I’ve been discussing translation in its relationship to inspiration over the last couple of days, and I just wanted to present a couple of thoughts on how we think about inspiration, especially in practical terms. By “thinking in practical terms” I mean the way in which we apply our understanding of inspiration in our application of what we learn from inspired writings. I had my attention directed to this issue when I discussed inspiration with a friend of mine who believes in inerrancy. We expressed considerable disagreement when we defined inspiration and discussed how it worked, but in the vast majority of controversial texts, we found that our interpretations were identical.
This is the similar to the conclusion I have come to about translation, though I would say that one’s beliefs about inspiration are of almost no value as a predictor of that person’s translation philosophy, while they are a predictor to some extent of how one will carry out interpretation. They are, however, less accurate of a predictor than I would imagine had I not done a little informal testing.
I think the problem here is with the way in which we talk about inspiration. We do so in an extremely God-centered (source centered) way. Now being God-centered is not a bad thing, but in this case it can be misleading. I would suggest that while our theories of inspiration center around God and what he can and does do, our processes and principles of interpretation generally center around us as human beings and what we can do. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the amount of effort that must go into understanding any message, especially the message of scripture.
No matter how accurately we believe God gave the message, in practical terms the issue is much more how accurately we can understand it. Let’s say that 2% of the message of the New Testament is lost by copyists. I think that number is fairly high, because that is closer to the percentage of the text that is in dispute. But even if that is the case, I suspect that if we compare interpretations, we will see that a much higher percentage must be lost by somebody in the process of interpretation.
I think this extends to the great divide between types of revelation, even the big one between general and special revelation. The question is not in 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 (though we have the ever-present question of the fall), 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.
This is one of the reasons I opposed the doctrine of inerrancy. 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 fall apart.
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” seem pointless to me. I think that is part of the point of the 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.
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. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpreations of that scripture are nonsense.