The Bible, Inspiration, and Fundamentalism

Chris Heard was “inspired” by a recent blog post of mine to share some thoughts on his blog about the Bible and inspiration.

First, let me emphasize that, had the terminology of “inspiration” been widely used in the Bible as a way of indicating the distinctive character of sacred texts, I would not have made the proposal that I did, that English speakers “mean what they say” when using the term. If this were a discussion about a Biblical term, then obviously looking at the “plain meaning” or any meaning of the English word that translates something in Greek or Hebrew would not be the way to draw conclusions.

It is interesting to see just how infrequently the term “inspired” and related words appear in English translations of the Bible. Where it does occur, it renders a very varied number of expressions in Hebrew and Greek, with more literal meanings ranging from “the Spirit of the Lord spoke, and his word was on my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:1) to “the oracle” (Proverbs 30:1) to “the man of the spirit” (who in Hosea 9:7 is said to be demented – using the Hebrew word from which the Yiddish meshugganah derives).

In all of these instances, the very act of a particular song or passage being marked out as “inspired” implies that the author of the book in which the oracle or inspired speech is embedded is not claiming the same status for the work as a whole.

Be that as it may, it is problematic to group such diverse phrases – which themselves leave open the nature of the phenomenon of inspiration – under the umbrella of the English word “inspiration” which itself is normally used for a broader phenomenon not limited to the writing of Scripture. But to the extent that the term is used, its breadth is precisely what makes it appropriate, because there is no single concept of “inspiration” in the Bible or in universally-accepted later creedal statements about the Bible.

In discussing creeds and the avoidance thereof by some Christians, Mason Slater hints at the actual order of logic for many of those who speak of Biblical inerrancy or infallibility in our time:

I believe it, the Bible says it, that settles it.

One almost misses the days of the classic fundamentalists, whose stand, however problematic, was typically about things that could actually be found in the Bible, and not about the defense of the free market and the right to own a gun. The era we live in, in which large numbers of people believe that the Bible is inerrant, and because they are unfamiliar with the Bible’s contents, merely assume that their own views are what the inerrant Word of God articulates. It is a dangerous combination. And so it is crucial to emphasize that merely believing something is not good enough – as this image shared on the blog Unreasonable Faith nicely illustrates:

We need to move away from the idea that, when the head and heart seem to be in tension, faith and appropriate religious expression are always on the side of the heart – and this is nicely illustrated by a cartoon by David Hayward:

On this and related topics, see Chris Heard’s next post in what promises to be a series, and Roger Olson’s explanation of what he means when he says that the Bible is “trustworthy.” Andy Byers emphasizes that the Bible is very hard to read. And Alden Swan has a post on the ways churches today typically misunderstand Romans, and why.

  • Straw Man

    I noticed the swipe at “free markets,” implying that they are somehow unchristian. Not that I blame you; the term has been so thoroughly bastardized that neither you nor I really know what the other is referring to when he talks about “free markets.” The term is commonly used to refer to something very un-free: a collaboration of government and big business, whereby people are forced to buy products against their will, or competitors are forcibly driven out of business, or the government simply up and takes money from you (via taxation) and hands it over to big business (e.g., in “bailouts”). All of which is clearly and blatantly unchristian. The most vocal proponents of “free markets” are often the Republicans, and they are almost always advocating exactly this sort of abomination.

    Note though that their language is Orwellian in its incoherence. What is “free” about taking money from you and handing it over to Wall Street bankers? What is “free” about prohibiting anyone from operating a water utility, say, except the single government-authorized provider to the given area? What is “free” about subsidizing corn growers (and hence high fructose corn syrup) while placing prohibitive tariffs on sugar that keep the price in America roughly triple the world price?

    Before the term was hijacked in these ways, it had a coherent meaning that was perfectly consistent with Christianity. Namely, a “market,” meaning a place where people buy and sell, that is “free,” meaning that fraud, coercion and theft are not allowed. It’s precisely what you get when everyone involved refrains from stealing, false witness, coveting what is another’s, and violence. In other words, following the ten commandments automatically causes the “market” to be “free,” and to the extent that the “market” is “free,” the ten commandments are being followed.

