So… what exactly do we mean when we say the Bible is “inspired”?

I’ve been falling out with the notion of stating that Scripture is the ‘inspired word of God’ or even just ‘inspired’. I know, crazy, right? They are a much used word and phrase double act and I’ve become increasingly confused as to what we might actually mean by them.

I’ve been trying to pin down why for a while why I’m uneasy on this front and so I guess to begin with it’s good to be clear about how I’m conceptualizing the phrase and it’s usages. Might we mean,

  1. That God had some irrevocable and undeniable communicative involvement in the writing process (e.g. God guided the thoughts of the writers, some think even influencing their choice of words,  so that what we have in Scripture is exactly what God intended for us to have – how the more extreme instance of this functions differently to ‘dictation’ is beyond me) – with consequences for the ontology of Scripture (for example, this view often leads to the quite indemonstrable, irrational and fideistic assertions of infallibility or inerrancy which I am not here aiming to excavate or discuss, and will simply take to be misguided.)
  2. The Bible contains words about God (which are, generally speaking, sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect) that are one example of a creative response to what was understood to be God’s activity, self-disclosure or revelation in particular historical circumstances – written down after years of oral communication and development. (It is good to note here that the need to write this stuff down was a historically contingent act to help preserve the community’s oral tradition and faith). “Inspired” is then be a good adjective for expressing the response of the writers to what they thought God was up to in their past, present and future.

I don’t like to fall into binaries and dualisms and the above is not intended to contend that there are two options – there is a multiplicity of configurations in (and, no doubt, between) both. A clear third option, for example, would be that the claim to inspiration is completely mistaken and wrongheaded – I shall proceed neglecting that assumption and outline why I reject option 1 and hold to some version of the second.

Why I don’t buy option 1

The most significant reason I think the popular (the above first) way of understanding Scripture as ‘inspired’ makes little (if any) sense in that the more I’ve sat on it the more I’ve felt it ends up being an almost completely groundless assumption – it is not in any sense demonstrable. There is no sense which it obviously true – it is an entirely faith-based assertion that has no concrete rational basis.

To assert that the Bible is the ‘inspired word(s) of God’ to me begs the question: In what historical sense is this the case?

Andrew Perriman has commented that evangelicalism specifically should “reclassify… scriptures from the genre of sacred text to the genre of historical text.” This is where I feel I have moved personally. It is quite demonstrable that the Bible is a group of rather old religious reflections from Israelite and Jewish communities. It is quite clear that they make certain assumptions about God in those texts – while it is also quite clear that they took those God-claims seriously. They discuss events out of which we can confidently presume that they thought God was affecting and had acted within their world – and we can see that at certain times many would understand themselves as attempting to speak on God’s behalf.

None of this leads to the irrevocable conclusion that God actually did, said or led people to say and then write down any of those things – perhaps it lends itself to the rather limited assumption that God was the rather ambiguous genesis of such impulses but even this doesn’t lead to any undeniable conclusion.

I guess the resulting question is: Are we willing to trust this historically limited and conditioned (as well as hopefully sincere) testimony to those events, the most important and centring of which would be the Christ event?

Recently I read ‘Faith and Reality by Wolfhart Pannenberg (hopefully these words will helps reign me in a bit). On the second page of the forward he writes this, commenting on his work aiming at

the grounding of faith in knowledge gained from historical experience. [The] emphasis [of which] was primarily directed against an irrationally subjective but widespread idea: namely, that the essentials of faith originate in the decision of faith, and only thus are perceived by the believer, or become comprehensible and convincing for them. It was also directed against a faith which stressed authority, and thus adhered to the same subjective belief. The error there is to see the substance of faith as something apart from rational scrutiny and demanding as a precondition of understanding an act of subjection (which it calls obedient faith) to the authority of the kerygma (preaching) or the revelation to which Scripture testifies; an authority though not demonstrable as the word of God. That kind of faith in authority has now succumbed to subjectivism, precisely because such unprovable appeals to authority can be accepted only by irrational decision. (viii)

I have to flat out reject the unqualified claim that Scripture is the ‘inspired word of God’ or just simply ‘inspired’ because it so often falls into these two areas of “irrationally subjective beliefs” and ” irrational subjection to authoritarian.”

In trying to avoid the problems Pannenberg has outlined I answer my above question to outline my thoughts on how this impacts inspiration.

I do trust the testimony of the OT and NT writers as they aim to speak of the interactions of God with history (most specifically and especially in regards the life of Jesus)  – and I do so in full awareness of their historical, cultural and epistemological limitations. This awareness demands care in interpreting Scripture and leads me to view Scripture as a collection of rather ambiguous, and at times incorrect (factually and morally), writings.

