Inspiration and Revelation

Inspiration and Revelation September 8, 2018

The usual way for discussion of the Bible as “inspired,” “infallible,” or “inerrant” to proceed is for conservative theologians to decide in advance what those terms mean, assume or argue a priori that they apply to the Bible, and then shoehorn the Bible into the box.

That this is inappropriate at best, and an attack on and distortion of the Bible at worst, rarely gets mentioned.

So I appreciated the post on the blog Euangelion about Amos Yong’s effort to expand what inspiration might mean in light of inductive evidence from the Bible itself, and in particular the Book of Revelation.

Here are some of the things we might say about the inspiration behind the Bible if we work in this inductive manner:

1) The voice we hear – everything from its style and grammar to its substantive focus and distinctive turns of phrase – is the voice of the human author. It may be that the author was comvinced that they were speaking for God, and they may even dare to speak as God. But the uniqueness of each voice is clearly audible, especially if one reads them in the original languages, and can only be denied if such evidence is ignored or deliberately obscured.

2) They get things wrong as well as right. Atheist critics reacting to a fundamentalist heritage that used to be their own will tend to latch onto errors the same way their former selves would tout things as precise predictions (sometimes implausibly distorting the text in order to construe it as such). The fallible human authors are better appreciated as insightful but fallible, rather than being distorted by ideologically-driven attempts to define scripture as either inerrant or trash.

3) The focus is on the context in which the work was produced. Even a vision of a distant future in which Egypt worships the God of Israel (as we find in Isaiah 19) reflects the interaction of Judah, and of the prophet, with Egypt in that time. Revelation is about the Roman Empire and Christians within it, and only by extension does it have to do with us.

4) We are prone to misinterpret even (and sometimes especially) texts that are (or we think are) familiar to us. That is the only way to explain how so many people can think that the expectation of a transformed earth in the Book of Revelation is about a “heaven” that people go to after they die. (The trees should have given it away.)

What else would you add to a list of principles that ought to inform any view of “biblical inspiration” based on what is actually found in the Bible, rather than being formulated in the abstract and the Bible then forced to conform to it?

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    This is a really good topic, James. It’s hard for me to think of positive inductive statements instead of negations. These days, I think of the writings as, “Hey, this would be useful for a believing community,” which I think probably has more influence on canonicity than anything. And that perhaps is something we can induce, maybe not entirely from the biblical text, although this is pretty much what 2 Tim. 3:16-17 says – Scripture is useful for certain categories. If we’re trying to avoid injecting our own definitions of what it means to be “God breathed” and only go on the basis of what we can conclude from the text, then I offer “usefulness.”

    • Neil Brown

      The other passage in the bible that I turn to for understanding what the ancients thought of the bible is Psalm 119. The Psalmist rejoices and delights, he longs and reaches out and loves God’s decrees.
      So as well as “useful” we can add “delightful” and synonyms.

  • John MacDonald

    I prefer the event of a “conversation” rather than a “sermon” in the sense of “pontification.” If some element alerts your moral Spidey Sense, it is an opportunity to discuss, not just close your eyes and follow blindly. Of course, this is true of any teaching.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    I can agree with you on the whole, but I have one little quibble to address:

    We are prone to misinterpret even (and sometimes especially) texts that are (or we think are) familiar to us. That is the only way to explain how so many people can think that the expectation of a transformed earth in the Book of Revelation is about a “heaven” that people go to after they die.

    So…are you saying that there’s no heaven or afterlife? 😕

    • That you asked this actually illustrates the point I had in mind, and so perhaps it is just as well that I left it to be clarified in the comments. Like many Christians today, your understanding of an afterlife is “going to heaven when you die.” You apparently haven’t noticed that what the Book of Revelation envisages is resurrection from the dead and life on a new earth, featuring a new Jerusalem that has descended from heaven.

    • John MacDonald

      I wonder if this fits in with when Mark says (Mark 12:25) there is no marriage at the resurrection, because the people will be “like (ὡς)” angels in heaven, not that they will actually be angels in heaven?

  • Tom

    Do you have any comment on Friedman’s, “Who Wrote the Bible?”.

    • No. What about it did you have in mind?

      • Tom

        I wondered if you had read it and what you thought of it. It is centred on the Documentary Hypothesis. It was required reading at my Seminary and I just picked up the second edition for a re-read.

  • robrecht

    “The voice we hear – everything from its style and grammar to its substantive focus and distinctive turns of phrase – is the voice of the human author. It may be that the author was comvinced that they were speaking for God, and they may even dare to speak as God.”

    James, would you be willing to also extend this principle further back behind the NT authors and agree that Jesus’ voice also is that of a human and therefore sinful author struggling to communicate his vision of God and his kingdom?

