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  • Brian Chilcote

Interrogating Biblical Inspiration

"We contend that viewing the inspiration of Scripture solely from the cognitive environment of print culture opens the door to misunderstanding. Only when we enter into the oral culture of the biblical world can we properly understand the nature of biblical revelation. We do not believe that it will be possible in this life to comprehend completely biblical inspiration and all it entails nor to come up with language to describe it fully. We are confident that ways we have attempted to move toward a reformulation are deficient; in good faith we have done our best."

Walton, John H.; Sandy, Brent. The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (p. 310). InterVarsity Press.

Any textbook on the transmission and translation of ancient documents like Roman legal treatises, the Greek poets and of course the Old and New Testaments will inform the reader that the process of translation is neither easy nor straightforward. These difficulties present a problem for those who view the Christian canon as a unique collection of writings possessing divine origin and ultimate authority. If sacred scripture arrived in our hands through a long process of uncertain accuracy, how can we trust it as the real thing? How can we be sure that the message we interpret from our modern English versions precisely represents what the originals said to their audiences? One possible solution is to conceptualize the documents and the process of transmission as inspired by God.

Most definitions of inspiration are rather vague, using the biblical metaphors of "breathing out" or "superintending." The typical definition of "inspiration" common to most statements of faith among mainstream protestant American churches goes something like this:

"Inspiration is the doctrine of God the Holy Spirit’s superintending work in transmitting truth through revelation."

"What we really mean is that 'all Scripture is breathed out by God.' (2 Timothy 3:16) In short, the Holy Spirit so directed the human writers that the finished product was precisely what He intended."

The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy attempts more detail:

"…inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.

…God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.

"…inspiration, though not conferring omniscience [upon the writers], guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

"…inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

“…for no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” 2 Peter 1:21

The Catholic dictionary agrees:

The special influence of the Holy Spirit on the writers of Sacred Scripture in virtue of which God himself becomes the principal author of the books written and the sacred writer is the subordinate author.

"The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us." Relegating inspiration to mystery status may not satisfy those who sincerely want to know if and how the Bible is inspired by God. Are there ways to penetrate this mystery?

"…copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original." This statement also unwittingly shoots the doctrine of inspiration in the foot. If we don't have the originals, how can anyone ascertain that the copies we do have "faithfully represent" them? It's a bit like saying that a picture of Moses is accurate as far as it looks like him.

To sum up, the concept of inspiration has been certified by a significant majority of evangelicals as a mysterious act of God occurring without fail every time our current set of scriptures has been transmitted from one written copy to another, and from one language to another. From the inspired original autograph on down, when a human agent put pen to papyrus or parchment, their act of producing a copy or translation must have been overseen by the Holy Spirit in order to preserve the truth as described by the original.

How do we know it's inspired?

What do we do with the orally transmitted stories that predate the written versions? Are those long-lost utterances also inspired in some way? Scholars are practically unanimous in their agreement that both oral and written transmission overlapped in the first century and earlier, and there's good evidence for the fact that written literature was not necessarily seen as a superior way to preserve information.*

There is no avoiding the question of how the doctrine of inspiration applies to a written text that is not an original autograph. Even if one did accept that an original may be "God-breathed," there remains the problem of authorship, on which the doctrine of inspiration depends (look for that in a later blog article). The earliest fragments of the New Testament we know of are a few sentences from the gospel of John and 6 verses of Matthew that date from the second century- 100-200 AD. They definitely aren't autographs, but copies that probably circulated among Jesus groups after long years of theological reflection and a bit of myth-making. Imagine discovering a quite ancient text, very close to a possible original, and find it to differ from later manuscripts. What will we do with the thousands of later versions that we have affirmed as inspired? Would the church render the later versions null and void- not actually inspired like we all thought they were?

If not on a verbal level, could a text's intent or meaning be considered inspired? In other words, if it’s the meaning or purpose (perlocution) of the text that was inspired more than the exact wording, could we count that as the "words" God was "breathing?" That is possible, but how then do we make any decisions about the precision of our interpretations? One can only discover meaning by studying the words that embody it. If scholar X chooses from several equally valid meanings of a difficult-to-translate sentence and we accept it as the inspired one, what happens when scholar Y makes an equally valid decision to affirm an English rendering that is slightly different? In addition to that, there is another step taken by our faith communities to decide what the text means to us personally as twenty-first century Americans, and it may disagree with both X and Y's assertions. What can we know about our own highly personalized and possibly dead-wrong interpretations? Which meaning is the inspired one?

And what to do with entire passages that have different degrees of support among experts for whether or not they even belong in the canon, such as the alternate endings of Mark, or the John 8 passage about the adulterous woman, or entire books like Jude or Esther which were initially disputed as canon-worthy? In the fourth century CE the canon was still fluid. Athanasius of Alexandria ignored the book of Esther. James and the letters of John were wrangled over until late. In the 1500's Martin Luther declared his hatred of the New Testament book of James and thought it should be removed from the canon. Were they included in case they might be inspired, but we're not sure?

