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,
- 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.)
- 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?