    • I do think that there is a tendency to do the same thing with Jesus that inerrantists do with the Bible, namely obliterate all trace of genuine humanity. The word “sinful” in your statement is what might seem most controversial from the perspective of classic Christian orthodoxy. I wonder whether in using it you are in fact equating human fallibility with sinfulness? Claiming that Jesus never learned anything because he had no need to, having perfect knowledge throughout his life, is directly at odds with the explicit statement in Luke that Jesus “grew in wisdom.”

      • robrecht

        I realize that I kind of snuck in the ‘sinful’ thing. On purpose, and a little impishly, I must admit.

        I tried bringing this up once before a few years ago and I understand that it is difficult to talk about for those of us who are respectful of orthodoxy.

        To try and answer your question, no, I would not necessarily and fully equate fallibility with sinfulness, but certainly they must be related to some extent. One who is not fallible in any way will also presumably be incapable of sinning.

        But rather than merely looking at the logic of the question, do we really see the historical Jesus as fully human? As fully like each and everyone of us? Or was he magically or miraculously or by nature or supernaturally or otherwise incapable of any sin whatsoever?

        Don’t ask me to explicate the sources at the moment, but I recall reading some Jewish rabbinic and Talmudic sources speaking of ‘sinlessness’ in an apparently limited or more ordinary fashion, not in a reified absolute way as in orthodox Christian doctrine but, for example, over a certain period of time, something akin to a Nazirite vow perhaps. Thus I think of Jesus (and his blessed mother too, BTW*) as really good human beings, exceptional in many ways, but I resist any tendency toward magical protection against any kind of error (doctrinal or moral). It just seems inhuman and unrealistic. Surely the perfection of humanity is free of sinfulness, but was Jesus really perfectly free of any indulgence in his human limitations? I kinda hope not …

        *Raised as a Catholic, I really love the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it is perhaps my favorite of all the dogmas insofar as it tends to illustrate the ideal of perfect humanity. But as much as I love the dogma for all of its mythological beauty, I do not think it actually has any bearing on historical reality.

        • John MacDonald

          Surely the perfection of humanity is free of sinfulness, but was Jesus really perfectly free of any indulgence in his human limitations? I kinda hope not …

          Well, Jesus might have been a glutton and a drunk (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34), and he also lied (John 7:8-10). He also lost his temper from time to time (The Temple Tantrum; “Get behind me Satan;” etc.)

          • robrecht

            I would only caution against seeing anger or losing one’s temper as necessarily sinful. Anger can be perfectly justified and a very good response to injustice and evil. I do not say this to defend Jesus, but rather to defend our human emotions.

          • John MacDonald

            I was just pointing that out against the “elegant caricature” some people have of Jesus. I personally like the fact that he knew how to kick butt when the situation required it!

          • John MacDonald

            He taught that fig tree a lesson, lol.

          • robrecht

            I don’t know whether the fig tree episode has its origin in an actual event in the life of Jesus, but in the gospel of Mark it clearly seems to function as a prophetic curse on Judaism and its temple for the author who is writing shortly after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. This Markan Sitz-im-Leben does not necessarily deny some historical core in the life of the historical life of Jesus, but it does tend to question it. This condemnation of the Judean authorities who are seen as somehow bringing about the deserved wrath of God can also be seen in the contemporary writings of the Judean priest Josephus recently relocated to the capital of the Roman conquerors or even in the much earlier writings of the Judean prophet Jeremiah.

          • John MacDonald

            The way Mark sandwiches the fig pericope with the temple one seems to suggest that just as it is no longer the season for figs, so too is it no longer the season for the temple.

          • robrecht

            Yep.

        • I appreciated the impish mischievousness very much! I just wanted to be sure to avoid responding in a way that adopted the framework imposed by so many fundamentalists, that whatever is fallible is sinful, that doubt and ignorance are sinful. I actually have an idea for a book about Jesus learning that I am planning on sharing here in the very near future.

          I agree with you completely, though, that trying to shield any human being or product from either cognitive or moral error is unrealistic and misguided at best, and idolatrous at worst. The view that Jesus spoke as soon as he was born and taught others without ever having to learn does go hamd in hand with the idea that Jesus knew right from wrong without needing to be taught – even apart from the question of whether he always did what he was told.

          Then again, the Gospel of Luke comes up with a creative excuse for Jesus disrespecting his parents as a child….

          • robrecht

            Long live the ‘impish mischievousness’ of Jesus and those of his followers who have grasped even a little bit of his evil genius.

