The Bible is the Word of man. Now, it is not merely the Word of man or only the Word of man. It is far more than that; it is also the Word of God. Lest anyone doubt my commitment to the divine character of the Bible, let me state unequivocally, The Bible is the Word of God. Every word of the Bible, down to the smallest pen stroke, is divine. But it is also the Word of man, and it is never less than that. Every word, down to the smallest pen stroke, is human. It is always and everywhere completely divine and completely human simultaneously. It is not partly human and partly divine. It is not human here and divine there. It is always simultaneously both human and divine. The doctrine of inspiration, based on the Bible’s own self-attestation, teaches this.
Recall my definition of inspiration, worked out in my previous post: Inspiration is that concurrent work between our (holy) God and a (fallen) human author, whereby the Holy Spirit so moved the human author that God got exactly what he wanted (a perfect product) without destroying or overwhelming the personality (training, vocabulary, experiences, etc.) of the human author.
What this means is that even though the Bible in all of its diversity has one divine author, it always has human authors. Even in those exceedingly rare places where the Lord dictates to the human author, the human element (not a sinful element, but a human element) is present, be it in human language or in human context. This is why the Bible is always the Word of God, but each human author brings his own unique vocabulary, tone, and construction to his writing. That is, John always sounds like John, Isaiah sounds like Isaiah, Moses sounds like Moses, Luke sounds like Luke, but Luke doesn’t sound like Isaiah, Moses, or John.
No other sacred text of any other religion makes such claims about itself. The Bible is unique.
The implications for hermeneutics, the way in which we interpret the Bible, are enormous – which is why I believe: Your hermeneutics will flow directly from your convictions on inspiration.
The human element entails that we need to pay careful attention to literary genre. The Bible comes to us in human literary genres, and must be interpreted as such. Be it poetry, prophetic, law, narrative, parable, or apocalyptic (just to name a few), we must interpret them according to the rules of those literary genres. Each author, guided by the Holy Spirit, chose a genre that best communicates what the author wanted to communicate. Far from being a dubious and insufficient means of conveying truth, the literary genre is part of the message. Therefore it is not up to the interpreter to flatten the genre hoping to distill divine truths out of a faulty and unnecessary genre. The interpreter must pay close attention to the genre because each genre has different uses and communicates real truth (even divine truth) in different ways. I suppose that if the Bible was dropped out of the sky, like some cosmic data dump, full of divine speech in divine language in divine literary genre, interpretation would be a matter of deciphering a code, hoping against hope that we had the magic decoder ring (or glasses). But the Bible is not that, so proper understanding of literary genres apply.
The human element entails that we pay attention to literary context. The authors were good writers who thought deeply about the things of which they wrote. There may have been times that they did not understand all the implications or the totality of all that they wrote (some prophetic and apocalyptic writings come to mind), but they always wrote with intention and strategy. Therefore, just like with any other human discourse, the acceptable rules of interpretation, especially the priority of context, applies. I suppose if the Bible were an esoteric collection of merely divine words, the rules of human interpretation would not apply. But the Bible is not that, so literary context is important.
The human element entails that we pay attention to historical, cultural, and geographical context. Most of the Bible is occasional; that is, something was going on in real time and space that immediately prompted a biblical author to write. Paul heard of real issues that were going on in the churches in Galatia or Corinth. Moses wanted to prepare the children of Israel to take the Promised Land. Luke wanted to deliver a faithful account to Theophilus of what had recently transpired. The Bible was written by real people in real places, in real contexts, to and for real people. And like any other real people, they were influenced and motivated by their context. This does not diminish the wonder of the Bible. I think it makes it great. I suppose that if the Bible was merely a tome of abstract divine words, then context would be largely irrelevant. But the Bible is not that, so historical, cultural, and literary context is important.
The human element gives us confidence that the Word of God can and must be applied in the depths of our human miseries, joys, troubles, and conundrums. The Scriptures are not merely divine words that echo in a transcendent fashion from on high that may or may not speak to us in our finitude, createdness, and situatedness. We find in the Bible people crying out to the Lord in anguish, confession, and joy. These are divinely authorized words that teach us that the Lord is not only big enough to handle our questions and confusion, but that he wants us to bring them to him. In the Scriptures we learn to pray, confess, and praise. We also learn to listen and obey. They are divine words by us, for us, to us, and about us. The divine-human character of the Bible teaches us that God, in all his transcendence, is relational, immanent, and near. The Lord is profoundly interested in our response and faithful interpreters will always recognize that correct understanding comes in the form of holistic response, be it behavior, thinking, feeling, emotion, or commitment. I suppose that if the Bible were merely the words of a transcendent yet distant God, we would wonder if the Scriptures speak to us in all that we are as humans. But the Bible is not that, so we are to come to the Scriptures intent upon interpreting to hear the voice of God speaking to us in all that we are.
About Todd Miles
Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).