ruler came and said that his daughter was dead, but asked Jesus to come and restore her to life. This is a justifiable compression, and not a contradiction, because we are to suppose that, even after he had received the message of the girl’s death, the ruler still urged Jesus to come.
Another very interesting example is found in a comparison of the end of Luke's Gospel with the opening of Acts. From Luke's Gospel we might gather that the Ascension took place on the same day as the Resurrection. But in Acts we find that it was forty days afterwards. Now the interesting point is that Luke was the author of the Acts as well as of the Gospel. If the two Books had been by different authors, people would have told us that these were two contradictory accounts, and that it was a waste of time to try to harmonize them -- but all the same, those who did try to harmonize them would be right!
The full discussion of supposed disagreements in the Bible could run into many more pages than we have room for here. In the meantime, if you are interested in this subject, keep your eyes open for apparent disagreements in the things you write and in books and papers that you read. Before long you will have quite a good collection, and you will find that some of them are the same sorts of thing as occur in the Bible, and have similar explanations.
Now that we have come to the end of this section of the book, we can review the whole position. We have not proved the authority and the accuracy of the Bible, because these are things that cannot be proved. But we saw at the beginning that the Bible impresses itself upon us as the authoritative Word of God.
If this impression be true, we have a feeling that the Bible ought to be accurate and reliable as well, especially since it appears to claim this for itself. In other words, we come prepared to find it true and, since God can guide and overrule a man’s mind, we expect Him to have done so with the men who wrote the Bible. Otherwise, there is a suspicion that even the directly spiritual parts may not be reliable.
Now the Bible, when it has been fairly interpreted, has not been proved to be inaccurate. Those who have studied the Bible most deeply have , at one time or another, given an explanation of every difficulty. But in any case, the Bible is not a puzzle book of difficulties. It is the Book that teaches us what God is, what we are, and how we may live a life in close touch with God. It is, in fact, a treasure chest with treasures just inside the lid waiting to be lifted out. Moreover, it is a gold mine, with the finest gold down below the surface. Day by day we must dig, and become familiar with every vein in the mine. If we dig all our lives, we shall never exhaust it -- but our lives will be transformed, and we shall certainly find great riches.
Interpreting the Bible
Is every statement we make actual fact? Is truth ever conveyed by other means? These, and other questions, are discussed as the author defines and comments on Literal Fact, Compressed Fact, Metaphor, Parable, Symbol, Type, Allegory, Myth and Saga.
Original Author’s Introduction to Interpreting the Bible
Any discussion of the inspiration of the Bible gives place, sooner or later, to a discussion of its interpretation. To say that the Bible is true, or infallible, is not sufficient. It is one thing to have an infallible Book, and quite another to use it. Evangelicals are not people who interpret the Bible on an extremely literal level. They do not worship the Book, but believing that the Book is true, Evangelicals seek to draw out the truths that it contains, and to apply and interpret them.
The important thing is to have certain criteria of interpretation. For example, is every statement the literal truth? Or is the truth ever conveyed by other than literal means? If it is, then how may we know when a statement is to be understood literally, and when it is to be given some other interpretation?
A useful method of approach to this question will be by way of a series of definitions. The advantage of this method is that it will give a means of classification, and will go some way towards providing a consistency of interpretation, and a justification for employing now one type of interpretation and now another.
“The verbatim record, or accurate summary, of something that is said or done, so that every phrase is to be understood in its simple sense.”
It may seem strange to start with a definition of literal fact, but it is essential. When the ordinary man speaks of accuracy, this is what he means. In fact, he may mean only the first three words of the definition, “the verbatim record”.
So it is that, sometimes, people imagine that one has in mind only these first three words when one speaks of literal accuracy. They then gain an easy victory by pointing to verbal differences between one Synoptist and another. This is of course unfair. An accurate summary may be literal fact, and a man’s words may be summarized in several different ways, each of which may be literally true.
Most of the addresses recorded in the Bible are probably summaries. Peter’s address at Pentecost, for example, must have occupied longer than the two or three minutes in which we can now read it in the Acts. The teachings of Christ also cannot be regarded as the very words, because He spoke in Aramaic while the biblical version is in Greek. Scholars like Burney have shown that some of the Greek sayings can be translated back into an Aramaic original, with a metre and arrangement that suggests that here we have the actual words that Jesus used in committing His teaching to the memory of His disciples.
“The compression of irrelevant details in the interest of some main fact, so that the literal interpretation of individual phrases, which may be untrue in isolation, is subordinate to the complete fact that the full statement is intended to convey.”
