A question of inspiration

This is my response to an email from one church member to another.  My responses to his questions are in blue.  I’ve removed identifying detail.

Sent: Monday, 10 December 2007 6:30 a.m.
Subject: biblical contradictions

 Hi guys

 The book I’ve been reading mentioned one contradiction between  Acts and another book about who went where, and when. It was just a minor glitch in historical content, to me. The book just said it best to accept Paul’s version in Acts as it was firsthand, rather than the alternative version, as it was second hand.

 Probably the ‘other book’ will be one of Paul’s letters.  I can’t think of any other books that mention his travels in any detail, so it would be his letter that is the first-hand account rather than the book of Acts since that was written by Luke.

Fine, makes logical sense.

 But what does that mean for the school of thought that every word is the sacred, inspired word of God, and therefore true and correct in every detail?

 That would be the plenary verbal (‘complete word’) inspiration theory.  Not actually found in scripture, but taken as gospel by many. 

  I’d like to think it is but I don’t see how it can be.

 What about different versions? The King James varies quite a bit from the later versions. the study material says that the KJV is not a very good version. It didn’t have access to material available today. Makes sense – it was written hundreds of years ago without todays modern aids.

 Yeah, but then we often don’t have the aids of the ancients! Like a decent understanding of ancient literature and an appreciation for the kind of society that the scriptures were written into.  What we do have is the benefits of their wisdom plus a little space for reflection since then, and some archeological discoveries (i.e. new texts) 99% of which confirm the old ones.  There is very little new information in biblical studies.

So what is the bible?

Is it like a newspaper account of an amazing time in history?


history book?

Inspired autobiography?

Inspired autobiography using a faulty word processor?

School text book

 All of the above plus more.  And every bit of it inspired.  You just have to know what you mean by that word.

These questions are the ones you get when you actually start to read the bible in detail, and think about what you’re reading in depth.  They’re the ones everybody comes across when they become serious students of scripture.  Many get to this point and find their faith threatened, and lapse into a. unbelief; b. various forms of denial, like an intellectual schizophrenia where ‘truth’ means something different when applied to scripture(!) or c. a re-examination of both scripture and our understanding of truth.  Obviously the latter is the outcome I’d recommend, but I’ve known people go both the other paths, and both paths remain a temptation.

 My take on it is to start from what I think is the central important fact; Jesus Christ.  He gives us the means of understanding both Word and Inspiration, as he himself is both.  Remember that the Word is always God’s initiative; it has its beginning in God and has always been God and reveals God.  For this reason if no other, the scriptures must be given the utmost reverence.  Remember also that in becoming flesh, the Word did not destroy or unrecognizably alter human being, but completed it as the renewed image of God (the second Adam).  So Christ is recognizably human; he feels fear, wrestles with ignorance, has to learn trust and obedience (faith), endures hellish temptation and so on.  Similarly, the scriptures are recognizably human documents – but no less divine for all that. 

Thinking further: your original observation is that there are apparent inconsistencies of fact in the scriptures.  I’m focused mostly on providing a framework for interpreting scripture.  The two concerns meet at the point where the framework for interpretation is one that allows for scriptures to be ‘inaccurate’ or ‘contradictory’.  The Scriptures are recognizably products of particular cultural perspectives, particular times, places and people.  These people had their blind spots and their ignorance – for the Genesis writers, the sky was, in fact, a solid dome over the earth.  The limitations on human knowledge are part of what it means to be human.  Those limitations are therefore found in the scriptures because God does not make us inhuman when he inspires us.  Look to the incarnation for confirmation of this fact.  We say of Christ that in him the human and the divine are without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ” (definition of the council of Chalcedon, 451 AD).  Transfer that to the scriptures and you’ll see that there is plenty of scope in there for God to be God without annulling the reality of human being.  (for more on this see this entry).

Finally, remember too that the Scriptures are not the Scriptures except under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit was present in the writing, editing, and compilation of the bible, but most importantly, in the reading of the scriptures.  It is in our hearing of the word that we are saved, and we are saved by God’s grace; by the action of the Holy Spirit of Jesus on and through us.

So don’t worry about the human aspect of the scriptures; rejoice in it!  God has not come to and saved some artificial, plastic human race, but the real human race, with all our real history and culture and ignorance and prejudice and hope and faith.  This is what you will find in the scripture – both God and humanity.



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