Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Does It Mean to Say that Scripture is Inspired by God?

In response to a recent article I wrote on the subject of biblical interpretation that appeared on, a person identifying himself as a professor of biblical studies wrote to me in an email in which he said that he was going to use my article in his class on biblical interpretation as a demonstration of “the fallacy of the liberal hermeneutic and mindset.” I took that as a complement, and not as a criticism, which I assume he intended.

Though I do not know this person, I assume that he and I have many different views about the nature of Scripture and how we ought to read Scripture and to what extent Scripture should be authoritative in formulating Christian theology and practice. At the heart of the matter, I would assume, is perhaps our differing views on what Christians mean by the inspiration of Scripture.

In talking about the inspiration of Scripture, the go-to text is Second Timothy 3:16, where the author 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.

Of course, saying that the texts that make up the Canon of Scripture are inspired raises the question concerning what this means. Addressing such a question has led to 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 each 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, since we must work in the realm of historical probability, the texts of the Bible 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 it does mean we ought to rethink what we mean.

A fundamental question that I think we must ask which may help us rethink the nature of the inspiration of Scripture concerns why the writers of the books of the Bible wrote these texts, and why they wrote what they wrote. What we have are these texts, and from these texts we can, at least at some level, try and answer the question of the purpose for the existence of these texts, which may help us understand how these texts came forth from the religious experiences of the authors and communities that formulated them. To answer these questions it might be helpful to consider why the two communities that produced the two portions of what is now the Christian 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 history of both of these communities, but particularly the longer history of ancient Israel, there was much diversity that is woven into the text of Scripture; diversity that offers us somewhat differing views about God.

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 may have been the first ancient people who were monotheistic; although some have argued that Zoroastrianism, another monotheistic religion, may have predated Israel’s adoption of monotheism.

Israel 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, and it most assuredly influenced the texts they produced.

To put it succinctly, the text of the Hebrew Bible 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 their own 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, as was, of course, Jesus, 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 what is expressed about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

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 some like to think that the Hebrew Bible foretold the coming of Jesus, it is probably more accurate to say that those earliest believers in Jesus saw in him what they believed was described about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

These early Christian authors were doing what one scholar refers to as “messianic exegesis”, which means that they were creatively reading the Hebrew Bible in ways that were probably not intended by the original authors of those texts. These early Christians formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to Israel. Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced their reading of the Old Testament and their writing of the texts that would become the New Testament.

What all of this means is that the text of Scripture, what we call the Bible, is the inspired 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. Their religious experiences, whether these can or cannot be verified, led them to write these texts in response to what they believed about God.

This means that the Bible that comes down through history to us was at every point along its development a human enterprise that is limited in what it can define about God. A book cannot contain all there is to know and say about God and the various texts that make up the Bible reveal God and God’s will differently. That is, none of them see God in exactly the same way, and none of them can express the full nature of God’s being.

This does not mean that we should throw out these ancient texts, for they still serve to reveal many things about God, particularly for Christians who see Jesus as the revelation of God. But, it does mean that as modern readers of these ancient texts, who have different kinds of experiences, and who see the world vastly different from these ancient authors and communities, we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how they are God breathed today.

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