The point of this can best be seen by taking an illustration from ordinary life. A child has a temperature. The doctor is called, and cannot detect what is wrong. On his second visit, he finds further symptoms and tells the parents that the child has scarlet fever. The doctor then arranges for the child to be taken to hospital and the ambulance comes two hours later. That is literal fact.
The mother, however, might tell the same story in the form of substantial fact. “John had a temperature. I sent for the doctor at once, and he found that he had scarlet fever, and took him off to the hospital.” By isolating each clause in the mother’s account, I might gather that the doctor diagnosed scarlet fever on the occasion of his first visit and personally removed the child to hospital. But that would not be true. The mother has compressed the irrelevant details in order to stress the main facts.
This type of compression is certainly found in Scripture. As we saw in Part 1, a striking example is found at the end of Luke’s Gospel, where one gathers the impression that the ascension took place on the same day as the resurrection, whereas, when Luke himself gives fuller details at the beginning of Acts, it becomes clear that forty days elapsed between the two events. This example is particularly valuable because the same author is involved. But the same principle can be applied where two authors are concerned. Again, as we saw in Part 1, in the story of Jairus’s daughter Mark 5 and Luke 7 give the literal fact, that Jairus came and said that his daughter was dying, and that later messengers came to tell Jairus that his daughter was dead. Matthew, in 9:18f, compresses the details, and makes Jairus tell Jesus straight away that his daughter is dead.
If we had Matthew’s account by itself, we should probably not realize how the details had been compressed, just as we might not realize it from the mother’s account of the child’s illness, which has been used as an example above. But once we learn the literal sequence of events, we can see that the compressed account can harmonize with the true sequence.
It is probable that a similar compression accounts for the difficulty concerning the healing of Bartimaeus. From Luke 18:35-43 we should gather that it was before Jesus entered Jericho. But Matthew 22:29-34 and Mark 10:46-52 specifically state that it was when Jesus was leaving Jericho. If Luke compresses here as he does in the ascension account, we may surmise that Bartimaeus heard the multitude and enquired about it as Jesus was entering the city (35-37), but was too late to make his appeal until Jesus was leaving.
Luke presumably had some reason for not relating the story in two parts. A glance at chapter 19 suggests that he wished to bring the parable of the pounds, which only he relates, into association with the arrival at Jerusalem without any break in between (verses 11 and 28).
Here is a dictionary definition: “A word or phrase used to denote or describe something entirely different from the object, idea, action, or quality which it primarily and usually expresses, thus suggesting a resemblance or analogy.”
In the use of metaphor we enter largely, though not entirely, into the realm of poetry. In its presentation of facts, poetry differs from prose. No one indeed should qualify as a biblical commentator unless he has some appreciation of poetry and of the force of metaphor. Take, for example, the comment by Dr. Oesterley (1866–1950) on Psalm 29, the psalm that speaks of the voice of the Lord: “The old-world conception of the thunder being the voice of Yahweh appears here in pronounced form”.
Of course, the psalm is inspired by the thunderstorm, but no one with a spark of poetry could suppose that the psalmist thinks that the thunder is actually God opening His mouth and growling. The purpose of metaphor is to convey a truth by means of a vivid picture. There is something in man’s unconscious that responds to it, so that it stirs him often more profoundly than the recital of literal fact can ever do.
In seeking to make man feel the wonders of creation, the biblical writers often employ metaphor. Such expressions as “the pillars of the earth” (Job 9:6; Psalm 75:3) or “the pillars of heaven” (Job 26:11), “the firmament” (Genesis 1:15), “the windows of heaven” (Genesis 7:11), “the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4), do not justify the wonderful drawings that we find in Old Testament Introductions showing the Old Testament conception of the universe. One might as well employ an architect to draw a scale plan and elevation of the New Jerusalem.
If we recognize this metaphorical truth, we can clear up certain difficulties. We may apply it to Genesis 1 and be impressed by the majestic steps in creation depicted as days. Some have applied it to Joshua’s long day in Joshua 10:12-14, where the command to the sun and moon to “be silent” is interpreted as an appeal to them to hide their faces in clouds, when the blazing heat was hampering the Israelites.
The application of metaphorical truth is also seen in the anthropomorphic language of Scripture. It is almost impossible to convey truths about God apart from anthropomorphic and metaphorical language. “God is love”, “God is light,” “Father,” “Son,” “Spirit,” are all either anthropomorphic or metaphorical terms. But there is no reason why even more vivid terms should not be used, provided that they do not convey a degraded idea of God. Thus, God’s creation of man’s body is pictured under terms that suggest the work of a potter (Genesis 2:7).
