How could a divinely inspired book be written from a limited human perspective?

Valentin de Boulogne, "St. Paul Writing His Epistles"
Valentin de Boulogne, “St. Paul Writing His Epistles”

In my last post I discussed the question of how there could have been light on the first day in the Genesis creation account when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day.  I suggested that the Genesis author was writing from an observational perspective—that he was describing on the first day the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which is still seen on days when the sun doesn’t become visible, believing this light to be independent of the sun.  As I noted, this explanation may answer the original question, but it raises another one:  How can the inspired word of God be expressed through such a limited human perspective?  In the Bible, wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything the human authors wrote was fully accurate, scientifically and historically?

My response to this would be that we only have one divinely inspired book, the Bible, so that whatever expectations we might have of such a book, if we want to know what one is really like, we have to look at the only one we have.  And when we do, it  appears that the Bible is indeed written from an observational perspective:  The Genesis creation account as a whole, for example, describes a flat earth under a solid sky, lit by a diffused light independent of the sun. That’s exactly how it appears.

But it’s actually very gracious of God to allow the biblical authors to tell his story from our perspective like this.  Imagine if the Bible had said instead that while the sun might appear to be moving through the sky, it’s actually stationary relative to the earth, and while the ground beneath our feet might not appear to be moving, it’s actually spinning at a thousand miles an hour, creating the impression of the sun’s motion.  People throughout the centuries would have rejected a book that made claims so outlandishly contrary to plain experience!  People would still do the same in many parts of the world today.  So by having the biblical authors express divine truths in observational language, God ensured that the Bible could travel into all different times and places, speaking to all human cultures.  It can still speak to our own scientific culture today if we simply recognize and accept the perspective from which it is written, without being scandalized that this is contrary to the expectations we might have of it.

Indeed, the Bible itself says that it was delivered through human authors.  The implication of this is that while the authors were given divine wisdom and insight, the human limitations on their knowledge were not supernaturally lifted. Peter, for example, describes the inspiration of Scripture in this way:  “Men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21).  He does not say, “God took over the minds of people and used their hands to record His omniscient thoughts.”  Later in that same epistle Peter describes Paul’s letters as “scripture,” but listen to how he describes their composition process: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him”—not “through the substitution of the divine mind for his own” (2 Peter 3:15).

Indeed, when we look at Paul’s letters themselves, we find that, even as inspired scripture, they show that there were limitations on Paul’s knowledge, which he himself recognized.  For example, when pleading with the Corinthians to be unified, Paul said he was glad he only baptized Crispus and Gaius, so that no one could say they had been baptized in his name.  “Oh yes,” he adds, “I also baptized the household of Stephanus, but beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.”  This is a place where Paul admits the limitations on his own knowledge of a specific point.

Later in that same epistle, he shows that he was aware of the limitations on his knowledge generally, compared with God’s knowledge:  “For we know only in part, we prophecy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  . . .  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Here we see a biblical author, in the very act of writing scripture, contrasting his partial knowledge with the divine omniscience.  We should therefore not conclude that if the Bible is the word of God, it will demonstrate omniscience—among other ways, by transcending phenomenological description of the natural world—and that if it does not behave this way, it cannot be the word of God. Rather, we should marvel at God’s creativity and gracious condescension in allowing his story to be told from our perspective, so that people everywhere and at all times could hear it without impediment from within the framework of their own earthly existence.

How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

I have a question about the creation account in Genesis:  How could there have been light on the first day when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

SAMSUNGThis is an excellent question that has long puzzled readers of the book of Genesis.  In response to it, some have asserted that the “light” created on the first day was not the light we now see from the sun, but rather something like newly-created matter, or electromagnetic radiation, static electricity, or even a divine light that no longer exists.

But in my view, the simplest explanation is that the light of the first day is the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which remains in the sky after the sun sets, finally fading away until it can be seen no more.  We now know that this light comes from our sun, but the Genesis author apparently believed, writing from an observational perspective, that it was an independent entity that was present before the sun existed, and which appears even on those days when the sun is absent.  This light defined the realm of “day,” just as the dome above the earth defined the realm of “sky” and the gathering together of the waters below constituted the realm of “sea.”  As the Genesis study guide points out, this creation account is about realms and their rulers, and light is introduced as the essential defining characteristic of the first realm to be set off from the primordial darkness and chaos.

