The Language Which the Bible Uses

Attacks too numerous to be mentioned have been leveled against the Holy Scriptures, especially in our day. While claiming to have high regard for the Bible as a source for lofty ethical and religious principles, many people reject as totally indefensible the historic Christian conviction that this book is reliable because it has been verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit.


Throughout this series we have attempted to deal with the arguments which the critics have raised. It has been our aim to demonstrate that all these arguments, plausible as they seem to sound at first bearing to the uninitiated, rest on a complete misconception of the essential nature of God’s Word. In this way the critics themselves do violence to what the Bible plainly says about itself. They have tried to apply their standards of what they think the Bible should say and how it should say the things that it does. Thus they are guilty of the folly of attacking a “straw man.”

In this brief article we shall again take note of two criticisms leveled against the Bible. Today it is commonly supposed and argued that God’s Word can and must at all points be literally interpreted. And since such an approach reduces the figurative language to nonsense, they argue that we cannot believe in the verbal inspiration of this book. In like manner they apply the principles of modem scientific precision to some of the details of chronology. And having done this, they believe they can demonstrate that Scripture is unreliable in many of its details. Let us take a little time to evaluate these caricatures.

Verbal inspiration does not mean that the Bible has to be interpreted literally.

Just as inerrancy is synonymous with dictation in the minds of the critics, so also inerrancy is inseparably bound up with literalness in their minds. 1bey point to such passages as Leviticus 11:6, which says that the rabbit chews his cud, and gleefully conclude that the Bible is erroneous, since it is known that the rabbit does not actually chew his cud. Or they cite the mathematica1 figures in I Kings 7:23 and show that it is impossible for the diameter of the laver in the tabernacle to be ten cubits and the circumference to be 30 cubits since 10 times pi does not equal 30. They conclude, then, that the Bible cannot be literally true.

In reply to this objection, it should be noted that the Bible should not be interpreted any differently from any other piece of writing. A prime rule is that the Bible means only what it intends to say. It is infallible in what the authors intend to say, not in what they literally say. When someone writes today that it rained cats and dogs, we do not say that they made an error because we know that literally it did not rain cats and dogs. What they intend to say is that it poured. That thought is conveyed by the picturesque language used and is not erroneous.

That same principle of interpretation must be applied to the Bible. When the Bible says that the sun rose, it is not any more erroneous than astronomer Shapley when he exclaims, “What a beautiful sunrise!” He knows that the sun did not rise. astronomically speaking, and it is not his purpose to give a scientific explanation as he marvels at God’s creation. If he intended to give an astronomical explanation of the earth and sun, then he was wrong. But he did not. And his words must be judged by what he intended to say. The same is true with the Biblical statements.

When Genesis 1:16 describes the sun and moon as being bigger than the stars, it is not pretending to describe them from a scientific standpoint but only as they look to our naked eye in everyday experience. Similarly, the Bible classifies the rabbit as an animal that chews its cud (Lev. 11:6; Deut. 14:7) and the bat as a bird, when in reality it is a mammal (Lev. 11:19; Deut. 14:18). It does so because from ordinary, everyday experience it looks as though the rabbit ruminates and as though the bat is a bird. But the Bible does not pretend to give a scientific classification. If it does, it is wrong.

The Bible uses many figures of speech, and it would be wrong to take them literally. It says that God has hands; that Herod is a fox (Luke 13:32); that Pharisees are vipers (Matthew 3:7); that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven (Matthew 19:24); that stones fell out of heaven (Joshua 10:11); that Cretans are always liars (Titus 1:12); that Christ is a shepherd (John 10); and that trees have hands (Isaiah 55,12).

Another important fact that must be kept in mind is that it is permissible to use round numbers and still to speak the truth. If an auto accident should occur at 11:58 A.M., it would not be an error to say on the witness stand that it happened at noon, although strictly speaking it did not. Neither would it be wrong to say that it occurred at noon if, as a matter of fact, it occurred at 11:50 or 11:30. If the individual, by saying that it occurred at noon, intended to convey to his hearers that he was speaking in terms of minutes and seconds and fractions of seconds, then he was wrong.

But if he intended to speak only in round numbers, no error has been made. Thus when Mark says that Christ fed 5,000, we may not take that to mean that there were exactly 5,000 and not 4,999 or 4,800. He was speaking in round numbers. Similarly, to come back to the case of the dimensions of the laver, it was not the intent of the author of I Kings 7:23 to give the dimensions in terms of pi. He meant to give approximate figures. And if he had given pi to the third decimal point, some critic would surely say that that was not accurate because he should have done it to the fourth or fifth decimal point. No, infallibility of the Bible does not demand that the Bible authors use pi carried out to the infinite decimal point but only that they are without error as they write from an ordinary, pre-scientific, phenomenal standpoint. The Bible authors may use everyday language just as well as the modern scientist, and they may do so without error.

Verbal inspiration does not mean that the order of events in the Bible is given in a strictly chronological order.

A modern biographer often begins with the birth of his subject and then proceeds chronologically through the events of his life to his death. But it is not necessary to follow this method and still be historically accurate. For interest’s sake. the writer may begin at some significant event in the subject’s life and then give a flashback of previous events. A sports writer may first of all record the two grand slam homers of one ballplayer and then 6.ll in the rest of the game around these high points. In so doing he is not writing errors.

The same procedure may be followed in the Bible at times. Perhaps the events in Matthew 12 occurred at a time earlier than some of the previously mentioned events. Perhaps the corn-plucking incident of Mark 2:23–28 did not occur right between the incidents mentioned in the immediately preceding and immediately following verses. Mark does not even begin with the first events of Christ’s life. and this creates a presumption that he was not concerned with recording the events in a chronological order. John confirms this when he says at the end of his book that “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Conversion was his goal and not chronology. Thus, the Gospel writers were not concerned to record the exact order of the temptations of Jesus. Matthew 4:1 ff. has a different order from Luke 4:1ff. If Matthew and Luke intended to tell the readers that the order of temptations as they give them is the order in which they occurred, one was wrong. But the purpose of the writers, as John indicates his purpose is, does not dictate that they have to write in a chronological fashion any more than the sports writer must do. Thus a different chronological order does not militate against the inerrancy of the Bible.