This is the fourth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:
- The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
- Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
- God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
- Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
- All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning
Once we relinquish the illusion of biblical infallibility and study the process of traditioning that led to the development of the Christian canon (see “The Bible is Not Infallible” and “God Did Not Write the Bible“), we are faced with an important question: Is there a meaningful way to continue talking about the inspiration of scripture? I believe that the answer to this question is yes, and in what follows I offer a brief sketch of what this might look like.
What It Means to Call The Bible Scripture. In the most basic sense of the term, scripture refers to a collection of writings that are normative for the church because they bear witness to the founding revelatory events on which the Christian tradition is based and to which it refers. While Christians trace their history through ancient Israel, they proclaim that the paradigmatic revelation of God happened in Jesus of Nazareth. So while the Old Testament is an indispensable part of the Christian Bible, the New Testament is given priority in Christian faith and practice because it focuses on this paradigmatic event. Furthermore, these normative texts function to perpetuate Christian faith and discipleship from one generation to another by preserving the memory of these originative events.
What It Means to Say That the Bible Is Inspired. When we say that the Bible is inspired, we mean at least two things. First, we mean that the Spirit of God inspired people in ancient Israel and the early church to deeply reflect on personal and communal experiences of redemptive transformation and to preserve and communicate these reflections through oral and written traditions. Furthermore, we proclaim that the Spirit of God was at work in the traditioning process by which the Bible came to be to give future generations trustworthy testimony about God’s saving power in the world. Such a claim does not require one to believe that God bypassed or destroyed the humanity of the authors in miraculous interventions during composition. Rather, we might think of God’s activity as a creative, inspiring, guiding, and directing power that lured the authors toward certain insights and expressive ideals. While the documents that constitute the Bible were clearly written by human beings and share in the limitations of the cultures in which they were produced, we believe that they tell the truth about the human condition and God’s redemptive power in this world. Just as God did not have to dispense with the humanity of Jesus to bring us salvation, but worked in, with, and through his humanity to accomplish this purpose, so God does not have to dispense with the humanity of the biblical authors to ensure trustworthy testimony. This is at least part of what Christians mean when they say that the Bible is inspired. (For more on this subject, see the third essay in this collection, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture.”)
The second reason Christians say that the Bible is inspired is because we believe that God continues to use this collection of writings to evoke fresh disclosures of God and to mediate new experiences of redemptive transformation. In the power of the Holy Spirit, these texts not only tell stories of redemption in the past, but mediate redemption in the present. They become transparent to the presence and power they describe. As we read these stories of redemption and experience it for ourselves in the process, the trustworthiness of these texts is confirmed. We don’t trust the Bible because it is dictated by God to passive secretaries that are given the miraculous gift of infallible communication (see “The Bible is Not Infallible”). Nor do we claim that these texts are truthful because they constitute a compendium of inerrant scientific, historical, and moral facts (See “Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth”). No, we trust these texts and the God revealed in and through them because they mediate the same kind of redemptive transformation that they describe.
So what do we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired? We mean that God worked in and through the telling and retelling, writing and rewriting, interpretation and reinterpretation of this collection of writings so that future generations would have faithful testimony of God’s saving power in Israel and the early church, testimony that the Spirit of God continues to use to mediate new experiences of redemption for the ongoing transformation of human life and community toward the ideals of the Kingdom of God.