The inspiration of scripture: divine deeds

A portrait of St. Luke looking heavenward and writing in a bookA long, long time ago—I can still remember how the music used to make me smile. Oh, wait. That’s a different conversation. Let’s try that again.

Several months ago, at the beginning of the 2012–13 academic year, I began a series of posts on “the divine inspiration of scripture.” I began this series in part to provide an exegetical answer to a question posed by James McGrath:

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?

If this is your first exposure to this series, I’d appreciate it if you’d start with the introduction to the series and read through in order so that you’re able to put this post in context. Previous posts in this series have examined biblical passages which, on their faces, claim either (a) that God dictated words for someone to transmit or transcribe, or (b) that God comissioned someone to share a message with an audience, which that someone delivered in words of his or her own design, or (c) that God revealed, in some direct way, knowledge or information to someone, which that someone decided to transmit or transcribe. Those passages appear primarily in connection with commandments in the Torah, with sermons in the Latter Prophets, or with reports of apocalyptic visions. Such passages testify (accurately or inaccurately) to a fairly direct divine impetus for those texts’ creation and a fairly significant degree of purposeful divine input into those texts’ contents.

But other texts more or less explicitly testify to very different origins and to very different sources of information. Take almost any psalm, for example. I think Psalm 44 provides a particularly convenient example. Psalm 44 makes its own “backstory” rather clear: despite the “praise traditions” handed on by the psalmists’ ancestors, the psalmists find themselves beaten by their military enemies. They blame God for their misfortune (vv. 9–14) and they feel that God is ignoring them (vv. 23–24), hence their desperate cry for help (v. 26). I can see no trace of divine dictation or commissioning in Psalm 44; certainly no divine speech is quoted, and nobody uses anything resembling a messenger formula. Neither can I see any trace of divine disclosure in Psalm 44; quite far from believing that God has revealed something to them, the poets feel abandoned by God, who has apparently made no contact with them by dreams, by the Urim, or by the prophets (cf. 1 Sam 28:6). In response, the people create a text—Psalm 44 itself—that was not dictated by God, does not reflect a revelatory encounter with God, and indeed does not seem to have been God’s idea at all … but which nevertheless was “inspired” by God’s actions (or in this case inaction), much in the mold of James’s Mother Teresa film.

In the New Testament, the gospel of Luke provides another pointed example. In the prologue (Luke 1:1–4), the gospel’s author—let’s call him “Luke”—rather frankly states that the inspiration for his gospel came in the way we’ve just discussed, and that he relied on mundane, human informants for his material. He unequivocally avers that “I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus[, because] I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received” (vv. 3–4). Luke cites written accounts (v. 1), eyewitness testimony (v. 2), and secondhand testimony (“servants of the word,” or preachers, v. 2) as the sources of his information about Jesus. It’s notable that Luke is never shy about narrating the Holy Spirit’s activities (see Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25–27; 3:22; 4:1; 10:21; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 7:55; 9:31; 10:44; 13:2; etc.), but he does not say that the Holy Spirit led him to write his gospel, nor does he claim that any kind of direct divine revelation informed his own work. (Remember that the revelatory life and teachings of Jesus himself comes to Luke indirectly, through written accounts, eyewitnesses, and servants of the word.) In this sense, God—by “fulfilling” a divine plan in the person and work of Jesus—inspired Luke to write his gospel in roughly the same way that Mother Teresa inspired the filmmakers in James’s quotation above.

Most biblical historiography seems to me to fit this pattern: the writers believe that God has done something, and they write about it (perhaps after talking or singing about it for a while first). Most biblical psalms and prayers seem to me to fit this pattern as well. Because I have a thing for alliteration, I like to call this pattern “inspiration by deeds” (alongside of the rare “inspiration by dictation” and more common “inspiration by disclosure”). “Inspiration by deeds” happens any time somebody responds to perceived divine actions by creating a text.

Does that “demote” the gospel of Luke to a status no higher than the Mother Teresa film in James’s example? I don’t think so, for reasons I’ll address in a later installment (and I thank you for your patience in waiting until then to discuss this possible objection). But even if it did, that would not give us any excuse for injecting dictation or disclosure into the background of texts where it is pretty strongly contraindicated (such as Psalm 44) or where very different claims are made (Luke 1:1–4). Luke explicitly describes a process like the one I’ve called “inspiration by deeds,” many psalms pretty clearly reflect such a process, and many historiographical passages seem most naturally to have emerged in this way. In other words, one solid reason to adopt this view of the “inspiration” of passages like Psalm 44 and the gospel of Luke is that “the Bible tells us so,” directly or indirectly.

If my analysis is anywhere near sound, we can now speak about three broad “mechanisms” of inspiration: dictation, disclosure, and deeds. Obviously, the lines separating these “mechanisms” can get fuzzy; acts of divine self-disclosure are themselves deeds, for example. But ambiguities and corner cases don’t invalidate the main point. However, I don’t think these three categories quite cover the entire range of what the biblical writers tell us about the sources of their motives and materials, so I need to add one more d-word to the mix. I’ll do that in my next installment in this series.

שָׁלוֹם עָלֵיכֶם