Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Italian Job

I'm going to comment on Michael Heiser's theory of inspiration. I'm going to quote some representative statements from his series, then respond.

I’ve been thinking about inerrancy a good bit lately–not whether I want to surrender it, or whether it’s a term that has any value or not. My thoughts have focused on the Peter Enns dismissal from Westminster. I think they made the wrong decision, and the reasoning behind the decision has troubled me as to the state of clear thinking in a theological institution I have admired for a long time. You may or may not be familiar with Enns or his dismissal or its circumstances, so I don’t want this discussion to be about Peter. That said, his book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (which led to his dismissal) raised some very important issues for any coherent articulation of inspiration and inerrancy. I think he was doing the Church a great service. It’s really been appalling to see how the side opposite Enns seems to be painfully unaware of the reality of the issues the book raises and has retreated to 17th century articulations of inerrancy as authoritative, or to more recent articulations produced by scholars who seem under-informed (i.e., they aren’t in the field of OT, the ANE, and Semitics) as to what Enns is trying to address. Like me, Peter’s field is OT and ancient Near East (his PhD is from Harvard). 

i) In one respect I agree with Heiser. I think it's best not to frame the issue in terms of the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Divines weren't prophets. They couldn't foresee certain modern challenges. So the Westminster Confession isn't designed to address certain modern challenges. 

It would be better if confessional seminaries supplemented their traditional doctrinal standards with modern statements that specifically address modern challenges. 

ii) However, Enns had no cause for complaint. He sought employment at a confessional seminary. He knew that going in. He sought tenure with eyes wide open. Those were the terms of his employment. So the administration has every right to fire him if he flouts the doctrinal standards of his institution. 

iii) The classic Protestant doctrine of inspiration is based on the self-witness of Scripture. That can't be sidelined by modern challenges. 

iv) Enns took an interdisciplinary approach. He didn't confine himself to the OT. He also discusses apostolic exegesis. So NT scholars (e.g. Beale, Carson, Poythress) are qualified to challenge his analysis. 

Likewise, Enns proposed an "incarnational" model of inspiration. However, That's an issue of philosophical theology. So that makes some Christian philosophers and theologians (e.g. Frame, Helm) qualified to challenge his analysis.

Finally, Heiser's statement is dated. At the time of writing, OT scholars hadn't weighed in, but several years later, his position has been challenged by OT scholars like John Currid, Noel Weeks, and Bruce Waltke.  

Just as no one would argue God whispered which books were “in” to those people debating such a thing, we do not need God to whisper each word into the ear or mind of the Scripture authors. There is no need for dictation or automatic writing, any more than there was a need to dictate the canon list or seize the minds of those making such decisions. It was providence.
The next obvious question is “How well did the process work?” This is another way of asking whether God preserved the human agents from making any mistakes. In the case of the canon, mistakes would mean not recognizing a book that ought to have been recognized. I exclude the notion in that statement that something got in that shouldn’t be in. That is theoretically possible, but in my mind highly unlikely, especially for the Protestant evangelicals that I’m guessing make up most or all of my readership. Evangelicalism has a minimalist canon – the smallest of the lists that emerged in any widespread Christian tradition, so the problem becomes whether something that ought to be in was excluded in what has become the evangelical Protestant Bible. Moving back to the inspiration issue, mistakes would mean errors in the text. This brings us full circle back to 2 Tim. 3:17.

That analogy is equivocal. Indeed, Heiser himself seems to sensitive to the equivocation. If the analogy were tight, it would go something like this: 

If God could providentially prevent the church from making mistakes in which books to canonize, God could providentially prevent Bible writers from making mistakes. 

The problem with that analogy is that Heiser thinks Bible writers did make mistakes. So the analogy is disanalogous. 

Let’s face it – once God made the decision to use people to produce Scripture rather than dictate content to us that would have been mostly incomprehensible to our puny minds, he had chosen a very limited resource. I imagine God looking down and shaking his head as it were, knowing the only way to communicate with us would be to use us to that end. God had specific purposes in mind and more or less said “Well, I’ll prompt them with my Spirit, other believers, and general providential intervention to get them to write down a record of my dealings with humanity, my purposes, who I am and what I’m like, how they can know me and be forgiven for their sin, how I came to them in human form and then the incarnate Son. . .” etc., etc. “I’ll make sure they get across what I want them to get across, not only for them but for all those who will follow, especially those who believe.” God knew that letting men do this would be ugly (relatively speaking, with respect to his perfection) – that they’d bring their pre-scientific ignorance to the table, along with a specific, localized cultural perspective. But hey, that’s what he chose to work with. What else would they be?

i) What content does Heiser think would be incomprehensible to our puny minds? 

ii) Heiser constantly uses "dictation" as his foil, but he fails to define what he means by that. 

iii) Why does he assume the alternative to "dictation" is accommodating prescientific ignorance? 