The imparting of the principle of life is pictured in the same verse as God’s breathing into man’s nostrils. His acceptance of Noah’s sacrifice is described as smelling a sweet savour (Genesis 8:21). His response to man’s change from good to bad or from bad to good is called repentance (Jeremiah 18:7-10). One could multiply these instances, but perhaps one more thing should be pointed out.
There is such a thing as anthropomorphic action as well as anthropomorphic description. According to the Old Testament, there have been times when God came down from heaven and walked on earth. The statements that God walked in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) or came down to see the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5, 7) may be no more than metaphors, but they may equally well denote visionary appearances of God under human form, such as certainly occurred when God appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18.
Although it is true that no man has seen God in His essential Being (John 1:18), it is equally true that, from time to time, God has manifested Himself in a veiled form as man (Genesis 18), as fire (Exodus 24:17), and as a bright enthroned spiritual being (Ezekiel 1 and probably Isaiah 6). Such appearances are concessions to man’s humanity, and are intended to show that the supreme God is a personal Being, and not a vague, unknown presence.
“A story, generally taken from a life situation, to illustrate a point that the speaker wishes to drive home.”
It is important to note that the purpose of the parable is to illustrate a point, normally one point. If a number of points are illustrated, the story is sometimes classified as an allegory. Yet in practice, one commonly calls Christ’s stories parables. Nevertheless, there is a difference between such a story as the Good Samaritan which answers the question “Who is my neighbour?” and the illustration of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) in which every item stands for something else.
Since most of the parables are intended to teach a single point, it is obvious that much of the story consists of furniture to fill up the room. The parables thus resemble the similes of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, where a single point of comparison is elaborated for its own sake. Thus, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), it is futile to look for some mystical significance in the two pence, or in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) to find a spiritual lesson in the fatted calf. In some parables, it even becomes dangerous to draw conclusions from details in the story.
The unjust steward, for example (Luke 16:1-9), is not an example to be followed in his dishonesty. But the parable is told to illustrate how keen a man of the world is to use his money to make influential friends, for the only future he knows. Why do not Christians use their money to make friends for the future that they look for?
The problem of the furniture of a parable comes out acutely in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Although this is not called a parable, the analogy of other similar stories inclines one to believe that it is to be counted as one. The point to be illustrated is that riches without repentance are useless, and will bring a complete reversal beyond the grave.
The question is whether, for the purpose of the parable, Christ employs the traditional Jewish furniture of the life to come, or whether He is actually revealing facts about the nature of existence beyond the grave. Almost certainly, we must decide on some compromise. There is definitely some unreal imagery in the use of the term “Abraham’s bosom”. But it is hard to suppose that our Lord Jesus Christ could speak of the impassable gulf and the finality of the choice in this life if these had no correspondence with eternal realities.
May we go further and deduce from the parable that there is both consciousness and a sense of joy or of torment in Paradise or Hades before the final judgment? On this, interpreters differ. My own feeling is that we may accept these features of the story as in accord with the truth.
“The representation, in fact or vision, of one thing or event, which has no meaning or significance in itself but only in what it portrays.”
A simple example of this is Ezekiel’s action in holding two sticks together in his hand to look like one stick (Ezekiel 37:15-28). The two sticks stand for the northern and the southern kingdoms, and the joining of the sticks represents the reuniting of Israel and Judah.
All the symbolic actions of the prophets are of this kind. The use of symbol is also seen in a striking form in apocalyptic writing. Daniel and the book of the Revelation are of course the fullest examples of apocalyptic writing in the Bible. Here beasts, horns, bowls and trumpets come and go in what may seem bewildering fashion. In themselves they are meaningless, but frequently they are interpreted by an angel as though they were in some sense algebraic formulae.
Where the interpretation is not given, we are left to find our own, with such help as we can derive from those that are interpreted and from sanctified commonsense. It would be beyond our province here to discuss how far these symbols were really seen by the seer and how far they are only literary devices. The tendency of modern commentators is to regard them as literary devices, but a study of the symbolism of dreams should make us cautious about regarding them as wholly fictitious.
“The representation of a permanent and a greater truth by a thing or an event, which also has a real existence and a significance of its own.”
The point of this definition can best be seen by looking at the ritual law as a type of Christ and His work. The basic truths are expounded in the Epistle to the Hebrews. For the Christian, the ritual law has now in itself no significance at all. There can be no return to it, for its meaning has been completely fulfilled in Christ.
