Tag Archives: inspiration

N.T. Wright on Scripture

Read the whole lecture here.

In private reading, and in informal group meetings, we need again to experiment with new ways of reading scripture. Anyone who has heard an entire biblical book read, or even acted (think of Alec McCown on Mark, or Paul Alexander on John; I have heard the same done with Galatians, and very impressive it was, too) will realize that such things as chapter-divisions, or almost any divisions at all, can be simply unhelpful. We need to recapture a sense of scripture as a whole, telling and retelling stories as wholes. Only when you read Exodus as a whole (for example) do you realize the awful irony whereby the making of the golden calf is a parody of what God wanted the people to do with their gold and jewels . . . and only by reading Mark as a whole might you realize that, when the disciples ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, they are indeed asking for something they do not understand.

It is perhaps the half-hearted and sometimes quite miserable traditions of reading the Bible—even among whose who claim to take it seriously—that account for the very low level of biblical knowledge and awareness even among some church leaders and those with delegated responsibility. And this is the more lamentable in that the Bible ought to be functioning as authoritative within church debates. What happens all too often is that the debate is conducted without reference to the Bible (until a rabid fundamentalist stands up and waves it around, confirming the tacit agreement of everyone else to give it a wide berth). Rather, serious engagement is required, at every level from the personal through to the group Bible-study, to the proper liturgical use, to the giving of time in synods and councils to Bible exposition and study. Only so will the church avoid the trap of trying to address the world and having nothing to say but the faint echo of what the world itself has been saying for some while.

If we really engage with the Bible in this serious way we will find, I believe, that we will be set free from (among other things) some of the small-scale evangelical paranoia which goes on about scripture. We won’t be forced into awkward corners, answering impossible questions of the ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ variety about whether scripture is exactly this or exactly that. Of course the Bible is inspired, and if you’re using it like this there won’t be any question in your mind that the Bible is inspired. But, you will be set free to explore ways of articulating that belief which do not fall into the old rationalist traps of 18th or 19th or 20th century. Actually using the Bible in this way is a far sounder thing than mouthing lots of words beginning with ‘in—’ but still imprisoning the Bible within evangelical tradition (which is what some of those ‘in—’ words seem almost designed to do). Of course you will discover that the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying attention to it; you won’t be sitting in judgement over it. But you won’t come with a preconceived notion of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. You will discover that God is speaking new truth through it. I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, ‘Well, in that case, that verse is wrong’ that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years (this is sober autobiography), until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one.

The Bible, clearly, is also to be used in a thousand different ways within the pastoral work of the church, the caring and building up of all its members. Again, there is much that I could say here, but little space. Suffice it to note that the individual world-views and God-views of Christians, as much as anybody else, need to be constantly adjusted and straightened out in the light of the story which is told in scripture. But this is not to say that there is one, or even that there are twenty-one, ‘right’ ways of this being done. To be sure, the regular use of scripture in private and public worship is a regular medicine for many of the ills that beset us. But there are many methods of meditation, of imaginative reading, ways of soaking oneself in a book or a text, ways of allowing the story to become one’s own story in all sorts of intimate ways, that can with profit be recommended by a pastor, or engaged in within the context of pastoral ministry itself. Here, too, we discover the authority of the Bible at work: God’s own authority, exercised not to give true information about wholeness but to give wholeness itself, by judging and remaking the thoughts and intentions, the imaginations and rememberings, of men, women and children. There are worlds to be discovered here of which a good deal of the church remains sadly ignorant. The Bible is the book of personal renewal, the book of tears and laughter, the book through which God resonates with our pain and joy, and enables us to resonate with his pain and joy. This is the really powerful authority of the Bible, to be distinguished from the merely manipulative or the crassly confrontational ‘use’ of scripture.

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The Apostle Paul on Inspiration

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

The KJV translated verse 16 as “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,” which is the only time the word “inspiration” appears in scripture.  I think the NIV’s rendering “God-breathed” is a better one, and it might even be what the KJV translators intended to convey. “To inspire” used to mean “to draw in a breath.”  

Normally, the best practice for determining what a word means in the Bible is to look at it in other contexts, but that’s a no-go this time.  The Greek word, theopneustos, appears only here. Second best, perhaps, is to look at related ideas.  Where in scripture does God breathe into something?  Several places, as it turns out, but here are some of the key ones:

Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.-Genesis 3:7

The Lord took hold of me, and I was carried away by the Spirit of the Lord to a valley filled with bones. He led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out.  Then he asked me, “Son of man, can these bones become living people again?”

