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Principle 1. Factual Inspiration

The true nature of Sacred Scripture cannot be determined from arguments of convenience. It can only be learnt from observing God's factual way of inspiration.


We may not approach Scripture with preconceived ideas of what we would consider appropriate in an inspired writing. Rather, we need to study the features of the inspired texts that we actually observe.


Interpreting Scripture Correctly


An example from biology

Nowadays we are conscious of the bacteria that surround us. We know that many of the diseases that threaten us, from the ordinary whooping cough to plague and typhoid fever, are caused by them. Bacteria have now been classified. We know what they look like, what they eat, how they spread and multiply. It is this acquaintance with their habits and weaknesses that allows us to fight them. Our hygienic measures, our cooking prescription, our preventive and curative medicines are guided by this knowledge.

But to know what bacteria are like we had to actually see them and study them.

In fact, it is only relatively recently that bacteria were discovered. In 1590 the Dutch spectacle-maker Zacharias Janssen found that a series of lenses arranged in a certain order could magnify objects considerably. He invented the first compound microscope. Two hundred years later better glass making led to improving the microscope to such an extent that scholars such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch could discover the role played by germs in disease. In fact, bacteria cannot be seen with the naked eye: it is to the microscope that we owe our familiarity with them. Some kind of bacteria are so small that we need to put a million of them on a line to form one centimeter. But even those we can see with the modern electronic microscope which magnifies objects up to two million times their original size!

Modern science rests on observation. It is obvious that it is no use building castles in the air imagining what we would wish bacteria to be like! It is no use drawing conclusions without having first observed and gathered the facts. Science requires humility: the readiness to observe.









The same holds good in the field of revealed truth. God sent his only begotten Son to become human in Palestine. But how was this done?

  • He was born two thousand years ago at Bethlehem in a Jewish family.
  • Jesus Christ spoke the Aramaic dialect familiar to his kinsfolk.
  • He dressed like them.
  • He did carpentry work conforming to their skill and technique.
  • He joined them in prayer and religious services.

All these are facts.

Speculations as to in what country or during what period of world history this redeemer should or could have been born, what languages he should or could have made his mother tongue, what jobs he should or could have chosen, have no meaning.

Believers must begin with an acknowledgement of these facts of the incarnation. Faith too requires humility.


Case study: Jesus curses a fig tree

Begin by looking at this video (click on start arrow):

This parable is linked to an incident, recounted in the Gospels, that is full of surprises:

  • Jesus curses a fig tree! Who would have expected that from the incarnate Son of God!
  • Matthew and Luke contradict each other about the precise sequence of events. Matthew tells us clearly that the fig tree dried up 'immediately'. Mark says that the tree was found dried up only on 'the next day'.

To get to know the nature of Scripture, please examine this case study very carefully: Jesus curses a fig tree.

After completing the case study, return to this lesson.


Exercise: Jesus' eucharistic words

Among the most important words Jesus' spoke in his life are the words by which he instituted the Eucharist. But New Testament texts do not agree in their exact wording.

When, at the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup, what did he say? Look at these variations:

  • "Drink from this all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant that will be shed for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26,28).
  • "This is my blood of the covenant shed for many" (Mark 14,23).
  • "This cup is the new covenant in my blood which was shed for you" (Luke 22,20).
  • "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Paul in 1 Corinthians 11,25).

Compare the four formulations and try to work out the answer to the following questions (before clicking on the explanatory text):

  1. How many distinct formulations do you observe?
  2. Are the differences significant? What is the meaning of each formulation?
  3. Do you think the scriptural authors were interested in handing on what Jesus said?
  4. Did they, willingly or unwillingly, distort what Jesus said?

Click here to find further clarification




We may not argue beforehand: God cannot inspire in this or that way, God could never convey his message in this or that kind of book . . .

The only correct attitude is to observe the facts of inspiration, to learn in humility and reflect on the implications.

  • The sacred authors contradict one another in accidental matters, like details in narration and the precise wording of Jesus' teaching. What can we do but note the fact and meditate on it?
  • John the Evangelist wrote in ungrammatical Greek. Will we, like a schoolmaster, cross out such language as something 'not becoming in a Gospel' ?
  • Some books of Scripture, such as the books of Tobit and Judith, are unhistorical stories written for instruction. May we affirm that it is below God's dignity to inspire novels ?

Let us first learn to watch and to listen. Let us give God a chance to show how God decided to inspire the sacred books. Arguments of "God could not", "God should not" or "God may not" cannot be tolerated. What did God actually do ? That is the question that needs to be answered, or rather: it is the fact we have to establish. All other questions may only be put after and in relation to this one!

"For my ways are far above your ways, says the Lord".
Isaiah 55/9

John Wijngaards

course overview


The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.

Correct Interpretation. Principle 1 Correct Interpretation. Principle 2 Correct Interpretation. Principle 3 Correct Interpretation. Principle 4 Correct Interpretation. Principle 5
Correct Interpretation. Principle 6

Correct Interpretation. Principle 7   Correct Interpretation. Principle 8   Correct Interpretation. Principle 9   Correct Interpretation. Principle 10