Thursday, September 23, 2004

The inspiration of Scripture

I. Self-Witness of Scripture:

Traditionally, the Church has confessed the plenary, verbal inspiration of Scripture. And many Christians still take this for granted. But ever since the 19C, that position has come under increasing attack from within the very ranks of the Church. So it is important to ask ourselves, what is the theology of inspiration? And are we committed to this doctrine, or is it a ball-and-chain that is holding us back?

A. Self-conception.

The Bible identifies itself with the word of God. For example, a number of the prophetic books begin with the following phrase: "the word of the Lord came to…" (Jer 1:2; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zeph 1:1; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1; Mal 1:1). This introductory and programmatic formula functions like a cover letter that applies to the internal contents of the entire collection so designated. It supplies the prophetic credentials. To take another example, the formula "thus says the Lord" occurs hundreds of times in the prophets.

B. The Prophetic Institution.

This characterization goes back to the institution of the prophetic vocation. In Deut 18:15-20 we have the formal institution of the prophetic calling. This is set over against false forms of divining God’s will (vv10-11,14). One difference is that, in pagan divination, man takes the initiative, whereas in prophecy it is God who takes the initiative by "raising" up the seer (vv15,18).

Deut 18:15-18 has both a collective and distributive aspect with reference to the prophetic guild in Israel as well as a personal and end-time aspect with reference to the Messiah. I have characterized this passage as bearing witness to the formal establishment of the prophetic vocation, for the phenomenon of prophetism antedates this institution. Noah’s malediction (Gen 9:25f.) and Jacob’s benediction (49:1 passim) were both prophetic. Abraham was also a prophet (20:7). But there are two differences:
a) To our knowledge, Moses and his successors mark the advent of a class of writing prophets. And so they serve a canonical function—among other things.
b) Israel was a theocratic nation-state with a divine law code regulating its religious and socio-political existence. The prophetic guild had an integral role in the life of the theocracy—alongside judges, monarchs and priests (cf. Deut 17:14-18:8).

In Deut 18:15-20 the prophetic institution is modeled on Moses, the paradigmatic prophet (vv.15,18-20). The basic qualification of a prophet is verbal inspiration (v18; cf. Isa 51:16a; 59:21; Jer 1:9; Ezk 3:4). A prophet is a divine mouthpiece. And it follows from this role that divine inspiration and divine initiation are correlative, for the former relies on the latter. Conversely, the corollary to a true prophet is a spokesman who presumes to speak for God without benefit of verbal inspiration (v20; cf. Jer 14:14; 23:16b,18,21,26; Ezk 13:6). A false prophet speaks without divine leave or unction. So the mark of a prophet is that he says everything God gave him to say, and only what God gave him to say. And that is what is meant by plenary verbal inspiration.

The same identification is made in the NT. An example is the citation formula employed by the author of Hebrews. He bypasses the human writer or speaker and attributes an OT statement directly to different members of the Trinity (1:5-13; 2:12-13; 3:7; 4:3-5,7; 5:5-6; 6:14; 7:21; 8:8; 10:5-7,30; 13:5). Whatever the Bible says equates with divine speech.

This sort of self-attribution is uncommon in the NT. What accounts for the contrast? There are two or three reasons:
a)The stereotypical formulae (i.e. "thus says the Lord"; "the word of the Lord came to so-and-so") were a literary convention of the prophetic genre, proper. Since only one book of the NT falls within that genre (the Apocalypse), we would not expect its systematic use elsewhere. Not coincidentally, the Apocalypse does employ prophetic formulae.
b)In some measure the NT is addressed to a Gentile audience. These literary conventions would be less meaningful to an alien audience.
c)Once the precedent has been established, verbal inspiration can be assumed. Even in the OT, not all of the prophetic books are prefaced with this formula.

Having said that, the NT has its own way of asserting inspiration. Paul goes out of his way attribute his Gospel to direct divine revelation (Gal 1-2). And he even paraphrases the traditional formula (1 Thes 2:13; cf. 1 Cor 2:13; 14:37).