But the law did once have a significance of its own. It was the means by which a godly man could enjoy forgiveness, and through which he might have access to God. It pictured Christ, but it also had its own validity. An illustration would be that of paper money. Banknotes are pictures of the equivalent gold and silver. In themselves, they are worthless scraps of paper. If there were no gold and silver to back them, they would indeed be as valueless as paper. But, as tokens, they are valid for making purchases.
In theory, it might conceivably happen that one day a country would find itself able to back the whole of its notes by gold and silver, and would then call in the banknotes entirely. Then they would become valueless. Certainly this has happened with the Jewish law.
The paper types, which were valid for the time, even though they could never take away sins, have been replaced by the pure gold of the Kingdom. Typology may at times have been abused by interpreters, but there is no doubt that the New Testament warrants its use.
When our Lord Jesus Christ opened up all the Scriptures to show how they spoke of Him, some of the references must have been to types, otherwise one doubts whether the early Church would have dared to use them in the way that they did.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus used the story of Jonah as a type of His death and resurrection (Matthew 12:39-40). In fact it must have been from Jonah, and from the equally typical passage, Hosea 6:2, that Christ was able to show that the prophets had foretold that His resurrection would be on the third day (Luke 18:31-33).
A type may, at times, be worked out in considerable detail. Thus Hebrews 5-7 discusses the use by Psalm 110 of Melchizedek as a type of Christ. Since the only historical reference to Melchizedek is in Genesis 14, the writer of Hebrews extracts every possible significance from words and phrases there, even to the extent of seeing a type of the eternity of Christ in the fact that no mention is made of Melchizedek’s parentage, birth or death (Hebrews 7:2-3).
A type may at times be worked out in considerable detail. Thus Hebrews 5-7 discusses the use by Psalm 110 of Melchizedek as a type of Christ. Since the only historical reference to Melchizedek is in Genesis 14, the writer of Hebrews extracts every possible significance from words and phrases there, even to the extent of seeing a type of the eternity of Christ in the fact that no mention is made of Melchizedek’s parentage, birth or death (Hebrews 7:2-3).
The word type (τύπος) is used in the New Testament in Acts 7:44 and Hebrews 8:5 of the original plan of the tabernacle that was given to Moses; in Romans 5:14 of Adam as a type of the second Adam; in 1 Corinthians 10:6,11 of the experiences of the Israelites during their wanderings. The word antitype (άντίτυπος) appears to have the same sense as (τύπος) in Hebrews 9:24 where it represents the tabernacle.
But in 1 Peter 3:21 it has the sense of that for which the type of Noah’s salvation stood. The exact interpretation of this sentence is notoriously difficult. Another New Testament word employed to denote the same usage is “shadow” (σκιά).
In Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1 it is used of the ritual law, and in Colossians 2:16-17 of meat and drink (in the ritual sense), of the feast day, new moon, and sabbath. In Galatians 4:24 Paul employs the verb (άλληγορεῖν) from which our word “allegory” comes, in using the story of Hagar as a type. None the less our word allegory has a different meaning, and it is better to classify the story of Hagar as a type, since it is clear from Paul’s use of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Romans 4 that he regarded these records in Genesis primarily as historical fact.
“The depiction of a truth by a story that can be enjoyed as a story though the events did not, and often could not, occur in the form in which they are stated.”
The supreme allegory in literature is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. While it is possible to point to scenery near Bedford that may have inspired the setting of the story, the events of the story are pure allegory.
A study of Jewish and Christian methods of interpretation of the Scriptures shows the tremendous use that has been made of allegorical interpretation. In the hands of Philo of Alexandria, at the beginning of the Christian era, the Jewish Scriptures were twisted to fit into the mould of Greek philosophy.
The same method ran riot in the Christian Church, supported by Origen, and only opposed by the school of Antioch under Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. It persisted up to the Reformation, when the Reformers boldly struck against it. Allegorical interpretation has proved an easy method of removing difficulties and of making the Bible fit in with current thought.
Present-day interpreters are rightly suspicious of it. Apart from two simple allegories in Judges 9:7-15 and 2 Kings 14:9, there are two major places in Scripture where we might allow allegory, i.e. when the original writer intended what he wrote to symbolize something else.
The first is the story of the Garden of Eden. Some would interpret this wholly as an allegory of the fall of the first man, or perhaps of the fall of every man. This, I think, is too sweeping. The detailed geographical references in Genesis 2:10-14 suggest that the story is intended to have a factual background.
Others have regarded such things as the two trees as wholly allegorical. This may be so. But allegorical of what? What was the form that the testing of man took? It seems to me that it might well have been a test of eating or not eating the fruit of a certain tree. If it cannot be shown that the test took another form, I prefer to take this part of the story as literal.
