The Church Fathers Debate Biblical Inspiration

Ben Myers has an article at Faith and Theology about two of the most prominent and influential Christian church fathers, Marcion and Origen, and their differences when it comes to the questions of Biblical inspiration and the barbarism of the Old Testament. First, Marcion’s view:

As far as I can tell it is Marcion who comes up with the first full-blown “Christian” theory of biblical inspiration. It is fundamental to Marcion’s system that the Hebrew scriptures are divinely inspired. They are a perfect, utterly reliable revelation, word for word and letter for letter. But there’s a sinister twist in this doctrine of inspiration. For these Hebrew scriptures are inspired not by a good God but by the Demiurge, the wicked god of the Jews. In Israel’s scriptural writings this god has given us a completely reliable revelation of his (monstrous) deeds and character. Corresponding to Marcion’s theory of inspiration is a commitment to literal interpretation. Read literally, the Hebrew scriptures plainly show the Jewish god to be a god of violence, wrath, jealousy, injustice, ineptitude, and petty legalism.

Marcion is right, of course, as was Thomas Jefferson when he described the Hebrew deity as “cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.” But at least he didn’t do what so many Christians do today and dismiss the barbarism of Yahweh as mere allegory or as great mysteries to be explained by God himself when we die. Origen, on the other hand, anticipates the current view quite well:

And this is where the theory of biblical inspiration comes into play. In authoring scripture, Origen argues, God has deliberately planted all sorts of interpretive obstacles: problems, difficulties, mistakes, morally objectionable stories, and so forth. These manifold obstacles lead us to press beneath the surface of the text and to search more deeply for its spiritual meaning. Such spiritual exegesis isn’t just a scholarly technique. It requires ascetic purification, the spiritual transformation of the reader. So the problems in scripture – the same problems which Marcion takes as proof of divine wickedness – are planted there by God to lead us into the depths of spiritual life, just as a wise teacher might plant mistakes in a class discussion in order to lead the class, gently and unobtrusively, towards the truth.

Origen’s exegesis lays the foundations for all later Christian interpretation of scripture.

Indeed it does, complete with a great deal of intellectual dishonesty, special pleading, wishful thinking and vague nonsense.

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