Basic Principles for Reading the Bible 

What about the inconsistencies and 'unscientific' bits of the Bible?

This is an Appendix to Talk 4 of the Star Course. It is placed on the web because someone asked for a stab at answering this question via Churchnet UK.

'All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work' (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

We have seen that for Christians, this applies to the Old Testament and the New Testament. But what exactly does this mean? What about the inconsistencies, the 'unscientific' aspects of the Bible, and the apparent endorsement of highly 'unchristian' behaviour in parts of the Old Testament? There are a number of principles that help us:

B1 The Light of Christ

All scripture must be interpreted in the light of Christ, who fulfills and transcends the faith of Israel. The prohibitions on eating different kinds of foods have been abolished (Mark 7:19), as have the purely ritualistic aspects of the Law (see eg Hebrews 9 & 10) Cursing and slaughtering our human enemies, which seems to be encouraged in the Old Testament in many places, is expressly forbidden by Christ (Luke 6:27). But when the obvious 'literal' meaning is clearly wrong, this does not mean that the Bible is wrong but that we would be misunderstanding it if we took it in that way ("Duck!" - "but there are no ducks"). We just have to think, and pray, harder. For example Psalm 137 ends "O daughter of Babylon, ... happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock!" What are we to make of this? A great Christian teacher, St Benedict uses this to encourage us to catch hold of temptations while they are still young, and dash them on the rock of Christ.

B2 Seek and you will Find

With prayerful reflection and diligent study the meanings that God intends for us from his written word of God will become apparent.

As we come back to books in the Bible, more and more of God's riches are revealed. It is not 'easy', but it is immensely rewarding. There are wholly legitimate debates between Christians about what parts of the Bible really mean, but Christians believe that any significant part of the Bible has one or more meanings that God wants us to understand, and that these meanings are true. It is sometimes not obvious what the relevant 'significant parts' are. As with any other book, quoting the Bible out of context produces nonsense: You could take part of Matthew 5:17 and claim that Jesus 'said' "I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets".

1 Corinthians 14:1 begins with the startling words: "Make love", but the verse is 'Make love your aim'. These are simple examples but the principle applies in more complex cases. For example, the two creation accounts in Genesis (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) conflict in many details and this clearly shows that God does not want us to take the details literally, but to understand the deep truths in the passage. This does not mean that we disregard them - Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 as the key text about marriage (Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7). This is no different really from any other way of expressing a deep and complex truth. When Newton discovered the laws of mechanics he formulated the fundamental law f = ma. This means that force = mass times acceleration: to this day it is one of the fundamental principles of mechanics. So "f=ma" is true. But we have to understand what is meant by "force", "mass" and "acceleration", and which forces, masses and accelerations to apply it to. If we were to apply the equation out of context we would get nonsense. f=ma does not mean that "fry" is the same word as "mary".

With the Bible, you have to understand the part in relation to the whole. Advice from other wise Christians, in conversation, commentaries and writings, is very helpful. Jesus promises us that if we seek we will find (Matthew 7:7). But it is important to remember that the meaning intended by the original human author is not necessarily the meaning that God intends us to take. Quite possibly the human author of Psalm 137 meant the words literally.

B3 Humility

Sometimes people give up, and say 'I don't understand what God means by this, it must be wrong.' But the alternative is to think, and pray, harder. Sometimes I look at a Chess Problem and I can't see any way that White can checkmate in three. I am a duffer at Crosswords, and can see no solution at all to 'False teeth are easily obtainable (2,1,5)'. But I know that the limitation is with me and not with the problem. And if the 'problem' had been set by the greatest master who ever lived, for me to learn from, it would be arrogance indeed for me to say: 'I don't understand it, it must be wrong'.

This principle needs also to be applied, vicariously, when considering many of the statements of 'scholars' and 'critics' that in one way or another 'debunk' the Bible. There is a great deal of speculation about sources, reaction processes and the distortions that may have occurred between the 'original message' and what the evangelists wrote. Almost all of this is entirely speculative - even for points on which most scholars are agreed. Actually, as recent research has shown, Middle Eastern communities are extremely effective at preserving information that is important to them. There is solid evidence that the Evangelists and the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, knew their business, and that 'the God who took the trouble to become incarnate also took the trouble, for the sake of those who came after, to leave a dependable account of these amazing happenings'.

Equally, though, we must be humble in our use of the Bible. We should never use it to hit other people over the head with. Glib quoting of texts to settle a controversy is neither effective nor edifying. The Holy Spirit inspired men to write - we are not Mormons or Muslims who claim that their books were directly dictated, word by word. As with everything connected with the truth of God, it is deeper and subtler than any human inventions: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways' says the Lord (Isaiah 55:8).

I do hope this helps and is interesting. Please EMail me with comments at