I’ve been talking about inspiration and canonization in several posts, and I’m finally ready to get down to talking about inspiration. First, I’d like to remind you of my existing essays on inspiration, Inspiration, Biblical Authority, and Inerrancy, which goes into some detail on the topic of Biblical inspiration.
But now I want to look at what’s at the heart of divine inspiration. Then I’m going to follow with entries about various proposed tests for the validity of inspired writers and their value.
What do people generally mean when they say that something written is inspired by God? There are many different answers to this question. Some options are:
- God gave the very words and letters of the work in question
This would apply to the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone by God’s finger, to the Torah according to many Orthodox Jews, or to the entire Bible according to some conservative or fundamentalist Christians who believe in verbal dictation. Only those things God dictated would be regarded as inspired.
- God impresses messages on the minds of certain people, who write those messages in their own words.
Many conservative and moderate Christians hold a view like this. There is room for the personality of the prophet, and there is room for individual idiosyncrasies, but there must be a specific message sent by God.
- People who experience God try to describe what they have experienced.
This is a common liberal view of the inspiration of scripture. It is quite possible for there to be errors in scripture, but those who write do have a genuine experience of God. The validity of their descriptions may vary.
(I discuss more options in my essay noted above.)
There are different ways one can use to decide what inspiration means. All of these will be circular to some extent. For example, many people build their view of inspiration almost entirely from their understanding of the nature of God. God is all-knowing and truthful, so the Bible must be factually accurate and entirely truthful. This is the approach taken by those who believe in inerrancy. It has also been used in my experience by Muslims who have tried to persuade me that the Qur’an is the word of God. Others look heavily at human needs, and make the assumption that divine revelation would necessarily fill in what we don’t know and can’t know. There is a consistent assumption that God is intending to communicate knowledge to us, and specifically accurate knowledge.
In either case, these people will take either the first or second view that I present about inspiration. The process is primarily about conveying information and the primary question to be asked is whether the information conveyed is accurate and comprehensible. I think that their view works fairly well for books that at least appear to claim to come from God. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel claimed to be receiving messages from God and to write these messages. But what about other books? Luke claims to be writing the results of research. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles appear to be history, and find their source in previously existing royal chronicles. Psalms contains prayers that are individual, and seem to express the heart cry of the individual psalmist.
I would argue instead for the third view. My problem is not that the other views are circular, and that my alternative is not. It is inevitable that when we talk about revelation, something revealed by God that we could not otherwise know, we’re going to get a bit circular. After all, how do we know it is God talking? If the information is readily available to us, we might as well look at a more natural source. If the information is not available to us, it’s impossible to check.
If you accept the third view, then the other books I have cited fall into place. There are many ways in which God speaks, many ways in which we can hear, and many ways in which we can express what we hear. The core, then, of an inspired writing is that the person doing the writing, or producing the information, has genuinely experienced God in some way. That experience may come through direct impression of messages from God in the mind, visions, dreams, guided study, or even guided experiencing of the world. The Biblical writer experiences God’s presence and writes it down.
Of course, this view continues to be circular. I don’t know, except through my community and others that I study, what divine presence is. I can read about what others claim it is. I can describe what I have experienced, but I cannot ultimate get outside it and test it. The only protection I have is that I operate in a community. But that, in itself, is a subject for a future essay.