Inspiration of the Bible: Questions we were not allowed to ask

bibleWhen thinking about the Inspiration of the Scriptures, we were allowed to ask:

  1. Who wrote this book or letter,
  2. To whom was it written,
  3. In what era of time was it written,
  4. What were the customs of the day?
  5. How much has the text been altered over the years when we compare different copies of the text? What is the probable original text?
  6. What was the goal of the writer? Of what concepts was he/she trying to convince his/her audience?

Questions we were not allowed to ask:

  1. How much does the author disagree with his contemporary Scripture authors? Does Paul disagree with James or with Jesus? Do any of the laws in the Law of Moses contradict each other? Is there a change in the status of women from the Old Testament to the New Testament?
  2. Did Jesus break or contradict the Law of Moses, or the books of wisdom?
  3. Did the prophets of the OT contradict each other? Did the concept of resurrection of the dead gradually develop over time (as N.T. Wright believes)n_t_-wright from no resurrection to a definite resurrection?“It is all the more surprising, then, to discover that, within the Bible itself, the hope of resurrection makes rare appearances, so rare that some have considered them marginal. Though later exegesis, both Jewish and Christian, became skilled at discovering covert allusions which earlier readers had not seen – a skill shared, according to the gospels, by Jesus himself – there is general agreement that for much of the Old Testament the idea of resurrection is, to put it at its strongest, deeply asleep, only to be woken by echoes from later times and texts.” N.T. Wright
  4. Was the author correctly reporting from the Spirit of God?
  5. Do I agree with the author?
  6. Can I find wisdom to lead my life in other literature outside the Bible?

Most fundamentalists say things like: “The Bible says…” And some of the biblical writers use similar phrases: “The law and prophets…”  What do the Scriptures say?” However, when one starts to say: “Paul says” or “Isaiah says” then we begin the long walk out of fundamentalism.

As fundamentalists and evangelicals, we were not allowed to question the inspiration of any part of Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church never had that perspective. They always viewed different parts of Scripture as having varying levels of inspiration. (Evangelicals do the same, by quoting their favorite scriptures and ignoring their not-so-favorites.) The liturgical churches usually ask the congregation to stand during the reading of the stories of Jesus, and sit during the reading of other parts of Scripture. Martin Luther, a Catholic priest who demanded that the Roman church repent and reform in the 15th century, was not shy in examining which books he thought had more inspiration than others in the Bible.

FowlerFaithHow does viewing the Bible as less than perfect impact a person’s faith?  If one is in James Fowler’s Stage 3 Faith, then questioning how deep a particular passage is inspired, may cause someone to lose their faith entirely. But if you are in Stage 5 it is refreshing and deepens your faith to examine how close to God’s Spirit you perceive the writer of a book in the Bible has come. We examine secular writers this way, why not then the writers of the Bible?

When the apostle Paul wrote his letters, he started with his credentials: “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” Then he worked on persuading his readers, pleading with them. He didn’t expect them to just accept everything he said as 100% inspired. He expected his readers to be convinced by his arguments. So are you convinced by all of Paul’s arguments? He was writing to churches 2,000 years ago. We are not the ones he was writing to, so the answer is probably no, we are not convinced by every single argument Paul makes. Some of his arguments sound odd and strange to us, not being familiar with the customs and beliefs of his day.

Hebrew scroll

The Torah

When the apostle Paul told Timothy that the OT Scriptures he had learned as a child were filled with the breath of God, and were profitable for teaching and would equip the man of God, he was talking about the Law of Moses, the books of wisdom and the prophets. The same books Paul said were “a mere shadow of the things to come,” (Col. 2:16-17) and the writer of Hebrews said were weak, fulfilled and fading away. (8:13)

No, we cannot say that Paul’s statement that the Scriptures were God-breathed means we can never disagree with the Scriptures. Paul freely showed how brighter revelations made much of the OT obsolete (and the religious leaders of his day hated him for it, accusing him of not believing that God had inspired Moses).  As evangelicals we are taught that Jesus fulfilled the Law, and did away with it  by bringing a better sacrifice and a better worship.

Objection:

If we don’t have a fully inspired Bible, then there is a slippery slope to “anything goes.”

Answer:

jonestown-451In fundamentalist churches we can find people who have justified anything and everything from adultery, multiple wives, child wives, wife-swapping, and even murder. Holding to the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures does not guarantee we will stay in the safe zone.

The apostle Paul wrote a wonderful passage, one of my favorites, to the Jews in Rome:

For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them…So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?  (Romans 2:13-15, 26)

 Paul reasons that our consciences should be attuned to God and keeping His will, and that it is not our circumcision (or even our baptism) that makes us Jews (or even Christians), but the way we act in daily life. Paul says that non-Jews, who had never had access to the 10 Commandments, could follow their consciences and end up keeping the 10 Commandments, and be counted as righteous before God.

Using that same logic, couldn’t people who don’t accept the full inspiration of every book of the Bible, still follow the principles of love and grace taught by Jesus? And wouldn’t God accept them as righteous?  
It is not the inspiration of Scripture, or even theology that ultimate demonstrates the grace of God in our hearts, but what shines forth from our schweit4actions. 


