On the Inspiration of Scripture

On the Inspiration of Scripture

M’s church is starting the Bible Challenge (another wonderful Forward Movement product!), and in doing so has invited a number of speakers to help give context to Scripture, ways of encountering it, and information around it. Somehow, I got to kick things off, so what follows is a gently edited version of what I presented to them for your reading pleasure… (And, yes, the Blunt posts have been leading up to this!)

As we begin reading the Bible, I think it’s important to take a big step back and examine some of the questions around why we read the Bible, and how this thing that we have here in our hands came to us. I’m only going to be able to tackle a very small piece of that today, but I do think it’s one of the more important ones. So—we’ll be wrestling today with the inspiration of the Scriptures, what that means for their writing and what it means for our reading.

Generally speaking, this isn’t a topic that gets talked about a whole lot. I’m of the opinion that if things like this don’t get talked about, it means that we are relying on our assumptions, or what’s filtered in through our culture. Thus it’s not because of deliberate faith formation or careful attention to why we think the things that we do. There’s a lot of “religious knowledge” that seeps into our heads through American culture that is just entirely out of step with what we believe as Episcopalians and what has been believed by the vast majority of Christians through time. Don’t even get me started on the idea of dead people becoming angels… That’s just—no; it’s completely analogous to the time when she was three or so when Hannah informed me that she wanted to be a triceratops when she grew up … Entirely different orders of being… But that’s the kind of thing that we somehow absorb and believe unless we take a good hard look at it. That’s what we’re doing today: stopping and taking a good hard look at our theology of Inspiration.

I’m going to suggest that most of us have absorbed a default model that I’m going to call the “Mighty Man of God” model. We’ll talk about that, sketch it out, and then I’d like to propose an alternative that I’ll call the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model.

Now, I don’t like to argue against straw men so I was looking around for an example of this model where everything is clearly laid out. I didn’t find a perfect one, so I’m going to make reference to a work by an English priest and professor named John Henry Blunt who wrote a series of books on basic Anglican theology for school children and adults, and one of them was entitled A Key to the Knowledge and Use of the Holy Bible, published in 1868. This work was intended to be a basic textbook on the Bible that would teach young people everything they needed to know. He’s great for our purposes because he gives us some key chapters at the beginning on the “Old Testament Writers and Writings”, “New Testament Writers and Writings”, and “The Revelation of the Holy Bible and the Inspiration of its Writers”. Notice—not, “the books of the Old Testament” but “the Old Testament Writers.” And for the sake of time and your attention I’m just going to summarize what all’s in here.

The model that Blunt operates from is that there is a special and significant man who inspired by God through a particular application of the Holy Spirit to write divine revelation. This man writes a book of the Bible, and that book now becomes divine word. Usually, that’s the end of the story. Sometimes, Blunt will make special allowances like in the case of Joshua writing in the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, but it’s always one of these guys we know who does the writing. So who wrote 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings? Well, it’s a combination of Samuel, Nathan and Gad (just like it says in 1 Chronicles 29:29), and then Nathan, Jeremiah, and Ezra. And that’s good, because it’s all guys we know…

Blunt teaches that since God inspired each author directly and specially, everything in the Bible is literally and historically true. He says at one point that if a scientist or historian presents something as fact that is contrary to the Bible, well, they’re probably wrong, and that if the matter is investigated more fully it’ll reveal that the Bible was right all along. Because the Bible was spoken by God, and therefore, if God spoke it, it is right.  Now. Can there be mistakes in the Bible? Well, he’s a little cagey about this, but suggests that things could have been added in that are wrong, but he assures his readers that anything written by an inspired man as a revelation of God’s truth is true.  

