The Principles and Practice of Bible Study (Part 2)

In the first part of this article we saw how both the truth of inspiration in general and the specific principle of organic inspiration can be applied in our study of the Word of God. In this second part we turn to another aspect of the doctrine of Scripture, the principle ofverbal inspiration. This principle also can and must be applied and will help in its own way to give both purpose and direction to and searching of the Scriptures.

Verbal inspiration means that the Bible is inspired not only in its thoughts and ideas but also in its words.Revelation 22:18, 19 sets forth this principle with unmistakable clarity: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these thing (that is, the words of the prophecy of this book, RH), God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book; and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” Because it is God’s book not even the words may be tampered with. 

It is on the basis of this principle that we reject all paraphrases of the Bible such as Good News for Modern Man or The Living Bible. Man may not put God’s Word into his own words. That is doing exactly what Revelation 22 warns against. Also the whole idea of dynamic equivalence in translating the Bible must be rejected. This is the principle which underlies Today’s English Version (Good News For Modern Man), some other lesser known “translations,” and even to a certain extent the most recent translation of the Bible, the New International Version. According to this theory it is more important to present the thrust or power (dynamic) of a text than to give as closely as possible its literal translation, and the result of the application of this theory is that one ends with a compromise between faithful translation and paraphrase. 

That principle of verbal inspiration is closely connected with the principle of plenary inspiration. This means simply that the whole Bible is inspired, its history, its geography, and its science also. It means as well thatall the words of the Bible are inspired, not only the important words and concepts, but even the little articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, but, therefore, etc.), and interjections (O, Behold, Lo). They too are important and must be attended to in studying God’s Word. A good example of this is the use of the word “immediately” or “straightway” (both the same word in the original Greek) in the Gospel according to Mark. The word is used almost fifty times in the Gospel and is one of the keys to the interpretation of Mark’s version of the life of Christ. 

In particular the principle of verbal, plenary inspiration means first of all that ordinary rules of grammar apply to the Bible just as to any other book. To say the same thing another way, this means that the Bible must be interpreted literally. This is, of course, the wonder of revelation, that the infinitely glorious God Who dwells in immortality and unapproachable light reveals Himself in plain, ordinary human language. We do not, therefore, have to seek for “deeper” and “hidden” meanings and offer complicated and tortuous explanations of Scripture, but must simply ask ourselves the same question that Jesus often asked of His hearers, “What do the Scriptures say?” Then we must understand that they mean exactly what they say. 

This is not to say that there are not figures, or types, or symbols, or dark sayings in Scripture. Even the most ardent fundamentalist who pushes the principle of literal interpretation to the extreme of trying to draw pictures of the symbols used in the book of Revelation will have to admit at times the existence of figures and symbols. But literal interpretation simply means that we recognize that these things are a recognizable part of every language and also part of the languages through which God reveals Himself in the Scriptures. The word “recognizable” is the word that needs emphasis here. In everyday use of language anyone with even a little common sense knows when figures of speech are being used. So also it is not difficult for one who has a measure of sanctified common sense to see when the same figures are being used in God’s Word.

For example once again, it is not difficult to see thatRevelation 2:17 uses a symbol to describe heavenly glory and that the real glory of heaven does not consist in each believer receiving a white rock with his name written on it. And throughout Scripture the principle that Scripture is self-interpreting must apply in this regard. Scripture must and will show us when it uses figures of speech. We must, in other words, expect to find much symbolism in the book of Revelation, exactly because it is a book of visions. We must not expect to find all sorts of symbolism in the book of Genesis which even to a very young child clearly presents us with sober, historical narrative (including the first three chapters). The poetry of the Psalms must be recognized as such and not treated in exactly the same way as the history of the four Gospel accounts. 

There are even special rules for the study of the different kinds of Bible literature, poetry, prophecy, historical narrative, doctrinal discourses, parables and all the rest. These rules, however, really go beyond the scope of this article and ought to be dealt with in connection with a study of the particular books in which these different kinds of Bible literature are found. 

What needs to be stressed is that the principle of verbal inspiration and the connected principle of literal interpretation are very closely bound up with the perspicuity of Scripture. We believe that Scripture is clear and easily understood. The Scriptures are givento us as members of the church, not as theologians, but as common ordinary people; masters and servants, soldiers, tradesmen, fathers, mothers, and children. They are given for our use and instruction, and by the miracle of revelation are adapted and fitted for us and also clear. It is in view of the perspicuity of Scripture that those who tell us that what sounds like history is really poetry and that what appears to be symbolic is really literal history, must be suspect, theologians though they be. God speaks plainly. God means what He says. 

