Posted By MSH on March 12, 2009
Here goes another crack at a statement on inspiration and inerrancy (both!). I think what follows constitutes something that I hope readers will circulate. I’m not sure about the order things are addressed, so please pay attention to that.† I have some modest goals for this statement:
1. To get academically-minded Christians, especially fellow biblio-bloggers, to offer suggestions and rewrites toward a final statement.
2. To post that final statement on its own dedicated website and allow readers to sign it in some electronic form. I don’t plan to do anything with the signatures except post them on that site. Hopefully the Bellingham Statement can become a reference point for academically-minded believers who view inspiration and inerrancy as important doctrines.
The latest Statement is somewhat lengthy (2 pages single-spaced in WORD).† Readers will recognize the contributions of John Hobbins therein, though I deleted some of his wordings and added material.† Unless I get substantive feedback on it, this will be my last statement. I don’t think I can take it much further without input, and I’d like to start blogging about other things. One thing I did not put into it that may be advisable is something about textual criticism / transmission.† I think we all know that TC is a safety net to evangelical discussions of inerrancy, and so I didn’t feel I needed to add it.† Maybe I should.
Here it is:
I affirm that the Bible is God-given revelation produced through the agency of human authors. The usual process of producing the Scriptures was one where human authors wrote on the basis of their own abilities, education, styles, worldview, backgrounds, and idiosyncrasies apart from a point-in-time divine encounter where the words of Scripture were chosen for the authors. Although there are instances in the biblical record where God is said to have dictated what would become part of the biblical text (e.g., Rev 2-3, the messages to the seven churches), such instances are rare.
The process of inspiration does not require us to contend that God verbally dictated the words of the Bible to the authors, though God did so on rare occasions, at times directly or through a divine agent. The process also does not require us to embrace the idea that God impressed each word on the mind of the author through some silent, mental process, as though the author’s mind was overtaken by God. Having providentially prepared each writer, I believe God presented the biblical writers with truth through a range of means, including (but not limited to) dramatic displays of divine power, time spent listening to the incarnate Christ, formal education, the reading of Scripture already extant, insight given by the Spirit, religious training, and sensitivity to the working of God in their own lives through spiritual devotion. All of these forces and more molded the lives and minds of the authors of the Bible under an over-arching divine providence, preparing them to write that which God would move the believing community to embrace as canonical.
While God providentially prepared the writers of the Bible to produce His truth and providentially oversaw the results of their work, this process of inspiration of necessity involved divine accommodation.† God was perfectly capable and content to use human language to convey truth to humanity. Divine accommodation in the context of the process of inspiration should not be understood as though the biblical writers chose to communicate with their audience in such a way as to accommodate less learned people. I reject the notion that one human (the author) received words from God and then had to dumb down those words for other people (their audience). This is not divine accommodation, but human accommodation, and is a caricature of what divine accommodation really is: the decision of God to be willing to allow his weak, limited human creatures to write about who He is and what He has done.
In view of the above, I affirm that God used human language to the degree he deemed sufficient, so as to accomplish the creation of the canonical books. †Humans do not express anything about God perfectly or completely, nor could God reveal anything about Himself in an exhaustive and comprehensive way, as human minds would be unable to comprehend this fullness. Since humans cannot receive all God is, all God thinks, and all God does, what they produce in writing, even under the providence of God, will be articulated in ways that show their limited capacities and finite understanding of God, His ways, and His world. These shortfalls should not be construed as errors, since to do so would be to charge the human author with possessing the limitations of humanity, as though the writer could have circumvented those limitations. That the human writers of antiquity chosen by God were writing under the constraints of an imperfect understanding of science is to affirm the obvious. To contend that this means the point of the inspiration process was meant to factualize ancient scientific notions as points of dogma is to extrapolate from that obvious point to an unnecessary conclusion.† I affirm that the standard for God’s acceptance of the process of inspiration was not the production of material that neither the ancient writer nor his initial audience could have comprehended. Rather, God used humans as they were, with all their limitations, much in the same way He left the task of evangelism and administration of His Body, the Church, to weak human beings. Nevertheless, in grace God chose to use human agents to produce revelation about Himself for human posterity. God was willing and able to use human writers, who utilized a range of normal communicative literary techniques, and who wrote according to deliberate theological agendas, to adequately and accurately (but imperfectly) describe Himself, His plan, His purposes, His acts in history, and His creative acts. God was likewise willing and able to preserve the writers from making erroneous statements about Himself, His plan, His purposes, and His acts in history and His creative acts.
I affirm, therefore, that while the providentially-prepared human authors were the immediate source of most of the words of Scripture, God is still the ultimate source of the words of each canonical book. His work of providence was sufficient at every point of the way to ensure that the words that he intended to be in Scripture, and no others, are in fact therein. The Bible derives its authority from this providentially-guided process.† The Bible’s authority in turn is higher than that of any church, local or corporate, and any tradition about the Bible and its contents, since that tradition did not derive from the same inspiration process as the Bible itself.
I affirm that the process of inspiration included not only the initial composition of a biblical book but also any subsequent editorial work done on the text of that book prior to the recognition of a completed sacred canon. Evidence in hand leads to the conclusion that the process of producing the Scripture text was subject to editorial activity in terms of additions, deletions, rearrangement, and repurposing. I believe that God oversaw any such process by means of providential influence in the decisions made by authors and editors so that the words of each canonical book met with God’s approval. Any writer or editorial hand whose work of composition or editing preceded the final form of a given canonical book and whose work finds expression in the final canonical text was a participant in the process of inspiration.
With respect to learning from the incarnate Christ, and with respect to the process of inspiration, the gospel writers were not required to reproduce the exact “real time” words that Jesus spoke, nor did they, as we know from the synoptic gospels. Rather, they learned truth and transmitted it in writing as their life context dictated under providence, at times capturing the ideas they heard very closely, perhaps even verbatim, on other occasions applying it in different vocabulary as the need arose. I believe the written result (in its final form) was entirely faithful and accurate with respect to the content of Jesus’ teaching.
As with hearing the words of Jesus, the writers of Scripture were likewise not required to memorize all the Scripture they heard and learned when writing their own works that would be recognized as canonical. Rather, they were free to apply preceding Scripture and quote it as needed to teach sound doctrine or make a theological point. The gap between many quotations of Scripture and the source manuscripts from which those quotations came shows us that the writers did not need to reproduce every word they found in the texts they quote, or in the exact order they found them in. At times their own context for writing or quoting a text required that the earlier Scripture text of the Old Testament be repurposed in a different literary form or adapted to reinforce a specific exegetical or theological point found elsewhere in the canonical text.
Could you sign this or not?† Where can it be improved?