Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Doctrine of Inspiration

The assumption that the Bible is the ‘Word of God’ or that it is ‘inspired by God’ gets us nowhere hermeneutically. It entails Scriptures truthfulness, but not the truthfulness of any subsequent interpretations, including decisions regarding genre.[1] That Scripture is ‘inspired by God’ further entails that it is from God in some sense, whether in terms of a guiding or controlling hand in content, or simply in terms of a gift which God “commissioned”. But to what degree he participated in its production (whether overwhelmingly or just ensuring its truthfulness), and whether it somehow possesses “deeper” meaning than what its physical authors were aware of, or whether it contains inexhaustible truth or meaning, cannot be known for sure, and so can provide no basis for a hermeneutical strategy.

Moreover, that Scripture is both truthful and from God (in what ever sense) implies that it is given for a purpose and that in regard to this purpose it is ‘authoritative’,[2] but it cannot be determined on that basis of the above what this purpose is, and hence how Scripture is meant to be used.

This is why we need to pay close attention to the particularities and the characteristics of the biblical documents themselves. How we are meant to use Scripture, how it is to be authoritative, cannot be assumed prior to engagement with the texts themselves. For Hebrew narrative, we need an appropriate approach, for gospel narrative we need another, for psalm, for prophecy, for law, for letter, we need appropriate approaches. And we need more than general guidelines for different genres, for they come at different places in God’s actions with his people and the world, and were produced within and were directed to a largely different looking and functioning world than the one we inhabit.

I don’t think that the doctrine of divine inspiration is at all helpful other than to assure us that the Bible is highly important because it is from God, and that we need not fear being deceived because no falseness precedes from God. It is relatively useless for instructing us hermeneutically, for what ever we deduce that it implies for our use of Scripture will largely be arbitrary, determined by how we suppose God should communicate and guide us.

2 Timothy 3.15

Appeal is often made to 2 Tim. 3.15 upon which the doctrine is based:
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3.15, NRSV).

Does the author mean that every passage of Scripture is rightly used for all four activities? Or does he mean all types of Scripture meaning story, law, prophets, etc. Although he does not explicitly say “types”, it is common for us to leave it out in a similar way in English and so it is not unthinkable. This may have been the obvious meaning for them back then. Would Timothy, who may not have had ready access to the Scriptures, and who certainly did not have a personal copy with chapters and verses, think every verse (sentence) of Scripture? It seems to me unlikely. Rather, within the context of the letter (3.10-4.5), what the author is trying to do is remind Timothy not to neglect the Scriptures, as they are a useful and important resource. Apart from this, we also have the ridiculous problem that the author must have been referring to the Old Testament alone, (although he most likely refers to apostolic tradition in v.14, he does not refer to it as written or as Scripture), and that this was most likely the Septuagint, Greek translations of the Hebrew upon which our Bibles are based.[3]

[1] We need knowledge of ancient literature to understand the various conventions, types, and purposes. This is part of the exegetical task. As I Howard Marshall has commented, “Although the assumption that Scripture is the Word of God and therefore truthful is crucial for evangelicals, it cannot be postulated in advance what this assumption means in detail. Does it, for example, [mean?] that a story that appears to us to be told as if it is a narrative of what actually happened is a historical account in the sense that every detail occurred exactly as it is related? What about the story of Jonah, which perhaps is a short story making important theological points rather than a historical account? And when it is said that the biblical account as a whole is coherent, harmonious, and veracious, is this true at the surface level or perhaps only at a deeper level? In what ways are apparent contradictions to be solved?” (Beyond the Bible, p.30)
[2] To the degree that anything is true, it lays a claim upon us and thus has authority over us. But what I mean here is that Scriptures authority is a corollary of its purpose, and so it has authority to achieve what it is meant to achieve, and that how it does so is appropriate to this. Thus, if the nature (in the sense of how it achieves its purpose) and purpose of Scripture is not to control but to free, then its authority must be employed to a similar end in a similar fashion. I owe this insight to N. T. Wright. See his ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’. The article can be accessed from The N. T. Wright Page.
[3] Although we can be certain about a number of writings being in their Scriptures, we cannot be certain about many others (e.g. parts of the Apocrypha and the Pseudopigrapha), or whether they were all treated as having the same degree of “authority”. Although it is most probable that the early Christians read Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is not clear that there was a clearly formed canon which may be referred to as the Septuagint in the 1st century AD, nor that there was a clearly formed canon of Hebrew Scriptures.

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