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May 10, 2010

I once had a conversation with someone who did not like my view of the Bible, and informed me that I was not taking 2 Timothy 3:16 very seriously. Didn’t I know that all Scripture was God-breathed? I asked him what “God-breathed” meant. He explained, as if to an idiot, that this meant that Scripture was inspired. I asked him what inspired meant. He quoted 2 Timothy 3:16 to me, and told me that inspired meant that something was God-breathed. Rather than let this go another round I pointed out the cyclical nature of his definitions to him, causing him to leave the conversation in apparent disgust.

As silly as this person’s definitions were I’m not sure many of us could do better. I’ve heard strict inerrantists use “inspired” to mean that every sentence of the Bible can be lifted out, placed into new contexts, and still speak authoritatively there. (I regard this as a failure to understand how language works, but I already discussed that in my very first article.) I’ve heard people who deny any validity to most of the Old Testament call it inspired as well. Inspired seems not to mean anything, or at least not to communicate anything. When someone says Scripture is inspired pretty much the only thing I know is that they aren’t rabidly anti-Christian. I don’t even know that they are a theist, though, since inspired has a secular usage as well. Maybe they merely mean they like Jesus’ ethics.

In considering the question of inspiration I asked myself a question: when Galilean villagers told the stories about what Jesus did, were these stories inspired, or did they only become inspired when the evangelists recorded them? It seems pretty clear that most of the very early Christian Church, the Church formed in the months following Jesus’ resurrection, came to the intellectual component of their faith through the oral stories about Jesus (although I have heard some very strange theories that challenge this). This seems, in fact, to persist for years. The church has spread across a large section of the Roman world before there is any hint of a written gospel. I simply have trouble calling the oral traditions that brought this seed of the Church into being uninspired.

The issue with oral traditions, though, is that the stories change from one telling to another. This is sometimes eliminated in very strict traditions with set stories, but the stories the early Church told about Jesus, at least within the area where his public ministry occurred, were not controlled, regulated stories. Various people would already know certain stories. The story tellers would be many, the stories would have personal touches, and the audience reactions would change the shape of the story.

If these stories were inspired we have two choices. Either inspiration is something that lives in the story beyond exact words and phrases, and can survive even as those change, or we have a vast body of inspired work that never made it into the canon, because every new twist on a story, every substitution of a word, created a new inspired story. Again, it seems hard to argue that every new twist of the story was an entire new inspired event. Whatever inspiration is it must live on a level beyond words.

There is, incidentally, some additional proof of this. If words are incredibly important, if they are the level of inspiration, then, like Muslims, we should all learn the original languages of our Scriptures. But when the New Testament quotes the Old we see quotations from the Septuagint, which is itself a translation of a Hebrew (and occasionally Aramaic) work into Greek. Translations cannot retain the nuances of words but they can accurately transmit the feel of entire stories to us.

So what does inspiration mean? Whatever it is, it’s something that lives in stories as wholes. It’s something that belongs to the flow of a whole work. When we say something is inspired by God it must mean that the story is, in some sense, God talking to us. This is where inspiration matters. If God is talking to us, however He is talking to us, this lends authority to the text. The differences in what inspiration means, as sketched in my second paragraph above, are differences in how authoritative the text is seen to be. If inspiration means that God dictated the text then the text necessarily has a different level of authority than if inspiration means that the text is clumsily recounting half-understood events in which God acted.

But what does it mean that the narrative is the level at which the text is inspired? Clearly it means that authority is located within the narrative. This is not as cut and dried as some of us would like. Some of us (most of us, some of the time, at least) would like the Bible to read like a recipe. Do this. Then this. Do you want a soup? Do this. Do you want a roast chicken? Then do this. Stories are not like this. Imagine trying to cook from a story. You could, if the story was about “how I cooked this” (and I’ve written some of those, especially when fire was involved in unexpected ways), but it would be harder if the story was really about, say, Thanksgiving, and the cooking was just one part of the story.

What stories really excel at is not providing detailed instruction (that’s why instruction manuals don’t read like stories) or laying down a large body of knowledge (again, do textbooks look like stories?) but introducing you to characters. And this suggests the flaw in the cooking illustration. You want a cookbook when you want a product. You’re getting stories because you’re meeting people. Much as it’s become a cliché in modern Evangelical speech to say that we want a personal relationship with Jesus many people still suffer from the idea that God is an exceptionally complicated vending machine. When we ask what code to punch in for chips, or to get to heaven, we’re missing the whole point of relationship. Placing the location of authority firmly within the story says that what God wants us to do is meet Him in the text.

