Biblical Truth: Understanding the Scriptures

Did Jonah live in the belly of a whale? Did Abraham live for hundreds of years? Did Noah live on an arch with two of every animal species? Did that include bees and mosquitos? Are these stories credible at all? If so, did these people live in a different world? Are all these stories figurative, or relative, meant only to give us good ideas and things to think about? Or were they supposed to be just myths and legends, like Gilgamesh, a legendary creation story? How do we make sense of it all?

When we stop to evaluate the truth of something, such as the Bible, we need to first ask ourselves what constitutes truth. Pontius Pilate asked that question once, when standing before Truth Himself. The Latin translation of this question was popularized with the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which portrays Pilate as raising the issue with his wife: “Qui est veritas, Claudia?”

If we begin with the highest form of truth, we find ourselves, like Pilate, before a person. God himself is Truth. He is the only infinite and eternal, perfect and necessary being. All reality, including abstract reality, only exists due to his creation. It therefore follows that everything else is true to the extent that it corresponds to God’s image of it. God created things to have certain properties, act a certain way, and be a certain way. Things are true to the extent that they correspond to their proper nature, or to the extent that they accurately represent the proper nature of another. A “true” man, for example, is a human person (body and soul) created in the image and likeness of God. Anything else, such as a robot, which might look like a man or have certain properties of a man, but doesn’t have the essence of human personhood, cannot truthfully be called a man. A definition of “man” is true to the extent that it accurately represents the essential nature and being of man. The Bible, as a collection of inspired Scriptures speaking about God and the things that pertain to him, deals with the highest level of truth: the truth, action and being of Truth himself. This means that, assuming the Bible deals with the subject truthfully, it is a source of the highest level of truth and, therefore, a book of highest value. So, how can we ascertain the truth of what the Bible says? A complete answer to this question would require several theology courses and years of study. However, a few basic pointers can help us understand a little more about the nature of Biblical Truth and how to understand the Scriptures.

Types of Truth:

Many people point to Biblical claims, such as the seven-day creation story or the idea of Jonah surviving in the belly of a whale as proving that the Bible isn’t true. After all, who, in their right mind, could believe these things, especially given the advanced scientific knowledge available today? The error in this perspective lies in the fact that it reduces truth to scientific truth, which is only one, of many, types of truth. Other types of truth include, for example, the following:

Historical truth – a sequential account of figures, dates and events that have passed. History and social studies classes, for example, tend to focus on historical truth.

Emotional truth – this refers to the truth of human feeling. When a person says, for example, “I love my mother,” this statement refers to the inner experience of that person. It can’t be proven based on scientific or historical evidence. Different elements that can be verified historically, such as gifts bought for the beloved, or affirming words, can support the truth of the statement, but, ultimately, the truth remains an emotional one.

Experiential truth – experiential truth, similar to emotional truth, stems from one’s experience. Perhaps it’s impossible to give hard facts in support of it, but one’s own perception testifies to the truth. If, for example, you feel sure that someone likes you, you are relying on your own experience of that person. You can point to objective things that have contributed to your experience but, taken individually, none of these facts actually prove your experience to be true. This does not, however, make your experience any less true.

Scientific truth – This type of truth – scientific, or empirical – is most heavily focused on today. People look for truths that can be proved by experimentation and the human senses. This truth is valid, but limited. If this becomes the only criteria for truth, then there is no way to affirm that anything abstract, such as love or beauty, is true. There is no way of proving that much of history is true. It is essential, therefore, that scientific truth be properly valued, but kept in perspective, as one of many forms of truth.

When evaluating the truth of a work, such as the Bible, we need to keep in mind what type of truth it deals with. The Bible does not seek, or claim, to be a scientific work. It is therefore unrealistic to judge it based on scientific proofs alone. Neither does it claim to be a history, so saying that the Bible doesn’t sequentially cover the historical facts of all centuries doesn’t imply that it isn’t a true work. What does the Bible claim to be? The history of Salvation. The Bible purports to put forth the complete truth not about science, or about the ancient world, but about salvation. To this end, it includes a combination of the different types of truth to the extent that they apply to salvation. Some of its books, such as Kings and Chronicles, are historical books, based on historical truth. They do not, however, contain a complete history of an era, but only record historical events related to their focus: salvation. Others, such as the books contained in Wisdom literature, are more based on experiential truth.

Types of Literature

When examining the truth of passages from the Bible, we also need to keep in mind the type of literature at hand. For example, some passages, such as parables and comparisons, are not true in themselves, but are illustrating different truths through examples.  Some passages are prophetic, and share the personal inspiration of the writer. These passages are different than factual historical accounts or eye witness accounts written by a third party. Some passages are meant to teach, while others exhort, call to repentance, or, as already mentioned, simply record things that happened and their significance for salvation history.

The writings of the Old Testament, in particular, are also written in different styles, or “traditions,” that need to be taken into account when they are interpreted, because they influence the meaning of the writing. The Elohistic tradition, for example, is a style that emphasizes God’s sovereignty and power. The first rendition of creation in Genesis, in which God simply says “Let it be done,” was written by the Elohistic tradition. It is not meant to imply that God literally spoke those words; in fact God, as the only being that existed prior to creation, wouldn’t have needed to speak at all – he simply had to will the action. However, the author used those words to show God’s power and sovereignty in a way that the reader can understand. A second tradition, the Yahwistic one, emphasizes God’s nearness to man. Passages that speak of God acting like man (walking through the garden, for example, or breathing life into Adam) do not mean that God literally did those actions, but that he was close to man, acting in a manner that man could understand and relate to. The third tradition in the Old Testament – the Deuteronomic tradition – focuses on the law, and the fourth, or Priestly tradition was mainly used to order, organize, and clarify the rest of scripture, adding passages when necessary to do so.

