Word of the Month

How we understand the Bible

March 2009

I have recently received some letters dealing with the question of how we understand Holy Scripture. I will take this as an opportunity to state some fundamental points on the matter.

In 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 we can read the following – here in the narrower sense in reference to the Old Testament – regarding the significance of Scripture: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doc­trine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” From these words we may conclude that Holy Scripture as a whole has been given by God. In other words, it is inspired by the Spirit of God. However, this does not mean that we understand Scripture in a fundamentalist way, that is, we do not believe that each word of the Bible has been dictated by God. At the same time, we are somewhat cautious in our approach to the historical-critical method. This is particularly true when it comes to “demythologising” certain events or attempting to provide rational explanations for miracles. We see this as having an impact upon essential positions of our faith, and thus reject such methods of interpretation.

When we say that Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, we express our conviction that the Bible contains all insights necessary for attaining eternal fellowship with God, and thus the goal of our faith.

As concerns the Old Testament, it must be said that many things must surely be understood in a symbolic or metaphorical way. This applies particularly to the story of creation. When we read, for example, that “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2: 7), this is a figurative method of expression that cannot be taken literally. This is also the case with the entire history of creation. Thus we do not need to put ourselves at odds with the insights of natural science. As has already been explained in detail in earlier publications, the biblical accounts of the creation do not contradict the insights of the theory of evolution. In stating this we are not attempting to assess the degree to which evolutionary theory adequately and clearly explains all the developments within natural history. This is a matter for natural science to explain.

There are also other accounts of the Old Testament that are certainly to be understood metaphorically or symbolically, for example the story of Job. The account mentions that “the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord” (Job 2: 1) and that Satan was among them. This narrative we must interpret symbolically. It is inconceivable that God would convene a conference with the Devil. Nevertheless, this account is edifying for us, and serves to strengthen faith. It has its source in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

With regard to the New Testament’s testimony regarding the miracles of Jesus, His resurrection, and His ascension, I must emphasise that these are real events. These constitute fundamental truths of our faith which cannot be modified.

Certainly there is also one book of the New Testament that has a pronounced figurative or symbolic character: Revelation. The statements it contains about the thousand-year kingdom of peace are also figurative in nature. It says of this time that Satan will be bound. We cannot even begin to discern what this statement means exactly. I understand it as an indication that the spirits opposed to God will no longer have any power. But we cannot therefore assume that there will be no more sin or death. The Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah that apply to this time cannot be taken literally either. They are figurative. The only thing that is clear – and thus not figurative – is the declaration stating that Jesus Christ will reign.

To conclude, I would still like to stress the following: according to the New Apostolic understanding of faith, the Apostle ministry has been endowed with the authority to interpret Holy Scripture. This does not mean that believers will not profit from reading the Bible. But it falls to the Apostle ministry to interpret the Bible, to clarify matters, and to provide instruction in faith. In so doing, Scriptural passages are considered in their context, since overemphasis on individual statements can lead to the wrong conclusions.

These are the explanations that I wanted to give on the question of how we understand Holy Scripture.

Wilhelm Leber