But the NT also characterizes its own message by means of narrative and redemptive historical theology. When John the Baptist comes on the scene, this is quite dramatic because it marks the resumption of prophecy (Lk 1:15; 3:2; Jn 1:33)—after a hiatus of over 400 years. And when Jesus coordinates the work of the Spirit with the work of the Apostolate, this is a way of initiating his disciples into the prophetic tradition (Jn 14:26; 16:26-27; 16:12-13; 17:20; 20:21-22).

Jn 14-17 represent the NT counterpart to Deut 18:15-20. The Old Covenantal institution finds its antitypal fulfillment in the New Covenant (Acts 3:22-23), while Pentecost signals its actual inauguration (Acts 1:8). If, therefore, verbal inspiration defined the OT prophetic office, and such an institution foreshadowed the New Covenant, then that same unction can hardly apply with diminished vigor in the fullness of fulfillment.

C. Primacy of revelation.

God must take the initiative in the revelation of his nature and will. Even though redemptive events may take place in the public domain, their significance is not self-evident. It is due to the natural opacity of the divine degree that God established the prophetic guild (e.g. Isa 6:1ff.; Jer 23:18,22; Amos 3:7 ; Gal 1-2).

D. Providence.

Someone might object that my appeal is one-sided. For the Bible also identifies its message with the words of men (e.g. Jer 1:1; Amos 1:1). This is true. But we must guard against pitting the human effect against divine causality, as if these were cofactors which delimit each other. The relation is subordinate, not coordinate, for God not only forms the prophetic speech, but the prophetic speaker (Isa 49:1-5; Jer 1:5; Gal 1:15). It is true, then, that inspiration is mediate rather than immediate. The human agent is the proper object of inspiration. But that does not eliminate the principle of causal priority, for God is the author of the author. So the human side of Scripture is, itself, an expression of the divine side.

Not only so, but the whole of history is made to match up with God’s word. Predictive prophecy is a case in point (e.g. Isa 41:21-26; 42:9; 43:9; 44:6-8; 45:21; 46:10; 48:5-7). Inspiration is, itself, a subset of special providence, which is—in turn—a subset of general providence.

E. Unity of truth.

Someone might object that my appeal is selective. I have hitched my case to the prophetic institution. But we can’t generalize from that to other occupations and genres. But this objection is flawed:
i) Prophetic inspiration is not narrowly limited to forecasting the future. Moses is the prophetic paradigm. Yet precious little of the Pentateuch is prophetic in the predictive sense. Most of its contents are concerned with history and law. For that matter, Moses is also the prototypical Psalmist (Ps 90). Asaph, a lyric poet, is also called a prophet (2 Chron 29:30). Some prophets assumed the role of royal historian (e.g. Nathan, Gad, Samuel, Iddo, Ahijah, Isaiah, Shemaiah). Much of what we find in the "Prophetic" division of the OT canon is also occupied with history and law. Oracular inspiration does not, therefore, terminate on a particular literary genre or subject-matter. Direct revelation is a subdivision of inspiration. And as I’ve pointed out under (i), this institution extends to the NT as well—or rather, resumes and culminates with the NT.
ii) Prophetism was a charismatic calling and not a job description. You didn’t have to quit your day job to be a prophet. A judge (Deborah, Samuel), monarch (e.g. David), musician (Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, Miriam), priest (e.g. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jahaziel), historian (e.g. Gad, Iddo, Ahijah, Isaiah, Shemaiah), statesman (Daniel) or lowly shepherd (Amos) could each receive the prophetic enduement. James classifies Job as a prophet (Jas 5:10-11). Indeed, the only professional prophets were the corrupt court prophets (e.g. Zedekiah, Hananiah). So it would commit a category error to limit oracular inspiration by genre, medium or subject-matter.
iii) Turning this around, the mark of a false prophet is not that he makes a false forecast. Such failure would, of course, brand him a false prophet. But the negative proposition doesn’t entail a positive principle, for a false prophet can venture a true prediction (Deut 13:1ff.). Rather, what makes for a false prophet is to speak for God when God has not spoken to him.
Now it would be hard to name any author of the Bible who doesn’t assume the role of a divine spokesman. Regardless of genre, they represent God’s will to the reader. So inspiration must be a general condition of any of the sacred writers.
iv) There is, in Scripture, a general correlation between what God says and what he does. God’s word interprets his work. Put another way, God reveals his nature and will in event-media as well as word-media. Various events are a form of sign-language, and you learn how to decipher the gestures by reading his Word. As such, we cannot compartmentalize redemptive history from the general narrative of Scripture. And by the same token, we cannot abstract away the historical context in order to isolate and identify an inspired core.
v) It is instructive to see what use our Lord makes of the OT to establish a point. He assumes the historicity of Abel (Mt 23:35), Adam & Eve (Mt 19:4-5), Lot’s wife (Lk 17:32), Jonah & the whale (Mt 12:40), the Flood (Mt 24:38-39), the manna (Jn 6), the miracles of Elijah and Elisha (Lk 4:25-27), &c., and builds on these precedential examples to validate his own argument. There is no effort to compartmentalize inspiration or historicity according to genre or subject-matter. His appeal roves widely over the whole OT, taking it to be a reliable record of real events.

