Inspiration of the Scriptures or of the Author?
Gijs van den Brink, 2003
There are widespread doubts with modern man concerning language as an effective means of communication. The great language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that everything that can be said, can be said clearly; that which can not be said clearly, we better do not say at all and that existential questions, which occupy us most, are inexpressible /1. If this is the case amongst people of equal nature, how much more so in the relationship between God and man. Therefore we find a widespread unbelief amongst many modern christians that God would reveal himself verbally. According to them the Bible is not a book where God speaks to man, but where men speak about God.
These issues are even more intensified by the great influence of eastern images of God, which stress that god is impersonal, so he does not express himself verbally and is beyond words. It is obvious that here the heart of the christian faith is at stake, namely the self-revelation of the God of Abraham, Izak and Jacob. For this God reveals himself in a process of events and their interpretations. He revealed Himself for example in the event when Jesus died at the cross of Golgotha, but also in the interpretation of it, that this had to happen for the forgiveness of our sins.
Written documents are essential with such a manner of revelation, for this is the only responsible form to pass on history to later generations. The book-form is not necessary (yes even strange) with a revelation in nature, or in the quiet depth of the human heart.
INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY
Now these written documents, or collection of words, are authoritative to us, because they were spoken by God:
`In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son…‘ (Hebrews 1:1-2)
Connecting together the authority and the inspiration of the bible, has been called the evangelical or protestant view. We will come back to this later.
There are also other views on the authority of the Scriptures. Packer/2 catalogues three approaches.
We have the traditionalistic view which states that the final authority over faith and life rests with the official teaching of the church as an institution. To know God and the Bible one has to consult the tradition of the church.This view does not deny that the Holy Scriptures are given by God and so are authoritative, but it does claim that the Bible is neither complete nor understandable without the interpretation of the church. The best-known example is the Roman-Catholic church with the apocrypha in the canon, the Vulgata as authoritative translation and doctrines such as the infallibility of the Pope and the ascension of Mary.
Next we have the ‘subjectivistic’ view: the final authority for my life and beliefs, am I myself. This view has many forms, the more mystical or spiritual and the more rational or a combination of both. The more spiritual form we find for example in the wide-spread and well-known remark: `I believe in what I feel’ (about what is true or what God says).
The rational component we find for example in several liberation theologies where the situation of the hearer or reader determines the value of the Bible text. All the various forms however have one thing in common: the final authority is the judgement of my mind, my consciousness or my religious feeling. It seems to me that faith here means being loyal to your own religious convictions.
Then we have the evangelical-protestant view on the authority of the Bible which we mentioned above. In this view authority and inspiration are connected together. The final authority lies with the Bible itself. Sacra Scriptura est Verbum Dei or: the Holy Scriptures is the Word of God. This authority is confirmed by the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and not by the authority of the church or the mind. Besides, the revelation of God in the Bible is plenary and perfect and does not need to be supplemented by church tradition. This revelation moreover is conspicuous, that is clearly expressed and comprehensible and no independent authority should be ascribed to the mind. Tradition, the church and the individual christian can stray, and also do this, but the Bible, the Word of God should correct them. After this somewhat extensive introduction, we continue with the NT.
TEACHINGS OF JESUS AND THE APOSTLES
First we have to decide here what we will discuss and what not, because it will be outside the immediate field of our subject. We can divide the doctrine of the Bible in three subjects, namely its origine, its character and its interpretation. Interpretation lies in the field of hermeneutics.
The character of the Holy Scriptures contains for example themes such as canon and authority, which need a complete discussion in themselves. We restrict ourselves here to the origine of the Bible, that is its Godly inspiration.
The OT knows the inspiration of the prophet. Thus we read in Zechariah 7:12:
`.. or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.’
And in Jeremiah 15: 19
`…if you utter worthy, not worthless words, you will be my spokesman’.
However, two questions remain.
Firstly, can the inspiration of the prophet be identified with the inspiration of prophetic books just like that? The OT has not really made this step, although Jeremiah 36:1-2 does give a clear indication in this direction:
`In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: `Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now’.
The second question is if this godly inspiration also applies to the non-prophetic books. The NT gives us some clarification here /3. It appears that with the term ’the Scriptures’ an absolute quality of truth and an irrefutable authority has been attached to the books of the OT. We find this explicitly expressed in the words of Jesus in John 10: 34-36. When the Jews want to stone Jesus, because He makes himself God, His reply to them is:
`Is it not written in your Law, `I have said you are gods’? If he called them `gods’, to whom the word of God came -and the Scripture cannot be broken- what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?