The other possible major allegory is the Song of Solomon, and saints and mystics of every age have found wonderful blessing in regarding it as an allegory of the soul’s relation to God. It may be that in Oriental fashion it was deliberately written in this sense. Personally, however, I should regard it primarily as a human love song.
I think it was written as a tribute to a country girl who, in the atmosphere of the court, remained true to her shepherd lover in spite of the seductions of Solomon. She may well have been Abishag the Shunammite of 1 Kings 1 and 2. “Shulamite” of Song of Solomon 6:13 is regarded as equivalent to Shunammite. If this is the true interpretation of the Song, one can see that it has a powerful moral and spiritual lesson as well as a mystical interpretation. In other words, it is a type rather than an allegory.
Personally, I believe that “myth” is such a misleading word that Evangelicals should avoid it altogether in connection with biblical interpretation. Those who do use it do so in several ways. Thus SH Hooke (Clarendon OT Vol. 6, Chapter 4) says “Myth was the spoken part of ritual, when the story was recited of what the priest, the king, and others were depicting by their actions.”
Hooke gives as an example the Babylonian New Year Festival, when the king, as representing the gods, fought and overcame a monster, who represented evil forces that were threatening the kingdom. During this drama, the priests recited the Babylonian story of creation.
Hooke thus holds that the question of the truth or falsity of myth did not arise. The myth was the word of power, and a necessary part of the ritual. When, however, the ritual was discarded, the myth might continue to be elaborated as a story for its own sake. It might pass as a story into the folklore of other peoples.
In spite of the theories of Hooke and others, there is no historical evidence that the Jewish kings practised an annual ceremony comparable to the Babylonian New Year Festival. But it is frequently held that myths, from Babylonian and other sources, have come into the Old Testament under the form of allusions to Leviathan, the dragon, and Rahab (not the Rahab from Jericho in the account of Joshua). See Isaiah 27:1, 51:9; Psalm 74:13, 14.
The primary reference to Rahab of Psalm 74:13-14 appears to be to Egypt, but even so it seems to have a fuller allusion. The source of the reference is thought to be the primitive Semitic story of the warfare between the gods and chaos. But what was the source of this story? Might not the story be a polytheistic version of what the Bible suggests, in several places, is an actual truth: namely the rebellion and fall of Satan?
He is “the great dragon” and “that old serpent” of Revelation 12:9, and what better title could be found for him than “Rahab” or “Pride”? If this is so, then these references must rank not as a myth, which may or may not be true, but as allusions to factual occurrences, which had become known through a primal revelation.
The second definition of myth, which is also allowed by Hooke, and which is worked out by the late Edwyn Bevan in an extra chapter in the Clarendon Old Testament Vol. 6, is that myth is “A folk tale designed to account for the existence of some place or practice.”
The wanderings of the patriarchs in Genesis are said to afford examples of this. Stories are told to account for such things as circumcision (Genesis 17), substitutionary sacrifice (Genesis 22), and the sanctity of Bethel (Genesis 28) and other high places, while the river spirit of Jabbok is baptized into Hebrew story as a manifestation of the true God (Genesis 32:22-32).
Granted that we are dealing here with folklore; it is purely a subjective judgment to declare that it is untrue folklore. Its truth or falsity must be demonstrated on other grounds. Recent research, as many scholars have pointed out, is confirming that the background of the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is true to the period in which they lived, and not true to the period in which the Genesis records are supposed by some to have been written down later.
This means that we are bound to postulate contemporary records of some sort, for much of the story. But once contemporary records are admitted, there is no valid reason for doubting their essential truth, even if they were transmitted orally for some time. Therefore, we need not write off these stories as fictitious folklore, or as folklore which has been built upon only small fragments of truth.
A discussion of myth would be incomplete without reference to what is known as demythologizing. This is the English version of the German word Entmythologisierung, as used by the theologian Professor Bultmann and others. Bultmann (1884-1976) held that the gospel terminology is derived from mythological conceptions of the universe and of the spirit-world. This terminology must be demythologized before it can be received by the modern mind.
Bultmann’s demand was for something more than what is commonly meant by explaining biblical terms. Thus he not only rejected any conception of heaven as above, but also held that the idea of Christ as the pre-existent divine being, and of the world of demons and spirits, is drawn from the mythology of Gnosticism and Jewish Apocalyptic writing.
