Can Verbal Inspiration become a Deism?

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 7.20.49 AMBy Kaz Yamazaki-Ransom, a Japanese New Testament scholar. He earned his Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and his dissertation was published under the title The Roman Empire in Luke’s Narrative (T&T Clark International, 2010). His works have been published in English, Japanese, and Korean, including two entries in the second edition of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP, 2013). His research interests include Luke-Acts, narrative criticism, the New Testament and the Roman Empire, and the use of the Old Testament in the New. He is president at Revival Biblical Seminary in Aichi, Japan and the chair of the Japan Evangelical Theological Society, Central Japan Chapter. He blogs in Japanese at “Through a Glass” (1co1312.wordpress.com). He currently lives in Aichi, Japan with his wife, Doria, who is American, and their three teenage daughters.

In the 1980s, discussions regarding the nature of the Bible (i.e., bibliology) caused a heated controversy in Evangelical churches in Japan.  A number of Japanese Evangelical leaders began the process to adopt the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as the doctrinal basis for Japanese Evangelicalism. The few dissenting voices that pleaded for a more cautious approach on the authority of the Bible were suppressed, and the CSBI became the foundation of the Japanese Evangelical churches. In February 1987, the Japan Protestant Conference (JPC) adopted a statement concerning the authority of the Bible that defended a strong inerrantist position similar to that of the CSBI. Since then the topic of bibliology, especially inerrancy, has been virtually taboo in Japanese Evangelical circles.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of the debate concerning bibliology among Japanese Evangelicals. Most likely encouraged by the current discussion on the topic in Western Evangelicalism, some notable Evangelical leaders in Japan began to voice their concerns about the too-rigid concepts of biblical authority, such as inerrancy and verbal inspiration, and propose a more nuanced approach to understanding the authority of the Bible.

What do you think of Kaz’s “icebox theory” and does verbal inspiration become a deism?

One example is the publication of Mitsuru Fujimoto’s Evangelical Faith in the Bible: Its History and Possibility (Tokyo: Word of Life, 2015). With detailed historical research, Dr. Fujimoto convincingly demonstrated that historically, the Evangelical faith has embraced a nuanced understanding of the authority of the Bible, much broader than what the CSBI would permit. I am glad to call Dr. Fujimoto my colleague and friend.

I myself wrote an article entitled “Apostolic Hermeneutics in the New Testament: A Suggestion for Contemporary Evangelicalism” for the Japanese journal Evangelical Theology, in which I argued that the New Testament writers’ interpretation of the Old Testament was not constrained to the method of historical-grammatical interpretation, which is the standard method of biblical interpretation for contemporary Evangelicalism.

In this essay I would like to share my thoughts about a certain view of the Bible that is held widely among contemporary Evangelicals, namely, the idea of verbal inspiration. When I posted this essay on my Japanese-language blog, as a response to a series of magazine articles by Dr. Fujimoto and other pastors on Evangelical faith in the Bible, the number of hits I received instantly skyrocketed. I don’t have a comment section on my blog, but after my post some believers took to social media to vent their frustration with this new movement. Others, however, commented on how they feel relieved that the hush order regarding bibliology that has been in place for the past 30 years finally seems to be lifting.

Verbal inspiration claims that the divine inspiration of the Bible goes all the way down to the level of the biblical authors’ choice of words. Verbal inspiration is not to be equated with inerrancy, but the two concepts are closely connected. Some think that inerrancy requires verbal inspiration.

The view of the Bible assumed in such concepts as inerrancy and verbal inspiration is that the authority of the Bible lies in the fact that the Spirit-led biblical authors wrote down the Bible as a collection of eternally true propositions about God and the world. It is as if these propositions were preserved in the Bible (at least in its original manuscripts) in a “frozen” form. The readers of the Bible in later ages, if they apply the correct method of interpretation, can “thaw” the frozen propositions to recover the original message by God. This process is called “exegesis.” I would call this an “icebox view” of the Bible.

For the icebox view of the Bible, the concept of inspiration has to do primarily with the point of time in the past when the actual biblical texts were written down, when God “froze” his true propositions and put them in the icebox. The contents of God’s message have not changed since then because, well, it’s eternally true. The correctness of our interpretation solely depends on how we can properly “thaw” the message and retrieve the original true propositions.