The `he called them gods’ is a quotation from Psalm 82:6. The scripture-quotation is being used after a method of the rabbis, where one applies matters of minor also to those of more importance. When God adresses the people of Psalm 82 with `gods’, although they are only human, and as appears from the context of the Psalm, even bad judges, how much more so may Jesus call Himself Son of God, since He has been sanctified by God Himself. It is very appropriate that Jesus here, with His appeal to a certain Word of Scripture, adds a general remark about the whole Scriptures: ‘and the Scripture cannot be broken’ meaning, can not be undone, can not be put aside. The same Greek word, namely luo, is being used as in Matthew 5:19, where the Lord Jesus says about the law and the prophets (or the OT):
`Anyone who breaks (luo) one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’.
He gives a response here to the idea that the OT, and in particular the Law, would be a collection of separate commandments, where one could regard some parts as more and other parts as less valid as one pleases. Jesus teaches His disciples (so also us) the indivisibility of the Scriptures even in the smallest parts. Then it is also clear that it is God who speaks in the Scriptures. OT quotations can be introduced by ’thus says the Lord’ or ’thus says the Holy Spirit’. The last for example in Hebrews 3:7
‘So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion”.
The quotation comes from Psalm 95.
`Thus says the Lord’ and ’thus says the Scriptures’ can simply be exchanged. This is what we find for example in Romans 9:15 and 17. In vs. 15 we read ‘For he (God) says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” and in vs. 17 ‘For the Scripture says to Pharaoh:” I raised you up for this very purpose” and in vs. 18 :”therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden”. That it is God who speaks in the Scriptures, also appears from the personification of the Scriptures, such as we find for example in Gal. 3 :8
`The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham’.
This personification is also evident from the many ’the Scriptures say’, which does not exist in non-christian literature. We have to conclude that the NT teaches the identification of the spoken and the written word, meaning to say an inspiration of the Scriptures both in contents and in form. In line with this conclusion I now want to mention two texts which explicitly speak about inspiration: 2 Peter 1:21
`For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’.
Peter here speaks about the inspiration of the spoken word. in 2 Tim.3:16 however we read the following: `All Scripture is God-breathed …‘/4.
Paul here speaks about the inspiration of the written word. In light of our conclusion, mentioned earlier, a contradictory or even different view is out of the question here. The NT teaches us, as we saw before, that we may not distinguish the inspiration of the spoken and the inspiration of the written word.
AN HISTORIC EXCURSION
In the history of Christianity there have always been quite different opinions about the inspiration of the authors of the Bible. /5. In the early hellenistic church this inspiration was above all things compared to ecstacy. The author was to have written under some kind of stupor, partial unconsciousness. Today one would speak of automatic writing. Somewhat later when the ecstacy becomes more and more a sign of false prophecy, the author’s inspiration is compared to the dictating of a text. In modern days (since Schleiermacher), the personal inspiration, as we find it for example with artists, is very much a favourite: only the thought has been prompted by the Spirit, not the words. In the calvinistic tradition, a combination of the early christian and the modern view developed, as one began to speak of an organic inspiration, where God fully inspires and man remains completely man. These theories however are all incomplete when two issues are not taken into account, namely the inspiration of the Scriptures next to that of the author and besides this the various literary styles. Apocalypse comes about differently than poetry. But the theological reality of inspiration is the same in all cases and this is clearly expressed when we speak of the inspiration of the Scriptures.
Throughout the ages, the church has confessed after the NT: Sacra Scriptura est Verbum Dei, the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God. Early church fathers such as Origenes and Hieronymus were already talking about an ‘all words embracing inspiration’ and also Cyprian and Augustin about: ’the normative authority of the written word’ 6. All of this immediately links up with 2 Tim. 3:16 “All Scripture is God-breathed’. The inspiration applies to the graphe, to the concrete words. This can not be otherwise, for the Scriptures can not go into ecstacy, can not hear or feel! Inspiration of the Scriptures is by definition verbally. As was said before, we definitely do not want to deny the guidance of the Spirit in all processes, which preceded the written Word. But it is the end product,the written Word, which we want to use the term ‘inspiration’ for, this after the NT in general and 2 Tim.3:16 in particular. And this inspiration is always verbal. A non-verbal inspiration of the Scriptures would be a `contradictio in terminis’, a contradiction in terms.