Bultmann, therefore, was concerned to extract the meaning of the biblical statements from the outmoded expression of the meaning, and to restate the meaning in terms of personal encounter with God. Bultmann’s line of thought also emerges in a book by CD Kean, The Meaning of Existence, where myth is defined as “A description of Existence, the importance of which is its revelation of the meaning of experience rather than the truth or untruth of the details of its story” (page 115).
On this basis, Dr. Kean rejects “Biblical fundamentalism, because no appreciation of mythology is possible if the myths themselves are literalized” (page 150). He thus speaks of the myth of the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension. We are bound to notice, first of all, that this is not New Testament Christianity.
The first Christian gospel was factual and historical. It differed from the myths of the pagan religions by its assertion that Jesus Christ had really died, risen, and ascended; and that He had come from a pre-existent life with the Father to be born as man.
Paul and John, who both lay such emphasis on union with Christ, are equally emphatic that such union has its basis in historical fact. The essence of the gospel is that Jesus Christ “died for our sins… was buried… and raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The gospel is concerned with One who has been “seen” and “handled”, even though He had an eternal existence with His Father (1 John 1:1-4).
This emphasis on history and pre-history saves Christianity from degenerating into subjectivism, in which experience reigns supreme. Evangelicalism has always seen the importance of experience, but it has always grounded this experience upon objective and historical truth. Once this truth is dispensed with, it is doubtful whether any stable experience will remain.
Bultmann and others have not taken sufficient account of the legacy that they have inherited from historical Christianity. It is clear that everyone who indulges in demythologizing, is governed by his own ideas of what is myth. For example, Bultmann supposed that demons have no real and objective existence. This is an arbitrary assumption which experiences in the mission field and in spiritualistic séances would challenge with good reason.
Bultmann also adopted an attitude of negative scepticism towards biblical miracles. But this is a phase of critical thought that many would strongly deny. Bultmann naturally makes a strong point of the mythological view of the “three-decker” universe, with heaven above, the earth on the ground floor, and sheol or Hades in the basement.
Yet even here it is preferable to speak of metaphor rather than myth. The terms "up," "down" and "above" are metaphorical terms that are necessarily used in translating the terms of one order of being into the terms of another. For example, a blind man can only understand colour in terms of sound and smell. The classical example is that of the blind man who understood scarlet as something like the sound of a trumpet, -- an excellent comparison.
God and heaven are non-perceptible to those senses which we use in this space-time world. Their state must therefore be described in metaphorical language, of which the most suitable is that of “up” and “above”. Let us suppose that we try to understand them under modern terms. We might speak of heaven as a different vibration or a different dimension. But what adjective shall we use to distinguish the heavenly vibration or dimension?
Almost inevitably we say "a higher vibration" or "a fourth dimension" -- and four is a "higher" number than three. It is not unreasonable to hold that the terms "up" and "above" are necessary terms to employ of God and heaven, thus saving us from the erroneous view of the total "withinness" of pantheism, without eliminating the Christian doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The ascension of the risen body of the Lord Jesus Christ from the Mount of Olives is likely to have been an historical fact, since it is testified to by Luke (Acts 1), whose historical accuracy has been vindicated repeatedly. And, indeed, it underlies all references to the present position of Christ at the right hand of the Father, and to His future coming again.
If we consider the matter thoughtfully, it may well be that the category of “up” is so far common to earth and heaven, that the visible passage from the former to the latter would inevitably take place in a direction away from earth. Similarly there is not the slightest reason to deny that the visible Second Coming of the Lord will be in a contrary direction, and that He will indeed be seen coming from heaven to earth.
The demythologizing movement must be regarded as an arbitrary subjectivism, which is totally different from the anchored experience of the original gospel. All that it tries to safeguard of vital encounter with God is already incorporated in the gospel that Evangelicals preach.
We may well adopt the definition given by SH Hooke (Clarendon OT Vol. 6): “Primarily a story, transmitted orally from generation to generation, which preserves memories of the wanderings and adventures of clans or tribes, or the exploits of heroes belonging to such groups” (pp. 59, 60).
We may make the same comment on this as we made on the second definition of myth. The accuracy of the background of the patriarchs suggests that, whether the stories were transmitted orally or in written form, they may be regarded as accurate.
There is another use of the term “saga” in Martin Buber’s book on Moses. His opening chapter discusses the relation between saga and history. He quotes and paraphrases Ernst Herzfeld as follows: “Saga and the writing of history start out from the identical point, the event, and it is the saga which in particular preserves historical memories, not of what the consequences show to be ‘historical event’, but of that which roused the emotions of the men undergoing the experience” (page 14).
