Biblical Teaching about Inspiration

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by Edward Vick


Inspiration bannerWe begin this section with a caveat. We are speaking in what follows of individual writings speaking about other writings. The term ‘writings’ (or ‘Scriptures’) in the New Testament is the Greek word graphai, a plural form, from which we get such words as graph, graphic and all the other words of which these form a part (e.g. photographic, lithograph). This word has a general and so a rather vague reference. We cannot therefore, as some people would like to think, speak about ‘the Bible’s view of itself’. When some of the statements were made the Bible did not yet exist as a whole. Moreover the recognition of a particular body of books was in the future. Only when that recognition was established was it possible to speak of ‘the Bible.’ That was, of course, after the production of any particular writing. What we should rather say is that some writings talk of other writings. One may, of course, take what these writings say of those others as true of the whole. But that is an interpretation. It was not the intention — how could it have been? — of the writers themselves. This will become clear as we consider the particular passages themselves in some detail. We shall have to ask whether we can say for sure which writings are being spoken of, when the term ‘writings’ is used.

It is therefore misleading to say, ‘the Bible claims’ to be inspired.

There is no “the Bible” that claims to be divinely inspired. There is no “it” that has a “view of itself”. There is only this or that source, like II Timothy or II Peter, which make statements about certain other writings, these rather undefined. There is no such thing as “the Bible’s view of itself” from which a fully authoritative answer to these questions can be obtained.

It is wrong to claim that the New Testament states clearly and unambiguously that ‘it’ is inspired. As we have seen, the canon has a history. Some books were considered secondary, even disputed. II Peter was one of these secondary books and II Timothy was considered marginal. This means that two of the less important books make claims about source writings which they know. The term Scripture means ‘writing,’ simply ‘writing’. We have no means of knowing which books they are speaking about. We cannot, must not, assume that II Timothy 3:16 is referring to the twenty-seven books of the canon which we adopt. We do not know how many such writings II Timothy knew. We cannot say that this passage represents the New Testament teaching about itself. The passage reads: ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’ The marginal note correctly indicates that the language is ambiguous. It reads as an alternative: ‘Every Scripture inspired by God is also profitable. . . .The ambiguity is inherent in the Greek construction. The text reads: pasa graphe theopneustos kai ophelimos pros didaskalian. There is no verb, no ‘is’ in the sentence. Rendered word for word, which in this case is not misleading, the passage reads: ‘every writing inspired and (or also) profitable for instruction.’ We have to supply ‘is’. But the writer does not indicate where we shall put it, and so we do not know which of the following alternatives he intended. We can read either: (l) ‘every writing is inspired and profitable’ or (2)‘every inspired writing is also profitable’.

In the first case we have supplied ‘is’ after graphe ‘writing.’ In the second case we have supplied it before kai (and), which, since it then introduces a second adjective ophelimos, is translated ‘also,’ as it often is. There is no stretching or distortion. To translate the passage as in 2. is to render into English a perfectly normal usage from Greek. The sentence is ambiguous in Greek and requires consideration of both (1) and (2) to render that ambiguity. So much for the language.

Therefore, first, we cannot say which books the writer refers to either from the meaning of the words of the passage, or from its context. We cannot, therefore, construct from this one use of the term ‘inspired’ a theory of the authority of the whole Bible. Second: the term is used only once, and the associations with the Greek culture render it unsuitable for use as the basis of a doctrinal theory. It is only as the concept of inspiration is duly qualified that it may be used as a theological principle. Even then it has serious limitations. This is because the Biblical materials are so diverse that we cannot impose one and only one model of inspiration on them.

Even if it were the case that the Bible claimed that the Bible had authority, that the Bible was ‘inspired,’ holy, set apart, that would not prove that it was. We just cannot take as a general principle: What x, say a book, claims to be it is or, If someone makes a claim, that person is the something he claims to be.  That we must establish on other grounds. Not all those who claimed to be prophets inspired by God were prophets inspired by God. Several stories in the Old Testament make the point that other considerations than that a person makes a claim have to be carefully weighed before a decision is reasonably made about the claim.

We mentioned the Greek concept of inspiration. The word theopneustia itself is not biblical. It is not found in the Septuagint but it is part of the religious vocabulary of Greece. Inspiration is a kind of possession. The state of mind is readily identified. It is a kind of madness, dementia, loss of wits and remembrance. The accompanying behaviour is unusual. The person has visions and utters words, is beyond consciousness and needs an interpreter to judge of their sanity and of the truth or falsity of the matter. When they speak they do not know what they say. ‘No man, when in his wits, attains prophetic truth and inspiration, but when he receives the inspired word, either his intelligence is enthralled in sleep, or he is demented by some distemper or possession.’ So it is necessary to ‘set up spokesmen to pronounce judgment on inspired divination.’