Thus, we can sum up the “Mighty Man of God” model like this:

  1. The various books of the Bible were written by discreet, identifiable men
  2. These men were specifically inspired by God for the purpose of writing God’s revelation
  3. God’s revelation is true
  4. If there is something in the Bible that is not true, it is an addition by an uninspired man

Now—while John Henry Blunt was an Englishman writing from a High Church perspective at the mid to end of the nineteenth century, I’m going to suggest that this model is remarkably similar to what many present American Christians believe. Blunt was writing right at the time when the discipline that would become Biblical Studies was in its infancy in Germany and was starting to come into the Church of England. In fact, in one of his other writings he has some very harsh words for Benjamin Jowett (regarded now as the Father of Biblical Studies in England) who advocated that the very same questions that a scholar would ask of Homer’s Iliad could also be asked of the Bible, questions like: where did it come from? when was written? who wrote it? does the world depicted in the text match the world of the time or show marks of a later age? 

This is important because with the rise of Biblical Scholarship, churches tend to fall into one of two camps. One that said, “Hey, yes, let’s use science and history to study this”, and another that pushed back and said, “Nope, we believe what we believe, and you guys are all just a bunch of closet atheists who are trying to ruin the Bible.” Those positions in America became very rigid around the year 1930—remember the Scopes Monkey Trial litigating the scientific accuracy of the Genesis creation account occurred in 1925. Broadly speaking, most of the Mainline Churches—Episcopalians, Presbyterians, some Lutherans—said “yes, let’s use science and history” and the Baptists, other Lutherans and the various ancestors of the Evangelical and Fundamentalists movements said “no.” Significantly, the Roman Catholics said, “no” initially, but then flipped in the 40’s and 50’s to “yes.” Because views like Blunt’s undergird that “no” movement, you still find logic like Blunt’s from the 1800’s running around today especially in more conservative circles.

 One of the ironies here, is that I believe that this “Mighty Man of God” model was largely stolen from Romanticism. So, Romanticism was a philosophical/literary/artistic movement in the 1800’s that was a reaction against the intellectualism of Rationalism, that championed beauty and feeling over and against science and gave us the idea personified by writers like Keats and Shelly that the true artist is a solitary tortured genius who taps into the Spirit of the Age to produce profound works of art that the teeming masses are going to misunderstand and ultimately water down until they’re vindicated by other genius-types after their sad and untimely death, usually caused by either consumption or syphilis. Which feels a lot like the Mighty Man of God model! (Except for the syphilis.) So this isn’t necessarily a biblical model we’re working with here, but very likely a view consciously or unconsciously picked up from European Romanticism.

Ok—so, before we move on, it’s really important to stop and say what’s at stake. What matters. Humans use models because they’re useful, they’re doing something for us. So here are a few reasons why I think people find this model attractive, compelling, or important.

First, this model is all about authority. There’s one guy. We can put a name and a face to it. We know who’s responsible. Matthew wrote Matthew. Jeremiah wrote Jeremiah. Moses wrote Genesis. That provides a feeling of control.

Second, this model is also all about certainty. We know who wrote it, and we know God liked them, so we know that this is all God. We can trust that there’s only one degree of separation between God’s mouth and the page. God said it, dude wrote it down, and now we’re reading it.  End of story.

Third, this model agrees with Tradition. This is what’s been handed down. This adds to the certainty piece. How do we know Matthew wrote Matthew? The text never says, “Hey, I’m Matthew, I wrote this book…” Well, the tradition tells us. Eusebius, writing in the early fourth century, wrote the first history of the Church’s early years and incorporated a lot of excerpts from older primary sources going back to the eyewitnesses who learned at the feet of the apostles, collecting information of this kind. That’s how we know what we know about Matthew or Luke or John—we know what Eusebius learned from the sources he had.

Alright. So, that’s one model. It’s not the only model and that’s important.

When it comes to narratives, we can characterize two general approaches: there’s a small universe style and there’s a big universe style. These are an obvious oversimplification, but a useful one. Small universe stories are ones where no matter how huge and vast the world might be, the same few folks are always running into each other. This is anything written by Charles Dickens. So, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, we’re consistently running into the same cast of secondary characters over and over again. Or, Star Wars. Yes, small town boy, the princess you saved is actually your sister. And the scary guy in black is your dad. And your mentor is your dad’s boyhood best friend, and the robots you met used to belong to your dad. And your sister. That’s small universe. The huge advantage is that, narratively, we know everyone we need to know. There’s a limited number of people.

