Survey on “What Troubles You About Inspiration?” And a Rant

Posted By on August 25, 2012

Thanks to all of you (nearly 50) who responded to my survey. It’s still open so that others can chime in. I’ll be using these thoughts as fodder for my trip to Nashville this week, as its goal is to experiment with creating some content / teaching videos for YouTube. (I’m also being interviewed for a documentary response to the Fantasy [aka, History] Channel specials on “Ancient Aliens”). The director for that secured some studio time for that experiment. I thought the whole issue of inspiration would be a good trial run.

What follows are select, anonymous examples of the sorts of responses I received. Most of the responses overall concern how to understand the process of inspiration. Hope you find these interesting. At the end there’s one in particular that I thought I’d comment on.

How do I know the books are inspired? The Bible says so. Why do I trust it’s claim? Because its inspired. Wait. There is no objective starting point here?

I have no doubt God said what He meant and meant what He said. That the writers wrote by their own hand and mind guided and urged by the Holy Spirit; at times verbatim from God. The teaching today troubles me. A flat earth is clearly described early on, no problem man understood it as so. There are observations of Nature throughout Scripture that we know today as not correct: animal behavior and/or actions. To a person of that day this is as correct as they would know it. I hear many today say Scripture is inspired and infallible – every word of it – seemingly with ignorance of the mentioned issues and others. Seems obvious the writers at times were free to create and fill in with their limited knowledge (right or wrong) and still God was and is able to use it for His purpose. How do we have an intelligent and open conversation with the “every word” statement and still maintain fully inspired and inerrant?

The things that cause me to have trouble with inerrancy (not inspiration – no problem there) are… 1.) The force with which theories of evolution (the ones that suggest humans came from lower animals) are pushed, and my personal conviction that it seems to fit with the way God does stuff – the unfolding, patterning, fractal-type stuff. 2.) The ANE parallels to biblical literature. 3.) The way people often speak of inerrancy. I’ve heard people say things like ‘the bible is truthful concerning that which it affirms, now letís figure out what those affirmations are’ or ‘the bible is an inerrant theological revelation from God, not a science or history book – so let’s parse out all the theology’, but the pleas for nuance are often lost in the crowd of people that would rather just affirm that tithing can be performed whilst inside of someone’s loins – I can’t die on this hill. The term inerrancy has been irreparably hijacked and beaten silly by the louder of voices in the discussions, and as a result, I’d rather just drop it altogether.

The only thing I struggle with is how we got from the inspired autographs to the text(s) we actually have and use. Even then, it seems I wonder more than actually struggle. We have a great God who continues to reach for us in spite of our massive and prolonged mistakes in preserving his written message.

My main question concerns exactly what the inspiration looks like and do we see similar things today? Was Paul for instance, ‘in the zone’, so to speak, and was able to form exactly what God would have him write? Did John, go into a trance when writing Revelation as he saw these things unfold before him? Did Paul hear the Lord? Did the Lord fill Paul’s mind with what He desired Paul to write? I guess, I would like some sort of idea or ‘play-by-play’ of how practically Scripture was thought out, formed, and transcribed by each individual author.

The issue that bothers me is the concept of the text being edited in its history. I wish we could understand if this was part of the inspiration, or if the editing has removed some inspired text.

One thing I think of at times is do we know that the protestant cannon is the only group of inspired scriptures available. What I mean is that from my understanding the canon kind of organically developed among the early church and was cemented, not originated at the council of Nicaea. While I donít doubt the inspiration of the protestant cannon, I do sometimes ponder some of the books that certain factions hold to and others don’t, and am uncertain as to whether or not there was a universal “litmus” test for determining letters canonicity.

I’m still not totally sure what I would affirm regarding inerrancy, because I’m hesitant to give it up. The thing that creates anxiety most in me about inspiration is how it is bound up in the doctrine of inerrancy, and what people mean by it. Secondarily, the issue of scientific concordism and the ancients’ view of cosmology.

Overall, I guess what bothers me is that it ultimately leads some people to the conclusion that God isn’t capable of preventing mistakes. And who wants to worship a god like that?

Plenary inspiration supposedly allows errors to be part of the inspiration process, yet most people can’t get their mind around this. If it’s true, the problem is not with inspiration but with our understanding. Of the text. We need a more open way of arriving at truth and verifying it instead of fighting for what we think it says.

The whole “the Bible gets a pass on science thing” causes me trouble. I know you’ve gone over it several times but why couldn’t the Holy Spirit filter little inaccuracies out? Like the hair covering thing with Paul. Why did that need to be preserved through the centuries? Or the whole ANE cosmology thing? And if the answer to all this is divine accommodation where does that end? Why is it a rule that God can ignore scientific errors but not moral ones? The more I study the topic the more I wonder if the Roman Catholics are right in their accusation that we Protestants use scripture like a “paper Pope” when we need a real one.

