Today's post looks at the question of Inspiration. It was written 18 months ago in the aftermath of controversy surrounding my views on the sciences of cosmology and evolution in the local church to which I belong. I wrote it originally to dispel concerns that I no longer "believed the Bible." Not at all certain that I accomplished that purpose, I offer it here anyway in hopes it may, at least, clarify my views for my readers.
As I was preparing this post, I happened upon this excellent post on “Negotiating Tensions in the Bible” which Chris Tilling posted over at Chrisendom earlier today. Those interested in a deeper, more scholarly approach to these issues may wish to read his essay, which he recently penned for some of his own students grappling with these difficult questions. Happy reading!
As always, I invite your comments.
What was the process of the inspiration of the Scriptures? How did it happen? To what degree are the Scriptures without error? How dependable are they? Can we safely base our lives on their teachings? These are fair and responsible questions. As I am being asked to clearly state what I believe about these questions, I have chosen to declare in writing my views on the inspiration of the Bible.
Three issues swirl about the larger question of inspiration. Every Bible believer who desires to maintain a reasonable and viable faith is obliged to face three issues honestly and thoughtfully. The three issues are:
1. How does the Bible square up with external evidences? When we place the Bible alongside the findings of history, geology, cosmology, and biology, how much agreement or disagreement do we find? And if we find discrepancies, what do they tell us about Inspiration?
2. How does the Bible square up with internal evidences? Are there contradictions? Do we find teachings in the Old Testament, for example, that do not align well with the nature of God as we understand him from the life of Jesus, and the New Testament? If the Bible disagrees with itself in matters of history and/or theology, what does this tell us about Inspiration?
3. What does that Bible say about itself, both explicitly, and inferentially? Does the Bible declare itself to be without error? What can we glean from the writers themselves? For many Christians, the starting point must be this third set of issues. It is argued that if the Bible makes certain definitive claims about itself, issues one and two must be laid aside. So I will begin this discussion with this question: What does the Bible itself declare about itself?
First, we must recognize that the Bible says nothing about itself. The Bible as we have it had no “self identity” until the process of canonization, hundreds of years after the last words were penned. To construe any claims within the texts about the “Scriptures” as encompassing all of the texts contained in our Bible ignores this fact. Or we must use an unlikely premise that the authors who made the claims were doing so in anticipation of the defining of Scripture which was not to occur for some 300 years or more.
However, New Testament writers did look back upon a defined set of the Hebrew Scriptures. And many of these writers, and Jesus himself in his spoken words, clearly regarded Old Testament texts which they quoted to be the words of God (though we must be careful not to press this point too far—often they quoted the textually corrupt Septuagint). They might, for example, quote an Old Testament Scripture with the words “the Holy Spirit says ....” Neo-orthodox thinkers like Karl Barth , and many others who do not believe in plenary verbal inspiration, confess their belief that God’s Holy Spirit does indeed speak to us through the Bible, through the very words. But it requires a deductive leap to conclude that these New Testament authors therefore regarded all of the O.T. as the very words of God, without error. Such a claim is never made anywhere in the Bible. But Paul does declare that the Scriptures (however he might have defined them) were inspired. Let’s examine this clearest of all Biblical claims about its composition, from 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; (NASB)The Greek word translated “inspired” is theopneustos. It occurs only this one time in the New Testament, and it is absent from other Classical Greek literature of the era. So beyond this one verse in the Bible, we are left with no clues as to its usage. But the word itself refers to the breath of God. While some might argue that “God-breathed” can only mean verbal (word for word) inspiration, the term may mean no more than its Latin corresponding word, the root of our English, inspired, which means “breathed in”. An artist or a hymn writer might be moved to paint or compose by some stirring expression of nature, and properly claim that they were inspired of God to produce their work. Of course theopneustos, may mean more than that, but we are not obliged to conclude that it does. Therefore, the Scriptures themselves seem to leave those of us who believe in Inspiration with considerable latitude for our understanding of the meaning of Inspiration. Charles Pinnock, a respected evangelical leader, has concluded,
The Bible does not give us a doctrine of its own inspiration and authority that answers all the various questions we might like to ask. Its witness on this subject is unsystematic and somewhat fragmentary and enables us to reach important but modest conclusions. When we turn our attention to the text of the Bible itself (issues one and two, above), we are confronted with many inaccuracies and discrepancies. I will not point them all out in this essay. But no honest Bible scholar denies them. John Piper  (a leading Evangelical defender of inerrancy), readily admits that there are “hundreds” of such discrepancies, and that “we dishonour the text not to see them ....” He holds out the hope that all these problems will find solutions, but he suggests we might not get those solutions “in this life” . I do not share his optimism. The list of discrepancies is not getting shorter. Instead, the list keeps growing as our knowledge of the earth and the cosmos expand. It boggles the mind to understand how some of those discrepancies could possibly be solved. And it borders upon intellectual dishonesty to dismiss them in such a cavalier fashion as Piper does.