F. Virtuous & vicious circularity:

But even if this is an accurate summary of inspiration in its wider web of theological relations, why credit these claims? Isn’t this appeal viciously circular?

Although a bare appeal to the self-witness of Scripture would be tendentious, this is a necessary, if insufficient, condition in the doctrine of Scripture; for unless the Bible laid claim to inspiration, there would be no claim to consider. Furthermore, the object of our affirmation or denial ought to be the self-witness of Scripture, for it would be nonsensical to frame a doctrine of Scripture that doesn’t take the self-witness of Scripture as its point of reference.

Even in a court of law it is perfectly proper for a defendant to take the witness stand. And it would be entirely unfair for the jury to dismiss his testimony in advance. A defendant may be innocent and be a very compelling witness in his own defense. And who, moreover, is in a better position to explain the psychological dynamics of inspiration than the very subject of inspiration? In the nature of the case, a prophet will have the inside track on this phenomenon.

G. Self-evidence of Scripture:

By way of positive evidence, I have offered a number of arguments in my essay on "Why I Believe."I would, for now, offer three lines of evidence:


II. Self-evidence:

The above lines of evidence supply internal evidence for the inspiration of Scripture. Such an appeal is not viciously circular, for it is not predicated on passages that lay claim to inspiration, but rather, to properties of Scripture that imply its inspiration. In this sense, the inspiration of the Bible is self-evidentiary. Self-evidence and internal evidence are correlative.

A. Self-evidence & persuasion:

A common error is to treat self-evidence and persuasion as correlative as well. But that counfounds the objectivity of the evidence with the receptive state of the subject. Persuasion is person-variable. An argument may be logically compelling without being psychologically compelling. Whether an otherwise compelling argument is convincing to the subject depends on the disposition and aptitude of the subject. Many things are self-evident to a chess prodigy or math whiz that are inevident to an ordinary mortal.

B. Self-evidence & apriorism

Another common error is to limit self-evidence to truths of reason as over against truths of fact. However, an existential proposition can also be a necessary truth. Take the proposition: "If Jesse is David’s father, then David is Jesse’s son." Since fatherhood and sonship are correlative, the conclusion follows by strict implication even though the premise is existential.

III. Internal & external evidence:

What is the relation of external to internal evidence? Are they coequal? Does one verify or falsify the other?

