What does it mean when we say that the bible was inspired by God? In fairness, despite our formulas, we can only speculate – our statements are only theories about what happens and how. But this is a fruitful exercise for two reasons. One is that thinking through the integration of our convictions about God helps us to maintain a faith perspective that is internally consistent and as coherent as possible. The other is that what we hear from God will be related to our expectations, so we want to make sure that we are appropriately open to what God wants to say, and how God wants to say it. It is in consideration of issues like this that Tradition helps us as a resource and Reason helps us process the information we have. But always remember that the Spirit brings it to life. Okay, let’s go.
One reason we spend time talking about inspiration and Scripture is that we live in a context that is very different from that of biblical authors and characters. Not only are language and customs very different in biblical times compared to the contexts in which we live today, the ways in which ancient people believed the world works seem incompatible with the scientific and technological explanations to which we appeal today. The difference is so great that even some Christian biblical scholars have rejected biblical meanings as products of an obsolete world view. For example, Rudolf Bultmann wrote in 1941, in his book New Testament and Mythology, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in spirits and the magic world of the New Testament.” Wow. What’s a theologian to do?
Donald Bloesch, in his book Holy Scripture, offers five proposals regarding what biblical inspiration might entail. Rather than think of them as competing options, it may be preferable to think of them as somewhat compatible, not necessarily mutually exclusive. At one end of the scale, there is the idea that biblical writers were people of great religious intuition who had a flair for religious thinking and writing. Their way of viewing the world did not appeal to secular ways of thinking that are more common today. In attributing the creation of the bible to their flair for religious ways of understanding and describing the world, however, it should not be assumed that this explanation negates divine agency in the creation of the texts. But the question of what in the text is the product of cultural forces and what arises from divine inspiration is a question that is difficult to answer. Head coverings — contextual or eternal? For some, this is a real question. And there are many more like it.
On the other end of the scale, some theologians insist that divine inspiration means that we have the texts that God intended, irrespective of their human authors. But that is a problem as well, because we can clearly see in biblical texts that human authors made their marks on biblical texts, both in terms of what they wrote and how they composed it. This cannot be unimportant, can it?
The question of the inspiration of Scripture raises another important question: So what? In other words, what does it matter that the bible is inspired? Our definition of inspiration has a great deal to do with creating clarity on this point. Inspiration is the process by which supernaturally powerful truth – transformative truth – is communicated to human hearers. If we understand the message accordingly, then we will have to acknowledge that the message that comes via inspiration has power – authority – and as such, we are bound to pay heed to it.
Although not everything in Scripture is as clear to us as we might prefer, we nevertheless believe that the bible contains a narrative of God’s world and his interaction in it, seeking to address the rebellion of sin and draw us and the rest of creation back into harmonious relationship with him again. As we read the stories in Scripture that are part of the Story, we learn about what God is like, what he has done, and what we are called to do. The Story is authoritative, despite the fact that there are stories and people that are wrong and sinful. There are examples to emulate and others to avoid. Interpreting the bible well and learning from other believers, sources, and events in Christian history will help us appreciate the authority of the bible and benefit from it.
The authoritative quality of Scripture means that our goal is not simply to appropriate stories that we interpret and apply to our lives at our discretion. Our call is to find ourselves in the stories, and in the Story, in order to allow it to interpret us — our motives, our priorities, and our goals — and commend, convict, or comfort us in our discipleship (and many more things). We don’t wield Scripture as a tool to determine meaning. Scripture reveals meaning to us, and often corrects our misbegotten agendas, as we read it and subject ourselves to it.
If we assume that we know what the bible means, then it is we who are presuming to be authoritative, not the bible. We need to allow room for Scripture to say the unexpected, or to say more than we expect. We need to rid ourselves of the habit of deciding beforehand what it is that we are looking for, and what Scripture can say to us before we approach the text. As individuals, we are not that wise, or that faithful. In community, we come to discern what we cannot alone.
Does this mean that Scripture ends up saying whatever we want it to say? By no means. But we need to allow it to say what it wants to say. That’s difficult, but only if we are more comforted by certainty than by God’s promises.