The Human Character of Scripture

Justin Taylor calls our attention to an interesting essay (at least, it was interesting as far as I could read; bringing my attention span to a hundred-year-old scholarly essay is like trying to cover a baseball diamond with a bikini top) on the role of divine inspiration in the Bible:

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scriptures, any more than their authors, are omniscient. The information they convey is in the forms of human thought, and limited on all sides. They were not designed to teach philosophy, science or human history as such. They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology. They are written in human languages, whose words, inflections, constructions and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error.

I think that most Christians, when they think about God’s influence over the authors of the Bible, see it like a light switch. Either the switch was on, and God had total control over every aspect of the text as if he were scorching the letters into the parchment with a lightning bolt, or the switch was off and the Bible is just a bunch of stuff that guys made up and wrote down.

So, of course the first option is the only option, because most Christians wouldn’t even consider the heresy of saying that God didn’t have complete control over every word in the Bible.

But suppose it isn’t heresy. Let’s consider the possibility that the Bible was inspired by God but written by… wait for it… people. People like us. People who woke in the morning bad tastes in their mouths and crust in their eyes. People who worked and sweated and during the day laid back down at night with tired eyes and creaky bones. People who forgot some things and misremembered others. People who found themselves caught up in events that were bigger than they could possibly comprehend, who then felt compelled to make a record of those events.

Does that make the Bible better or worse, to say that the people who wrote the Bible didn’t know at the time that they were writing the Bible? Didn’t know that they were part of a divine plan that would stretch across thousands of years and result in their words ending up in the top drawer of a dresser in the Quality Inn in Madison, Wisconsin. They were just people, humbly serving God and doing what they felt they must do.

I submit, dear reader, that not only does that make the Bible better and more glorifying to God, but that fulfilling God’s will without knowing the whole plan is kind of the point. The shorthand that we use for that concept–doing what we think we should to, in obedience to God, without receiving specific instructions and without being assured of the outcome–is “faith.” It’s something God asks of all of us, he doesn’t ask any more of it from us than he did from the authors of the Bible. And yet all those people, just people, produced a book that we today can had to someone and say, “This is God’s word.”

Here are some more thoughts from the essay about the mechanics of God’s influence:

Of the manner in which God may inform and direct a free intelligence without violating its laws, we have a familiar analogy in nature in the relation of instinct to free intelligence. Intelligence is personal, and involves self-consciousness and liberty. Instinct is impersonal, unconscious, and not free. Both exist alike in man, with whom intelligence predominates, and in the higher animals, with whom instinct predominates. In every case the instinct of the creature is the intelligence of the Creator working through the creature’s spontaneity, informing and directing, yet never violating any of the laws of his free intelligence. And in nature we can trace this all the way from the instinct of the bee, which works mechanically, to the magic play of the aesthetic instincts which largely constitute the genius of a great artist. We are not absurdly attempting to draw a parallel between natural instinct and supernatural inspiration. But the illustration is good simply to show that as a matter of fact, God does prompt from within the spontaneous activities of His intelligent creatures, leading them by unerring means to ends imperfectly discerned by themselves; and that this activity of God, as in instinct or otherwise, does not in anywise reveal itself, either in consciousness, or in the character of the action to which it prompts, as interfering with the personal attributes or the free rational activities of the creature.

In all this process, except in a small element of prophecy, it is evident that as the sacred writers were free and active in their thinking and in the expression of their thoughts, so they were conscious of what they were doing, of what their words meant, and of the design of their utterance. Yet, even then, it is no less evident that they all, like other free instruments of Providence, “builded better than they knew.” The meaning of their words, the bearing of the principles they taught, of the facts they narrated, and the relation of their own part to the great organism of divine revelation, while luminous to their own consciousness, yet reached out into infinitely wider horizons than those penetrated by any thought of theirs.

One comment

  1. Anonymous

    I love this post. Most of the Christians I’ve been around take the Bible 100% literally (like believing the Earth was created in 6 24 hour days). I think the Bible is a collection of Godly men and women’s experiences with God, and that those people wrote those experiences down in the best way they knew how. I sometimes think many Christians view the Bible as God himself and I’ve often heard of Christianity described as a “book religion”. I believe the Bible is the best source of guidance for our lives and has some of the best descriptions of the impact God has on people’s lives, but you should also use the brain God gave you while you read it.

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