Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture
This article also appears as Revelation and Inspiration: The Biblical Foundation in The Modern Inerrancy Debate
There are two issues that must be considered in any discussion about the authority of Scripture: revelation and inspiration. It is important that these are not confused, since some of the issues that become battlegrounds in talking about Scripture arise from interchanging the two.
The concept of revelation lies at the heart of the Christian Faith (as well as Judaism). We believe that God has uniquely revealed Himself to humanity in the arena of human history. Christians do not believe that we seek God and then find Him (as, for example, in Buddhism). We believe that God chose to reveal Himself to us. Both Judaism and Christianity are responses to God’s self-disclosure in history.
It is important here to note that the content of revelation is not information or data, but God Himself (or, in philosophical categories, knowledge about God, although I would prefer to leave God as the subject of revelation rather than its object, or to leave it in relational categories rather than ontological ones). That is, it is a self-revelation, or self-disclosure, not revelation about things or ideas. Much of the early church following Augustine, who was himself influenced by neo-Platonic idealistic philosophy that saw the world in terms of absolute ideas, understood all knowledge to be revealed by God. This contrasted to Aristotle who held that some knowledge can be apprehended by the senses, as we do now in scientific research (interestingly enough, this was a view shared by the Israelites in the OT Wisdom traditions, for example Proverbs).
The idea that all knowledge about everything comes by revelation from God has made its way in various forms even into modern thinking. Usually this has been through religious traditions that use the sovereignty of God as a primary theological category. This has relevance in how we think about Scripture, because some adopt this view in relation to the Bible and see Scripture itself as direct revelation by God covering all knowledge and all data. Scripture is seen in this view in absolute categories. It is from this perspective that the terms inerrant and infallible are most often used to describe Scripture.
However, I do not view Scripture in those terms. I do not understand the Bible itself to be direct revelation, and I do not consider it be revelation about everything. Scripture is the witness that the community of faith has borne to or about revelation. In other words, God is the content of the revelation, and Scripture tells us about and points toward that revelation, as, for example, when the Gospels writers bear witness of the things they have seen and heard (Luke 1:1-4; cf. 7:22; John 21:24-25; cf. 3:32).
Scripture is revelatory only in the secondary or derivative sense that it is a witness and response to God’s revelation. The Bible contains not only reports about specific revelatory events such as the exodus or the incarnation (the technical term here is kergyma, "proclamation"), it also contains the communities’ response to those events, how the Communities of Faith worked out the implications of their encounters with God in doctrinal, social, ethical, and cultural ways (didache, "teaching").
For example, by analogy, the Gospels can be seen as the witness, the proclamation of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, while Paul’s writings can be seen as teaching the implications of that revelation, and guiding the community in proper response (for example, "live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ," Phil 2:27). The same analogy can be used in seeing the connection in the Old Testament between the exodus (proclamation) and the giving of the torah at Sinai (instruction). I say "by analogy" here because they are both now Scripture for us, which makes it more difficult for us to divide the categories up so neatly.
To say this in a slightly different way, God is revealed to us today through interpreted events. God revealed Himself in history (events) and the Community of Faith interpreted those events to us in what we now have as Scripture. We have no direct access to the events themselves; we only have mediated access through the witness of the community (Scripture, and to a much less degree, tradition).
This does not eliminate any objective grounding to God’s revelation. In fact, contrary to mythical systems of religion such as popular Hinduism, it affirms the objective basis in history of God’s self-disclosure, which is why we can use the term "event." But it also affirms that His self-disclosure is mediated to us through testimony, and that testimony itself is not "objective" in the same sense as was the event itself. This is because part of that testimony is also the interpreted "significance" or "meaning" of that event in relation to past events, present experience, and future implications. That is, it is theological in nature (talking about God) and, in the best modern (or actually post-modern!) sense, history ("history" here understood as connections or significance of events rather than data reporting or as sequences of cause and effect).