When I was in grade school we used to tell this joke:
Q. “Which is brighter, the sun or the moon?”
A.  “The moon, because it shines at night when it’s dark.  The sun only shines during the day, when it’s light anyway!”
In a simple but profound way, this joke captures the naïve observational cosmology of the Genesis account (although it admittedly does not also capture its reverential spirit).

It actually makes good sense, from the perspective of ancient readers, that the “days” of Genesis should be defined on the basis of this light, rather than on the appearance or non-appearance of the sun.  After all, this first light is more reliable than the sun; it always appears in the sky even when the sun does not (due to complete cloud cover, or to dust storms, sand storms, volcanic ash, or something similar).  This obscuring of the sun may, in fact, be what Job was referring to when he said of God, “He commands the sun, and it does not rise” (Job 9:7).  When we don’t understand that the light in the sky comes from the sun, we can picture God having the sun take a “day off” like this from time to time, because even when it’s not visible in the sky, there is always light.

For some readers of the Bible, however, this explanation may solve one problem only to create another.  Light before there was a sun makes sense from an observational perspective, but were the inspired Scriptural writers really writing from such a perspective?  Wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything they wrote was fully accurate scientifically and historically?  I’ll address this concern in my next post.

See here for a detailed comment on this post and a reply.

“I can’t tell you when I’ll be there, I need to be like the wind.”

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I’ve heard people say that this means followers of Jesus shouldn’t let themselves be pinned down to appointments or commitments, but should live as freely and spontaneously as possible, because they never know where the wind of the Spirit might take them next.  What do you think of this?

Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus is discussed in Session 4 of the John study guide.  To answer your specific question, when Jesus said that people who are born of the Spirit are like the wind, I don’t think he meant that they’re unpredictable and spontaneous, and don’t make or honor any regular commitments, so that no one will ever be able to tell where they’ve come from or where they’re going.  I think Jesus was talking instead about his own origins and destiny, and by implication the origins and destiny of anyone who chooses to follow him.

Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Jesus replies to this assertion, which is a little too confident, by saying in effect, “Do you really think you know where I’ve come from?”  An incident later in the gospel illustrates how Nicodemus doesn’t know where Jesus has come from even from an earthly standpoint.  Nicodemus tries to stand up for Jesus when the Jewish leaders accuse him, but they argue that Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because he’s from Galilee, and the Scriptures don’t say the Messiah will come from there.  If Nicodemus really knew where Jesus was from, in the most basic sense, he’d reply that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, right where the Scriptures say the Messiah will come from.

But much more importantly in terms of the theological concerns of the gospel of John, Nicodemus doesn’t realize that Jesus is the eternal Word who has come to earth in human form. So Jesus talks about the wind: you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.  The earthly Jesus can be seen and heard, but most people don’t realize his divine origins, and they don’t realize the divine destiny he’s come to fulfill.

Amazingly, anyone who is born of the Spirit will be like Jesus in this same way.  I think that’s what Jesus really means when he talks about those who are born of the Spirit being like the wind.  He’s not endorsing or recommending a spontaneous, unpredictable behavior pattern.  Rather, he’s saying that his followers will be endowed with the same heavenly origins and destiny that he has.  Pretty amazing!

Does Isaiah’s prophecy about a remnant returning predict the formation of the state of Israel?

I’m reading through the Bible and have gotten as far as Isaiah, where I’ve just read, “The Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.  In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people” from nations all over the world.  Is this a prophecy of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948?

My study guide to the book of Isaiah in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series takes readers through the entire book, situating each passage in its historical context and explaining how Isaiah’s words apply both to his own day and to future events.  The guide explores the Messianic significance of this specific prophecy about the Root of Jesse.  Let me tell you a bit of what it says here.