MANUSCRIPTS AND LXX-QUOTATIONS
With regards to the verbal inspiration, there are two often heard objections. The first one has to do with determining the original text. For no original manuscriptsts have been preserved, but we do have (of parts) of the NT some 5000 handwritten copies with a lot of minor differences. Now how can you believe , so they say, in literal inspiration when these words are not exactly known? It does not matter however principally if all words are known. For the verbal inspiration concerns the original text. The question however is if such a doctrine still has practical use? We have to give an affirmative answer to this question with the greatest certainty. For only a small number of words are ambiguous and only a very small number makes the meaning ambiguous, namely about 1 in 1000 words. In practice it is wiser to start from 99 unambiguous words, rather than 1 ambiguous word. That is why text criticism does not affect the verbal inspiration. It is just the opposite: the verbal inspiration makes the science of text-determination a matter of vital importance.
Next we have the issue of the OT quotations in the NT, which often refer to the text of the Septuaginta (LXX). The question which has to be asked is this one: If the NT authors believed in a verbal inspiration, then how can they quote the OT in a Greek translation instead of in the Hebrew original text?
Here we need to bear the following in mind: firstly, the idea of one Septuaginta was absolutely out of the question in the days of the NT, there were several Greek translations. Moreover, these were not in circulation in book-form, but in the form of scrolls. This excludes the idea of an inspired translation! It is therefore clarifying to distinguish between the form and the contents or between word and meaning. In the Islamic view on the inspiration of the Koran, word and meaning are connected in such a way that a translation of the original is no longer a holy book. With the Bible this is different: Here we are concerned with the contents, the meaning. If we lose the words however, we will also lose the meaning. Yet, the words have no value in themselves, but they are the vehicles and guards of the message.
That is why bible translations are completely Holy Scriptures, at least as far as they correctly render the meaning of the original text.This also applies to the use of the LXX in the NT. The issue whether the LXX correctly renders the Hebrew text lies in the field of the interpretation of the Bible, but has no consequences for the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. The issues of manuscripts and LXX-quotations have made us drift right into hermeneutics.
HERMENEUTICAL CONSEQUENCES OF VERBAL INSPIRATION
We conclude that the inspiration of the Bible is plenary (all) and verbal (the Scriptures). Plenary opposes partly. Verbal opposes personal, the view that God only gave the thoughts which the authors described in their own words. This will soon lead to subjectivism: this is written, but this is what it means … For the intention of the author is not the issue, but the significance of the words and sentences. With this we oppose the historic-critical method of Bible explanation, where the intention of the author is the goal of the exegesis, which has lead to an atomistic cutting down to pieces of the text. The verbal inspiration firstly asks for an interpretation of ‘all the Scriptures’, meaning to say the whole text and no fragmented text. Secondly she determines the goal of exegesis namely knowing the reality described in the text. The issue is to know the intention of the Great Author, God. So the Biblical-sound approach has the Bible text as a starting point, the bible author and present reader (or exegete) as a means and the knowledge of the godly reality as a goal.
Both the text as a starting point for exegesis, as well as the verbal inspiration ask for an establishment of the text prior to and independent of the exegesis.
We repeat once more: the verbal inspiration makes the so-called text criticism to an issue of vital importance.
Finally we want to point to an analogy between Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God and the Bible, the written Word of God. As Christ leads us to God the Father, the Scriptures lead us to Jesus Christ. On account of this it was said: “Where there is no recognition of the Holy Scriptures as an adequate verbal communication of God with man, there is no adequate recognition of Jesus Christ”. The doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Bible does not have a rationalistic origin, but a soteriologic and doxologic. The issue at stake is the salvation of man through Jesus Christ and the honour of God the Father. That is why we confess with the church of all ages: Sacra Scriptura est Verbum Dei.
- L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, C.K. Ogden, vert. (London, 1922) 27, 186-189
- J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (London, 1958, Grand Rapids 1980) 775-778
- J.W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible. London 1972
- O. Weber, `Inspiration’, RGG III (3e dr., Tubingen, 1959) 775-778
- Weber, a.w., 776