Inspiration and Its Implications

Inspiration and Its Implications March 11, 2014

All traditional church confessions and bodies at some place affirm the “inspiration” of Scripture, but it is not always clear what that might mean when it comes to reading it or listening to it. Does it make the Bible unlike all other books in all ways? in some ways? and how so?

Michael Graves has asked this set of questions and has sought to answer that same set of questions by exploring how the church fathers looked at the inspiration of Scripture (The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture). (We need a similar book on Judaism contemporary to the 1st Century because as the gospel moved into the Roman and Greek worlds it began more and more to move away from the Jewish world, and a sketch of the Jewish evidence would provide for an important historical comparison.) Graves has given to professors and pastors alike a richly resourced study of how the church fathers approached and interpreted the Bible. I recommend this book for all libraries.

Graves develops (more or less) seventeen theses, each richly supported by evidence from the church fathers (Yes, he moans over the suppression or absence of church mother voices). His approach is to ask what the entailments (or implications) of inspiration were, that is, if one believed the Bible was inspired, what did that mean as one read it? What were the ideas associated with believing in inspiration?

(No one I suppose believed each of these with the same emphases, nor can I develop each of the points Graves makes here. A list gives a powerful set of images for us to see how the fathers thought about Scripture. Can anyone deny these elements are bits of historic orthodox thinking about Scripture?)

1. Useful for instruction.

2. Every details is meaningful.

3. Solves every problem we might put to it. Graves points out they did not think the Bible solves everything though a few did. In other words, some thought the Bible talked about what it talked about but not all we’d like it talk about. They thought it told us what they needed to know about how to live before God.

4. Biblical characters are examples for us to follow.

5. Supreme authority in Christian belief and practice. It is the highest authority over all other sources, including nature and church theologians.

6. Divine illumination is required for biblical interpretation. I find this element in Graves’ book a major help for all of us… the fact is that they believed only the spiritual could get to the bottom of God’s revelation in Scripture.

7. Scripture has multiple senses.

8. Accurately predicted the future, especially about Jesus.

9. Speaks in riddles and enigmas.

10. Etymologies convey meaning.

11. God is directly and timelessly the speaker in Scripture. Yet, it is clear that while some thought God alone is the speaker, others kept that balanced with the human author (Antiochenes).

12. Represent stylistically fine literature.

13. Events actually happened. Yet among Christians — as among Jews of that time — some “events” were not seen as historical — say the Garden of Eden and what happened there (see Origen, Didymus the Blind, Ambrose). The Antiochenes disagreed on the Garden of Eden and its events. Though the Antiochenes could call into question the historicity of Job.

14. No errors in its facts. They did see problems but they thought they could be resolved. Origen was more redaction-critical on the Gospels in seeing more theology at work than just history. Augustine thought both the Hebrew and Greek of the OT were inspired. Some conceded minor discrepancies (Tertullian).

15. Does not conflict with “pagan” learning.

16. The original text is authoritative.

17. Internally consistent.

18. Does not deceive.

19. Agrees with a recognized external authority.

20. Teachings must be worthy of God.

Yet, Graves’ conclusion is quick to point out diversity within the church fathers so much so that no one can claim absolute continuity with the church fathers. We affirm and disagree with the fathers in differing ways.  The ad litteram focus of much of modern Christianity’s Bible reading (grammatical, etc) is in tension with the fathers. Contemporary meaningfulness can be ignored and applications today are often seen as authoritative as Scripture itself.

In particular, we can learn how they focused Scripture: on its value for church life and belief. They focused on Jesus, Scripture was read in the context of the church’s faith, it was worthy of God, and they believed divine illumination was necessary for biblical interpretation. Graves, too, contends there is no way — neither through church authorities, tradition or grammatical exegesis — to eliminate subjectivity in interpretation. The locus then can’t be shifted from the individual as each of us in community seeks to discern God’s will. Variety in interpretation then is of value to the church.

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