What Does It Mean to Call the Bible “Inspired”?

“St. Paul Writing His Epistles,” by Valentin de Boulogne (17th Cent.)

 

I preach from the Bible whenever I preach. God spoke through and to humanity by the Word. My primary goal as a preacher is to create a space where we can hear God speaking to us today again through that Scripture that is “living and active.” And that we would respond faithfully.

Rare, however, is the full sermon I preach about the Bible: what it is, how we got it, what it does, and how we can respond. I had that privilege this last Sunday, as I preached on the first of five parts of our church’s vision: Scripture guides us. To say Scripture guides us invites reflection on at least two questions: (1) what is Scripture and (2) why should that be what guides us? (Not to mention: how would we know, months and years from now, if Scripture actually were guiding us?)

Despite 40+ years of my life steeped in the Bible, despite memorizing whole books of the New Testament as a kid, despite reading the Bible through multiple times, and despite reading it in Hebrew and Greek… I found it surprisingly challenging to concisely share about, “What is the Bible?” and the follow-on question: “So what?”

In the end I broke it down broadly into two -ations: Revelation and Invitation. God’s Word is revelation. God’s word is an invitation.

To call the Bible revelation means that it is a received word. It is a given word. It is not something we went looking for and figured out by pure reason or emotion or will—in contrast to starting points in other disciplines, like philosophy. All the world’s Pulitzer Prize winners combined couldn’t conjure up God’s Word if they tried. Scripture is God’s self-revelation, and we have it, available to us. Deuteronomy 30:11-14 says:

This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach. It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it.

Notice who is doing the work, so to speak, in finding “the message”—not you! Not me! God says the people of Israel already have it—on their lips and in their heart. Not because they set it there, but because God put it there. In the 21st century, we might add that we have God’s Word at our very fingertips—just a search string and a click away.

The more specific word Scripture uses for revelation is inspiration. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Maybe a better English word (or at least a more literal one) for “God-breathed” would be theo-spired. God breathed his words into the Bible. Just as he breathed life into Adam and Eve and created them in his image, he breathed himself into Scripture, showing us even more of his image. Scripture is not just humans guessing at who God is; it’s God himself telling us who he is.

Millard Erickson, in his wonderful Christian Theology, puts it this way:

By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers that rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or that resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God.

Just how does inspiration work? If the Bible was both written by God and written by humans, what percentage of each author is at play in each passage, or across the whole Bible? Or is that the wrong way to think about it? Is it more like the incarnation: fully divine, fully human, both at once?

I think the best answer to this question is: we just don’t know. Erickson says it more articulately:

It is our contention here that inspiration involved God’s directing the thoughts of the writers, so that those thoughts were precisely the ones that he wished expressed. At times these thoughts were very specific; at other times they were more general. When they were more general, God wanted that particular degree of specificity recorded, and no more.

I suppose Erickson’s claim could be seen as a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc , where someone infers causation (or intent) just because one thing chronologically follows the other. In other words, “We have it how we have it, so God must have wanted it that way.” But I believe he’s right, and so do millennia of interpreters.

Speaking of philosophy, Erickson tells this story about Edmund Husserl:

Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist, had a devoted disciple and assistant, Eugen Fink. Fink wrote an interpretation of Husserl’s philosophy upon which the master placed his approval. It is reported that when Husserl read Fink’s article, he exclaimed, “It is as if I had written it myself!””

So, too, God’s relationship to Scripture.

That’s all revelation. But this revelation of God calls for a response: it’s also an invitation. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

What do you think?

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