The inspiration of scripture: assessing the 4D spectrum

Two-pan scale, often used as a symbol of judgment or assessment Over the course of this series, I’ve examined a number of biblical texts that contain either explicit claims or strong implications about their own composition. I systematized those texts into a spectrum of “types” or “models” of inspiration, ranging from maximal/direct to minimal/indirect divine input. I divided my spectrum into four categories:

Neighboring categories obviously admit of fuzzy boundaries, but precise categorization of any given text takes a back seat to fairly representing the range of claims that biblical authors actually made about where they got their motivation and material.

Now the time has come to consider how well this spectrum reflects not just textual claims and implications, but actual reality. Logically, an atheistic assessor will reject the idea that any “inspiration by dictation” or “inspiration by disclosure” ever really happened, although atheists may allow that the biblical authors believed such things had happened to them. There may also be theists who would lean toward thinking of “dictation” and “disclosure” more in terms of the writer’s subjective perceptions. This shift from “what happened” to “what the writers thought had happened” may not match up with the texts’ surface claims (though we should be careful not to assume too much without more sustained consideration of genre conventions, standardized phrases, and so forth), but it’s consistent with these observers’ belief systems and charitable to the biblical authors.

I can also imagine more skeptical—no, make that cynical—readers rejecting even the “softer,” more subjective versions of “dictation” and “disclosure” by asserting that some of the biblical authors, or their later publicists (so to speak), knowingly made false claims of “dictation” and “disclosure,” and even of “deeds.” Mythicists, for example, might argue that the gospel writers knew there was no such person as Jesus, but perpetrated (pious?) frauds on their readers. Under this extreme scenario, all “inspiration” collapses into the “devotion” category, though through a mythicist-type lens the “devotion” could be more to a cause, or simply to power, rather than to a deity. While I by no means agree with such a cynical approach, it at least the merit of consistency between the assessor’s convictions and his or her assessment of biblical claims about the writers’ sources.

In short, no logical problems follow from accepting that the 4D spectrum accurately reflects biblical writers’ claims, but from rejecting the claims themselves, including selective rejection of the reality of “divine dictation” and “divine disclosure” while affirming the “deeds” and “devotion” categories on the spectrum. I don’t personally take such an approach; as a Christian theist, I do not reject out of hand the possibility of “dictation” and “disclosure.” Nevertheless, I consider such approaches completely logical and self-referentially coherent.

However, I have encountered Christians—and I know that other bibliobloggers have, too—who enthusiastically affirm the “dictation” and “devotion” categories on my 4D spectrum but who want to collapse all apparent instances of “inspiration by deeds” or “inspiration by devotion” into the other two categories. For example, despite the fact that the prologue to the gospel of Luke lists only mundane sources of information (written and oral traditions about Jesus), some Christians insist that Luke must have also had supernatural input as he wrote his gospel. Despite the fact that Paul explicitly labels some of his advice in 1 Corinthians 7 as his own (trustworthy) opinions, some Christians insist that Paul must have gotten those opinions from the Holy Spirit rather than from a purely human process of inference from Jesus’s teachings on related subjects (as Paul explicitly claims). It’s almost as if some Christians have “Qur’an envy” and want the entire Bible to effectively be first-person divine speech—which it obviously isn’t and doesn’t claim to be (precisely the opposite in some cases). Unlike the hypothetical atheists described above who reject “dictation” and “disclosure” and lump everything into “deeds” and “devotion,” however, Christians who reject “deeds” and “devotion” and lump everything into “disclosure” and “dictation” advance a self-referentially incoherent argument. If you trust the author of Exodus enough to take the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments as an accurate historical report, why wouldn’t you also trust Luke or Paul enough to take their testimony about their own writing activity as accurate historical reports? Affirming that the biblical authors are right when they claim or strongly imply (relatively) direct divine input into their writing but suggesting that the biblical authors are wrong (possibly through ignorance) when they claim or strongly imply minimal or very indirect divine input into their writing simply makes no sense. You just can’t be a “Bible-believing Christian” and believe that the Holy Spirit told Paul what to write in 1 Corinthians 7:25. It doesn’t fly.

I usually think about my 4D spectrum as a right-to-left spectrum, but try to imagine it for a moment like Jacob’s ladder instead, with “devotion” on the ground and “dictation” in the heavens. Different “users” of the spectrum may vary in how high they’re willing to climb the ladder—but it’s logically inconsistent to trust the top of ladder without trusting the bottom, and you’re likely to create all kinds of (intellectual and spiritual) trouble for yourself if you try to stand on the upper rungs while sawing off the lower ones.

But it’s just possible that the entire spectrum approaches the topic of “inspiration” from an errant vector. My 4D spectrum, and my entire series thus far, has operated within the usual conservative Christian parameters of thinking about “inspiration” as something that happens more or less at the same time as a text’s composition. What if that’s entirely wrongheaded? I’ll take up that question in the next installment in this series.

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