Nevertheless, the principle of verbal inspiration can be even more specifically applied. Three of the more important rules for understanding and interpreting God’s Word follow, but more as examples than as a comprehensive list. 

One of these rules is that synonyms, that is, words of approximately the same but yet slightly different shades of meaning are not just matters of style but of great significance with, respect to the meaning of the passages in which they are found. A clear example of this is the two different words in the New Testament for the office of elder. Each word (translated “elder” and “bishop”) has a different connotation, and it is exceedingly important that one word and not the other be used in such passages as I Timothy 3:1Titus 1:5I Peter 2:25, and I Peter 5:1. Another example has to do with the different. words for prayer that are found throughout Scripture. We must ask ourselves “Why this word and not another?” or even, “Why is it said this way when it appears as though perhaps it could better have been said another way?” 

Another rule to be deduced from the principle of verbal inspiration is that connecting words are of great importance. Perhaps this is especially true of Paul’s Epistles where we have logical, exposition of doctrinal themes and the connectives tie the various steps in Paul’s argument together. The word “therefore” inRomans 8:1 is a good example. The word shows us that we have the conclusion to an argument in this verse, and a very important conclusion at that, as further study shows. This is the conclusion to all that Paul has said previously and the basis for all that he goes on to say about the assurance of our salvation in the rest of chapter 8. 

The third of these rules concerns the repeated use of a word in the same context. Here the principle is that a word used more than once in the same context must mean the same. thing unless there is overwhelming evidence in the passage itself that it has a different meaning. This is an extremely important principle. The classic illustration of this principle is Romans 11:26a; “And so all Israel shall be saved.” Israel in Scripture can refer either to the Old Testament nation or to spiritual Israel gathered from among Jews and Gentiles alike. Neither meaning in this context is wrong, but the difference does make quite a change in the meaning of the verse. To what then does “Israel” here refer? The fact that “Israel” throughout chapter 11 refers to Jews in distinction from Gentiles would seem to indicate that also in verse 26 it must refer to the spiritual seed gathered out of the Jewish nation. 

These then are some of the ways in which the doctrine of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture can be applied to the very practical matter of Bible study. By way of summary and for reference it is probably a good thing simply to list some of these rules. Certainly what follows does not include every rule and not even every important rule for the study of Scripture. Nor are the rules as given here to be followed necessarily in the order that they are given. There are even a few rules included which were not discussed in the article, but which can in one way or another be traced back to the truth of inspiration. 

Rules for the Study of Scripture 

A. Rules for spiritual preparation: 

1. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

2. Leave time for meditation upon the passage under study, probably after all other work with the passage is finished. 

B. General rules: 

1. Determine what kind of literature is being studied: poetry, prophecy, history, etc. 

2. Attempt to divide the passage into sections or determine where the passage being studied begins and ends. 

3. Define the theme of the book in which the passage is found and the place of that theme in the rest of Scripture. 

4. Write down all questions. 

C. Rules concerning the actual interpretation of the passage: 

1. Determine the main point of the passage. 

2. Take note of any problems of grammar or interpretation. 

3. Identify the important words or concepts in the text. 

4. Study these words or ideas in the light of the rest of Scripture by looking up and studying all the important texts where the same word or words are used. 

5. Compare the text as a whole with similar or related passages from the rest of the Bible.

6. Take a close look at the passage in light of the immediate context as well as the context of the whole book and ask how the text fits into that context. 

7. If necessary look for background material on history, chronology, customs, etc. 

8. Look for Christ in the passage and how the text brings the Gospel of Christ. 

9. Try to set out clearly the application of the text—what the Spirit says to the Churches.

It is especially in connection with these last two rules that meditation and prayer become an important part of Bible study. 

From all of this it is certainly evident that real, dedicated study of the Word of God is hard work. Any minister who must prepare to expound that Word to the people of God on the Lord’s day and any elder or deacon who must prepare himself to bring that same Word to the specific needs of the people of God can testify to this. Nevertheless, it is work which is neither burdensome nor joyless. Rather it is a way in which we come to know the everlasting God as our faithful Father, and His beloved Son Jesus Christ as our blessed Redeemer, Whom to know is life everlasting. Who would not rejoice in that with “joy unspeakable and full of glory”?