06 March 2010

Methods of Biblical inspiration

The question often comes up (both on this blog and elsewhere): Why do I insist on interpreting the Bible as if it were literally true? Don't I know that most/many/educated Christians do no actually believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of an omniscient, omnipotent God?

I covered this a little in my introductory post,
My interpretation style will be mostly literal. By that, I mean that I will interpret my readings literally even though I realize that most Christians do not interpret the whole Bible literally. Since each group of Christians uses different criteria for choosing which parts to interpret literally, I cannot hope to make the "right" choices, so instead I will try to apply a uniformly literal interpretation to all passages presented as historical fact.
But I want to expand on this a little by looking at the discussion of inspiration in the chapter "Contemporary Theories of Revelation and Inspiration" in A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix. According to this book, the contemporary views of the Bible are three (pg 188):

  • "The Bible is the Word of God -- orthodox" (i.e., the Bible is essentially the Word of God)
  • "The Bible contains the Word of God -- liberal" (i.e., the Bible is partially the Word of God)
  • "The Bible becomes the Word of God -- neo-orthodox" (i.e., the Bible is instrumentally the Word of God)
The first and last positions can be further differentiated by viewing the Bible as God's revelation verses viewing it as a record of God's revelation.

These views can be further broken down based on how one views the means of inspiration (pg 189):
  • "Verbal dictation through secretaries (extreme fundamentalism)"
  • "Verbal inspiration through prophets (orthodox)"
  • "Human intuition through natural processes (liberals)"
  • "Divine elevation of human literature (liberal-evangelical)"
  • "Human recording of revelational events (neo-orthodox)"
  • "Inspiration of only redemptive truths or purpose (neo-evangelical)"
That is the landscape, but Geisler and Nix do not consider all of these positions equally valid. They have a number of objections to the non-orthodox and neo-orthodox views. The following quotes summarize the ones I find most convincing (bold emphasis mine):
First, the non-orthodox views of inspiration do not fit the Biblical data. The Bible claims to be verbally inspired. For it is the writings (graphē) that are inspired (2 Tim. 3:16). ... [more examples]... But all unorthodox views reject verbal inspiration. Hence, whatever else may be said in their favor, they are not biblical. (pg 185)
Fifth, the non-orthodox views ultimately deny any objective basis for divine authority. This issue revolves around the question of who will be the final arbiter -- man or God. The Bible addresses this matter by saying, "Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, 'That Though mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail when Thou art judged' " (Rom 3:4). Instead, man's reason or subjective experience becomes the authority. For all non-orthodox views agree that the objective language of the Bible is not in itself the Word of God. That is, they deny the formula "What the Bible says, God says." This being the case, even after one discovers what Paul (or Peter, or John, et al.) said in the text he must still ask the crucial question: "Indeed, has God said?" (Gen. 3:1). For once we drive a wedge between the words of Scripture and the Word of God, then after we discover the meaning of a passage it is left to our reason or experience to determine whether or not it is true. (pg 186)
Unfortunately non-orthodox views often confuse individual illumination (or even human intuition) with God's objective revelation in Scripture. To do so is to shift the locus of revelation from the objective written Word of God to the subjective experience of the believer. In the case of the neo-orthodox view, it is claimed that the Bible is only a revelation when man is receiving it. Their claim that God is not really speaking unless man is hearing is clearly contrary to the repeated exhortation in Scripture to receive what God has spoken. (pg 187)
The common theme of all these objections, is that if the Bible is not taken as the verbally inspired word of God, then interpretation of the Bible quickly becomes subjective and arbitrary.

Of course, what Geisler and Nix fail to point out here is that what often leads people to accept non-orthodox views of Biblical inspiration is that an orthodox interpretation is completely at odds with our knowledge about the world and about the Biblical text itself. Thus, all interpretative positions have serious flaws, leading to the diversity of interpretation methods used today.

I believe the orthodox view is the most tenable view for an outsider. The outsider acknowledges that their subjective interpretation does not provide a valid methodology for interpreting the Bible. They also acknowledge that, regardless of whether or not a Holy Spirit exists, they, as an outsider, do not have access to that interpretive method. Thus, for all its problems, from an outsider's perspective the orthodox method of interpreting the Bible is the most intellectually honest place to start.

The most defensible view for a Christian is likely the neo-orthodox view. It allows the believer to ignore the Biblcial inconsistencies with reality without abandoning the claim that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is still subjective, but one who believes their interpretation is mediated by the Holy Spirit can claim that they have a reasonable basis for their interpretation. Of course, the diversity of supposedly Holy Spirit mediated interpretations casts doubt on the validity of that method, but it still seems better than forcing the Biblical record to battle against reality.