          • John MacDonald

            Like the way Jesus taught the crowds in parables, but didn’t explain them (Mark 4:11-12), lol

          • robrecht

            No, that’s just more of Mark’s attempt (following Paul) to theologize the Jewish rejection of Jesus’ teachings, using a text from the prophet Isaiah. The evil genius of the historical Jesus is a little more difficult to ascertain or imagine.

          • John MacDonald

            What is the nature of this evil genius Jesus has? I’m curious…

          • robrecht

            JFC, I’m not Jesus, just a stupid former Franciscan trying to figure him out. I have my guesses, but at best I just presume that any genius is an evil genius. He turned the tables on the authorities, but Mark and the other evangelists only understood him to a limited extent. We do our best to go beyond that but, for all I know, you understand him much better than me.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t see him at all – maybe a passing glance in a crowd if I study hard enough.

            I have a lot of training in Socratic Questioning, and am more comfortable trying to get at the essence of what someone else thinks than what I think. Never underestimate the power of a “Leading Question.” The method served me well as a classroom technique when I used to be a public school teacher.

            As for the essence of Jesus, I think that shines through in the Gethsemane prayer. He was alone, terrified, but willing to fulfill God’s will. I like Dr Ehrman’s characterization of Jesus’ death when he says: “In Mark Jesus appears to be in shock, is silent the entire time, seems not to understand why this is happening to him, up to the end, when he cries out asking God why he has forsaken him. And then he dies, never having received an answer.” I tend to think Jesus trusted God to answer his Gethsemane prayer and to save him, which is why Jesus went so quickly from being terrified to being calm in Gethsemane (compare Heb. 5:7). Jesus might have thought his willingness to die, like Isaac’s, is what answers future Israel’s sins, not the actual death.

            I am trying to become a better student so that I can see Jesus more clearly. I didn’t grow up in a religious home so I am mostly trying to fill in the background knowledge so I can become better at approaching these questions.

            Even though I am not religious, I think it’s important for secular people like myself to study Jesus, since he is arguably the most influential person who ever lived.

          • robrecht

            OK, so maybe you don’t understand him much better than me, but we’re still reduced to guessing based on sources with obvious limitations and our own intuitions based on whatever limited insight we have been able to attain during our short lives on this stupid planet. Socrates is good, Jesus is good, but we’re only trying to connect with these long dead icons based on very limited sources. I don’t think growing up in a religious home necessarily helps much in trying to understand Jesus’ message, except insofar as his message might have been rather anti-religious. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus was also religious in some sense, but not necessarily in the same sense that we understand what it means to grow up in a religious home. In the end it doesn’t really matter; we just do the best we can based on our our own limited understanding. On this I think Jesus would certainly agree. But WTF do I know? Hebrew, sure. Aramaic, yes. Greek, very well. NT scholarship, absolutely. But is that a special insight into the teachings of Jesus (a little), the perfection of humanity (very doubtful), of the perfection of moral and theological reasoning (OMG, not at all). I believe in ‘seat of the pants’ theology. We all learn from our experience as best we can, and we are responsible for what we think and believe, but there are no authorities when it comes to what really matters.

          • John MacDonald

            our short lives on this stupid planet

            I sense anger in you… Odd that so much learning has not brought you more satiety. Perhaps you are looking for a power greater than any ex-Franciscan. Perhaps there is something for you here: http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/2018/03/examining-easter-peering-behind-veil-of.html . (Darth Abominatio) – fin.

          • robrecht

            I’ve only gotten about half-way through your link; will finish it later. I’m probably about as angry as the next guy at the injustice of the world. The key for me is to speak the truth and encourage justice wherever you can.

          • John MacDonald

            The key for me is to speak the truth and encourage justice wherever you can.

            Agreed!

  • Pastor Craig

    People had an experience with God. They could only retain and explain their experience in words. Words cannot fully transmit an experience like that from one person to another. So they spoke as best they could, but the words do not fully describe it. In any case, these words were written, copied and re-copied by people. People translated from one language to another (translation is inherently interpretation). People decided what to include in the Bible and what not to inlcude. People read the Bible in light of their knowledge and understanding of the world, which has little or no relationship to that of the author or the translator.

    People are imperfect. One slight mistake along the way and all is lost. Literal interpretation of the Bible is a fools task.

    The purpose of the Bible is to bring us closer to God. By reading, contemplating, praying, meditating, studying, conversing, reading blogs etc. we can only begin to understand. But that pursuit of understanding is what faith is all about. What I believe today is different than what I believed yesterday, and if I take my faith seriously, is different than what I will believe tomorrow. Faith is journey for which the Bible is an excellent guide; perfect in that it moves us along in our journey, but it is not and can not be literal.