“O Sovereign Lord,” I replied, “you alone know the answer to that.”

Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I spoke this message, just as he told me. Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them.

 Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.’”

 So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.–Ezekiel 37:1-10

But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them.–Revelation 11:11

The picture is clear–in significant passages throughout scripture God’s breath is shown to give life.  The most likely thing that Paul means when he says the scriptures are God-breathed is that they aren’t just dead letters on a page.  Something about them is alive, and gives life.  If we aren’t experiencing the vivaciousness of the scriptures, we aren’t reading them right.  What’s really interesting is the implication he draws.  If you were listening to a contemporary preacher, and he said “All scripture is God-breathed and is…..” what would you expect him to say next?  Holy?  Perfect?  Without error?  Infallible?  Maybe all of the above.  Paul doesn’t go there.  “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful.”  Useful especially for training people for good works.

Which means, I think, that if the scriptures aren’t coming to life as you read and prompting you to do good works, it doesn’t matter what your theology of inspiration is, you aren’t letting the Bible do what it is supposed to do for you.  And if your understanding of inspiration is off, or you completely misunderstand Biblical genres, but the words are living in your heart and compelling you to go out and serve the world in the name of Christ, you’re in pretty good shape.  I might want to have a chat with you about some better ways to study, but you’re letting scripture take you where it wants you to go, and that’s the point of inspiration.  It shouldn’t be just dead letters on a page to the believer.

 

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RJS on Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

I’m not sure who RJS is, but there’s some good stuff in his post here at Scot McKnight’s blog. Read the comments, too. One of them gives this great quotation from the book.

“It is somewhat ironic, it seems to me, that both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worth of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have. The one accents the human marks and makes them absolute. The other wishes the human marks were not as pronounced as they were. They share a similar opinion that nothing worthy of being called God’s word would look so common, so human, so recognizable. …”

I’ll have to add it to my list.

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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 3: When the Author States his Method, that Counts Too

In full:

Any theory of Biblical inspiration needs to account for what the authors tell us about their own writing process.

You can learn a lot if you pay attention in the right places.  One of the most overt Biblical statements of authorial intent and process is in the prologue of Luke’s gospel:

1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

This is a gold mine of information:

  1. there have been many written accounts of the work of Jesus by the time Luke sets out to write his
  2. the stories were first handed down (orally) by people who were eyewitnesses to them
  3. Luke himself was not an eyewitness, so he conducted a careful investigation
  4. it seemed good to him to write an orderly account
  5. the purpose of his writing is that Theophilus would know the certainty of what he had been taught.

Already, several popular theories are dead in the water.  Luke wasn’t some kind of flesh and bone pen, taken over by the hand of God, scribbling down the thoughts of the Holy Spirit.  I think you have to throw out verbal plenary inspiration, at least as a statement about the entire Bible, if you take Luke at his word.  And you have to get rid of that super-popular illustration that compares the four gospels to four witnesses at a car crash, claiming that their differences are merely matters of different perspective.  That doesn’t fit well, because Luke lets us know up front that he wasn’t a witness.   And he reason for writing is so pragmatic–“it seemed good to me.”  I know a lot of folks would prefer it if he said that “the Spirit led me to write this” or “God placed a burden on my heart” or whatever the new catch-phrase is for a vague and unverifiable holy prompting, but that’s not what we have.  Luke did a survey of the literature about Jesus, thought that it was generally inadequate (presumably confusing or erroneous) and set out to write a better one.

When you compare the gospels against each other, it becomes clear that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Exact sentences are repeated, word-for-word, in two or sometimes all three of them.  Someone is incorporating parts of someone else’s previous writing.  Biblical scholars who try to sort out exactly who was reading which of the other gospels and what order they were written in call this the “synoptic problem.”  Most scholars set Mark as the first and earliest of the canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke coming later, and using Mark as a primary source.  It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was one of the earlier accounts that Luke read, and Luke must have thought that it was the best of the bunch, because he uses much of its material.  On the other hand, he also thought it wasn’t quite right for his purposes, since he didn’t just copy it and send it on to Theophilus.  He wrote an expanded version with a special emphasis on showing Jesus as the fulfillment of what God had promised in the Old Testament.  (Read the first four chapters of Luke carefully, much of which is unique to his gospel, and you can see his desire to link Jesus to the Jewish tradition.)

