Although God is the Author of the Bible, since he has caused it to be written in everyday human language, it can be readily understood by all who can read. The Puritans called this the perspicuity of Scripture. That is to say, the Bible can be understood in its plain meaning. Scripture simply says what it means and means what it says.
Aswe explained when we were thinking about Approaching the Bible it is only those who come to God's Word with childlike trust and simplicity who are able to receive anything from the Scriptures. As we go on to explain, this is because the Bible is quite unlike any other book: it is a spiritual book.
[These statements do not ignore the very real difficulties posed by the need for translation - the direct result of mankind's first corporate disobedience after the Flood (see Genesis 11:1-9). Words in different languages frequently have different circles of meaning, so that a literal word for word equivalent can be misleading or meaningless. We believe, though, that God has sovereignly guided all honest translators in their work - and continues to do so - whatever principles of translation they use, so that the vernacular Scriptures we have today contain in all essential respects what God inspired the original Writers to write.]
The Timothy Test
In his book Starlight and Time the creation scientist D Russell Humphreys imagines how a young Jewish Christian of the first century, whom he calls Timothy (after one of the apostle Paul's assistants on his second and third missionary journeys (Acts 16:1-3)) would have interpreted the Scriptures. Humphreys maintains that, since Timothy had no advanced scientific knowledge, the meaning he would have derived from a passage would be the simple, straightforward, face value meaning, that is the meaning God most likely intended. He recommends that, when theologians disagree in their interpretations, or appear to force artificial constructions on the Bible, we should apply The Timothy Test, by asking how would someone like Timothy have understood it?
So, whenever you come across a difficult passage in the Bible, put yourself in the place of Timothy, and look for the obvious, plain meaning of what you read - and then do what it says!
The Bible is not meant to be a difficult or obscure book. Although theological study can sometimes be of value in contending for the faith (Jude 3 (NIV-UK)), we do not need any special training in order to understand the Scriptures. The Bible is God's Word for the World (hence our logo), to be read, understood and applied by every believer. God has not given us a book to be interpreted only by a select few.
(Based on part of an article by Diane Simkin in The West Briton, issue dated 13 June 2002)
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The Bible's perspicuity means that we do not need to adopt involved allegories or use special interpretations in order to understand what God is saying to us in the Scriptures. We do not have to strain to find the profound or obscure when the simple and direct is intended. If we do put complicated constructions on simple statements, then we shall in all probability end up completely misunderstanding what God intended the Writers to convey. So, for example, when Paul asks Timothy to bring him the coat he left with Carpus at Troas (2 Timothy 4:13), this is exactly what he means. Winter was coming on, and the apostle was feeling the cold! We do not need to read into his request any allegorical inference about the need he felt for spiritual covering. Its plain meaning is quite sufficient, and was all that Paul intended.
(We recommend that visitors from Our Method read the accompanying marginal article The Timothy Test before returning to their Main Text.)
Figures of Speech & Their Interpretation
Of course, this is not to say that the Bible does not contain similes, metaphors and other forms of figurative language, especially in the poetical books (see, for example, Psalm 22:12-16, Psalm 98:8 and Psalm 100:3). Nor does it mean that the New Testament writers always apply the Old Testament in the way we might expect.
For two very interesting examples of how the apostle Paul (writing, we must always remember, under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit) used verses from the prophet Isaiah in a way we should hardly expect from their original context, take a look at his use of of Isaiah 52:7 in Romans 10:14-15 and the way in which he combines Isaiah 52:11, Ezekiel 20:24 and 2 Samuel 7:14 in 2 Corinthians 6:16-18. The fuller meaning Paul gives these verses was of course implicit in what the Writer's wrote, but in order to keep within the limits of the revelation they received, God could not make this explicit when the words were first written.
What is a Parable?
Someone once called a parable an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. The word literally means laying alongside or comparing, that is using one thing to illustrate another as a means of emphasising a truth or in a memorable manner. In the Bible parables take the form of stories or demonstrations to communicate important messages about God's nature and his purposes. They were Our Lord's most characteristic method of teaching (see Matthew 13:34-35).