This sense of testimony to significance in these three historical dimensions, past-present-future, can be traced biblically, for example in the instructions in Deuteronomy and other places: "When your children ask in time to come [future], 'What do these things mean?' [present] then you shall tell them: 'Once we were slaves in Egypt . . . '" [past]. Especially in the Old Testament, because of the time span during which the biblical testimony was preserved and passed down, all three of these dimensions are often interwoven into a single biblical text as different communities over a 1,200 year period told and retold the "story" in light of new experiences, new revelations, new instructions, and different ways in which the various communities responded to God over the centuries. The Scriptures as we now have them reflect this dynamic of the "story of God" as it was woven into the life of the community of Faith through the centuries. And when we read, or preach, or interpret that story we are adding yet other historical dimensions as we bring our own present and future into interaction with the text, and apprehend significance and meaning from the text in those dimensions.
This suggests that the "story of God" was told in ways that were influenced by the people who were telling the story, and that it will also be influenced by people who hear it. While we affirm that the testimony is true, the vehicle of the testimony was conditioned by the culture, language, knowledge (or lack of it), historical experience, personality, ethos, etc., of the people through the centuries who passed on the testimony, and who grappled with the implications of it in being the people of God. So, Scripture as we have it has a dual nature. It is the story of divine revelation (God’s word) told in the vehicle of culturally conditioned literature (in human words).
It also suggests that the story is likewise heard in the same culturally conditioned ways by us. That is, we bring our own culture, language, knowledge (or lack of it), historical experience, personality, ethos, etc., to the biblical text when we read it. And we grapple with its implications in living out being the people of God. If we are going to take this dual nature of Scripture seriously, we need ways of understanding Scripture and theories of inspiration of Scripture that will likewise take these two aspects seriously.
This still allows Scripture to be revelatory to us today, but in a slightly different dimension than the absolute categories often associated with this idea. It is not that the revelation of God in Scripture is absolute and final, and therefore truth about everything. That is the position of fundamentalism, literalism, and inerrancy, positions which are not part of historic Christianity nor the belief of most modern churches (see "Faith Statements Before and Beyond Inerrancy" in The Modern Inerrancy Debate). And it is not just that the revelation of God was only "back then," and so we can have no direct experience of God now. That is the classical position of deism. But Scripture is revelatory in the precise sense that God reveals himself in history in the dynamic of the community as they bear witness to "what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). Scripture is living and active, as God continues to confront people with himself in their own history in the witness of the community of Faith to him from their history.
Now, this brings us to the question of exactly how the community bore witness to God, how it understood God to be at work in these events, and how we know that their testimony is true. And it also raises in a secondary way how we can come to terms with Scripture if it is to be our story as well. This brings us to the importance of affirming God’s role in shaping Scripture. Here is where the concept of inspiration of Scripture provides some help. However, how we talk about inspiration of Scripture is greatly influenced by how we understand revelation as outlined above.
There are a variety of theories of inspiration (of Scripture), and I won’t take the time to deal with them all. The basic issue in talking about inspiration is the balance between the dual nature of Scripture, the balance between God’s role and humans’ role. Usually inspiration has to do with the work of God in the process. In Christian tradition, this is usually connected with the work of the Holy Spirit as the agent of truth in the world. Thus, inspiration can be conceived, in some way, as "in-Spirited" (cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17, 2 Pet 1:20-21). But this does not in itself resolve the question of balance.
On the one pole are dictation and verbal theories that affirm nearly 100% God. Usually, these are heavily influenced both by an absolute sovereignty of God model that allows little human input into anything since humans are totally contaminated by sin and cannot be trusted (with roots in Augustinian influenced Calvinism), as well as by the philosophical model mentioned earlier that equates revelation with all truth. In these views, Scripture is equated with the mind of God, and He is seen as the primary author of Scripture. Here, the physical text itself is seen as the locus of inspiration and, indeed, revelation of absolute truth.
On the other pole are elevation theories that affirm nearly 100% human. Usually, these are heavily influenced either by rationalistic or naturalistic models that do not see God active in the world, or by atheistic or agnostic thinking that will not acknowledge anything other than humanity. In this view, Scripture is just a good book reflecting the same kind of elevated human insight that, for example, might be found in Shakespeare or Star Wars. Here, the writers are the source, and most often the only source, of the writing.