    The result might or might not be something a Christian is happy about, of course. For example, the Bible takes a dim view of drunkenness, while not banning it outright. If everyone is free from coercion, fraud or theft, they might voluntarily exchange money for liquor, and become drunk. Similarly, pimping would be illegal, because it involves coercion and violence; but prostitution between freely consenting adults would be possible in such a “market.” The Bible makes prostitution a capital crime, so the Bible does not advocate a completely free market. It also makes blasphemy a capital crime, so in a “biblical market,” certain of Richard Dawkins’ books would be banned, and Dawkins himself would be executed.

    It’s great to see people protest legitimate evil, such as billion-dollar bailouts for banksters, or trillion-dollar wars on innocent populaces. But it’s troubling when they’re fooled by a simple equivocation on the meaning of “free market” to simultaneously advocate evil, in the form of coercion and theft. It’s just plain ironic when they do both simultaneously, as in condemning the bailouts while simultaneously calling people “selfish” for complaining about the taxation that feeds the bailouts and the trillion-dollar wars. They seem to do this because they’re very conscious that taxation, a taking by force, can be used for things they like as well as things they dislike, and they’re inclined to believe that a few million dollars going to poor people more than justifies several billion spent on creating new orphans and homeless at the same time.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Wow, that’s quite a long statement about something I mentioned in passing! :-) My point was not that a free market, however defined, is or is not compatible with a Christian viewpoint. My point was that there are those who assume that a particular definition of a free market economy correlates with one party’s stance being Christian and the other not. It is my impression that the Bible addresses other matters far more emphatically and explicitly.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      re:
      Namely, a “market,” meaning a place where people buy and sell, that is “free,” meaning that fraud, coercion and theft are not allowed. It’s precisely what you get when everyone involved refrains from stealing, false witness, coveting what is another’s, and violence. In other words, following the ten commandments automatically causes the “market” to be “free,” and to the extent that the “market” is “free,” the ten commandments are being followed.

      if the market truly reflected the ten commandments it would be closed on saturday and selling slaves the other 6 days.

      like JMcG wrote above:
      The era we live in, in which large numbers of people believe that the Bible is inerrant, and because they are unfamiliar with the Bible’s contents, merely assume that their own views are what the inerrant Word of God articulates.

  • http://twitter.com/JeremiahBailey Jeremiah Bailey

    You can see that part of the G goes over the high water mark. If there is paint over the high water mark, then someone probably painted this after the fact.

    • Beau Quilter

      If all paint washed off with water, then my house would have crumbled years ago.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    “The era we live in, in which large numbers of people believe that the Bible is inerrant, and because they are unfamiliar with the Bible’s contents, merely assume that their own views are what the inerrant Word of God articulates.”

    James, it’s obvious that you, unlike the people you criticize in this sentence, 1) consider yourself familiar with the Bible’s contents and 2) believe that it contains errors. Beyond this, however, what about the appellation “the Word of God”? I assume you distance yourself from this term as well – but how far? Your previous post leads me to believe that you consider the Bible to be the word of human beings about God, and not in any sense a communication from God. Please confirm or correct my assumption.

    • Beau Quilter

      Let me add that I think, in this sentence, James is employing a contemporary usage of the phrase “word of God” to mean the Bible. However, the phrase “word of God” as it appears in translations of the Bible does not have this meaning. At times it might be construed to mean the gospel story as told. At other times it can be construed to refer to the law books of the Old Testament. In John chapter one, of course, it refers to Jesus. But in the Bible, the phrase “word of God” is never self-referential. Any thoughts James on the original language terms that translate to “word of God”?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        I do not have a problem with people using the phrase “Word of God” metaphorically, as indicating that they encounter God in conjunction with the Bible and experience it as though God were addressing them through it. I personally avoid the phrase, because it seems as though many people who use it understand it to mean “the words of God,” as though when Paul speaks “as a fool” in 2 Corinthians, God is imposing specific foolish words on his mind/pen, with the result that if Paul had signed the letter “God” rather than “Paul” it would have been equally appropriate.

        • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

          I appreciate the answer but it really doesn’t address my question. You’ve indicated that you don’t have a problem with people who find thoughts from God when they look within the Bible’s pages (and I assume this can be whether they are inerrantists or not; that is, whether those thoughts from God are bountiful or few and far between). I am glad to hear that. My question is “Have you found thoughts from God when you read the Bible?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I can answer “yes” to your question and it still probably won’t satisfy you, since my view of the Bible has changed over the years, and even if I experienced something in the Bible as a challenge from God, for instance, that doesn’t disentangle whether it is a challenge from God in a form that could not come through some other literature outside the canon.

            • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

              I have read your answer three times and still cannot determine whether you said yes or no.

  • Marcus Kareem Walker

    Interesting post. In reading different versions of the bible, I have found a lot of words changed around which leads me to know without a shadow of a doubt, anything man touches there is a chance for error. For example:

    In one new living translation it states in
    Job 40:15
    15 “Take a look at the mighty hippopotamus. I made it, just as I made you. It eats grass like an ox.

    In another new living translation it states in
    Job 40:15
    15 “Take a look at Behemoth, which I made, just as I made you. It eats grass like an ox.

    In King James Version
    Job 40:15
    15 Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.

    Clearly there is error, and even when we are translating the bible we think we may be doing a favor for people by breaking things down a little more, but what we are doing is taking the potency of the scriptures and diluting it with our own carnal thinking. How did one editor decide a behemoth was a hippopotamus? With his own thinking that’s how. If we know what the two terms mean, we focus on and study them because something is not adding up..

    hippopotamus = A large thick-skinned semiaquatic African mammal
    Behemoth = A huge or monstrous creature

    Looking at those two definitions, it seems okay to agree this is what the scriptures are talking about, just using our logical thinking, but then we go further down and read the context of the scriptures surrounding Job 40:15.

    new living version which stated hippo
    Job 40:15
    15 “Take a look at the mighty hippopotamus. I made it, just as I made you. It eats grass like an ox.
    Job 40:17
    17 Its tail is as straight as a cedar. The sinews of its thighs are tightly knit together.

    new living version which stated behemoth
    Job 40:15
    15 “Take a look at Behemoth, which I made, just as I made you. It eats grass like an ox.
    Job 40:17
    17 Its tail is as strong as a cedar. The sinews of its thighs are knit tightly together.

    King James version
    Job 40:15
    15 Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
    Job 40:17
    17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.

    There is a new word that comes to play now, in all versions of Job 40:17 the words “straight, strong, moveth gets swapped around.

    we even have to take the word Cedar into consideration, Cedar = A large tree. my logical worldly knowledge tells me you cant describe the tale of a hippo as being a cedar in any kind of way… It makes no since at all.

    Lol, but anyways One thing remains true throughout all versions of the bible, English, Greek and Hebrew.. old testament and new testament. No one makes it to God the father except through the name of Jesus(Yeshuah) or how ever you pronounce and spell the name of Jesus in any other Language. If nothing else is, that is the one thing that is inerrant.

  • Susanne Schuberth (Germany)

    I have read
    your article very interested, particularly your sight of the proper use of the
    word ‘inspiration’. Regarding the comments, since you have ‘experienced something in the Bible as a
    challenge from God’, and, it seems to me (maybe I overinterpret it), you could
    be challenged by other (re)sources ‘outside the canon’ as well – do you think here esp.
    of the Apocrypha, or of any other kind literature?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Well, I think that any kind of literature can challenge us, and I doubt that there is anyone, even among those who give primacy of place to the Bible, who would deny that other literature can have a positive impact on us.


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