Handwritten bibleIn my last post, I explained why I believe the strict inerrancy of scripture is a myth. If you haven’t read it already, I’d encourage you to take a few moments to read that post as a prelude to this one.

Today I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the closely related subject of the inspiration of scripture. In fact, inspiration and inerrancy are so closely related that many Christians consider them inseparable, like two sides of the same coin.

First, what do we mean when we say the Bible is inspired?

The usual biblical reference is found in 2 Timothy 3:16, which reads as follows:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

Those who know biblical Greek will tell us that the word usually translated “inspired” means something like “God-breathed”. But what does this mean?

For the literalist, God-breathed usually means that God literally breathed or mouthed the words of the Bible via the pen of each writer, so that the words that ended up on the page were the actual, untarnished words of God. It’s easy to see how, in this literalist logic, inspiration and inerrancy are fused together, never to be separated: if God literally breathed the words of scripture, then how can they be in any way errant?

(Once again, of course, this argument falls down as soon as you realise that even if the original text of scripture had somehow been inerrant, any such inerrancy would have been long lost, as I explained in my last post.)

As I see it, given that the Bible contains many contradictions, we are faced with two basic choices.

First, we can maintain that scripture really is literally God-breathed, and thus inerrant. The corollary of this is that we still have to try find some way to reconcile or explain the contradictions we find. And this is very, very difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, what most inerrantists quickly fall back on is the good old appeal to mystery: I don’t understand why these contradictions are there, but I know God’s ways are higher than ours, so I’ll just trust him that even though I don’t understand, there must be some higher logic at work here.

As I’ve said before, it’s only to be expected that all discussions about God will run into the issue of mystery at some point. But I don’t believe the appeal to mystery should be the default solution, particularly when other perfectly viable explanations are available.

So what’s the second choice?

Well, our other option is to consider that inspiration might mean something other than the literal transmission of words from God’s mouth onto papyrus. Indeed, given that God is Spirit, he cannot be said to have a literal mouth. It therefore seems clear that whatever “God-breathed” means, it doesn’t mean that.

Think about what we normally mean when we say we’re inspired to do something. We mean that we’re moved to action by some force, emotion or event. Well, what if that force were the Holy Spirit, who it might well be appropriate to think of, in some sense, as the “breath” of God? What if the biblical writers, then, were not simply used as remotely controlled writing instruments for God to get his words onto paper, but rather were moved in their spirit by God’s Spirit to try to put into words the story of God’s interaction with them?

If that were what is meant by inspiration, wouldn’t we end up with a variety of accounts, stories and descriptions with much in common, but also with significant differences arising from each author’s perspective based on their specific historical and cultural vantage point? And… isn’t that, in fact, exactly what we do have?

Thus I propose that there is a way out of the tired, flawed logic that so much of evangelicalism is locked into, in which the Bible must be seen as literally God-breathed and all its contradicting strands absolutely true. This logic holds the true and undiluted nature of God, which is trying to burst forth from the multiplicity of often concordant but sometimes discordant voices found in scripture, in bondage to a strict, literalist interpretation.

All we need do to escape from this faulty and inadequate framework is accept that scripture is, in fact, the result of God, by his Spirit, inspiring a variety of writers over a fifteen-hundred-year span to try to capture something of how they understood him and his relationship to them. I think my friend Canadian theologian Brad Jersak sums it up best: “The Bible is inspired, but it’s the inspired record of our journey toward understanding a God we didn’t get”.

If we dare make this move, we will suddenly find that the various contradictions and problematic portrayals of God found in the pages of scripture need no longer tie us in theological knots or leave us doomed to constantly be appealing to mystery as the only way to resolve apparent conflicts. We will instead see that the varying and sometimes contrasting depictions of God contained in the Bible tell us an awful lot not only about God, but also about their flawed human authors – and thus about ourselves.

[ Image: Suzanne Chapman ]