There are many valid reasons to stop short of a full affirmation of the idea of biblical inspiration. We can never know enough to achieve even a low level of certainty about a cosmic deity embedding truth in written human language. Classically defined "inspiration" requires faith in supernatural influences, as much as is required for affirming miracles or the afterlife. Experiences of supernatural events are subjective. A believer in the supernatural may try to communicate their interpretation of specific qualia (…the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives), such as the feeling that God spoke or led them in some way. Their audience must trust them as a source of truth and accept that their account is accurate and real. The problem is that there is no way to test or authenticate the reality of the experience.

An Ancient and Alien View

In ancient times, it was enough to recount personal stories of supernatural encounters and expect that your listeners would not dismiss them out of hand. In the first century, it was common sense that the activities of the spirit world explained much about how the world worked.

In our time, place and culture, we tend to do the opposite. Our story of reality rests on scientific discovery within a zeitgeist of materiality. We don't attribute illness or military conquests to gods or spiritual actors anymore. This approach has turned out to be wildly successful in explaining the universe. Religion is no longer mixed with every aspect of daily life, and from its shrinking corner of society, it provides a last refuge for shared subjective beliefs in the supernatural.

That is not to say that there is no metaphysical reality at all. As long as there remain searching existential questions, there will be room for the possibility. The problem isn't whether or not there is a reality beyond what we can identify with our senses, but how we can objectively agree on it without resorting to "just trusting what someone said about it."

We tolerate degrees of uncertainty about the cosmos in spite of the tools science has given us to discover astounding levels of insight about physical reality, so what makes many of us so very certain about the mysterious inspiration of scripture? How can we confidently say that later copies of scripture "…faithfully represent the original?" None among us have verifiably experienced being inspired in the same way as biblical authors might have been; and apparently no modern person ever will because a series of church councils in the 4th and 5th centuries ruled that the Christian canon was closed to new entries.

The Leap of Faith

The words and phrases we now possess, according to inspirationists, are exactly what God wants to communicate to all of humanity, and can be read as such in all 700-plus languages extant today. Retaining the styles and idiosyncrasies of the human agents who did the scribing, inspiration is compared by the author of 2 Timothy to the act of exhaling while speaking, or in the words of the author of Second Peter, being carried along by the wind or "being moved," possibly similar to a sudden flash of creativity or insight as experienced by people who write.

The argument comes down to this: that the doctrines of inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility stand or fall on the acceptance of a non-falsifiable "by faith" proposition, that inspiration results from "…God the Holy Spirit’s superintending work in transmitting truth through revelation."

Religions usually require their adherents to accept a set of envisioned realities without objective evidence or falsifiability, so I find it somewhat ironic that evidence-based apologetic arguments are employed in evangelical circles to defend faith basics like the existence of God, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and biblical cosmology. Many use "science" and history to prove their points, but there's always a fallback position: just believe it by faith. The same goes for their stance on inspiration and inerrancy. Quoting scholars about numbers of manuscripts and comparative literary analysis, or the process of canonization does nothing to address the lost earliest versions of both New and Old Testament documents. The original documents are a black box. "By the providence of God we have accurate copies of the original scriptures!" is the claim. While the Dead Sea Scrolls push back many Old Testament copies to a century before Christ, the best actual evidence we have for the NT are a scattering of references by the Apostolic Fathers possibly referencing snippets of the gospels and Paul, from the early second century. See "Sources of Truth: How do we know what we know?"

A lively leap of faith is required to sustain the belief that by the fourth century, a body of documents, identical to our modern versions, arose fully formed and unchanged since the author wrote them. By that time, most of the alternative Christianities had been marginalized, but not so in the earliest days up through at least 200 CE. What of the thirty plus years between the death of Jesus and Paul's first writings? A quick perusal of the earliest quotations by Papias, Polycarp, Clement of Rome and Ignatius show mostly references to various aphorisms, paraphrases and brief quotations from various works now canonized, but also a few from non-canonical works like The Shepherd of Hermas, The Book of Enoch, and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Sometimes a writer like Polycarp would refer to a quotation as actual scripture: “For I trust that ye are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures [in this case, possibly Eph. 4:26] …It is declared then in these Scriptures, ‘Be ye angry, and sin not,’ and, ‘Let not the sun go down upon your wrath." (Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians), or more likely, simply a passing reference that may or may not be inspired: “Jesus Christ who is our hope”(Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians possibly quoting 1 Tim. 1:1) In the former case, "Be angry and sin not" is also found in the Septuagint version of Psalm 4:4. In other instances, the phrase reads like a common proverb in circulation. Are common idioms or maxims candidates for inspired speech? How does that play out when translating idioms like we find in Matthew 24: "Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather?" How does a hunter-gatherer culture understand dryland agricultural figures of speech like "For My yoke is comfortable, and My burden is light?” Even the metaphor of kings and lords makes only a weak impression on most modern westerners who haven't experienced the feeling (qualia) of what it’s like to fear an authority figure who is above the law by divine right.