With biblical prophecy, it’s important always to determine first what the original message was for the original audience.  Only then can you understand any further Messianic or end-times implications.

The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” in this passage is originally a new king in the line of David, Hezekiah, who will be faithful to Yahweh and reverse the policy of his father Ahaz.  Ahaz appeased Assyria and even put up altars modeled after Assyrian ones.  But Hezekiah will trust Yahweh, refuse to serve Assyria as a vassal, and see Yahweh’s deliverance.  Then there will be peace, and just as God reached out his hand to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he will reach out “a second time” to bring home the “remnant,” Israelites who were carried off into Assyria as exiles or who fled to other countries to escape the Assyrians.  That’s the message for the original audience.

But Hezekiah is also a type of Christ, and what is said about him has Messianic overtones.  When Jesus comes to reign, there will be a similar gathering of the “remnant.”  But who will they be?  My understanding is that they are gathered from all the nations because they’re people from all the nations. This gathering brings together the “great multitude” described in Revelation, which comes “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”  In other words, under the New Covenant the “chosen people” become a multinational community.  As Paul writes in Galatians, “If you are in Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.”  (See the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, session 19.)

The implications of this are that the 1948 formation of the state of Israel is most likely not what is envisioned and predicted in Isaiah’s oracle about the “Root of Jesse.”  So modern Israel does not enjoy any special privileges in the world. Rather, it is a nation-state that is responsible before God for conducting itself with justice and prudence like any other nation.

I’m glad you’re reading through the whole Bible!  That’s the best way to come to understand each individual part: by seeing where it fits within the whole.  Keep on reading!

Is the story of the woman caught in adultery a later addition, and if so, what are we supposed to do with it?

Q. In your John study guide, you have a note at the end of Session 8 that says the story of the woman who was caught in adultery “was most likely not an original part of the gospel of John.”  Sure enough, in my Bible the passage is in italics and there’s a note that says, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”  If that’s true, then who added stuff like this that wan’t there in the first place?  And what are we supposed to do when we get to these parts? Ignore them?

The gospels were all written about a generation after Jesus lived.  They’re based on a stream of oral tradition coming down from his day about what he said and did.  Not everything in this tradition was put to use by the gospel writers.  But in the case of the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, it seems that something more from this oral tradition found its way into the gospels after they were written.

This story appears at John 7:53-8:11 in some later manuscripts; it’s also found in different places in other manuscripts:  after Luke 21:38, after Luke 24:53, after John 7:36, and after John 21:25.  With so much attestation, it’s likely that this story is part of the genuine tradition coming down from Jesus.

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

None of the gospel writers included it, perhaps because it could be misunderstood to condone adultery.  But it’s such a powerful episode when rightly understood (“let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”) that people who knew about it added it to the gospels later.  This may originally have been as a “gloss” or marginal note, which later got added to the text itself.  In several manuscripts it’s marked as an addition by asterisks or other symbols.

Bruce Metzger, who was of the leading textual critics of our day, writes in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament that while “the case against … Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive” (that is, it’s pretty clear that John didn’t include this story in his gospel originally), the account “has all the earmarks of historical veracity.  It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.”

So even if we can make a good judgment that something probably wasn’t in the original manuscripts, we still need to ask whether it might be part of the tradition coming down from Jesus.  In this case, the story probably is. That’s why I do encourage groups to discuss the story, just not as part of their regular meeting.  In the study guide I say that the story “probably preserves a genuine episode from the life of Jesus” and I suggest that groups discuss it over dinner before doing the next session.  (Even if a group didn’t usually have a meal together first, this would provide a good occasion to do that at least once.)

How did the Bible come to contain the books it does?

Q. A student I know is exploring the different religions right now.  He recently asked me how the Bible came to contain the books it now has in it.  Why were these put in, and others left out?  And why does the Catholic Bible have more books than the Protestant Bible?  What would you recommend I tell him?