A. Evidentiary asymmetry:

It may be contended that if external evidence is capable of corroborating the internal evidence, it’s also able to disconfirm it. In that case, Scripture is open to falsification. But I would deny that symmetry:
i) If it were a case of having more of the same kind of evidence for one proposition over against a contrary proposition, then the conclusion would have something going for it. If the only way of verifying claims of Scripture were by way of external corroboration, and the extant evidence weighed more heavily against a Scriptural proposition than for it, then that would be disconfirmatory and leave Scripture open to falsification. But since the internal and external lines of evidence do not proceed from the same database, one can’t make a direct comparison. While they may implicate a common claim, they don’t implicate each other.
ii) The self-evidence of Scripture is cogent on its own grounds. Supporting evidence or secondary counter-evidence wouldn’t render the self-evidence any more or less evident than it already is. Opposing one type of evidence to another doesn’t, by itself, undermine either for the obvious reason that it doesn’t point us in any particular direction, but would—at most—leave us at an impasse.
iii) The self-evidence of Scripture is more compelling than any secondary counter-evidence.
iv) Luke is not falsified if he were to contradict Josephus or Tacitus at some point or another, for the Bible never staked its truth-claims on satisfying that sort of condition, and there is no reason why we should expect perfect correspondence between the two. Some claims have no initial presumption in their favor derived from self-evidence or internal evidence. So they live or die based on their degree of factual correspondence. But that’s not where Scripture enters the picture.
v) Even when we’re dealing with the same kind of evidence, I would not agree that corroborative evidence and secondary counter-evidence are on a par. It is much harder to explain factual agreement between two independent witnesses if one is unreliable than to explain a conflict consistent with the veracity of one or the other. The world at large didn’t take much direct interest in the Jews and the Christians, so the vast bulk of the ancient record, even if it had survived, wouldn’t touch on the history of God’s people. We have a few rare references, as well as some incidental information that implicated aspects of their common history. Only a fraction of a fraction of the collateral materials have survived, riddled with gaps in their chronology and geography. It is nothing short of phenomenal when we are able to fix on a synchrony between any secular record and a Biblical event. How could one possibly account for that correlation unless the event took place?

In other words, a lucky coincidence between two independent records is im- measurably less likely if one witness were unreliable than if both sources accurately preserve the memory of an actual event, whereas a discrepancy doesn’t impugn the credibility of either witness unless we have reason to take the one source as our standard of comparison. So when, time and again, we can match a Biblical referent to a secular source, this is inexplicable unless the Bible is trustworthy. But a mismatch doesn’t have to satisfy the same improbabilities. If a public event occurred, it’s not surprising that two independent sources would agree on its occurrence, assuming they mention it at all, and they both survived. But if it never happened, what was the originating cause of the correspondence?

Conversely, there are numerous reasons why secular history might at times conflict with Scripture without prejudice to the veracity of Scripture. The secular witness may be a hostile witness. Or he may not accurately recall certain details. Or his expectations may have skewed his perception of the incident. Or he may be filling in the gaps with guesswork. Or he may be relying on faulty second-hand information. Or he may be lying to further his personal ambitions—or those of his boss. Or our own collation of the evidence may pivot on a number of mutually adjustable variables (e.g. stratigraphy, typology, pedology, cross-dating, sequence-dating, ascension years, coregencies, and calendrical systems). So there is no probabilistic parity between a match and a mismatch. Therefore, an appeal to circumstantiation in no way detracts from the absolute authority of Scripture.

B. Advocacy & accuracy:

Christian apologists often avoid beginning with the Bible since the critic will charge that it is hardly a disinterested witness. And so they start with corroborative evidence. I have no objection to bringing in outside witnesses. But it lets the critic off the hook all too easily when we don’t force him to come to grips with the Bible’s self-witness.

Imagine if someone were to say, "Look here, if you want to learn about life in the death camps, you can’t start with a book by Elie Wiesel, for he’s got an axe to grind. You need to read an objective account. You need to read a Nazi instead of a Jew!" Yet that’s the attitude that liberals bring to the NT. They treat it as so much propaganda. But they wouldn’t treat Wiesel’s writing as propaganda. The key question is not whether a writer has his tendenz. The key question is, What is the origin of this tendenz? Wiesel has good reason for hating the Nazis. He lived under them. The NT writers are not neutral sources of information. But that’s because they to speak from experience. To admit a bias does not imply that you must have slanted the story. The NT writers tell us that their faith is based on sight—on eyewitness observation and eyewitness testimony.

It is invalid to drive a wedge between advocacy and accuracy. For it all depends on motives. Many people apply a different standard to the Bible because it’s a religious document. But the relevant question is not, Are these writers men of faith?—but what accounts for their faith? And what accounts for their devotion to this particular faith?

