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Principle 5. Shades of human speech

Sacred Scripture knows all the shades of human affirmation. It only wants to assert as much as implied in human language.

To understand scriptural texts we need to be aware of the wide range of human expression. We will easily misinterpret Scripture if we don't.

"The sacred books need not exclude any of the forms of expression which were commonly used in human speech by the ancient peoples, especially of the East, to convey their meaning. Such forms are only then excluded when they would be incompatible with God's sanctity and truth".
Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu

It is this aspect of inspired writing that we should explore.

Interpreting Scripture Correctly



The range of human affirmation

Did you ever reflect on the infinite variety of affirmation that is at our disposal? We know that astronauts have landed on the moon. A discussion has begun on the desirability of sending a manned spacecraft to Mars. Will Russia take part? We may read remarks as the following:

"Russians too will surely land on Mars!"
"What?! Russia sending up only robots?!"
"Russia's participation in a manned mission is highly improbable."
"Russia may, perhaps, join a manned mission to Mars."
"Russia might very well join a manned mission."
"It is not excluded that Russia might join a manned mission."
"I do not know if Russia will ever join a manned mission to Mars."
"Doubts can be raised as to Russia's participation in a joined mission to Mars."
"It seems unlikely that Russia will ever take part in a manned mission to Mars."
"It's my opinion that Russia will never join others in a manned mission to Mars."

It should be noted how such statements contain much more than simple affirmations or negations. They express a whole range of assertion: from absolute certainty down to probability or opinion.

What happens if such statements are inspired? Could God inspire a probable statement, a doubtful remark or a mere opinion? The answer is : yes. And : God affirms not more nor less than what is affirmed by the human authors. In other words: if the human author asserts a doubtful statement, God's inspiration will not change the nature of the assertion. It will remain an inspired, yet doubtful remark!

It is Saint Paul who provides us with a classical proof. Speaking with great indignation he says to the Corinthians:

"Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"
[A.] "I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius! Lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name."
[B.] "I did baptize also the household of Stephanas."
[C.] "Beyond that I do not know whether I baptized anyone else."
1 Corinthians 1,13-16

We can follow Paul's thought. With some vehemence he states that he baptized no one except Crispus and Gaius (statement A). It then comes to his mind that he also baptized Stephanas' family (statement B). He ends up expressing his mind as in doubt: "I do not know whether I baptized anyone else" (statement C). It is a really human way of speaking. All three statements have to be read together, since the second and third correct the first one. Moreover, the sum total of the three statements remains a doubt.

Does the fact of the text's inspiration change this human aspect! Does it make a dogma of each of these statements? Does it turn the doubt into a certainty? Of course it doesn't! Paul's basic affirmation is that it does not matter how many people he baptized, because the important thing is that they were all baptized in Jesus's name: this basic affirmation with all nuances is equally asserted by the Holy Spirit!

Moreover, the example also illustrates that - just like we ourselves - the biblical authors may forget certain facts, overstate matters, express doubtful questions as if they are certain. Do we claim that everything we say is a 100% definite and correct? Are our every-day statements equivalent to sworn testimonies we give in court? The same measure of inaccuracy and certainty must be granted to biblical authors.


Kohelet's doubts

The author of Kohelet wrestles with a real problem: What is the purpose of life? What gain has a human being from all the toil and strain with which he/she toils beneath the sun? (Kohelet 2,22). It is a theme repeated over and over again by the author. Life stands before him as one great question mark: "Who knows what is good for human beings while they live the few days of their useless life which passes like a shadow?" (Kohelet 6,12).

Kohelet even raises questions about life after death:

"For the fate of human beings and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and a human being has no advantage over animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of an animal goes down to the earth?" Kohelet 3,19-21

The author does not succeed in finding a complete answer to his question. He affirms faith in God who will punish the wicked and reward the good (Kohelet 8,12; 12,1; etc), but his problem as to the ultimate purpose of this hard life of human beings remains!

What to make of this inspired book?