Big universe is very different. Think Tolkien. Elves will be name-dropping Beren and Luthien like they expect you to know who these people are and you don’t and you probably never will. There are so many names and so many different characters scattered through this vast history that trying to remember if Fingol was a good guy or a bad guy is really hard.  Plotted on this spectrum, the “Mighty Man of God” model is definitely small universe, because you get the feeling—whether it’s accurate or not—that you know all of the important players. The model we’re going to next is definitely big universe.

Here’s the way we’ll start this one out… I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Romans—the most iconic of all of Paul’s letters—was not written by Paul. It was written by Tertius. And I’m quite certain of that because that’s exactly what it says in Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Don’t get me wrong, Paul composed Romans, but he didn’t write it, because like most folks in the ancient world, books were written by dictation. You talk, and the scribe who had way better handwriting than yours and was literate in a least a handful of different languages would write down what you said. This is why literacy didn’t matter nearly as much in Antiquity as it does now: your scribe handled literacy matters for you!

Not only did Paul not write Romans, it’s a pretty sure thing he didn’t write First Corinthians or Galatians either because the last section of both of these is, “I Paul write this greeting with my own hand; See what big letters I make when I write myself.” If you were reading the actual piece of papyrus these letters were written on, you would have seen a shift in handwriting at that point. It’s like signing a typed letter.

The key point here is that letters were a communal event in Antiquity. Paul is sitting there composing the letter. Tertius is the one writing it down. Gaius, who was his host, might throw in a comment or ask a question. Or maybe Lucius or Jason or Sosipater who were also hanging around. Tertius might do a little bit of wordsmithing when Paul said something awkward. Maybe Achiacus and Fortunatus are the ones who are going to carry this letter like they did to one to the Corinthians, or Tychicus who carried Colossians. Because, if there are questions raised by the letter, the person who carried it very well may have been there at the time of its composition and may be able to clarify exactly what was intended by the words on the page. (And, yes, person who carried it, because if you weren’t a government official it’s not like you could just drop letters in a box and wait for the mailman to take them away.)

Indeed, Romans 16 itself is a fascinating passage. Remember, Paul had never been to Rome. The whole point of Romans is that he’s laying out how and what he teaches because he’s hoping that the Romans will agree to have him go there and will help foot the bill for the expense. Romans 16 lays out the extensive social networks that already existed between Paul’s organization and the church in Rome. Aside from Timothy and Prisca and Aquila, we don’t know anything about the other 34 people mentioned. Yes, some people do try to identify Rufus as the son of Simon of Cyrene mentioned by Mark, but that’s literally like suggesting that Ginger Rogers and Ginger Baker could be the same person, because they have the same name that means “red.” This is the big universe reality of early Christianity.    

So—if Paul is talking and other people are chiming in, and Tertius is writing it down, and Tychicus is read out the letter in the church it’s going to and clarifying its message—who’s the one inspired guy here? Or is that a question that even makes sense? And if you’re wondering, I’m going to suggest that it’s not really a question that makes sense because that’s not the only way or even the best way that the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit is that which binds us together. When Paul writes in First Corinthians “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” You have to remember two things. First, all of the “yous” in this passage are plural. So, it’s better rendered, “Don’t y’all know that all yall’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” Second, this means it is the Spirit’s operation that pulls the community into unity. The Church is the body; the Spirit is what binds the various disparate members together into a single whole. The Spirit’s work is binding us together one to another across time and space uniting us all into the one great mystic body which is the Body of Christ. That’s the ordinary operation of the Spirit—not just zapping famous guys every once in a while.

Where’s the inspiration here? It’s not just locked into the single act of writing. Instead, it both precedes it and follows it; it’s not a single act or moment, it’s all of the moments in the life of the community that build to a text’s creation and then are bound up in its transmission, communication, and reception.