IV. "Docetic" inspiration:

It is sometimes said that the high doctrine of Scripture commits the docetic heresy by virtually denying the human element in Scripture. This accusation amounts to a cute but careless comparison:
i) Our christology is only as good as the inspired source of our christology. So it is self-defeating to set christology over against inspiration.
ii) It is illicit to draw a point-by-point correspondence between the Incarnation and inspiration, for there are discontinuities between the two phenomena. The nature of redemption required the Son to assume a lowly status. He had to become a sympathetic high priest (Heb 4:15). He had to undergo abject anguish in order to consecrate himself for this office (5:8-9). He had to become subject to the liabilities of the law (Gal 3:13; 4:4-5; Phil 2:7-8). But all of this is inapposite to the purpose of revelation, which is to inform people of God’s acts, attributes and will, of the human condition and man’s duty before God, and the way of salvation. It informs not only by providing vital information that is otherwise unobtainable, as well as confirming some of our natural intuitions and observations, but also by correcting our faulty assumptions and conclusions. Not only is fallibility inessential to this informative role, but would clearly interfere with the precise purpose of Scripture.
iii) Even if, for the sake of argument, we granted a strict analogy, orthodox theology has always held Christ to be an infallible teacher, so if the comparison is to hold, the Bible must also be inerrable. Only if one subscribed to the kenotic theory would the premise (and conclusion) not obtain. But that would be a case of reacting to one christological heresy by embracing another christological heresy.
iv) When liberals frame their doctrine of Scripture in reaction to docetism, they’re committing the same offense which they (falsely) accuse conservatives of, inasmuch as they deduce their theory of inspiration from a dogmatic a priori. By contrast, the conservative doesn’t extrapolate his doctrine of inspiration from some fishy analogy but takes it straight from the self-witness of the source in question.
v) A sacred author doesn’t only get his inspiration from God; he also gets his humanity from God since he is a creature of God. And God doesn’t create him in a vacuum, but creates him in history. Creature and culture are coordinated. Our humanity and socialization can never be boundary conditions on inspiration, for the human side of Scripture is no less the product of divine agency than direct revelation. It’s all a matter of means.

V. Sources of Scripture:

A common objection to the inspiration of Scripture is the claim that Scripture can be deconstructed into a number of different sources. But problem with this claim is not that it is false, but that it attributes false sources to Scripture—by conjecturing all manner of made-up sources. We should take our cue from what the Bible has to say about its own sources of information and composition:

i) Eyewitness observation (e.g. Num 33:1-2; Jn 1:14; 19:35; 21:24; 1 Jn 1:1-3,5; Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16; 2 Pet 1:16-18).
ii) Eyewitness testimony (e.g. Lk 1:1-4; 1 Cor 15:3-7; Heb 2:3b).
iii) Special revelation (e.g. Exod 4:11-12,15-16; Deut 18:18-20; Isa 1:1; 6:1ff.; Jer 1:1ff.; Ezk 2:1f.; Hos 1;1f.; Joel 1:1; Amos 3:7-8; 7:14ff.; Obad 1:1; Mic 1:1; Nahum 1:1; Hab 1:1; Zeph 1:1; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1,7; Mal 1:1; Gal 1:15-16; Rev 1:1,10,19; 4:2).
iv) General revelation (e.g. 1 Kgs 4:29,32-33).
v) Prior revelation (e.g. Dan 9:2; Zech 1:4-6; 7:7,12).
vi) Divine inscripturation (e.g. Exod 31:18).
vii) Divine dictation (e.g. Exod 33:11; Num 12:8a; Deut 34:10)
viii) Extra-canonical materials (e.g. Num 21:14,27-30 [cf. Jer 48:45-56]; Josh
10:13; 2 Sam 1:17-18; Heb 11:34ff.; Jude 9,14).
ix) Personal experience (e.g. Job 42:5a; Eccl 1:14; 9:13f. Hos 1:2; 3:1-3)

All of Scripture is inspired (2 Kg 17:37; Hos 8:12; Rom 3:2; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19-21), but not all of Scripture is revealed. Direct revelation is a special case of inspiration, but inspiration is a special case of providence.

In addition, inspiration does not rule out all forms of editorial activity. But where the Bible specifies such activity, it is largely limited to a non-creative role: transcription (e.g. Jer 36:4,32; Rom 16:22; 2 Thes 2:2; 3:17; 1 Pet 5:12) and/or collation (Ps 72:20; Prov 25:1; Eccl 12:11).

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