The inspiration of scripture: getting started

Open book with sparkly accents on black backgroundLooks like all it takes to bring me out of hiding is a couple of posts by James McGrath. Recently, James proposed that the statement “the Bible’s authors were inspired by God” has “been the focus of an incredible amount of controversy … [as a] result of taking that phrase in something other than its normal English sense.” James then went on to ask:

There have been countless books and movies which were inspired by true events, or by the life of a particular individual, or by a song or a poem. If we say that a film was inspired by the life of Mother Theresa, we don’t mean that mother Theresa went and inserted thoughts into the mind of the filmmaker, but rather that the filmmaker found the inspiration for their film in the life of Mother Theresa.

Can we not say the same thing about the Bible’s authors in relation to God?

I read James’s post with great interest, and came away with mixed feelings. Most importantly, the “normal English sense” of a word used as a translation-equivalent for a Hebrew or Greek (in this case) term rarely has much probative value in helping us understand the ancient usage of that term. Additionally, James’s proposal seems to me (on its face) to reduce “inspiration” to just one phenomenon, just like the model I grew up with, in which the phrase “God inspired the Bible” is a circumlocution for “God (surreptitiously) wrote the Bible.”

As it turns out, I’ve thought long and hard about this particular issue, and I include a short treatment of it in my introductory course. James’s post seems like a good stimulus for me to discuss the matter in some detail here on Higgaion, going into somewhat more depth and detail than I do in class.

It will take me several posts to lay out my thoughts on the matter, so I beg your patience. I also ask you to consider the following contextual factors and/or artificial parameters for my discussion.

I grew up in and remain affiliated with the Churches of Christ, which sit well toward the conservative end of the Christian spectrum. Since Churches of Christ are non-creedal and insist on congregational autonomy (eschewing any denominational hierarchy), there is no “official Church of Christ position” on anything. There are, however, a number of characteristic doctrines and practices that have emerged through common consensus (as well as a number of doctrines and practices in hot dispute among us, but that’s not on-topic right now). One of those characteristic doctrines or practices is a strong emphasis on the authority of scripture, resulting in a biblicist approach to Christian life and faith. (Yes, I know that biblicism poses potentially intractable problems, most importantly its self-referential incoherence [since the Bible does not promote biblicism], but this paragraph is only about sketching my background, not about critiquing my background.) In part, the Churches of Christ’s biblicism stems from a thorough grounding in Baconian inductive reasoning and the Renaissance’s battle cry of Ad fontes (“back to the sources”), and in part from our 19th-century leaders’ conviction (not borne out in actual practice) that biblicism could overcome denominational differences.

My particular heritage within Christianity, therefore, has taught me to look within the Bible for answers to questions about the Bible, and to build up my understanding of “Bible things” inductively through a study of biblical examples. Although my training and experience as a biblical scholar has vastly widened my embrace of multiple hermeneutical strategies, I’m still enough of a rational modernist to appreciate the value of inductive study. As scripture says, “Make new friends, but keep the old” (Ecclesiastes 7:18, very loosely paraphrased).

Therefore, my thinking-out-loud consideration of “inspiration” in my next few posts will proceed by examining specific texts, emphasizing texts in which the biblical writers reflect explicitly on the writing process, or in which the compositional process seems very easy to infer. Of course, I’ve already done much inductive work over the course of several years, so I’ll present the specimen texts in a systematized sequence. My interest is in ferreting out the range of claims that the biblical writers make, implicitly or explicitly, about what motivated them to write and how they knew what to write. Therefore, I will not worry too much about the historical accuracy of any particular text that I examine. I will generally take the texts at face value and discuss their implications without raising many historical questions. In my view, this will yield a “maximal” understanding of “inspiration.” That is, I believe that a face-value accounting for the texts I’ll discuss allows us to construct “the most we can say” about biblical inspiration. It would be logically consistent to believe “less” about divine involvement in crafting the Bible than these texts claim, but it doesn’t make much sense to believe “more” than what these texts claim.

I think the foregoing lays a decent foundation for the discussion to follow. We’ll see how this goes.

שָׁלוֹם עָלֵיכֶם

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks for posting on this! I definitely agree that one should not discuss the topic of the meaning of Biblical texts in terms of the “plain meaning” of English words that render them. But it doesn’t seem to me that, when we talk about the “inspiration” of Scripture, that is what I am doing. The language of “inspiration” is relatively rare in English translations of the Bible, and even when it occurs it is not typically singling out a process that clearly relates to the production of Scripture alone. Had the situation been otherwise, I don’t think I would have felt comfortable making the suggestion that I did, for the reason you indicate.

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