1.      While God certainly knows how to use human language, does the human language in question have the vocabulary that would allow God to communicate scientific truths to the original recipients? Could God have communicated full, precise scientific information about, say, how human reproduction works (cf. the 1 Cor 11 article here, where Paul connects this to women’s hair; and the information has to be full and precise, lest God accommodate himself to humans!). So . . . what are the ancient Greek words for: zygote, oocyte, chromosome, DNA, etc.? It’s about an ancient language being insufficient for a host of scientific issues, not God’s ability.2.      While God certainly knows how to use human language, do the human recipients have the capability to understand what is being said?  Let’s say there was a way for God to communicate 20th and 21st century science in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (think about that statement for a moment and ask yourself if you really want to side with Grudem here). Let’s say God uses those words – and he would certainly be capable if those words existed in the languages – and really spells out exactly how the cosmos was created (never mind the fact that the writers wouldn’t be aware of what a cosmos is) and where babies come from (it isn’t implanting a seed in a woman for it to grow – we need genetics here).

Why does Heiser think Paul's argument requires "full, precise scientific information" to go through? Why assume Paul's argument can't be based on general truths about human procreation? In addition, it's possible to simplify scientific truths without misrepresenting scientific truths. A statement can be accurate even if it leaves out many technical details. 

This example is both simple and inescapable. Here are the bare facts:(1) We do indeed have synoptic gospels that have conversations between Jesus, the disciples, and other people.(2) The synoptic accounts frequently disagree as to the precise wording of the dialogue in those accounts. They cannot all reflect the ACTUAL “in real time” words of the people who speak them, since “in real time” people uttered only one set of words in any given conversation.

This equivocates over what it means to "disagree." Does he mean they use different words, or does he mean they are contradictory? For instance, two sentences can use different words, but share the same meaning because they employ synonyms. 

Likewise, one writer might paraphrase a conversation while other writer might quote verbatim. But both could be accurate records at the level of meaning.

(3) No one was around in the first century with a tape recorder taping the conversations. As such, the gospel writers are writing down their recollections of the dialogue.

That's misleading. It's true that gospel writers relied on their memories. However, inspiration refreshed their memories (Jn 14:26). So Heiser erects a false dichotomy between inspiration and memory, as if unaided memory was all they had to go by. 

(4) The Spirit cannot be dictating the words of the dialogue since the dialogue disagrees. Aside from the fact that we’d have a schizophrenic Spirit if we insisted on the Spirit being the originator of divergent utterances in dialogue (this is yet another reason to see humans as the immediate source of the words), since the conversations occurred once in real time, there is only ONE set of precisely correct utterances that were uttered. There cannot be three, and so we cannot say the Spirit is whispering the EXACT words that were uttered into the ear or mind of EACH author.

i) I don't subscribe to the dictation theory of inspiration, but as long as critics treat it as a limiting case of verbal inspiration, let's play along with that theory for the sake of argument. It would be possible for God to dictate verbally different accounts of the same event. For instance, the same human writer may give variant descriptions of the same event. To take one example, Ruskin had an experience in Siena that left a lasting impression on his mind. He wrote about it on at least three different occasions:

#1 The fireflies are almost awful in the twilight, as bright as candles, flying in and out of the dark cypresses. 

#2 While in Siena, in a hill district, has at this season a climate like the loveliest and purest English sumer, with only the somewhat, to me, awful addition of fireflies innumerable, which, as soon as the sunset is fairly passed into twilight, light up the dark ilex groves with flitting torches or at least, lights as large as candles, and in the sky, larger than the stars. We got to Siena in a heavy thunderstorm of sheet-lightning in a quiet evening, and the incessant flashes and showers of fireflies between, made the whole scene look anything rather than celestial.  

#3 Fonte Branda I last saw with Charles Norton, under the same arches where Dante saw it. We drank of it together, and walked together that evening on the hills above, where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air. How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves. How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky calm behind the Gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, "Cor magis tibia Sena pandit," and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars. 

ii) Heiser has a deficient concept of truth. A true description needn't use the same words. There's a one-to-many relation between words and meaning. Look at Ruskin's description of the Sienese fireflies. He gives us three verbally different accounts of what happened, yet these can all be true. Indeed, Ruskin was a stickler for detail. He had a keen eye, and a precise vocabulary. 

(5) All the above can apply to ANY conversation or dialogue in the Bible. No one recorded it. We are only brought to this realization (most clearly) when we have synoptic accounts, so I use them as illustration.

God has a mental record of everything everyone ever said (even before they said it). If need be, God can reveal that to the narrator. 

What this means is that we have certain possibilities when it comes to the dialogue of the gospels:(1) ONE of the gospel writers got every word exactly correct – he has recorded each and every word as they were uttered in real time.(2) NONE of the gospels got every word right. That is, ALL of the dialogue in the gospels or any given passage may be simply recalled by the writer (in different ways) in a manner sufficient (to God) for giving us a faithful representation of a conversation that occurred. This is sort of “small f” fiction – since each writer is using whatever words that seemed best to communicate the conversation.

It is not "fictitious" to convey the sense of what was said, even if you use different words. Heiser's characterization is tendentious. 