Albert Schweitzer
was a liberal in his theology, but he raised money and opened a hospital in western Africa because he saw a need, and was motivated by Jesus’ teachings to minister to those in need.

So if you were to ask yourself, how much of the NT writers do you agree with, what would be your answer? And would it shake or strengthen your faith?

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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8 Responses to Inspiration of the Bible: Questions we were not allowed to ask

  1. garycummings says:

    Okay, I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, in the original languages. I am educated enough in hermeneutics to recognize various genres of Biblical literature, context, and authorial intent. I was educated at ACC/ACU (Ugh!), Brite Divinty School, and Earlham Schooll of Religion. When I left Brite Divinity School, I was rather Neo-Orthodox about the Bible. I believed the Bible contained the Word of God, but was not the Word of God. After 2 years with the liberal Quakers and their University of Chicago professors, I go to the point of whether the Bible had spiritual worth or not? Was it true or not? I had to believe the Bible was God’s Word or chuck it. I felt persuaded by God for the former that the Bible was the Word of God. I hold that view to this day.

  2. The example you gave of Paul’s odd reasoning in 1st Corinthians 11 included this gem “…for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.” So what do angels have to do with the subordination of women? Perhaps a clever interpretation I came across somewhere a while back has a good insight. It is that Paul was remembering 1st Enoch, early in the book, where the angels above looked down on the women below, lusted after them, and came down and sired offspring. And according to Enoch that led to bad things. Women covering their heads, Paul is saying, helps prevent such evil. And note that in the first century, many writings were floating around, not only the ones of the old testament and apochrypha. 1st Enoch was respected and viewed by many Jewish people as scripture and is even alluded to in the epistle of Jude.

    • garycummings says:

      Yes, I am aware of Enoch. It was respected in various circles. Look at the Book of Jasher and the Book of the Wars of the Lord in the OT. The OT quotes them, but none of these books made it into the canon, rightfully so. I accept the canon as it stands.

  3. Another thought provoking article. I always learn a lot on this site as well as from those who care to comment. As one born and raised in the c of c, the teaching regarding the inspiration and infallibility of scripture was always a very big deal. The Bible was the reason I knew anything about God at all. And it was one of the main reasons I believed in God. And yet ironically, the claim of its infallibility and inspiration became one of the main reasons I am no longer a believer today. Once I became aware of what the Bible really was (after many painful, heart wrenching years of studying it’s true history and origins), it’s value and importance in my life (as well as my belief in the god of the Bible) was instantly lost. While I agree that we can glean some good things for our lives from the Bible (like we can from many ancient books), once what it really is (man made) becomes realized, it no longer has any ability to drive anyone to Christ, or to god. Some (like I did) might find this a horrifying thought. I think it’s freeing. BTW – N.T. Wright is speaking at Pepperdine this year.

    • garycummings says:

      One thing that helps me maintain a high view of the Bible is this: the Bible is the written Word of God, and Jesus is the Living Word of God. I fully believe in the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible in the original languages.

  4. I recognize the dilemma that many face in assessing the nature of the inspiration, authority and proper interpretation approach to the Bible. It is second nature, a default setting, if you will, that if it is God’s Word, then it must be inerrant. But there are problems with that and it always has been. It was recognized as problematic even by early church fathers. It was one reason for the allegorical method of interpretation. I like a comparison once suggested in one of Brian McLaren’s books. He noted that we do not read, study and work the problems in a math textbook because of its answers. We do it for the exercise and practice in order to prepare us. No one math textbook will have the answer to every problem within its scope. Memorizing the answers of the book is not adequate. But if we learn and practice diligently, the textbook will enable us to tackle actual math problems that are faced in real life. I’d like to add that no science or engineering book claims to be inerrant. But we can nonetheless build bridges, deliver landrovers onto Mars, and construct MRI’s to peer inside of us, etc.

  5. I didn’t quite finish my thought last night. To continue, the Bible can be authoritative and respected without attempting to make it fit to a conception of inerrancy. One can learn from and respect it without having to force it to harmonize. Making it harmonize may sometimes go against proper interpretation if in places the contrast or difference between two scriptures is due to an argument between their views, ie. scripture is letting us see that truth is being worked out in process. As Peter Enns says, inerrancy is a high maintenance doctrine. The more one studies it and learns of the necessary inferences of it, the nuances required, and growing body of knowledge about Biblical and Ancient culture of long ago, the more effort is required to maintain it.

    • garycummings says:

      There are various genres of Biblical literature. I do believe in inerrancy and the infallibility of Scripture. I have studied Biblical history and interpretation for many years, as well as the original languages, and the FEW jingles an jangles we see pop up from time to time in the Scripture is due to our Western mindset, translating from an alien culture of the Middle the Scriptures. There are over 6,000 manuscripts and papyri, extant and they agree about 95% of the time The disagreements do not affect Christian doctrine or teaching. To not maintain inerrancy is a high maintenance doctrine in my opinion.Jesus Christ is God and He says very clearly “Scripture can not be broken.”

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