These different traditions do not diminish the truth of Scripture, nor do they make that truth relative, or symbolic, depending on the interpretation of the reader. Each tradition and type of literature uses a certain set of techniques that have a clear meaning. This must be taken into consideration in order to understand the meaning of the passage, which is a prerequisite for determining its truth.

Language

Like the literary style and form used for a passage, the language chosen also affects its meaning. The language must therefore be understood for the meaning of the passage to become clear and its truth to then be evaluated. A few examples from modern English can help us understand this.

Imagine that a relative from a different state calls and tells you that it’s “raining cats and dogs,” or that they “woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” You would understand exactly what they were saying – it was raining very hard, they woke up in a bad mood and had a bad day. A few hundred years from now, someone who reads an account of your conversation might be very confused. Even if they speak English, expressions and vocabulary change over time. They might be inclined to think that either the impossible happened – cats and dogs came falling from the sky – or that your relative was telling a lie. You, however, know that neither was the case – you know what the phrase means, and you therefore know that your relative told the truth – it was raining very hard. When reading the Bible, we need to take into account the language it was written in, and when it was written. We need to understand what the words and phrases used meant in that language, and at that time before we determine whether or not they are true. Understanding the significance of words in the original context, language and age in which they were written can help clarify many misconceptions about passages in the Bible that seem to be absurd, claiming, for example, that Abraham lived for hundreds of years. The claim, as written, can be shown to be true, but not in the way we would interpret it if we wrote the same words today. I’ll save a more in depth explanation for a future post on that topic.

Translation causes more difficulties. In English, for example, a personal can “love,” their mother, their dog, their favorite TV show, and pizza. Their feeling towards each of these objects is very different, yet in all cases, with our current understanding of the language, we would know what they mean. Someone who doesn’t know English might be confused and reach the conclusion that only one of those statements could be true – how can you feel the same way toward pizza as you do toward your mother? While reading the Bible in our own language makes it comprehensible and accessible, it also obscures some of the meanings of the original texts due to differences of language that can’t be completely overcome by translation. For example, in English translations of the Bible, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him three times, and Peter replies that he does love Him and, on the third time, that Jesus knows he loves Him (John 21). The English translation leads us to believe that Jesus and Peter used the same word, “love,” each time. Going back to the original text, however, we find that Greek has three different words for “love,” each one signifying a different level of closeness depth of love. Jesus used one word in his question to Peter, and Peter used a different word in his answer. Understanding the Greek words for love is therefore essential in order to fully grasp the meaning and significance of the passage.

Conclusion

Many other factors, such as the intention of the author, whether scripture was written first hand or redacted later based on oral tradition, whether the authors wrote in their native language or a different language, etc. should all be considered when studying the meaning of scripture in depth. The areas of consideration explored above, however, are a starting point that can be used when examining Scripture and determining how stories that seem impossible, or at least highly improbable, can be reconciled or explained. I hope, over the course of the next months, to write a series of blog posts titled “Fact or Fiction,” and “Literal or Symbolic,” focusing on individual passages of the Bible, and examining in depth what they really meant and, accordingly, the quality of their truth.

By the word of his might, [God] established all things, and by his word, he can overthrow them. ‘Who shall say to him, “What have you done?” or who shall resist the power of his strength?’ (Wisdom 12:12)

Clement of Rome

6 thoughts on “Biblical Truth: Understanding the Scriptures

  1. I’ve always had great impatience with literal interpretations of the Bible, for exactly the reasons you outline above. We’re reading a terrific book right now dealing specifically with literary forms: Margaret Nutting Ralph’s “And God Said What?”

  2. With Christians who are trying to develop a close relationship with the Lord, there are many things we have to go through. Many things happen in our lives that we cannot explain or have no answers for. There is a tendency to then say that it was God who allowed these things to happen to teach us something, or that it is God’s will to get this sickness, accident or disease because He is punishing us, or that it is God, who did this or that to cause such a one to suffer. People have even said that “God took my child, husband or wife”.

    • Thanks for this reflection. Yes – many things are hard to understand, especially when it comes to suffering. I think its important to help people realize that there is a difference between what God actively wills, and what he allows or permits. God respects both the laws of nature and human freedom. Many of the difficult things that happen are natural consequences either of choices man has made, or of the flaws of nature (such as sickness or natural disasters) that occurred due to original sin. These things, then, are not a punishment from God, but the consequence of human freedom. The tragic part of it is that many times good people suffer not by their own fault, but due to a free choice made by someone else (e.g. I suffer if my mother dies in a car crash, even though I had nothing to do with it – the car crash was the result of choices made by someone else…). Even in such cases, however, there is also great hope, because while God did never actively wills evil to happen, he does actively bring a greater good out of evil. While this doesn’t lessen the suffering people go through, it can be a source of comfort and hope…

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