English, Inspired?

Imagine an ancient document engraved in an old language that has undergone the usual transformations endemic to verbal communication, labored over by highly motivated scribes who update, compile and edit the old stories for the national archives. Many of the texts have a long oral pedigree in the minds and hearts of generations of storytellers and only now come up for inclusion in the official written record. Store them on parchment or papyrus scrolls in the palace library for show and for later research. Much later, after being lost, found, destroyed and reconstructed, hardworking scribes translate those texts into Greek, Latin, English, Aramaic, Coptic and Slavonic and eventually into hundreds of languages we have today. Include glosses, marginal notes, changes in spelling, skipped or added phrases, and flat-out later additions to the text such as John 8 and the various endings of Mark. In the earliest cases, a doctrinally motivated copyist would not have seen his additions, deletions or changes as anything serious. There was no concept of a canon of holy scripture when Paul's letters were being circulated.

Top it off with committees of scholars who vote on the most likely meanings from the variety of texts we possess and you have a Bible in English. Without a much broader concept of inspiration that goes well beyond the mere verbal, there's little to commend applying the doctrine to the whole of scripture in the way that modern Christians do.

The Disappointing Doctrine of Inspiration

With Sandy and Walton, I'm not at all convinced that we have exact enough representations of what was communicated in the original Aramaic, Hebrew, proto-Hebrew, Greek and Latin to confidently call our English Bibles "inspired." The sheer difficulty of accurately translating an ancient language, laden with unexplained cultural norms and assumptions that were obvious to the audience of the text but not to us, works against the assertion that we have literature which precisely reflects the mind and heart of God as understood by the original inspired author. The ancient texts were produced in response to both universal human ethical concerns and to specific cultural and political realities that don't exist in our world. We can allegorize scriptures that command Israel to war against neighboring nations in order to make it sensible and coherent with our current mores, but are we then in danger of adding to or subtracting from the original inspired meanings? If affirming inspiration demands that we take our canon at face value because of its inspired meaning in the original context, it implies that there is but one correct interpretation of any given passage and we are not free to look for alternative interpretations that seem to speak to our modern questions and desires.

Inspiration only makes sense if we limit our tendency to find creative interpretations beyond the plain sense of the text when it doesn’t quite meet our expectations or add up with other biblical assertions. Numbers 21 contains a few difficult examples. It starts with the Israelites taking revenge on some Canaanites after asking God if it was OK. Of course God then "gave the Canaanites over to them for complete destruction."

Then in verse 6, God appoints a swarm of venomous snakes to slither among his complaining people, biting and killing some of them until Moses erects a bronze snake figure as a cure. The text then quotes an apocryphal work called "The Book of the Wars of the Lord" (does that particular quoted sentence become inspired because it made its way into the Hebrew Bible?). Then "The Poets" are quoted. What poets? Were they inspired too? John's gospel has Jesus interpret the incident as a reference to himself as the "Son of Man" whose "lifting up" (crucifixion) would cure believers with eternal life. Was that really the intended meaning of Numbers 21?

"The Canaanites were so evil that they had it coming," we say. And yet, God somehow sees fit to spare an even worse people- the evil Ninevites in Assyria when Jonah comes along. What made sense to ancient Mediterranean people- that Yahweh would order genocide- does not make sense to us. Why? And how does a verbal picture of Yahweh as a bloodthirsty war god fit into a coherent theory of inspiration?

Inspiration and inerrancy are on the chopping block as we move into the next century. Many faith communities are doing well without them. Some even dare to use extrabiblical texts like the Gospel of Thomas or Second Clement in their liturgy, something we haven't seen in Protestantism for a thousand years. Doing so requires a careful examination of our elevation of the Bible to a level of authority it didn't start out with. If we want to take our cues from the early church, we would do well to loosen our grip on orthodoxy and find ways to listen to other voices that could help us find our way to Jesus as time marches on.

Questions to ponder...

  • Is it possible for us to write something that could be considered "inspired by God?" The Presbyterian Church, USA has recently considered adding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to their Book of Confessions, a collection of historical statements of faith to be used in congregational worship. Can a text by a modern person be given the same status as the Nicene or Apostles' Creed?

  • How can the Bible still speak with authority if we reject the doctrine of inspiration?

*see Susan Niditch and William Schneidewind on oral traditions


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