However, Jesus frequently did not explain his parables to the people at large, so that only those who were open to his teaching would grasp their meaning (see Matthew 13:12-15).
One difficulty with interpreting Jesus' parables is to know how much of the detail should be taken allegorically, and how much is merely incidental. Most of our Lord's parables appear to have been told to illustrate a single truth.
One of the most common forms of figurative language in the Bible is the parable.
Parables were our Lord's characteristic method of teaching throughout his public ministry (Mark 4:33-34). For instance we find no fewer than seven parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13:1-52. Possibly the most familar parable of all, that of the Good Samaritan, is related only in Luke 10:30-37.
Parables are not, however, confined solely to our Lord's teaching, nor to the New Testament. An example of a parable from the Old Testament is the story the prophet Nathan used to confront David with his murder of Uriah following David's adultery with his wife, Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-14). Three examples of where God used parables to warn his rebellious people about the coming judgment are Jeremiah 13:1-14, Ezekiel 17:1-21 (NIV-UK), and Ezekiel 24:1-14. A further example of a parable from the Old Testament is the story told by Abimelech's brother, Jotham (Judges 9:7-21).
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As we have twice mentioned earlier (in concluding the page on The Bible's Origin and in considering God's Accomodation to Man's Need), by writing the Bible clearly in the words of men God has graciously adapted his means of revelation to meet our limited human understanding. For, although his decisions and methods are impossible for us to understand (Romans 11:33), since his thoughts and ways are completely different from ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), yet out of his desire to communicate with us he has expressed the fullness of his revelation in a way we can read and understand. It is this principle of accommodation that enables us, with the anointing of the Holy Spirit, to understand and to apply the Bible for ourselves (see 1 John 2:27). For this reason, the Holy Spirit has been called by some, the Divine Interpreter as in the the hymn by Charles Wesley we have included in Challenge, Promise & Prayer.
Media or Message?
Does the introduction of magnetic media invalidate the claim that the Bible is the Word of God written? Not at all. Whether the medium used is handwriting on parchment, printing on paper, or magnetically encoded characters on CD-rom or disk, the message does not change. The Word of God remains for ever the same Word that God has breathed-out (Isaiah 40:8).
Just as Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, was the living Word of God in the visible, tangible form of a human being (Colossians 1:15, 1 John 1:1), so too the Bible is the living Word of God presented to us in tangible, comprehensible written form. David's statement regarding the origin of the plans for the Temple which he passed on to his son Solomon that, Every part of this plan ... was written under the direction of the Lord (1 Chronicles 28:19 (alternative reading)), is equally applicable to the whole of Scripture.
A note of caution needs to be sounded here! Although the Bible is perspicuous in that it is accessible to everyone who has learned to read and whose inner eyes of (their) heart have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 1:18 (NIV-UK)), this is not to say that studying the Bible is necessarily effortless! On the contrary, although it is both a joy and a delight, it can also be mentally and spiritually hard work, and even the apostle Peter had to admit that some of the things written by his beloved contemporary, Paul, were hard to understand (see 2 Peter 3:15-16). This statement of Peter also warns us about the futility of placing impossible interpretations on Scripture, and the need always to handle God's Word, the word of truth, with the utmost integrity (2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV-UK)).
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Reaping the Fruit of Their Labours ...Down the ages, the best Christian minds have grappled with the more difficult Scriptures in order to understand their meaning, and we shall do well to use the fruit of their labours in the form of commentaries, dictionaries and other works of reference. At the very least, we shall be wise to check our own understanding of Scripture with the accumulated wisdom of the past. What was true yesterday is still true today. We shall also welcome every opportunity we have to hear skilled and inspired living Bible expositors - those whom God has specially equipped to explain his Word to us in our own day.
While he was on earth, our Lord Jesus Christ made much use of the Scriptures as they were in his time. Some of the ways in which he, the incarnate Word of God, used the written Word of God we consider on our next page.
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