The answer is simple. God inspired a philosopher, a thinker, not to make statements but to raise questions. It was his task to make his contemporaries think, to make them realize that indeed suffering and death are — humanly speaking — insoluble riddles. It was only the revelation and redemption brought by Jesus Christ that would provide God's solution to these problems! Here again inspiration followed the nature of the book inspired; the author meant to put his finger on a problem without providing a full solution. God inspired him to do precisely that much and nothing more.




The book of Kohelet was written by a Palestinian Jew during the third century BC. The Greek version known to us now was translated in the hellenistic city of Alexandria.

A truth in every sentence?

Let us have a second look at the way we speak and write.

Some people seem to think that every sentence automatically carries an affirmation, but nothing is less true. Questions by themselves neither affirm nor deny a truth. Commands, wishes and requests reveal the will of the speaker, but do not affirm anything. Metaphors often sustain a different affirmation from that which the face-value of the words would suggest. In each case we have to determine what the author wants to assert: this much and no more is asserted by God.

To illustrate this point let us turn to the gospels which are probably more familiar to us.

  • In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus states: "A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho ..." (Luke 10,30). What does Jesus want to affirm? Surely the need of fraternal charity ("do you likewise", vs. 37.'), and not the actual occurrence of the incident!
  • Jesus says : "The Son of Man has no stone to lay his head on" (Matthew 8,19). Was Jesus interested in teaching us about stones ? Did he mean that he literally could not find nor buy a stone to lay his head on ? In fact, we know from St. John's Gospel that Jesus possessed a small fund of money (John 13,29). What Jesus wanted to affirm was, consequently, his complete detachment from earthly possessions.

In Scripture God employs human instruments. God's message follows the nature of their speech. And in human speech much is said without any assertion. Many statements vary in the degree of certainty expressed. Many metaphors and modes of speech carry an affirmation that differs considerably from the external sound of the words. In all these cases divine inspiration remains faithful to its instrument. God asserts and affirms what the human author asserts and affirms: nothing more and nothing less. In this sense God truly speaks through the human person.

Human language is much richer and more versatile than being a catalogue of dogmas.


Case study: the parable of Lazarus & hell fire

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

In the parable, Jesus clearly implies that people in hell are tormented by fire:

    "In his torment in hell, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus resting on his lap. So he cried out: 'Father Abraham, take pity on meand send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony here in these flames!' " See Luke 16,19-31

Until modern times most Christians believed that the fire in hell is real, exactly like fire on earth! This belief was confirmed as correct by the Sacred Penitentiary in Rome, one of the papal offices, on 30 June 1890.

But did Jesus really want to teach that hell fire is real fire? Or was he just referring to hell fire casually, making it part of his story?

To understand the ramifications of human language , please examine this case study very carefully: The parable of Lazarus and hell fire.


Exercise: Paul on homosexuality

In his letter to the Romans, Paul expresses his disgust with practices found among pagan society of his time:

  • "... God left them to their filthy enjoyments and the practices with which they dishonour their own bodies . . . "
  • "... God has abandoned them to degrading passions: their women have turned from natural intercourse to unnatural practices; their menfolk have given up natural intercourse to be consumed with passion for each other, men doing shameless things with men and getting an appropriate reward for their perversion."

Romans 1,24-27

Read the whole context of Romans 1,18-32 and try to answer the following questions:

  1. What does Paul try to say in this passage?
  2. What was the Roman/Hellenist background of homosexual practice at the time?
  3. What is Paul's message about homosexuality for our own day?

Click here to find further clarification


God employs human instruments. His message follows the nature of their speech, And in human speech much is said without any assertion. Many statements vary in the degree of certainty expressed. Many metaphors and modes of speech carry an affirmation that differs considerably from the external sound of the words. In all these cases divine inspiration remains faithful to its instrument. God asserts and affirms what the human author asserts and affirms: nothing more and nothing less. In this sense God truly speaks through the human person. As Jeremiah testifies :

"Then I said : Ah, Lord God ! Behold, I do not know how to speak for I am only a youth."
But the Lord said to me: 'Do not say: I am only a youth; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver them!', says the Lord.
Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said : 'Behold, I have put my words in your mouth...!' Jeremiah 1,7-9.

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