Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Word of God and Words of Humans: Rethinking Divine Inspiration

Christians have long believed that the Bible was inspired by God, basing this doctrine on Second Timothy 3:16, which states, “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 would most certainly include the books of the New Testament as those inspired by God.  But what do we mean by “inspiration”?
Most seminary students can list 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 range of Christian thought.  Indeed, schisms in denominations and local churches have happened over disagreements over how one defines inspiration.  Moreover, professors of theology have been fired from their institutions and excommunicated from academic societies based their definition and explanation of divine inspiration.
While 2 Timothy 3:16 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.  Again, if we take the author of 2 Timothy seriously, we can only admit that this verse is in reference to the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.  Yet, even if we recognize the New Testament as inspired by God, it is not compulsory to believe that every single word of the text was inspired by God.  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 or the Bible as a source of faith.  To view the text of scripture as having a human origin as much as a divine one does not make one less faithful in one’s belief in God, and is really more intellectually honest with the evidence.
In fact, the texts of scripture actually give more evidence to 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 we must ask two very important and interrelated questions if we are 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 at some level, but there is no way for us to know this.  In fact, a critical and historical investigation of the Bible, as I have suggested above, leads us more in the direction of concluding that these authors chose of their own free will to write and to write what they wrote.  Thus, 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.  In approaching the question from this angle, we are being more intellectually honest with the text.
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 has become a part of the text of scripture.
The people of Israel viewed themselves as different from the other nations that surrounded them.  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, but it also influenced the telling of their stories, both orally and then through written texts.
To put it succinctly, Israel’s texts 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 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.  To state it differently, early followers of Jesus needed to make their texts point to Jesus as the promised Messiah and they needed to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that harmonized him to their texts.
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.  In other words, in their experience of Jesus, they re-read their ancients sacred texts, looking for texts that made sense to their understanding of Jesus, and then applied those to Jesus.  They then formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises.  Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced both their reading of the Old Testament as well as their writing of the New Testament.
Yet, what also influenced the writers of the New Testament was the current situation of the churches to which they wrote.  As stated above, the documents of the New Testament for the most part were shaped as much by the needs of the communities of faith as they were by the stories that were passed down about Jesus.  Certainly we are aware that Paul’s letters, as well as the other epistles, were written to churches that were dealing with issues.  But we must also be aware that embedded in the Gospels and other New Testament books are the situations of the followers of Jesus during the time of the writing.
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.  For these two communities of faith, the writing of these texts was the formation of a theological explanation for the existence of the world and humanity, a theological diagnosis of the human predicament, and a theological explanation for overcoming this predicament.  The Bible contains the explanations of the mysteries of God envisioned by these historically situated humans, but no more.   Their understanding of God, humanity, and the world is much different than our own.  Though we can learn from them and are influenced by their stories and texts, we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how the Spirit speaks through scripture today.

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