Perhaps the problem isn’t with the Bible. Perhaps the fault lies in our definitions of Inspiration, and our insistence that the Scriptures are verbally (word for word) inspired in their totality. If the Scriptures do not expressly claim this for themselves, and if the mounting evidence is to the contrary, should we not at least give consideration to other views of Inspiration? The modern day doctrine of inerrancy together with the importance bestowed upon the doctrine, was born in the fundamentalist reaction to modernism at the turn of the 20th Century. Many consider it to be the lynchpin of orthodoxy. But the early leaders of the fundamentalist movement were not unanimous in their acceptance of inerrancy. One of those early leaders, James Orr, warned,
It is urged...that unless we can demonstrate what is called the inerrancy of the biblical record down even to its minutest details, the whole edifice of belief in revealed religion falls to the ground. This, on the face of it, is the most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up. Suicidal, in Orr’s opinion, because he viewed inerrancy as impossible to defend. And thus, the inerrantist inevitably paints himself into a corner.
Rather than spending any more time discussing what the Bible is not, I would like to make clear what I believe the Bible is.
I believe that the Bible is a unique book, inspired from Genesis to Revelation. I believe it is the very book God wanted us to have. I hold to the authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice. I believe the Bible provides a solid and dependable foundation for Christian living. I read it. I study it. I love it. I teach it. I find that it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NASB). I believe all the Scriptures are infallible. Infallibility, as I use the term, means that the Bible, in its totality, does not mislead on issues of faith and practice, though it may not be without error in all respects, e.g. in history or science. In my years of reading and studying the Bible, this view of the Scriptures is more consistent with the Scriptures themselves than what I consider a forced claim of inerrancy.
[Though my view of Inspiration has shifted as I have gained a more thorough understanding of the issues, this shift has not affected my core beliefs. I believe in the Incarnation; I believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus; I believe in his Bodily Resurrection; I believe in the reality and power of prayer. I believe in the indwelling, empowering Holy Spirit.]
I believe that in the process of inspiration, God did not override any author’s memory or knowledge base. [Paul, writing the inspired book of 1 Corinthians, included a little misinformation, then corrected himself, then said he was uncertain because he could not remember (1:14-16); the variations in the reporting of events during the life of Jesus which are found in the Gospels are best understood as resulting from inexact recall of events]. It was not God’s intention to produce a supernatural perfect book. Many have wondered why it is that the leader of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ himself, never wrote a book . The answer is quite simple for me. If Jesus had a written a book, the church would have fallen into worship of that book. It would be venerated. It would be legalistically applied. God has chosen not to give us “the perfect book” because our faith is not about words on a page, but about a growing, dynamic relationship with the Lord of the Universe! However, the Bible does give a faithful and accurate account of this growing relationship with God from Abraham through John, the Apostle.
My understanding of the mechanics of inspiration is perhaps best expressed in how I view the early chapters of Genesis, especially chapter one. Here, we see God inspiring Moses to convey remarkable new truths even as he wrote out of his mistaken Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) concept of the universe which included a firmament, with “waters above”.  The cosmology of Genesis 1 is quite clearly based in these concepts. We read similar accounts of Creation in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature that predates Moses. But Moses offered some rather earth-shaking revelations about the one Creator-God, and the nature of God’s relationship to mankind. This is the essence of the revelation of these chapters.  It is a message which is today obscured by an insistence that Genesis 1 be understood literally. When the world hears Christians defending literalist interpretations of the Biblical account of Creation, this powerful message of Moses is marginalized, and the voice of the Church is, sadly, muted.