And so we have the dilemma. I put the question this way: Is there a coherent explanation of how God did not dictate the Scriptures or seize the mind of the human author, but where the words are produced only by God so that the human writers are in no to be viewed as the source of the writing that was produced?  Put another way, How can you deny anthropopneustos, that humans are responsible for what is produced, while at the same time avoiding both dictation and automatic writing?

i) Well, that's a straw man. classic exponents of verbal inspiration, like Warfield, don't take the position that the words of Scripture were "only" produced by God. 

ii) God can cause, determine, or predetermine what words a Bible writer through predestination and providence. At one level, God has a "script" for whatever happens. At another level, God implements that script in time and space.

iii) God created the Bible writer by creating a system of second causes. God creates the Bible writer's historical situation by prearranging the course of history. All of his experiences are part of God's master plan. What the writer does is the effect of those often subliminal influences. 

Let's take an illustration: In The Italian Job, Lyle hacks into the traffic light system to reroute the armored car. The driver is unaware of the fact that he's being guided to go wherever Lyle redirects him to go. The driver makes conscious decisions, based on the available forced options. 

1. The term theopneustos refers to the IMMEDIATE source of the Scriptures – and so we have God breathing out the Scriptures directly to the writers. How did he do that? Did it happen as some sort of audible “whisper in the ear,” or did God implant each word into the head / mind of the author? The former is quite clearly dictation. The latter is very close to that — Is there a difference between aural and mental dictation? Whether you want to call it dictation or not, you have God PROVIDING each word; he is the immediate source of each word. This is probably where most evangelicals are in their understanding of inspiration. This view not only takes theopneustos as meaning God provided each word as the immediate source of all the words, but it also requires that humans aren’t the immediate source of any of the words (remember the Westminster Addendum’s firm denial of anthropopneustos). But humans have to have some sort of role (no one denies the Scripture was *written* or that God was literally holding the pen as it were). This is where the notion that humans are “secondary sources” of inspiration comes in. So, to summarize, God is the immediate and primary source of inspiration, and humans are secondary sources. None of the words of the text ORIGINATED with humans. But again, if we are saying that none of the words of Scripture originated in the mind of a human author, how does this escape some sort of dictation or automatic writing (where the human agent goes into a trance state and is taken over by an outside invisible force that writes for him / her)? What I want to see is an explanation of how this understanding simultaneously avoids both of these dictation options and still has no words ORIGINATING with the human authors. Good luck.

There's more than one mode of inspiration. But in visionary revelation, the seer is in a trance state. In that altered state of consciousness, he not only sees things but hears or overhears speakers using sentences. When he awakens, he transcribes what he heard. In a sense, he is taking dictation. He's a stenographer for what he heard. Take the reported conversations in the Apocalypse. 

These ideas fail to view inspiration as a PROCESS, rather than an event. There was no “event” of inspiration with respect to an entire book. Yes, there were divine encounters, and on rare occasions those resulted in written material, but that material was actually only part of a bigger book. Inspired books, though, were not the product of an event or a series of supernatural encounters. They were the result of a long process of successive providences and hard work on the part of the human writers. Here’s how most conservative evangelicals seems to view inspiration (as event). Imagine with me, if you will, Isaiah getting up for breakfast. His alarm clock goes off, he rolls out of bed, brushes his teeth, and goes to the kitchen for breakfast. He rustles up some eggs (hold the bacon and sausage) and toast and sits down to enjoy it. Suddenly he’s zapped by a bright light, his mind is seized and overtaken by God. He probably doesn’t hear God speaking (we must deny dictation, remember), but he knows the Spirit has overtaken him. In what seems like only a few moments, he comes to and voila! Before him lays a scroll filled with words. God has chosen him once again to be the conduit of revelation! The prophet Isaiah carefully rolls up the scroll and deposits it with the rest of the inspired material before the ark of the covenant. Then he goes back home and reheats his breakfast in the microwave.

i) Heiser fails to distinguish between revelation and inspiration. Revelation is an event, whereas inspiration is a process. Take visionary revelation, where the seer is "zapped" by God. 

ii) Is the seer's mind "seized by God"? In one respect, what's the difference between a revelatory dream state and a waking state? In both, the mind is processing stimuli. The human mind didn't produce this stimuli. Both seer and observer are on the receiving end of this process. In the case of visionary revelation, he's processing simulated visions and auditions. It's psychological rather than physical. But in both cases the source is external to the recipient. 

iii) Now, that's not a correct model for how Luke wrote his Gospel. Luke's Gospel was inspired rather than revealed. Contrast that with the Apocalypse. 


  1. "So the administration has every right to fire him if he flouts the doctrinal standards of his institution. "

    That kinda depends on whether the Protestant idea of "always reforming" has meaning, or is just a lot of twaddle.

    Of course the reality is, all Protestant institutions are totally irreformable,, no matter how right or wrong they might be.

    1. "Always reforming" doesn't mean change for the sake of change, much less deforming our theology. We should reform our theology if our theology is out of whack with Scripture. Enns is saying just the opposite. He thinks Scripture is out of whack, so we need to revise our theology to steer around the alleged errors of Scripture.