People often make the distinction between “inspiration” (the Holy Spirit’s work on the biblical authors) and “illumination” (the Spirit’s work on the readers of the Bible today). Through illumination, it is argued, the Spirit guides the believer and helps him or her to reach a correct understanding of the Bible. I am not denying the idea of illumination at all, but this does not change the basic idea of the icebox view of the Bible. Illumination has only to do with how to redeem the corrupt human reason that is affected by sin, but it does not change the truth of the message that is already there. The same can be said about the distinction between the “original intended meaning” of a biblical text and its “contemporary application.” For the icebox view of the Bible, the authority of Scripture is ultimately based on the propositional truthfulness of the original manuscripts, which remain unaltered since the biblical authors wrote them down. Of course, the problem is that no one today has access to the long-lost original manuscripts.

Now, it seems to me that this way of thinking looks very much like that of Deism. According to Deism, God created an autonomous universe governed by natural laws, and after the “initial impact” of creation, God withdrew from the world and has not been interacting with it in any supernatural ways. The God of Deism created the world as a fully functional “machine,” but after setting the world in motion he walked away and does not care much about it anymore. Interestingly, some Deists argue that they do believe in God’s providential intervention in the world after creation, which makes the analogy with the icebox view of the Bible all the more intriguing. But as long as Deists reject God’s supernatural intervention, such as special revelation, the point is the same: God may interact with the world after creation, but the main force of God’s action concerning the world focuses on its origin.

Of course, every analogy is necessarily incomplete, but my point is this: for both Deism and the icebox view of the Bible, the center of God’s relationship with the world is the “genesis point,” whether that of the perfect world or of the perfect Word. Both of these views put a great emphasis on the initial impact of God’s work, but not so much on the later, continuous interaction of God with what he created. So, in a sense, the icebox view of the Bible is “Deistic.”

But is such a view of the Bible correct?

I firmly believe in the inspiration of the Bible, but the icebox view of the Bible seems extreme and does not fit the reality of the Bible. If the Bible’s authority is based on the propositional truthfulness of the original manuscripts that are long lost and no longer accessible to us, by definition the authority of the Bible as we have it today is imperfect, because the human endeavors to recover the original wording and meaning of the biblical texts (textual criticism and Bible translation) will necessarily remain imperfect. Also, this kind of thinking could produce an authority-wielding situation in the church where those who possess “better” texts and/or more accurate interpretations have more power over others.

When Paul wrote to Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos)” (2 Timothy 3:16a), he was not talking about verbal inspiration. He was not talking about the propositional truthfulness of the Bible (and by the way, “all Scripture” here refers to the Greek translation of the Old Testament and not the 66 books of our Bible in its original manuscripts). Instead, he was talking about the function of the Bible, how it “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (vv. 16b-17). It seems to me that Paul is saying that because the Bible is a God-breathed book, when we as Christians read it in our own historical contexts, the Spirit of God will work powerfully through it and transform us. In this sense, the Bible is an inspired book, the Word of God, but unless real transformation is taking place in our lives, we cannot say that we have read the Bible correctly. Thus, although I wholeheartedly acknowledge the benefit of studying the original languages and rigorous academic exegesis, I am wondering if sometimes an uneducated, simple believer can read the Bible “better” than a professional biblical scholar.

Of course, the non-Deistic Christians who acknowledge God’s supernatural interaction with the world after creation can fully embrace the importance of creation. Likewise, I readily acknowledge the importance of the work of the Holy Spirit in the production of the Biblical texts. But if we put too much stress on that “genesis point,” there might be the danger that we neglect or downplay the importance of the power of God working through the Bible today. Yes, God worked through the biblical authors and helped them to write down the true, authoritative texts for the church. However, the authority of the Bible is not so much the authority of “eternally true” propositions. It is rather the authority of the story into which the people of God are invited to participate, as N.T. Wright says. And for the biblical story to have authority, it has to be told and retold in the ongoing lives of believing communities. God did not walk away from the icebox after he put his frozen message in it, leaving it for us to unpack, but he is continuously working through the Bible when the people of God in various historical contexts read it and participate in the grand story it narrates.

Wright also states that Deism is very close to what he calls the “split-level” worldview, in which the supernatural realm of God and the natural realm of humans are neatly separated. God is understood, to use his expression, as an “absentee landlord.” Deism, according to Wright, “is still the default mode for most of Western culture” (Simply Good News, p. 131).

The proponents of inerrancy and verbal inspiration typically reject Deism for its denial of special revelation, but their underlying assumption—the icebox view of the Bible—reflects the same kind of “split-level” worldview as Deism, and ends up assuming the image of an aloof and detached deity.

This, I believe, is the greatest of ironies.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.