In this post, I reflect on the inspiration of Scripture and what we mean when we say that the Bible is divinely inspired.
The status of Scripture, the authority it holds, and how it should be interpreted has been an ongoing debate for almost as long as the Church has existed.
From early deliberations over which Old Testament the Church should use (the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint) and which books should make up the New Testament, to current discussions over the level of deference we should afford to Scripture’s statements about the creation of the world, human sexuality, or a variety of contemporary hot button issues, Scripture has been at the heart of disputes between different Christian groups, particularly in the West.
The role of Scripture defined the Protestant/Catholic split of the sixteenth century, and it marks the dividing line between evangelicals and mainline Protestants today.
(Ironically, despite the historical tension that has existed between the two, Catholics and evangelicals now find themselves in closer alignment than either group does to mainline Protestants.)
Inspiration of Scripture
So, what is the proper place of Scripture? What authority should we give it, and how should we interpret it?
I grew up evangelical and, while I have since joined the Catholic Church, my high view of Scripture has not changed. Indeed, much of the presuppositions about Scripture that I maintained as an evangelical Protestant I still hold as a Roman Catholic.
I still firmly believe Scripture to be divinely inspired.
I think, however, that we need to clarify what we mean by inspiration when speaking about the Bible. It is here that I may break away from some of the more ardent adherents of “inerrancy.”
When we say that the Bible is inspired, we must mean that the entirety of the Bible taken as a whole is inspired. Individual verses, however, are not. This is an important distinction, but not necessarily a fundamental one.
From this vantage point, contradictions that may or may not exist within Scripture don’t matter. God paints in broad strokes, inspiring the pens of fallible men to reveal himself to the world.
This does not mean that individual verses are not trustworthy or valuable, only that the inspiration of Scripture must be appreciated within a greater context.
So, for example, 1 and 2 Kings are not inspired books. Likewise, 1 and 2 Chronicles are not inspired books. Instead, Kings and Chronicles are inspired together. The same can be said for Galatians and James, and the four gospels.
Tensions exist between the books, and they often lack a neat sense of cohesion. But inspiration exists within the tension, for the tension, whether in Scripture or everyday life, is where God resides. It is where he works.
Disagreements between books are therefore irrelevant because the tension they create matches the tension of everyday life, and each serves a different function.
Life is complex. Would we not expect a divinely inspired book meant to speak into our lives to be complex as well?
Do such tensions and disagreements, therefore, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy or that we can pick and choose which verses we like and which we do not? Do they allow us then to create a faith around those aspects of Scripture we find pleasing like some sort of cafeteria religious formulation?
Of course not.
We must simply learn to appreciate the role of Scripture in daily life, and we must recognize the apparent tensions in Scripture as a reflection of the reality that God uses humans in the fullness of their humanity to reveal himself.
Not an Instruction Manual
The Bible, therefore, is not the divine instruction manual detailing how to follow God in every aspect and every difficulty of our life. It is, instead, a divinely inspired account of the efforts of others to follow God.
The Bible may, therefore, contain “errors” or mistakes reflecting those held by people who were striving after God in the recording of the divine revelation, but who nonetheless drafted under divine inspiration an inerrant pointing toward the way of truth.
Sometimes our guides point out the correct path with crooked fingers.
Those struggling to follow God, like all people, cannot always see beyond their own cultural presuppositions—victory in war proves a god’s strength, the earth revolves around the sun, slavery is a fact of life, etc.—but they strive nonetheless after God from where they are, and God meets them there.
Prescriptive v. Descriptive
The foundational question, therefore, is how much of Scripture is prescriptive, explicitly telling us how we should live our lives now, and how much is descriptive, describing how others lived theirs.
Perhaps more of it is descriptive than we commonly think, and I am inclined to believe we should default to the descriptive over the prescriptive.
How then are we to interpret Scripture?
To begin, there is no greater asset in our endeavor to interpret Scripture properly than actually reading it. Reading through Scripture provides us with the wisdom we need to interpret it.
Peter Enns’ book, How the Bible Actually Works, provides an excellent exposition on the Bible as wisdom. It points us toward the answers to how we should live our lives rather than providing us concrete, black-and-white solutions.
There is a lot to be said for this point of view.
I think Dr. Enns’ book is brilliantly insightful. Yet, such a method, left unchecked, leads to personal pursuits and individual Christianities.
The Bible, like Christianity, is not a book for the individual but the community. The proper source of that wisdom, therefore, is every Christian’s reading Scripture individually, and then discussing, interpreting, and applying it as a community within the Church.
This is where the authority of the community is invaluable. And, fortunately, the community makes up more than just currently living believers. It additionally includes the entirety of believers from the first disciples of the first century to all believers on earth today.
Consequently, it includes the tradition of the Church, what G. K. Chesterton called, “The democracy of the dead.” The real inspiration that Scripture provides, the wisdom that it imparts, the inspiration it holds within itself from Christ, is its ability to offer divine wisdom through the Body of Christ, that is, the Church.
It is this interpretative framework that brought me to Catholicism. Indeed, my view of Scripture did not change, just my understanding of the proper way of understanding it.
Scripture must be interpreted in community under the Church’s leadership in conversation with its theologians, scholars, and, especially, its laity.
With my individual gifts and experiences, I can contribute my interpretation of Scripture to the community, which the community sifts through, along with the many others making their own contributions, and reaches a consensus under the guidance of those whom Christ has placed in positions of authority.
Reading Scripture itself imparts this wisdom and must be done individually, but the process must not stop here. Those who read Scripture must dialogue with a broader community of Scripture readers and live out as one the faith and pursuit of holiness that it promotes.
When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, we must also speak of the inspiration of the community of faith that produced the Scripture and continues, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to grapple with it today.