How I hold option 2

What do I think this means for ‘inspiration’?

Well, I can’t shake the feeling that to call the Bible ‘inspired’ should be a rather humble and limited claim. I envisage ‘inspiration’ as meaning ancient Israelites and 2nd Temple era Jews experiencing  particular events, or receiving certain traditions, and perceiving in them the activity, character and calling of their God, or even theologizing out of them, and responding to (or feeling inspired by) their conclusions in a variety of ways. One such way was to write the experiences down.

The result was stories that testified to their faith, grounded in “knowledge gained from historical experience”. The stories also included “knowledge gained from remembered historical experiences” that required that same knowledge be respected as requiring interpretation and accordingly held as both provisional and fluid. These recollections would become what they passed on to others to remember. This is what we call ‘inspired.’

And I guess it is ‘inspired’ – to use the word in line with the standard definition of what it means ‘to inspire’, or ‘to be inspired by’, someone (e.g. stimulating within someone or experiencing oneself, an urge or desire  which entails response).

In the end I can’t help but think that Scripture’s ‘inspired’ status has nothing whatsoever to do with any ontological quality the words possess – but has everything to do with, and is perhaps a fitting adjective for, expressing how the writers responded to what (both) we (and they) hope(d) was the Spirit of God moving in history past.

If what I have said is in any way sensible a number of questions follow for me: Is it acceptable that we operate with such divergent understandings of this word? Should we then continue to use the word ‘inspired’ in regards Scripture? Do we actually lose anything if we give it up?

2 thoughts on “So… what exactly do we mean when we say the Bible is “inspired”?”

  1. Woah! Can of worms much?! 🙂 There is so much there and I love it. I have nothing to offer on it except my own personal journey. I have recently begun to reject the word ‘inspired’ because of what people hear rather than what it means … I can’t sit with the circular argument within Scripture about its own veracity (tenuous as that argument is). So I have to find another way of understanding it. I can just about keep up with what you’ve written here from an academic standpoint … I’m trying to figure out how I understand myself from a practical standpoint. The only conclusions I’ve been able to come to are:
    1. Scripture is infallible in being intentionally written as it is, though not without error (as you say, both factual and moral).
    2. My reading of it is so subjective and uninformed by the fullness of context that my reading of it must be light-handed and humble. There is almost nothing that I can fully understand or apply on first reading.
    3. Making statements about God from Scripture is like trying to catch a mosquito. Every time I think I’ve got him, the only way I can find out if I’m right is to open my hand and risk letting him go again. But that’s infinitely better than living with closed empty hands and screaming ‘I caught him! I caught him! I caught him!’

    1. Hey Scott! Thanks very much for the comment. I get so few that I was genuinely surprised to get an email saying I had one! 🙂

      I appreciate so much of what you have said – it certainly is a word/phrase I make an effort to use rarely myself. There are so many (mis)conceptions floating around that it seems a safer line to toe.

      I actually really love the distinction you make with your 1st point. My only thought, because I’m genuinely interested, is that does the nuance you apply make the use of the word necessary?

      Your 2nd and 3rd points as well are deeply instructive and helpful to me – I fear so much the implicit assumptions of so many people I know who think they can just pick up the Bible, read it and assume that they can (pretty much always) discern the right ‘stuff’, or that what they learnt in Sunday School is more or less the case.

      I think that this operates in a really profound way re. God. There are so many pre-suppositions and pre-commitments to what we think God “must be” like and we eisegetically read those back into the text and make God take the shape of certain systematic/doctrinal formulations – this makes me soooo worried and uncomfortable.

      I’ve trying to boil down my position a bit more (the above is a bit sprawling).

      It amounts to 1) simply not understanding why the doctrine is necessary, there doesn’t seem to be any need to infer it. It operates as a groundless faith claim that’s function seems to be primarily protective and reactionary over against the Enlightenment periods progressive, rational dissection of a lot of so much ancient/pre-modern Christian thought.

      2) Historical investigation seems to me to be the “coup d’etat” for the whole idea – the idea just doesn’t jive all that well with history. Oral tradition is a problem for written ‘inspired’ words because the stories existed prior to their being edited together and canonised. ‘Inspiration’ I think (in a very basic and crude sense) risks being anachronistic in this way – super-imposing a lot of the givens of a (post)modern who communicate and learn through reading on the Ancients. Then again, conservative-fundamentalists really don’t like sustained historical investigation and criticism because it’s so problematic. (it’s easier to insist on ‘Inspiration’ when you think Moses wrote the Pentateuch, rather than an extensive oral tradition that’s written form was finalised and ratified as the Tanakh in the post-exilic period.)

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