Moving out of the New Testament for a moment, let’s just glance at the Psalms. Who wrote the Psalms? That’s easy—David wrote the Psalms. But when we actually look at the text, the text shows us something that says something very different. The superscriptions or headings of 73 of the Psalms mention David; then there are 2 groups of another 16 psalms attributed to the Sons of Korah. And 11 psalms attributed to Asaph. 2 others mention Ethan the Ezrahite and one has Heman the Ezrahite. And then one mentions Solomon, and another Moses and then there’s a whole chunk of 15 just labeled “songs of ascent.” But when we pull back a little bit, we start to notice groupings, and it almost looks like what happens when you take three or four different hymnals and combine them together. You get certain songs that overlap. Like how Psalm 14 and 53 are basically the same, or the end of 40 and Psalm 70; or that Psalm 108 is a mashup of Psalm 57 and 60. Perhaps the names are less about the specific authors and more like titles of collections that were grouped together.  

When we get less tied to people we starting noticing things like the fact that psalms 74 and 79 are two similar but different responses to the sack of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 586 BC. Which would have been some four hundred years after David. Is it more realistic and more edifying to think that David had some kind of prophetic dream about what that would be like and wrote it down or that we hold the work of two different people processing a traumatic experience in song? And that’s not even plumbing the depths of Psalm 137. That’s the one that starts off so pretty about sitting by the waters of Babylon and hanging our harps to weep when we thought about Jerusalem and then gets real dark at the end. Some people question whether something like that is appropriate in Scripture—it’s not about appropriate, it’s about a community in pain wrestling with what it all means and where God was when it was happening. If we pass it off to David—four hundred years earlier—who never had and never would see Babylon or the brutal sack of Jerusalem, then we lose something truly important about what this collection of texts means.

We will never know the names of the three poets who wrote those specific psalms. But that’s the way it goes in a big universe. Because it’s not about the few and the famous. It’s about all of us who were here and participated in the process. This idea that God talks to one guy who spits out a book and then we pick it up is pure fantasy. Because the only way a book gets from then to now is by generation after generation of people copying every letter of it. Running from hand to hand. Going from papyrus scraps to scrolls to bound codices, with somebody having to heat up the ink because it has frozen again in the winter weather to the ninth century Irish scribe who wrote at the bottom of the page, “my hand is tired—I need a drink” to the twelfth century cat who walked across the page as it was being written, leaving a little track of paw prints behind.

This is the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model of inspiration. This model isn’t about a few famous guys getting the word directly from the Spirit and handing it off cleanly. Instead, it’s a model that sees the Scripture as a tangible aspect of a community’s long-term engagement with God and with one another. Stories originally told around Judean campfires were mashed up together with rules first written for how to do liturgy right in Solomon’s Temple, combined with narratives about who we were and where we came from. Because that’s how we get something like Leviticus. Not by Moses sitting down in the desert 500 years before the Temple was even built, but by a wide collection of disparate materials getting welded together into a something that mostly makes sense with ritual instructions interspersed with stories. Yes, there’s a messiness here, but we should expect that: Incarnation is inherently messy.

Look at the haphazard character of the New Testament. We have four different versions of one’s guy life. And all four of them manifestly don’t agree on a whole bunch of things. There was a fight in a big parish and one group went behind the backs of the others to tattle to the former pastor about the crazy things the other guys were saying and so, poof—1st Corinthians. Paul didn’t sit down at his desk, crack his back, pick up his pen, and whisper, “Let me say a little prayer for God to inspire me as I write this next section of Scripture…” Instead, he’d be squinting at the list of complaints from Chloe’s people, yelling down the hall for Sosthenes, Timothy, and Tertius to get their butts back in here while telling Achiacus he doesn’t have to keep mentioning what that one guy’s illicit relationship was really like.   Because—this is about real communities going through real life together in the presence of God.

The end result, as I see it, is a set of documents that are in conversation with one another—because they’re products of on-going community conversations about who God is and who we are in light of God. These documents are revelatory texts that, however imperfectly, reveal God’s actions, intentions, hopes and dreams for his creation. As a Christian community, bound into the life of God through Baptism and the Eucharist, our job is to conform our own hopes and dreams to those of God which are fundamentally about love and life lived abundantly in ways that enable justice and flourishing for all of God’s people and the whole created order.

