In about a half an hour I will be leaving for church where I will teach a small Sunday School class. The class has chosen to go through my book When People Speak for God (wow!). I start my discussion in this book by looking at the human factor and the divine factor. It is not enough to claim that God has spoken. We also have to understand what it is that God has said.
This came up in a helpful e-mail exchange with a friend this week, in which I discussed certain views of certain Bible passages and whether these would be consistent with inerrancy. The discussion led me to wonder if I was ignoring the human factor in looking at others. The human factor is most directly involved in our interpretation. I don’t accept the term “biblical inerrancy” as it applies to me. What I do believe is that if we discern the message God has for us, that message is true, and we should act on it. I think it should be our goal to discern this message correctly. A true message ignored is of no value. A true message wrongly understood can be dangerous. We never get away from the need to apply our minds.
As I reread my own material, however, I was reminded of another distinction: inspiration and authority. Just because something is inspired doesn’t mean it’s necessarily authoritative for any particular person, congregation, or for the whole church. I may hear the voice of God leading me to some action. My hearing does not obligate others. This idea could be helpful for those who believe in the continuation of the gift of prophecy in the church. I’ve been asked how words received by a modern prophet relate to the Bible. Ignoring the issue of whether the modern speaker is, in fact, speaking for God, his or her words would only have authority of so discerned and accepted by the broader body, i.e. if they became part of the canon of scripture for the whole church.
I do not mean that the church would make the words authoritative. Rather, the church would recognize that the words were authoritative, and the authority would become active in that way. “Inspired” does not mean “authoritative,” and “authoritative” in one place does not mean authoritative in another place or everywhere.
I’m going to add an extract here that fleshes out some of the difference between inspiration and authority. I’m not saying precisely the same thing, but I am influence by this text. (The author is Edward W. H. Vick, and I publish the book, From Inspiration to Understanding.)
(8) A further category mistake is to relate the notion of the authority of the Bible to the process whereby the books came to be written. The writer was inspired. So the writing has authority. No! These words do not have authority because, in some manner, they issued out of a process of inspiration. They may have done so. That is a problem to be settled on the basis of appeal to the available evidence. But if they did they do not have authority because they did. They have authority because they are relevant, living words, because something happens of importance when they are read and interpreted. The event of revelation happens. These words provide the means. They are the vehicle of that happening. These words are caught up in the dynamic of God’s revelation. This means that inspiration is a less adequate and less important concept than revelation.
Since they are not the only writings to function in this way, they are unique in that they are the only words which have a unique historical connection with the original Christ-event, with the coming of Christian faith into the world. They are for this reason primary. They are the words which have in the history of the church proved to be the means for God’s continuing revelation of himself. The church asserts the historical givenness of these and not other words. It also asserts the contemporaneity of the revelation of God these words mediate. ‘The Spirit breathes upon the word and brings the truth to sight.’ God revealed himself. God reveals himself.
(Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, p. 81)
I think I place more emphasis on the recognition of the words by the church and less on their functioning. This is because I believe all inspired words will function, in their proper sphere, in similar ways. The question is whether a particular text was meant for the Church, a church, a small group, or a person, and whether it was meant for a moment in time or to have broader application.
So I’m distinguishing inspiration, authority, and interpretation/application (hermeneutics). How important is the distinction?