The formation of the biblical canon (the collection of the books in the Bible) is easier to see first in the case of the New Testament, because that process was witnessed by history.  No one person or group sat down and decided what books would be in the New Testament (despite what you or your friend may have heard people like Dan Brown claim about the Council of Nicea, which never actually discussed the canon).  Instead, books that stood the test of time through continuous use in diverse Christian centers were eventually accepted by almost all believers. Books that were judged inconsistent with the other approved books came to be recognized as edifying, but not scriptural. This process was basically complete by the time Athanasius of Alexandria wrote his festal letter for AD 367, which contains the first listing of the New Testament books as we know them today.  A few remaining differences among centers were ironed out in the years that followed.  We can infer that a similar process of community acceptance and use over time had earlier created the Old Testament canon.

This is the historical perspective.  But from a theological standpoint, as one of my seminary professors once put it, “The Holy Spirit bore witness to the church corporately about what books should be included.”  In other words, the contents of the Bible were ultimately determined not by human authority, not even by the authority of the worldwide community of Jesus’ followers, but by divine authority.  No sooner did the church recognize these books than it submitted itself to them.  The church does not say, “The Bible is our book, and we can do with it whatever we want” (including dropping or disregarding teachings or whole books that are no longer in favor).  Rather, the Bible is God’s book, and the church is responsible to understand and obey its message.

An icon of St. Athanasius, who did not determine the biblical canon, but who was the first to list the New Testament books as we know them today.

The Catholic Bible has some extra books because it includes several that were written within the Jewish community in Greek before the time of Jesus.  (The Old Testament books were written instead in Hebrew and Aramaic.)  Catholics describe these books, which Protestants call the Apocrypha, as deuterocanonical, meaning that they were first disputed before they were accepted.  Eastern Orthodox Christians use this same term to mean that these books are of secondary authority.  For fuller details about these extra books, see this post.

This is a short answer to a very involved question, but I hope this information is helpful.

If the “mark of the beast” meant Domitian’s coins, how can there also be a future fulfillment?

Q. In your Daniel-Revelation guide, you say that taking the “mark of the beast” in Revelation could have originally meant using or wearing Roman coins that gave the emperor Domitian the titles “lord and god.”  But you also say that this historical background is “only a starting point for understanding the symbol,” and that it “shouldn’t limit its meaning” (p. 107). Doesn’t this leave the door open for the speculation and foolish debate that often arise over this topic?

I agree that it’s unfortunate when a lot of time, energy, and emotion are spent trying to figure out what one thing the “mark of the beast” must correspond to. We don’t need to do this.

The symbol did mean something specific and definite at the time when the book of Revelation was written. I’ve suggested one likely possibility in the study guide, Domitian’s coins, which “would be held in the right hand for transactions” and which “were sometimes also worn in a band on the forehead.”  This would explain John’s statement that everyone was forced “to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark.”

The Jews were already sensitive enough to the blasphemous and idolatrous depictions of emperors on Roman coins that these coins were not allowed in the Jerusalem temple.  That’s why there were money-changers there.  (Unfortunately they cheated the people who needed to convert their Roman currency; that’s why Jesus overturned their tables, for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves.”)  And so it’s quite reasonable that John in Revelation would express a similar sensitivity to the way emperor worship was being advanced insidiously through the necessities of economic life. This is a respected interpretation among New Testament scholars.

But I also say in the guide that in the books of Daniel and Revelation, events in the near future and the far distant future may be simultaneously envisioned, “as a definitive crisis in the life of God’s people evokes the ultimate crisis at the end of this age” (p. 122).  So there may well be something in the final conflict between good and evil at the end of history that closely approximates the “mark of the beast” as it was experienced in John’s time—some form of coercion to participate in a godless system, upon threat of being excluded from buying and selling.

But the best way to be prepared for such a challenge, if we ever have to face it, is to recognize even now that fallen cultures will always try to get their people’s allegiance at the expense of their allegiance to God.  Followers of Jesus need to be perpetually aware of this danger and resist it.

Ultimately, what represents a present-day manifestation of the “mark of the beast” (coercion to join a godless system) will vary in different places and times. And so rather than engaging in speculation and debate about a unique meaning for the symbol, believers need to be spiritually alert and uncompromising in every situation.