Saga would then be the psychological and interpretative reactions of participants in some event. An example is the Song of Deborah, which probably assumed poetic form at an early stage, and so remained virtually unchanged. Dr. Buber points out that if the original saga is not expressed in a fixed form from the beginning, it tends to grow, and then it is not always possible for the investigator to trace it back to its original form. Even if this is possible, it will not necessarily mean that one can recast the exact form that the historical events took.
Dr. Buber treats the Moses story as saga, and though his book is helpful and reverential, one feels that this acceptance of the saga principle has made him unnecessarily cautious in his treatment of the Bible story. His interpretation rests upon the assumption that Moses himself did not record the events that are described in essentially the form in which we have the record today.
This involves the whole critical question of the authorship of the Pentateuch. Incidentally, Dr. Buber rejects the documentary theory, but holds that the traditional story was continually worked over as a whole. Obviously, we cannot discuss this now. If, however, we assume that Moses is substantially the author, it might still be possible to hold that he wrote saga, in Dr. Buber’s sense, and not history.
Our main ground for rejecting such a view would be that, as Dr. Buber says, saga tends to assume a rhythmical form, and there is little of this form in the Pentateuch. The impression one receives is that the author is writing sober history, and as such we may receive it, even though it contains much that is miraculous and beyond our experience.
This discussion has covered most of the figures employed in Scripture. There will not be unanimous agreement on every point, but at least one can see that in speaking of the truth of the Bible, one realizes that truth can be conveyed under various terms.
Where literal truth can reasonably stand, it will naturally be accepted as such. In other places it will be clear that other figures are employed, and it is the task of a reverent interpretation to discover what these figures are, both by a comparison of Scripture with Scripture, and not least by the use of sanctified commonsense.
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More Christian books by J Stafford Wright from White Tree Publishing are on the next pages, some of which are available as both eBooks and paperbacks.
White Tree Publishing publishes mainstream evangelical Christian literature in paperback and eBook formats, for people of all ages. We aim to make our eBooks available free for all eBook devices, but some distributors will only list our books free at their discretion, and may make a small charge for some titles -- but they are still great value! We have non-fiction, fiction, and books for young readers. The full list of published and forthcoming books is on our website www.whitetreepublishing.com. Please visit there regularly for updates.
We rely on our readers to tell their families, friends and churches about our books. Social media is a great way of doing this. Take a look at our range of fiction and non-fiction books and pass the word on. You can even contact your Christian TV or radio station to let them know about these books. Also, please write a positive review on the eBook site if you are able.
A Previously Unpublished Book
J Stafford Wright
Foreword by J I Packer
“I believe in … Jesus Christ … born of the Virgin Mary.” A beautiful stained glass image, or a medical reality? This is the choice facing Christians today. Can we truly believe that two thousand years ago a young woman, a virgin named Mary, gave birth to the Son of God? The answer is simple: we can.
The author says, “In these days many Christians want some sensible assurance that their faith makes sense, and in this book I want to show that it does.”
In this uplifting book from a previously unpublished and recently discovered manuscript, J Stafford Wright investigates the reality of the incarnation, looks at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and helps the reader understand more of the Trinity and the certainty of eternal life in heaven.
This book was written shortly before the author’s death in 1985. The Simplicity of the Incarnation is published for the first time, unedited, from his final draft.
eBook ISBN 13: 978-0-9932760-5-7
Paperback ISBN: 9-780-9525-9563-2
160 pages 5.25 × 8 inches
Available from bookstores and major internet sellers
An Unforgettable A-Z of Who is Who in the Bible
In a fascinating look at real people, J Stafford Wright shows his love and scholarly knowledge of the Bible as he brings the characters from its pages to life in a memorable way.
Read this book through from A to Z, like any other title
Dip in and discover who was who in personal Bible study
Check the names when preparing a talk or sermon
The good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly – no one is spared. This is a book for everyone who wants to get to grips with the reality that is in the pages of the Bible, the Word of God.
With the names arranged in alphabetical order, the Old and New Testament characters are clearly identified so that the reader is able to explore either the Old or New Testament people on the first reading, and the other Testament on the second.
Those wanting to become more familiar with the Bible will find this is a great introduction to the people inhabiting the best selling book in the world, and those who can quote chapter and verse will find everyone suddenly becomes much more real – because these people are real. This is a book to keep handy and refer to frequently while reading the Bible.