Between these poles are various blends of the two. Interestingly enough, theories toward either pole claim plenary ("full") inspiration depending on whether the physical text itself is seen as fully inspired or only the writers are inspired. In any case, the mediating position is usually termed dynamic inspiration, which tries to balance the role of God and humans. In many of these perspectives (with various nuances) it is not the text that is inspired but the writers themselves, or the message. However, what the writers understand is not solely a product of their own thinking but is enabled by the activity of God, which distances this from the elevation pole.
Any adequate theory of inspiration must take into consideration three crucial factors.
The best way of understanding inspiration that takes into consideration these factors is a dynamic theory of inspiration that tries evenly to balance human and divine involvement in Scripture. For me, the method or mode of inspiration is not nearly as crucial as the fact or process of inspiration. And I see the locus of inspiration neither in the physical text itself nor in single writers, but in the message of Scripture, what it tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how we relate to God.
Now, without delving too deeply into various possible modes of inspiration within a dynamic understanding, let me explain how I think the process works in the production of Scripture. As mentioned above, it all begins with God revealing himself, either to the entire community in historical events such as the exodus or the incarnation, or to individuals in specific ways, such as Moses at the burning bush or Paul on the road to Damascus. However, with any revelation of God there must be a response from the community or the person. That is, they must be able not only to understand the meaning and significance of the event, but must also be able to communicate to others who have not directly experienced the revelatory act of God its meaning and significance, and to translate that revelation into practical everyday living. Here is where inspiration comes into play. Not only does God reveal Himself, he helps the people understand that revelation through inspiration.
Inspiration begins at the point of God enabling people to understand God’s revelatory actions. However, exactly how they respond to that revelation, how they talk about, tell it, theologize about it, pass it on in tradition, incorporate it into ethical and doctrinal systems, etc., is all influenced by the culture in which they live. They do not pass on eternal, absolute truths. They tell the story of God, which God has revealed to them and helped them understand, but they tell it in their own way. They translate God’s revelation into the language, metaphors, symbols, liturgy, and literature through which they can bear witness to God’s truth, and in which other people can hear and understand the testimony.
However, Scripture does not yet arise at this point. And inspiration is not the one time action of God that is only related to the original revelatory event. Inspiration is the ongoing work of God (Christians would say the Holy Spirit) whereby He continues to help people understand the message, the testimony. So, inspiration is not static but dynamic. It is at work as the witnesses tell the story, as well as enabling people who hear the story to understand and respond. In this sense, as mentioned above, there is some connection between the idea of inspiration and the idea of prevenient grace.
The work of God in enabling people to understand through the testimony extends to the entire community of Faith. God is at work in the community as a whole as he helps them to understand, not only the testimony, but also how to respond to that testimony. So as the community does its own lawmaking, or development of ethical standards, as well as constructing theology and doctrine, it is God at work in the entire community throughout the centuries helping them understand the things of God.
This does not at all override the freedom of people or the community, which explains how some people or some communities can distort or pervert the testimony and develop ideas or doctrines that stray from the original revelation. And it also explains the warnings in both Testaments concerning the need for faithful transmission of the story and sound doctrine. But we affirm that God has so enabled the process that even with all the problems of the communities of faith in history, with all the difficulties of transmission of the story, even with all the problems and discrepancies in Scripture that we now have, we still have a reliable witness to the truth of God.
So, inspiration, the work of God in enabling people to understand the message, is an ongoing, dynamic process. It was at work, for example, in Moses seeing the burning bush and understanding that this was God, telling Zipporah when he got home that night, telling the Israelites what God had revealed to him, and later telling Pharaoh. But it extends far beyond that. God was still at work helping people understand as this story was told centuries later to Israelites as they celebrated Passover in David’s kingdom, as children heard the story about God’s deliverance and recalled God’s great acts of the past.
Inspiration was at work as scribes perhaps centuries after that incorporated that faith confession into a compilation of writings telling the marvelous story of God’s deliverance and creation of a people. To that story were added priestly, liturgical instructions for proper observance of Passover, and the importance of proper response to the God who heard the cries of oppressed slaves. Still later, God was still helping the community understand as they further incorporated an analysis of their own failure as God’s people. Exilic and post exilic prophets and scribes told the story again, but in the context of the catastrophic failure that climaxed in the exile. And yet the story took on new significance a century after that as exiles returned home, and they interpreted the return from exile as a second exodus as they learned new depths of God’s grace and forgiveness (See JEDP: "Sources" in the Pentateuch).