To try and sum up this “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model in a comprehensible way would go something like this:

  1. Scripture is a collection of books written by faith communities for faith communities.
  2. The inspiration and action of the Holy Spirit is not restricted to one point in the process, but informs and shapes the whole life of the community of faith and therefore also the creation and the accumulation of all the things that would go into the writing that happened and also in its editing and copying and transmission and reception.
  3. God’s self-revelation to humanity occurs in the midst of community and conversation.
  4. Scripture is less a fossilized or crystalized moment of revelation in the past, but a catalyst for a living faith community now to encounter the Living God now.

So—what’s at stake here? Why does this matter?

First, this model is all about reality and about truth. We can’t say that we care about truth and then shut our eyes when we find it inconvenient or when it calls into question the stories we tell about ourselves. Incarnation is inherently messy. As a result, it doesn’t shy away from hard questions raised by history, archaeology and literary analysis. These methods don’t—and can’t—disprove anything about God; rather they help us clarify our understandings about the stories we have told and continue to tell about the community’s relationship with God. St. Augustine, the great 4th century African theologian, suggests that when you get right down to it, any passage of the Bible is, at the end of the day, doing one of four things: 1) encouraging us to live God’s love; 2) discouraging us from not living God’s love (he uses the language of encouraging virtue and restraining vice—but the meaning’s the same); 3) teaching us truths about God; or 4) teaching us truths about humanity. And it’s that last one that can be the kicker—recognizing the half-truths and the untruths that communities tell about themselves in the face of God can be just as revealing as the truths. Because these can show us what our true wishes, our aspirations for ourselves are, even when our lived reality falls short.

Second, this model doesn’t restrict inspiration or God’s revelation but compounds it. Revelation and inspiration aren’t part of a single act—writing—but are part of the lives of living communities as we strive towards faith and living out the truth of the Gospel to which we have been called. God’s self-revelation is a continuous and on-going process as we wrestle with these texts and our understandings of them.

Third, this model sees the biblical texts as grounding points in an on-going process. These are the texts that we have identified as revelatory. These are the texts that we collectively have agreed to respond to with—”The Word of the Lord.” Even when we may be having a hard time seeing it… These are the texts we wrestle with because these are the texts that we have been wrestling with and have been shaping us lo these past three thousand years.

In fact, that’s one piece that can make this model harder to reckon with than the “Mighty Man of God” model. Because if you really don’t like a piece of Scripture, with that model you can figure out some way that it wasn’t really written by a mighty man of God, and then you can safely ignore it. I think that’s part of what’s going on with discussions around whether some New Testament letters were or weren’t written by Paul. For the “Mighty Man of God” model, that matters; for the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model, it doesn’t change a thing—they are still texts that have formed and shaped us that we need to encounter again with our eyes watchful for the presence of the Living God. And before we wrap up, that’s where we need to move to—how do these two different models influence the way that we read and interpret?

So—the “Mighty Man of God” model. Again, that’s the model where one specially selected man delivers God’s revelation to the people, end of story. What’s interesting here is that in Blunt’s book, his chapter on interpretation is about the importance of guides to help us read Scripture rightly. And while he mentions Christ and the Apostles and Councils of Bishops and individual bishops, the place he arrives at is that the best source for and truest guide of biblical truth is your priest who, in his ordination—because only men are priests in 1860’s England—has received special gifts of the Spirit to be able to interpret better and more faithfully than you.

Did you catch that?

The model for revelation is that one specially selected man delivers God’s revelation to the people whose job is to receive it; and his model for interpretation is that…one specially selected man delivers God’s revelation to the people whose job is to receive it.

Do you notice the parallel there?

It’s almost like the model for revelation is reinforcing the model for interpretation and the current status quo…

How about the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model? Well, I think given what I’m arguing here, it’s only fair to let someone else speak. One of my New Testament colleagues, Dr. M Adryael Tong, tweeted something the other day and I immediately warned her I was going to steal it, and here it is: “The more I teach and research the Bible, the more convinced I am that there is no right way to read the Bible, and really only one wrong way to read the Bible, which is, on your own. The text was preserved, defined, and translated in community and it should be read in community.” And she’s absolutely right.

