One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is the belief in the inspiration of scripture. The author of Second Timothy writes, “All scripture is inspired by God.” The word translated as “inspired” literally means “God-breathed,” and although the author of these words would have been speaking specifically about the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians have long recognized that inspired scripture also includes the New Testament.
Most seminary students can list for you the various theories that have been proposed to describe the action of divine inspiration. From those theories that view the scriptures as produced by gifted human authors, to the idea that God gave a message to the author, who then used his own words in writing the text, to the theory that God dictated every particular word of the text, each hypothesis has been debated by theologians across the spectrum of Christian thought.
While the verse from Second Timothy clearly states that “All scripture is God-breathed,” this does not mean that we must accept the idea that every word was dictated by God to the human author, who then recorded those words. Many may hold to the idea that God inspired every word of the text, but this is a matter of one’s personal faith. It is certainly not compulsory to believe this, and one’s critical approach to scripture or to any theory of divine inspiration does not in and of itself negate one’s faith in God. To suggest that the text is as much a human creation as a divine one does not make one less faithful in one’s belief in God.
In fact, the texts of scripture actually give more evidence of human involvement in their production than they do of divine inspiration. This does not mean that we need to throw out divine inspiration altogether. But a very crucial question must be asked if one is to define, at least at some level, the idea of inspiration. Why did the writers of the books of the Bible write and why did they write what they wrote?
Those holding to verbal or literal inspiration would answer that God led these biblical authors to write what they wrote. This may be true, but there is no way for us to know this. However, it might be helpful for us to answer the questions about why these texts were written, and why the authors wrote what they wrote, by considering why the two communities that produced the two portions of the Bible would have done so.
Obviously, we must speak here in generalities when we talk about ancient Israel, from whom we received the Hebrew Bible, and early Christianity, from whence comes the New Testament. Across the time and space of both of these communities, but particularly ancient Israel, there was much diversity that is part of the text of scripture.
The people of Israel viewed themselves as different from the other nations that surrounded them. Indeed, they were distinctly different from these nations particularly when it came to religion. There is no known ancient civilization that was not religious, but Israel seems to have been the only ancient people who were monotheistic. They believed their God was supreme over other gods, and that their God had created the physical world from nothing and had chosen them as a covenant people. This belief certainly influenced their understanding of the world and other peoples.
To put it succinctly, the text of scripture came forth from the people of Israel in response to what they believed about God and what God was doing. In other words, they were theologically interpreting history and they were telling their history from a theological point of view. Their understanding of God and the world influenced the way they told their stories, from the creation story, to the flood story, to the Exodus story, to the stories of conquering the land of Canaan through violence, and the stories of their Exile and their return.
In approaching an understanding of the writing of the New Testament books, we must remember two things. First, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, and hence any faith that would develop from their experiences must have some connection to ancient Israel and its texts. Second, because these earliest followers of Jesus believed him to be God’s Son, the promised Messiah of Israel, they must be able to explain this in relation to God’s working in the life of ancient Israel as expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In holding onto these two important ideas, the authors of the books that would become the New Testament searched the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to understand and explain Jesus. While we like to think that the Old Testament foretold the coming of Jesus, it is probably better to say that those earliest believers in Jesus saw in him what they believed was described about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. They then formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the new actions of God in the world. Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced their reading of the Old Testament and their writing of the New Testament.
What all of this means is that the text of scripture, what we call the Bible, is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the stories of how God’s ancient peoples believed God to be working in the world. The Bible is the explanation of the mysteries of God envisioned by these historically situated humans. But the various texts written by these humans reveal God and God’s will differently and thus we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how the Spirit speaks through scripture today.