Christian theology of revelation could be developed along such lines. Were that done, the unusual behaviour of the individual would then have to be explained. If one took the problem boldly in hand, the unusual phenomena accompanying the visitation might be taken as evidence that it was authentic. The physical or psychological state would then be interpreted as positive evidence of the divine activity. But that is the very thing in question. It is illogical, and so irrational to argue from an unusual psychological or physical state for support of the trustworthiness of the sayings delivered. Plato knew that. An interpreter or ‘spokesman’ (prophetes) was needed to assess the whole business.

There were ecstatic ‘prophets’ in the Old Testament story, and they were considered to be mad. Their ecstasy was wild and contagious. It is as if something enters into a person from without and he becomes another person. Such is the literal meaning of ‘possession’ and ‘ecstasy.’ ‘The spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man.’ That was said of Saul. And when the ‘prophet’ comes with a notorious message to Jehu, his servants ask him, ‘Is all well? Why did this mad fellow come to you?’

But the Hebrew understanding of prophecy did not in the main develop along these lines, the lines of mantic possession. Nor did the Christian understanding. It could have done, and later to some extent it did. Philo the Jew spoke of the divine possessing the human and shaping words within the man. Many Jews treated their books as though they had been produced in this way. Some Christian writers use metaphors which suggest possession of the human by the divine. Athenagoras speaks of man as the flute and God as the flute player. The Holy Spirit is like a player blowing into the flute.

There is no suggestion on the part of the New Testament writers that this was the way they thought about the matter. They do not think of possession, nor of a verbally inspired text, nor of inerrancy as Philo had done. That was left to much later Christian writers for whom inerrancy and verbal inspiration was crucial. But from the beginning that was not the case. The reason for this is that they do not think of the activity of the Holy Spirit in this way. The Holy Spirit is active in the many and varied activities which make up the whole of the church’s life and witness. The whole Christian movement is inspired. Without the Spirit there could be no witness, no love, no unity.

The term used of ‘the writing’ in II Timothy 3:16, theopneustos, means literally ‘God-breathed.’ It is a combination of the words for ‘God’ and for ‘breath’, ‘breathing.’ The term ‘inspiration’ is a very free translation, and is thus inexact. As we have seen, the term, once used of the writings, calls on a whole range of meanings which are not suitable here.

Nor does the text claim a great deal for the ‘inspired’ writings. They are ‘profitable for instruction and for edification.’ That does not particularly set them apart from many other writings. The later high sounding claims made in the name of inspiration have no basis whatever in the modest association of theopneustos with edifying.

Writers up to and around AD 200 have various ways of describing what it is that makes New Testament Scripture different. The writings are sacred because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. The terms used vary. The writers are pneumataphorioi ‘bearers,’ i.e. instruments, of the Spirit. Their minds are ‘flooded’ with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the writings reflect the authority of Christ. The writings are kuriakai graphai (the Lord’s writings). Christ speaks through the writings. Some speak of the inspiration as having to do with the very words, and of the Spirit as foreseeing what would happen, e.g. that heresies would arise, and speaking appropriately to the situation they foresee. Sometimes Scripture is said to be perfect and infallible. Scripture is holy.

The term for ‘spirit’ in the Old Testament is ruach, in the New Testament pneuma. In both cases the term means ‘breath,’ ‘wind.’ Breath is air in motion, and without inbreathing air there can be no life. Breath is life-giving. Without breath there can be no speech. When the breath moves over the vocal cords and articulate sounds are produced, communication becomes possible. It is itself invisible but its results are quite visible and tangible. The term ruach is in the Old Testament books used of the life-giving power of Yahweh, and of the revelation he makes through the prophets to man. He breathes the ‘Spirit’ into the lifeless form and man becomes a living being. He sends his ‘Spirit’ and the prophet speaks the ‘word of the Lord.’

Since the term ruach, spirit, is a way of speaking of God, the writers of the Old Testament recognize that God is in some sense present in the very process by which he comes to be revealed. God is in some way present in the events which make possible the speaking of the prophet.

So the metaphor of inspiration, in-breathing, has connections with this process of revelation. The word of the Lord and the Spirit of the Lord are dynamically one. When ruach is used metaphorically, at its root is the idea of movement, creative and revealing movement. Breath is air in motion. So there are remarkable and sometimes devastating results. The wind moves mightily. Storms follow, and leave their trace. So it is with the Spirit of God.

It is clear that the ruach has many different meanings, and can express in concrete terms, physical terms, a quite basic conviction of the Old Testament, namely that God is active in the midst of his people in many different ways. The idea of God’s spirit influencing persons and events through persons underwent change and refinement as time passed.

The earlier prophets behaved in very strange ways. On those occasions when the ruach came upon them, entered into them, they were filled as the lungs are full of breath. So possessed, they did strange things. Then the spirit left them and they resumed their normal personalities and more normal activities.

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