How does the book of Ecclesiastes impact your view of inspiration? I’ll be asking folks to think about this in my Sunday School class at First UMC of Pensacola as we study Ecclesiastes. What do you think?
Many teachers and preachers speak with great authority and then say, “This is not me speaking. I’m only telling you what the Bible says.” But that assertion is always dangerous. When we apply the Bible to any particular situation we are interpreting. This is another case when one’s words can seem very pious, but actually border on sacrilege. What could be more pious than simply speaking God’s words and never adding anything of your own to them? But there is the problem. You and I are not capable of speaking “just what the Bible says.” There is always something of our own thinking and interpretation in what we have to say.
The honest thing to do is to admit that what we say is our interpretation, and leave the accuracy of our interpretation open to discussion and discernment. At the same time, no matter how
forcefully someone says that what they say is simply God’s truth, whether they claim that they got it by hearing directly or by reading and interpreting sacred documents, discernment is always up to the individual hearer.
A word of prophecy must be tested. An interpretation of scripture must be tested. Everything must be tested using the intelligence God gives you and the wisdom he promises (James 1:5).
— When People Speak for God, p. 78
I owe a hat tip to the author of the first one for the links to the other two. All express important points, though there are certain differences of nuance between the three.
I think it is also important, however, to relate our fallible interpretation to the idea of inerrancy. If we are to be able to prove that the Bible is true, then we will have to read it correctly. (I’ll ignore another issue, that of the standard by which we judge it to be inerrant, for right now.) Here’s an extract on this point from my book:
Thus the question is not only the accuracy of the content, but rather in what is to be conveyed, and how well we are capable of understanding it. I would presume God would write his character quite perfectly in nature, and yet that may be the hardest message to interpret. Some people prefer the immediate revelation of modern prophets or of dreams and visions. I too believe that God is as capable of speaking today as ever, and as likely to do so, but in that case we have the additional burden of deciding on the authenticity of the message, and we still need to interpret what we hear, especially if it is a vision or dream. Even a verbal message must be verified as to accuracy and then applied correctly.
This is one of the reasons I believe that the doctrine of inerrancy, an evangelical standard today, is not only wrong, it is inadequate. It deals only with the source. It seems to be a way of guarding the barn door after the cattle have departed. Interpretation has gone in a thousand directions while some are arguing that the message was absolutely correct at the starting point. In addition, somehow it’s OK for us to lose part of the source in the process of copying–something acknowledged when inerrancy is postulated solely of the conveniently missing autographs–and yet if one supposes that instead something got altered on the way from God to the prophet, all revelation must immediately become suspect.
Revelation is of value when I comprehend and apply it, and assertions of its validity apart from adding the line “and you can understand it” are pointless. I think that is part of the reason why there is wisdom literature in the Bible. It’s God’s message, but you have to think about it and comprehend it. Who you are, and how you have exercised your mind will make a difference in what you will understand. Revelation is not a replacement for reason, nor in appropriate areas is reason independent of revelation.
No matter whether you are listening to a new idea, a message someone claims to have received directly from God, or the interpretation of a passage of scripture, your individual mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is the final filter to separate sense from nonsense. The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpretations of that scripture are nonsense. (pp. 3-4, emphasis added for this post)
I’ve commented before that ignoring what the Bible actually is does not respect the text, whether God is the author in a direct sense, or the one who inspired it, we still need to see it as it is if we are to respect that revelation. And I suspect that respecting it is essentially to actually receiving the revelation intended.
I have not, however, said it as bluntly as Mike Beidler, quoted by James McGrath.
I would note that Mike Beidler is a contributor to the recent Energion title From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls.
I responded to this post over at Jesus Creed because the graphic seems to suggest that only those who accept inerrancy take the Bible seriously. That is simply false. I’d actually suggest, as I do in my book, that those who accept that inerrancy describes the Bible poorly are taking the Bible more seriously. They avoid making the Bible in their own image.
The comments are interesting because of the number of people with the same objection. I was seventh, I think, to object on the same grounds in the comments.
Note: The material I object to is presented and linked to at Jesus Creed. Scot McKnight doesn’t make these claims. Here’s a link to the Barna post on the study.
I add some comments to those of another blogger over on my Participatory Bible Study blog. This passages speaks to our understanding of what inspiration and god-breathed actually mean in practice.
Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation) has an excellent post on inerrancy. On of my arguments in When People Speak for God is that we need to create our doctrine of inspiration primarily from observing scripture rather than by trying to extract theological statements about inspiration. The title of Dr. Enns’ post, I think someone forgot to tell the Bible, almost says enough in itself. In any case, go check out the complete article.
I’ve been connecting one’s understanding of inspiration and extended reading of the Bible for some time. In my view, we have tended to focus on inerrancy and simultaneously on the bits and pieces of scripture. A broader view of inspiration can go well with a broader view of scripture. This is not universal. Many advocates of inerrancy also view scripture broadly while many who oppose it tend to ignore what it says. The stereotypes tend not to work!
I’ve used these ideas in teaching and in publishing. I started a Bible study series, co-authored a book on how to study the Bible, and wrote a book on inspiration, for which this web site is named. Then as a publisher, I published another book, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully. That book could serve as the big brother to mine, even though it was written later. If it had been written earlier, it could have provided many footnotes for my own book.
In addition, I’ve written a few pamphlets, available in PDF format for downloading. You can print as many as you need free of charge.
- I Want to Study the Bible
- What Is the Word of God?
- What Is Biblical Criticism?
- Seven Barriers to Hearing the Word
There are a few more listed on this page.
Finally, I’ve had the idea of seeing the whole of scripture emphasized to me when editing a recent book, Creation in Scripture by Herold Weiss. What Dr. Weiss has done is look beyond Genesis in forming a scriptural doctrine of creation. It’s easy to say that one ought to go beyond Genesis, but the argument tends to stay in the first couple of chapters of Genesis even so. It’s interesting to see the broader commentary of scripture shape up.
Joel Watts has started a discussion on the nature of inspiration, comparing the breathing of the Spirit into the text of scripture with the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and the individual.
Thus far he has gotten little discussion, and he think his ideas deserve some further discussion. This reminds me of a couple of paragraphs I wrote for my book When People Speak for God (which this web site supports):
. . . 2 Timothy 3:16 provides us with the word “theopneustos” or “God-breathed” which has been made to carry a great deal of freight. But when God breathed into Adam he didn’t make him inerrant, he made him alive. What exactly is the content of a text that is God-breathed? But this issue applies much more to verbal inspiration. The evidence against verbal inspiration is very strong in the text and the history itself. There are certainly words that are attributed to God, but there are also words that are clearly not attributed to God. The synoptic problem presents us with clear evidence that the gospel writers copied from one another, that there are different sources in the Pentateuch, Samuel, and Kings, just as examples (237, 238).
The breathing of the Holy Spirit finds its roots, I believe, in this earlier breath of God and thus both provide an excellent analogy for the breathing of scripture. Theopneustos itself requires more definition; it doesn’t provide an adequate definition for inspiration in and of itself.
Scot McKnight has a post asking this question, starting from a book he’s read. This is a few days old, but that just adds more discussion in the comments!
Just in case anyone wonders, my position–the position I argue for in my book–is that God still speaks today. In fact, my aim in the book was to provide a coherent and simple theology for understanding how God speaks at any time and place.