As they collected all these stories together, God was still at work helping them understand their history. They used certain writings within the community of Faith because God has helped them understand that this way of seeing their history was a faithful interpretation of how He had worked with them over the centuries.
We could track this process even further into the development of the canon, but I won’t take the time here. But even today, as we sit in a 21st century AD living room and read the story again, there is once again the work of God the Holy Spirit helping us understand the message, to hear again the testimony to the revelation of God. And when a preacher or a bible scholar studies the passage, or proclaims it on Sunday morning, inspiration is still at work helping the people who hear it understand God, and respond!
That is why any reading or study of Scripture should begin with the prayer, "Lord, help me understand." It is an acknowledgment of that dynamic quality of inspiration, and a confession that finally, after we have done all we can do to understand the human dimension of Scripture, it is God who brings the testimony alive, and makes it a living and active word!
And yet, the form, the vehicle of that message is dependent upon the people themselves. So, there are cultural oddities. There are personal idiosyncrasies. There are errors of fact, of science, of grammar, of spelling, of data. There are different perspectives from different people from different cultures on different continents over a span of 1,800 years. There are inconsistencies in historical data, in the use of symbols, in views about future events. Sometimes prophets were wrong in how they translated their understanding about God into their interpretation of historical events. Sometimes they even had to change their prophecies. (See Ezekiel and the Oracles Against Tyre)
Sometimes leaders had to go far beyond the old law codes, and sometimes had to invent new responses to ethical challenges (Nehemiah; "Applied Torah" in Torah as Holiness). Sometimes new understandings challenged old orthodoxies (Job, Jonah). Sometimes in one historical situation one view was valid, and in another historical situation the opposite perspective was valid (Deuteronomy, Jeremiah). Sometimes they emphasized one aspect and sometimes another, and sometimes those are not directly reconcilable (Proverbs, Leviticus). After all, the story is in human words.
But it is God’s story! Or perhaps better, it is a story of God! For me, affirming a dynamic view of inspiration allows the truth about Himself that God has revealed to us to be faithfully and accurately preserved by the community of Faith. This takes seriously the faith confession that God is active in the world, that He reveals Himself to humanity, and that there is a dimension to God that cannot be accessed by human reason or experience. In this sense, the Bible is God’s word.
However, a dynamic model that sees inspiration of Scripture as a process operating within the community of faith rather than a one time revelation of absolute truth also allows us to examine all the evidence within Scripture honestly without need for apology or rationalization. So, I can conclude based on that evidence that Moses did not write the Pentateuch as we now have it (JEDP: Sources in the Pentateuch), or that Ezekiel was dead wrong in his prediction about the destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel and the Oracles against Tyre), or that Isaiah did not have Jesus in mind in Isaiah 7 or 9 (Immanuel in Isaiah and Matthew), without in any way taking anything away from the message of Scripture, from its witness to God’s revelation of Himself, and the resulting call for us to respond to that revelation.
A dynamic view of inspiration is also very close to the Wesleyan perspective of the balance between God’s grace and human freedom. Contrary to some other traditions in the Christian faith, Wesleyans affirm that God’s grace actually transforms people, and makes them capable of freely responding to Him. Wesleyans simply do not accept the idea that human beings are so perverted and corrupted by sin that they can never be righteous or understand the things of God. We really do believe that God can work with people, and even can, by the power of His grace, enable them to be righteous rather than simply being counted as being righteous.
If we really do believe that, then surely we should believe that God can entrust them with the testimony to His grace as he continually works with them individually and communally. If he could entrust the Savior of the world to a young Jewish girl from Galilee, surely He can trust the testimony to that event to His disciples, and to the resulting community of Faith that He has called into being.
So, just as our lives reflect the working together of God’s grace and our response, I think Scripture as the testimony of God’s people also demonstrates that same working together. In some sense there is an incarnational dimension to Scripture. That is, it is truth about God incarnated into the words of human beings. And just as we were called to recognize and respond to the Incarnated Word of God in Jesus, I think we are called to recognize and respond to the incarnated word of God in Scripture. It is only then, in the recognition and response, that Scripture becomes the living and active word of God (Heb 4:12).