What we do when we sit down to read, is to seek an encounter with the Living God. Bringing to the Bible all of us, all of our baggage, our realities, our anxieties, our hopes and dreams, and we read the text in front of us comparing it to and reading it through God’s ultimate self-revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ. And we discern as best we are able. But we’re not done until we have brought that experience to the community and shared it and conversed about it and talked through it and the community has discerned it together. Because I may think I have uncovered the most profound truth about God and I bring it into conversation with my people and they say, “Sorry, no, that’s your own self-deception at work. Because here’s what we see…”  Or, more likely, you get one of the two classic conjunctions from comedy improv: “Yes, and” or “no, but”. Because true discernment occurs in the presence of God in the gathering of the Body of Christ, for Jesus himself has promised to be present when as few as two or three gather in his name.

Nor are our conversations merely limited to the people we see around us. The power of the Spirit doesn’t just unite us to our present company but to all those baptized into the Body of Christ—and that’s where the Tradition comes in. The faithful of the past were just as flawed and messed up as we are—but they’re messed up in different ways! As a result, they can sometimes help us see beyond the current conflicts we get stuck in, and show us new avenues for reading and faithful living.

Given the questions following the presentation itself and the ones I was asked the following week, perhaps the best way to close is with a reflection on the notion of certainty.

One of the chief differences between the two models lies around the concept of certainty. On one hand, the “Mighty Man of God” model—as I indicated earlier—foregrounds both authority and certainty: You can trust the Bible because it is the Word of God delivered through a known and trusted source. On the other, the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model not only does not claim that level of certainty, but places so much in the hands of communities and people. Is there any certainty here, or is the meaning of the Bible simply what some group decides that it is?

I submit that neither of these initial impressions are accurate.

The “Mighty Man of God” model offers certainty, but further investigation reveals that it is merely an illusion of certainty. I can stand up and declare that something is true as loud as I like—but my declaration does not make it true. The assertion of truth is not the same thing as a guarantee of truth. The certainty here is the same as the splendor of the emperor’s new clothes.

While the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” model appears overly contingent, its greatest strength is that its certainty is grounded in the life of the community of faith. It draws its strength and its certainty from the evidence of lives made holy, lives lived in love. It is proof of the pudding. At the end of the day, the question is this: do our Scriptures and our means of engagement with them reveal us as a community of faith becoming more holy, more joyful, more fully the instruments of God’s love and justice? Is the Body of Christ behaving, day by day, more like the Body of Christ? Because that—not assertions or right thoughts or the submission of others—is the true measure of a community’s connection to and immersion within God.  

4 thoughts on “On the Inspiration of Scripture

  1. Adelaide Kent

    There is also the historical method, if you will, that takes the ‘universe’ a bit further. Who wrote/ composed the OT we have? What was the time like when they wrote the various parts. What was their purpose in writing?. It is clear that Kings is a summary of other documents (they say so) and that the early part of Genesis is a combination of stories.

    What interests me is the intent of the writers in the NT. What were they trying to say to their congregations? Do they have an agenda? Except for Paul, who tells us, and the majority of the letters (Timothy?) which are specific advice to specific congregations. The grapevine must have been something in those days!

    One can dismiss this as “well they were just recording oral traditions”.

  2. Derek A. Olsen Post author

    Indeed–the next piece is on the composition and fixing of the canon building off of what I started with here. As humans, it’s clear the NT writers had agendas; the question is always what those were, and how did those shape or possible even distort their message. James, for instance, seems pretty interested in engaging with Pauline ideas of faith and works, while the author of Hebrews as some very clear ideas on how the Psalms ought to be read!

    I don’t see “they were just recording oral traditions” as dismissive at all. People don’t transmit things they don’t care about. The fact that the oral traditions were recorded is a sign of their importance to someone.

  3. Pingback: On the Canon of Scripture | The St. Bede Blog

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