This also suggests at least one other directly practical thing. Most of us read the Bible in sections shorter than the narratives. Many preachers deliver sermons drawn from similarly truncated sections. We should start reading more. Is there something to be gained from Genesis 44, itself a section longer than most I’ve heard read in church? Yes, certainly. But the story arc runs from chapter 37 to chapter 50, skipping chapter 38 (Judah and Tamar). Those twelve chapters together tell a story of God’s purposes, an authoritative, inspired story. Is there something to be gained from reading John 6:1-15? Certainly. It is even an entire story. But there’s a larger story yet, which runs through, at the least, all of John 6, replete with Jesus-as-new-Moses themes, transforming God’s former doings and shining light on His new actions. And there’s a larger story yet, the entire gospel according to John, the stories John chooses to record, in the order he chooses to tell them, fitting together with his own comments about Jesus and the stories into a single great whole. Without the whole story how will we ever know the character of God?

And, of course, knowing the character of God is the point. It’s nice to have a slightly new way to read a story. It’s fun to feel like you understand more, or know how a section hangs together. But the Kingdom of God is always more than an intellectual pursuit. It is bound up in holiness and in seeking after someone very different than ourselves. If we cannot learn to meet God, in the text or outside it, we are doomed to failure. God’s work and world will not come from inside ourselves unless they come from God living within us.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2010 8:55 am

    Thanks for this post. It articulates in a clear way something I’ve been thinking about the way we understand scripture for a long time.

  2. May 10, 2010 10:53 am

    I’m interested to know what you may think about the use of a prescribed lectionary: if you believe a lectionary might help or hinder understanding of the text; whether it might accentuate or hide the inspiration.

    My own thought is that a lectionary that connects the text to the larger rhythm of one’s life in the Church is an incredibly effective tool for illustrating the layers of meaning to be found in the arc of the story — not just of the text, but also the unfolding story of one’s life in Christ (i.e., in the Church).

    One example of this is that in the Orthodox Church during the Paschal season the Gospel of St. John is read, emphasizing the qualitative difference of this Gospel from the synoptics — during the most important season of the Church year the most important Gospel is read. Thus, the Gospel pericope appointed for the festal Divine Liturgy for the Resurrection is not one of the accounts of the Resurrection itself (which is read during the festal Matins service); rather, it is the beautiful prologue of St. John’s Gospel (John 1) “In the beginning was the Word … the Light shineth in the darkness … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … But as many as received Him, to them gave He the power to become the sons of God …”

    Reading a Paschal theme into this text — year after year after year — adds a layer of meaning to it and conditions me to think of Pascha whenever I read or hear “In the beginning was the Word …”.

    Of course, I believe the lectionary to be inspired (whatever that means!).

    • Eric permalink
      May 10, 2010 3:16 pm

      I think a good lectionary (and one would hope one as old as yours is has been thoroughly vetted) can be very useful. Learning what other people think a Biblical text says can help you check and expand your own understanding. Having a lectionary that links texts to other texts or to periods of the church year would do that. It would also do that in a rather subtle way, which addresses my complaint against Study Bibles, which I feel often prevent people from ever learning how to understand anything on their own.

  3. May 15, 2010 6:02 pm

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s times like this that I think you could have been an English major. I will be a happy English prof if scientists and engineers come out of my classes able to read half as well as you (to say nothing of the English majors!).

  4. May 26, 2010 9:43 am

    Eric, I think I’m on the same page with you for most of this post.

    Where I begin to have an issue is with what I used to think was very important. I “like” the idea of the Scripture helping us to imagine the character of God. BUT, the big problem with this is in the narratives that speak of a violent god – pretty much antithetical to Jesus. This is where I don’t know what to do with the narratives. I am totally willing to propose that those ancient people were simply trying to communicate what was going on in reference to God – invoking his name for their own sake, rather than recording exactly what happened. But, the stories are there, and there’s a lot of them.

    “God’s work and world will not come from inside ourselves unless they come from God living within us.”

    This is another statement that I can’t really place at this point. I’m becoming more convinced that part of what it means to be human is to reflect God at least to some degree. So, everyone – no matter who they are, no matter what they even know about a “god” – is to some degree doing God’s work and bringing God’s kingdom to earth. More of a spectrum than a binary “in-vs-out”.

    • Eric permalink
      May 26, 2010 1:43 pm

      Well, I’d respond to the first by pointing out that none of the characters in the Bible seem to have a problem holding these ideas together. In fact, some of the violent passages exist side-by-side with statements by the same author to the effect that God is loving. This suggests that whether or not either of us can understand how there is a way to bring these two together.

      As for your second statement let me divide it into two components. First, is doing God’s work binary or on a spectrum? I’ll agree with you that it’s on a spectrum, although I think eventually it will have at least one output that’s binary. For instance, I’d be happy saying that St. Francis did more of God’s work than I have. The second component is whether everyone is doing God’s work. Well, perhaps, but some people are also clearly doing Satan’s work (that is, tearing down God’s work). Someone like Pol Pot or Idi Amin comes out in a net analysis as destructive towards God’s aims. This is perhaps one reason I have so little trouble believing in Hell.

  5. June 3, 2010 11:59 pm

    Oh, incidentally Eric, I feel like you would really like a friend’s blog–a friend who is a Biblical scholar at Fuller. A recent post of his made me remember this post of yours, so I thought I’d send a link your way as an encouragement to check his blog out:

    Advice delivered; I have done my duty.


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