“For students of my generation the name Stafford Wright was associated with the spiritual giants of his generation. Scholarship and integrity were the hallmarks of his biblical teaching. He taught us the faith and inspired our discipleship of Christ. To God be the Glory.” The Rt. Rev. James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
This is a lively, well-informed study of some great Bible characters. Professor Gordon Wenham MA PhD. Tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College Bristol and Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9932760-7-1
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9525956-5-6
314 pages 6×9 inches
Note: This book is not available in all eBook formats
Christians and the Supernatural
J Stafford Wright
There is an increasing interest and fascination in the paranormal today. To counteract this, it is important for Christians to have a good understanding of how God sometimes acts in mysterious ways, and be able to recognize how he can use our untapped gifts and abilities in his service. We also need to understand how the enemy can tempt us to misuse these gifts and abilities, just as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.
In this single volume of his two previously published books on the occult and the supernatural (Understanding the Supernatural and Our Mysterious God) J Stafford Wright examines some of the mysterious events we find in the Bible and in our own lives. Far from dismissing the recorded biblical miracles as folk tales, he is convinced that they happened in the way described, and explains why we can accept them as credible.
The writer says: When God the Holy Spirit dwells within the human spirit, he uses the mental and physical abilities which make up a total human being . . . The whole purpose of this book is to show that the Bible does make sense.
And this warning: The Bible, claiming to speak as the revelation of God, and knowing man’s weakness for substitute religious experiences, bans those avenues into the occult that at the very least are blind alleys that obscure the way to God, and at worst are roads to destruction.
eBook ISBN 13: 978-0-9932760-4-0
Paperback ISBN 13: 9-780-9525-9564-9
222 pages 5.25 × 8 inches
Available from bookstores and major internet sellers
His Own Story
Foreword by J. Stafford Wright
Howell Harris was brought up to regard the Nonconformists as “a perverted and dangerously erroneous set of people.” Hardly a promising start for a man who was to play a major role in the Welsh Revival. Yet in these extracts from his writings and diaries we can read the thoughts of Howell Harris before, during and after his own conversion.
We can see God breaking through the barriers separating "church and chapel", and discover Christians of different denominations preparing the country for revival. Wesley, Whitefield, Harris. These great 18th century preachers worked both independently and together to preach the Living Gospel. This book is a vivid first-hand account of the joys, hardships and struggles of one of these men -- Howell Harris (1714-1773).
eBook Summer 2017
J Stafford Wright
The Bible Psalms. Do you see them as a source of comfort? A help in daily living? A challenge? Or perhaps something to study in depth? Psalms, a Guide Psalm by Psalm will meet all these requirements, and more. It is an individual study guide that can be used for daily reading in conjunction with your own Bible. It is also a resource for group study, with brief questions for study and discussion. And it’s a Bible commentary, dealing with the text of each Psalm section by section.
eBook ISBN 978-0-9957594-2-8
A Previously Unpublished Book
A Novel by J Stafford Wright
What is inside the fascinating house with the locked door and the shuttered windows? Satan wants an experiment. God allows it. John is caught up in the plan as Satan’s human representative. The experiment? To demonstrate that there can be peace in the world if God allows Satan to run things in his own way. A group of people gather together in an idyllic village run by Satan, with no reference to God, and no belief in him.
J Stafford Wright has written this startling and gripping account of what happens when God stands back and Satan steps forward. All seems to go well for the people who volunteer to take part. And no Christians allowed!
John Longstone lost his faith when teaching at a theological college. Lost it for good -- or so he thinks. And then he meets Kathleen who never had a faith. As the holes start to appear in Satan’s scheme for peace, they wonder if they should help or hinder the plans which seem to have so many benefits for humanity.
eBook ISBN 13: 978-0-9932760-3-3
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-9927642-4-1
206 pages 5.25 × 8.0 inches
Available from bookstores and major internet sellers
Plenty more Christian non-fiction and fiction books by various authors for all ages on
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When we start to think about God, we soon come to a point where we say, "I can discover nothing more about God by myself. I must see whether He has revealed anything about Himself, about His character, and about the way to find Him and to please Him." From the beginning, the Christian church has believed that certain writings were the Word of God in a unique sense. Before the New Testament was compiled, Christians accepted the Old Testament as their sacred Book. Here they were following the example of Christ Himself. During His ministry Jesus Christ made great use of the Old Testament, and after His resurrection He spent some time in teaching His disciples that every section of the Old Testament had teachings in it concerning Himself. Any discussion of the inspiration of the Bible gives place sooner or later to a discussion of its interpretation. To say that the Bible is true, or infallible, is not sufficient: for it is one thing to have an infallible Book, and quite another to use it. J Stafford Wright was a greatly respected evangelical theologian and author, and former Principal of Tyndale Hall Theological College, Bristol, England.