Put all that together and we learn that it is okay for a Biblical writer to:

  1. do research
  2. quote other sources (sometimes without attribution)
  3. write because it seemed like a good idea (without special divine prompting)
  4. have specific purposes in mind when he writes (be conciously aware of his own authorial agenda)

That doesn’t seem very challenging or controversial to me, but you would never think those things were possible based on some popular theories about the Bible.  There is a lot of Luke’s own initiative and interest in his gospel, and he explains the production of it in simple human terms.  If you’ve ever become interested in a topic, read what was already written about it, and incorporated the best information into a new document you were writing that emphasized certain things that were especially important to you, then you’ve done exactly what Luke says he did to write the Gospel.  As the bumper sticker proclaims, “Luke said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Here’s another passage that we need to account for in our theories of inspiration, 1 Corinthians 1:13-16:

13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Now, I would never, ever want to claim that Paul’s memory is occasionally faulty and possibly erroneous, but unfortunately, Paul makes that claim himself.  Even though he is writing a document that will become holy scripture, the Holy Spirit has not intervened to give him perfect knowledge, even about his own ministry!  Paul simply can’t tell his readers with certainty how many people he baptized. So let’s add one more thing to the list.  It’s okay for a Biblical writer to

5.  show signs of faulty human memory.

Even if Paul hadn’t told us that clearly, we would have figured it out when he wrote this nine chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 10:

7Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.

And then we looked it up in in Numbers 25 and read:

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

I look at this and think, “Ah, twenty-three thousand, twenty-four thousand, no big deal.  He was only a thousand off and it doesn’t change the point he was making.  So what if he can’t remember who he baptized for sure, and he mis-remembered the number who died in the plague?  Maybe he wrote 1 Corinthians when he was really sleep deprived.”  And I go on reading and studying, faith intact.  My faith depends on the perfection of Jesus, not of Paul.

That seems to be working out pretty well for me, but it is unacceptable to the folks over at Apologetics Press:

So how can we explain Paul’s statement in light of the information given in Numbers 25:9 (the probable “sister” passage to 1 Corinthians 10:8)? The answer lies in the fact that Paul stated that 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.”

By this account, I am supposed to believe that Paul was supernaturally given special knowledge of the event beyond what was recorded in the scriptures.  He knew that 24,000 died in the plague, but he also knew that 23,000 died in the first day, and another 1,000 lingered on into day two.  Rather than just referring to the 24,000 total who died, Paul emphasized the number who died within 24 hours–the 23,000.

But what about the idea that Paul just had a little, inconsequential memory slip?  That was Peter Davids’ theory in Hard Sayings of the Bible, and he’s a pretty conservative writer.  But that’s a non-starter at Apologetics Press:

Unbelievable! Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, Manfred Brauch, and F.F. Bruce pen an 800-page book in an attempt to answer numerous alleged Bible contradictions and to defend the integrity of the Bible, and yet Davids has the audacity to say that the apostle Paul “cited an example from memory and got a detail wrong.” Why in the world did Davids spend so much time (and space) answering various questions that skeptics frequently raise, and then conclude that the man who penned almost half of the New Testament books made mistakes in his writings?! He has concluded exactly what the infidels teach—Bible writers made mistakes. Furthermore, if Paul made one mistake in his writings, he easily could have blundered elsewhere. And if Paul made mistakes in other writings, how can we say that Peter, John, Isaiah, and others did not “slip up” occasionally? The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right. But as we noted above, the skeptic is not right! First Corinthians 10:8 can be explained logically without assuming Paul’s writings are inaccurate….Paul did not “invent” facts about Old Testament stories. Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names. The Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him—all of it (cf. John 14:26; John 16:13). Just like the writers of the Old Testament, Paul was fully inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

“Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names.”  Unless, of course, that name was “Stephanas.”  You can dance all around the Bible grabbing verses to try to make your case for inerrancy, but sooner or later you are going to have to deal with 1 Corinthians 1:16.  Paul says clearly that he is relying on “his own cognizance” to remember a name, and that his memory might not be accurate.  No carefully woven theories of inspiration, no syllogisms or dogmas get to trump the clear statement of the apostle.  You have to deal with what he says.

Who is the real Bible believer in this argument?  I believe what Luke says about his writing methods.  I believe what Paul says about his memory.  I honor their writings as scripture, and I accept their self-report.  If you believe in inerrancy, then you have to believe that Paul was literally correct and without error when he wrote that he couldn’t remember for sure who he baptized.  Which means his writing isn’t inerrant.  I have no doubt that someone has done a Rube Goldberg thought experiment to get out of that dilemma, but I sure don’t see how.

My plea: can’t we just accept what the Bible says?

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