I believe that once Moses had these understandings about Creation, that God “inspired” him to write down his understandings. Moses then supplied the context in terms of ANE cosmogeny ; these misunderstandings did not bother God, nor did they detract from the revealed truths being conveyed. God knew that as man’s relationship to Him progressed, further revelation would build upon these writings of Moses. He knew that, in time, man would get the science right. Through this process of progressive revelation, truths about God would come into clearer and clearer focus. I believe this is exactly what we see happening through the whole course of Scripture, culminating in the person of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament.
When I read through the Bible, I am so thankful that God inspired Moses to write down what he was learning about God, even when his understandings were incomplete, or inaccurate. But God, as I have come to know him, is better represented in the writings of David, than Moses. Better still in Isaiah, Jeremiah. Better still in the Gospel records, and finally, in the writings of Paul, and John. Each new layer of inspired writing builds upon the earlier revelation. Like the process of zeroing a telescope in on a distant star, the person and character of God comes into clearer and clearer focus as we move through the Scriptures. In the end, we are equipped with a faithful journal of the history of the one true and living God with a people who sought him, and found him. The net message of the Bible, taken as a whole, comes through loud and clear! It is the revelation of God.
The fact that the Biblical authors did not have their cosmology down pat (no one did until the 15th Century A.D!) does not detract from the power, life-flow, and personal impact the Scriptures convey to me. To push the issue of inerrancy, to insist upon a woodenly literal interpretation of Genesis 1, obscures the real truth of the Word, robs it of its life, and sets up an easy target for the skeptics.
The conflict that has grown up between science and the Bible is an artificial one. It should never have happened. Christian faith was the driving force for science up to and including Darwin. Believers were highly motivated to explore Creation, the handiwork of our Friend! When a strong anti-evolutionary bias linked to Fundamentalism’s defense of the Bible (a linkage which James Orr, and his friend B.B. Warfield both warned was a mistake), an unhealthy distrust of science developed in the Fundamentalist wing of the church. Bible-believing Christianity ceased to be a major player in the advance of science. Lamentably, we deeded that territory largely over to the secularists, who today use science as a club to beat up on Christian beliefs.
There is no conflict between the true scientific exploration of Creation, and the inspired revelation of the Creator. (And contrary to the popular notion among some believers, there is no anti-Christian conspiracy among scientists today, many of whom are Bible believing Christians.) Truth about God and his Creation is truth, whether it is found in the pages of Scripture, or in the lenses of Hubble’s telescope. It is all truth. It is time for this tired, misguided warfare to come to an end.
1 Neo-orthodoxy, a 20th Century movement, is distinct from both Liberal Protestantism and Fundamentalism. This can be seen in Barth's understanding of the Bible. He rejected the Fundamentalist claim that the Scriptures are inerrant. He rejected the modernist Liberal Christian claim of that time, that God could be known primarily through human scholarship (science and reason). He believed that the Bible was the primary place where God is revealed to human beings, but he did not hold the Bible to be without error.
2 The Scripture Principle, Charles Pinnock, page 80
3 These excerpts come from Piper’s book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, page 77
4 I have never understood how the inerrant Bible Piper holds, reads, and teaches from is any different from Barth’s neo-orthodox Bible. Both scholars hold a book riddled with errors. The known errors admitted by both men number in the hundreds. Piper and Barth have an identical problem: how to read and discern the Bible which has known errors, and may contain other errors we have not yet identified. There is no difference. Those who hold to inerrancy and cast aspersions upon those who do not, claiming that they can “pick and choose” what to believe are not being fair or honest. They have the ability, and the responsibility to do the same! Piper and Barth are both utterly dependent upon Holy Spirit illumination, without which the Bible is nothing more than dead words on a page. (And isn’t this how God intended us to regard the Bible?)
5 Revelation and Inspiration, James Orr, page 197.
6 Christians seldom ask this question, but in my experience, it is among the most common questions raised by nonbelievers.
7 See Gordon Glover’s Beyond the Firmament, chapter 3 and following.
8 Steve Martin has written an excellent post on this subject which can be found here.
9 a cosmogeny (or cosmogony) is any view of how the universe came into being.