The Inspiration of Scripture
By James L. Foster
If you are convinced that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, or further, that God dictated it word-for-word, and if you believe that the Bible’s attestation of its inspiration is a valid criteria for judging the validity of its claim or, in addition, that the Bible’s transmission and translation has been faultless through all of the centuries since it was originally penned, and if you are so convinced of these claims that you are closed to hearing evidence to the contrary, then perhaps this article is not for you and you should move on to other articles. However, if your primary concern is to discover truth wherever it may lead you, or however uncomfortable it may make you feel, then read on. But know also that the author of this article is coming from a place of deep commitment both to the person of Jesus Christ and to the study of the biblical record, a serious study that has spanned the past 55 years.
Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? Perhaps before answering this question one should consider the various elements of this statement. Those who make this claim are at least implicitly assigning to the word “God” a personal quality that at best is questionable. Even though the biblical writers themselves attributed various personality characteristics to “God”, it is apparent that they, like the rest of us, struggled to describe that which is utterly indescribable. The biblical writers of necessity had to resort to anthropomorphic language to describe God because that is the only language they knew. The assertion of the unembodied voice coming from a burning bush, whether it was real or in a vision, proclaimed God to be “I am I am.” (Exodus 3:14) which may come closest to a description of the Creator of any to be found. My understanding of this seemingly bizarre identification, is that God is whatever is, is Being itself, as opposed to a being. Any lesser description than this tends to be merely a magnification of what it means to be human. We have created God in our image as a person like us, only bigger. With this kind of anthropomorphism it is only logical to speak of God as one who speaks, who has desires like us, who is, on occasion offended and displays human emotions like jealousy and anger and love. How else can we speak of God? Even our pronouns attribute to God personhood Language fails us when we try to speak of the ineffable.
So how does God as Being itself communicate? And how can we know that it is Being that is communicating? There are no easy answers, but one can be sure it is not by long conversations carried out between two individuals face to face as one man to another. The biblical writer characterizes God’s communication that way because there are no other options. However, there is communication between Being and humankind, perhaps in the form of ecstatic visions, both aural and visual. But when this happens, they must still be reduced somehow to words if they are to be shared with other human beings. But the words necessarily must fall far short of the reality.
So how is it that we can speak of inspiration at all? If Being does not in itself physically speak, then where do inspired words come from? They can only come from the inner depths of the man or woman who has somehow touched the ineffable reality we call God. The words first arise out of Silence and, however inadequate a representation of Being they may be, they are then committed to some form of human communication.
Some of these words, in all probability, have come to be included in one or another of the sacred writings of the world. Some have surfaced in the writings of saints, and, occasionally they may even be heard in a Sunday morning sermon. But none do more than approximate the truth they seek to communicate, because the medium can never be the equal of the reality that is its source. God cannot be contained by words.
It also seems rather presumptuous to me that any collection of words can be labeled “the” word of God, as though there are no others. Let alone the fact that all our words fall lamentably short when it comes to communicating the ineffable, it is none the less the case that many persons throughout history have apparently had experiences with Being that they were compelled to try to communicate. These persons come from every age and every religion. They include both ancient and modern seekers whose writings are such as are recognized by others to have some special merit, some ring of truth. As such, their writings are often carefully preserved in order that the truths they enunciate may serve as a guide for future generations.
Problems arise, however, when these writings are rewritten or translated into other languages by persons not necessarily so inspired as the saints who originally penned them. The processes of transmission and translation have been shown to be rife with errors, either intentional or accidental. This is certainly true of the biblical writings we have today and, I suspect, is likewise true of most, if not all, other sacred texts. There are also demonstrable errors of fact that even the original authors included in their writings. To enumerate all the errors to be found in the Bible would require a book length treatise. Whence come the errors? Did the original authors misunderstand the messages they thought they were hearing? Or, alternatively, did Being itself get it wrong on occasion? Not likely!
Then there is the oft quoted biblical passage, 2 Timothy 3:16, in which the Apostle Paul categorically states, “All scripture is inspired by God…” This is commonly applied to both the Old and New Testaments, in spite of the fact that the New Testament and some of the Old Testament had not yet been written or included in a canon, official or otherwise. There were no gospels, for example, and no Acts of the Apostles. There may have been a collection of Jesus’ sayings, and some of the Apostle Paul’s letters and the Letter of James, but none of these had been formed into a canon of scripture at the time Paul wrote to Timothy. So what were these scriptures that he claimed were inspired? To include Paul’s letters would seem to be a self-serving claim. It is as though I should say of this treatise that it is to be treated as divinely inspired scripture. I could say it, but my saying it would not make it so. (Self-attestation is always suspect. as a witness to truth because of the obvious conflict of interest it presents. Whether or not a particular writing is deigned to be inspired is for others to decide, not the author.) What was available as scripture when Paul wrote Timothy is the Psalms, the Torah and some of the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament, though at the time of Paul’s writing even these were not combined into a widely accepted canon.
As to the formation of the canon in the second and third centuries CE, the process was so fraught with power politics, that it hardly inspires confidence that they got it right. It was not a meditative and spiritual or even a reasoned process leading to a well-considered conclusion. It was a contentious and sometimes violent process through which those who had the most political power got to have the final say. Through threats of excommunication and imprisonment and death, unscrupulous religious leaders with highly questionable motives decided what writings were to be included in the official canon of Scripture. All other writings were to be destroyed. Is this how divine inspiration works?
Add to all of the above the widely divergent interpretations of what has come down to us as Scripture, and one is forced to conclude that whatever divine truth there may be in the Christian Scriptures may be something like the proverbial needle in a haystack That truth may only be discerned through a process of inspired reading not unlike the original authors may have experienced in the process of writing. Prayerful reading of a text may not be a guarantee of divine discernment, given our tendency to be subjective, but openness to truth wherever it may be must certainly be one prerequisite to finding it. With that openness we may even find it in unexpected places and from seemingly unlikely sources. This prescription for seeking the divine communication, even if subjective, is still better than uncritical acceptance of self-serving claims of inspiration.