December 13, 2004

We're talking creationism over at Icthus. At some point I'd like to expand on my own comment there, but first I wanted to highlight Nate's excellent comment:

When I was younger I figured that the Bible must be without error because it was inspired by God, and why would God let the writer he was inspiring to error? And if there was error, then God must not have inspired it, and if God did not inspire it, then our faith has no ground to stand on, and if our faith has no ground to stand on then it all sounds pretty silly. ...

Eventually I had to step back and admit that both sides in the public debate had created a false dichotomy. The Bible could be both inspired by God as a ground for our faith and contain metaphor, allegory, discrepencies and even some mistakes (which I would later learn was the opinion of most conservative scholars: too bad they have no voice in the public debate). The problem is that when we conceive of inspiration as being a process when God feeds words into zombie writers, we do so because we want scripture to be God's direct word to us, instead of a revelation of God that requires reflection. This is a sort of folk religion that proscirbes [ascribes?] a magical power to the Bible and distracts us from the one it points us to. Thus, we have the Bible studies where verses are taken out of context as "God's word to you specifically."

I was thinking about this whole question of inspiration after the discussion on hermeneutics last week, and came to a very similar conclusion. As I've said elsewhere, the traditional understanding of the Holy Spirit really blurs the boundaries between self and God, and so we modern Westerners have a hard time understanding it. So we push it to extremes: either you're your own master, or you're "possessed" by some outside force. So we have, on the one hand, mainstream Christians with a fairly poor sense of the Spirit, and on the other hand charismatics who go for wild stuff.

There is certainly some charismatic experience described in the New Testament: visions, dreams, speaking in tongues. But from very early days, the whole church was assumed to be guided by the Spirit, in mundane life as much as in showy spiritual events. So Catholics have, for instance, taken the decisions of the canonical councils to be Spirit-guided and therefore as authoritative as the Bible, even though nobody at these meetings goes into a trance and starts automatic-writing or anything. The Spirit, it is assumed, can work through ordinary thought processes.

Of course, that's Catholicism, and not everybody is going to agree with that. But it's clear that the entire Bible could not have been written in some charismatic state, if for no other reason than that Paul specifically states at certain points that such-and-such is a teaching he has "received," whereas other pieces of advice are his own opinion.

On the other hand, this fact does not have to mean that the writers of the Bible were no more inspired when they wrote about God than, say, me. One of the more charming themes in the Bible is the way God keeps choosing people who become his instruments at the same time that they remain their own familiar screwed-up selves. So to say the writers were flawed human beings does not preclude them from having been chosen.

This leaves, of course, a lot of room for argument over just how long a leash the Spirit gives people. The Mennonite I talked to believes that the Spirit let the Church drift really far afield -- so far that is was necessary for the Anabaptists to found new churches. And I suppose some liberal Christians might say that the writers were inspired because they managed to get down anything about Jesus, even if they were egregiously wrong about big questions like, say, his divinity. (Though worshipping a human being seems so inherently bad to me I don't see it really making up for it; but that's another subject.) Anyway, I do think this shows again why you can't divide hermeneutics into these two neat opposites.

Posted by Camassia at December 13, 2004 07:09 PM | TrackBack

Good point.

And then, you could add the thought that "inspiration" may differ in degree from writer to writer, or that some writers may perceive God's inspiration more accurately, or that some are better at setting it down.

If one doesn't believe that Christ is divine, would one properly be worshipping him, as a matter of semantics? Maybe you'd be worshipping with him? Just a thought.

Posted by: A Progressive Chrisitian on December 14, 2004 06:20 AM

Great post. Discernment is difficult even on a purely natural level. Belloc said that 'intellegence may be measured by the ability to separate categories'. But when considering the relationship between free will & grace (or where man ends & God begins), well, that seems unknowable in this life. For Catholics, the Pope's infallibility is a "negative charism" - i.e. the Holy Spirit prevents the Church from formally teaching error - which suggests popes will cause manifold problems up to but not including heresy.

Posted by: TSO on December 14, 2004 07:26 AM
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