Many things have become somewhat troubling to me, though maybe not in an insurmountable way. I’m still working through much of this. When I first started to become aware of the implications of the Bible’s ancient context, I didn’t see too much of a problem. Interpreting Genesis 1 in the context of ANE creation myths made a lot of sense, and didn’t seem to upset my background presuppositions regarding inspiration. I already rejected dispensationalism long ago, so was well-versed in the error of “wooden literalism.” However, the more I’ve tried to read the rest of the Bible with this mindfulness to the ancient context, the more anxious I have become. What does “inspiration” even mean, *practically* speaking? It’s easy to see the theological applications in Genesis 1, despite the ancient cosmology reflected there, but what about the rest of the Bible? Which parts are merely a reflection of the culture (from which we might draw some relatively disconnected application), and which parts make perpetual, unchanging ethical demands on me?

Depends on how rigidly you perceive the doctrines. For me the question is: Does the OT-NT sufficiently preserve the will of God to lead humans to him, and to hold them accountable if they reject this testimony? To that, in spite of places that are hard to understand, I must affirm that yes, the OT-NT is a reliable guide to know God and his will. The goal is knowing God. The goal is not strictly a pristine, spotless text. But with 5000 surviving of NT Greek texts and fragments there is no real issue with the messages contained in NT documents. Textual variations are evidence of frailty in the human-divine interface, but the consistent messages of NT pericopes is surprising proof IMHO of divine oversight. Yet textual variations do lead to a desire to know which variant might have been original. That generates interest more than anxiety, but there are places where you wish things might have been clearer. Do those places of question lead to rejection of the messages of the pericopes as unreliable, a la Bart Ehrman? Not to my mind. If one holds to absolute textual perfection, then I would imagine you’d suffer much anxiety. If one finds consistent reporting of the pericopes proof of divine oversight, then anxiety levels are greatly reduced. The question of conflicts between parallel pericopes. The fact they are parallel suggests some common acceptance of such pericopes in the early communities, which tends to strengthen confidence in the overall message. Variation of parallel pericopes leaves me personally with a slight lack of confidence that we humans can always unravel texts that have been preserved, IMHO, by divine oversight.

What bothers me most is that I now see scripture as expressing both cosmological and historical inaccuracies. I believe in the Bible’s inspiration but donít always know to harmonize it all. I can only conclude that God deemed it acceptable to work within flawed views that ancients held in some matters while still being able to reveal Himself in the process. Does inspiration mean that some of Scripture really isn’t true?

The patchwork process. who were the ‘inspirees’ †vs. the gatherer, vs. the scribe, the secretary, the guard, the addenda-er. in short – even the short books were “written by” a composite “author” who may have spoken, not written.

And finally, for this post:

Being brought up in the protestant church, I was taught that the Torah (complete) was given to Moses intact. Later in life I learned of ancient pictorial Hebrew and how letter depiction changed over time, hearing then that “That” is what Moses received at Mt. Sinai. And later yet, learning of the Bible Codes with it’s slant towards election of only Jews, I am at a point of total discouragement of ever finding God’s true message to us.

This last one was especially interesting and disturbing to me. Although many readers might be surprised at the elements and wonder where this person is coming from, it is actually illustrative of the sorts of things I run into on my websites and at conferences. It’s disturbing in the sense that this person was so poorly (and errantly) taught. The first item is familiar — that every word of the Torah came from the hand of Moses. Many churches (and seminaries) teach this idea uncritically (i.e., no professor ever examines it in a class and helps people think better about what’s actually in the text, never mind any theory that tries to explain it). And then that misconception, now confirmed as dogma, gets passed on to the laity. But then we read two more confused things this person was taught:

(1) “I learned of ancient pictorial Hebrew and how letter depiction changed over time, hearing then that ‘That’ is what Moses received at Mt. Sinai.”

What on earth is “ancient pictorial Hebrew”? My guess is that it’s a reference to the proto-Sinaitic alphabet — which was *not* invented by Moses or the Israelites traveling in Sinai, and has nothing to do with what Moses or any other biblical writer wrote prior to the exile (when the now-familiar block script was adopted). The proto-Sinaitic alphabet is considered the first Semitic alphabet. But the terms “Semitic” and “Israelite” are not synonyms. The latter is a sub-class of the former. As far as actual *Hebrew* or *Israelite* literature goes (the oldest examples of which are the 11th-10th centuries BC), there was a *non-pictorial* paleo-alphabet used (called “Old Hebrew” or, anachronistically, “Phoenician”). The idea that Moses got handed a pictorial alphabet is nonsense, and the notion that he or any other biblical writer used a pictorial script for biblical material has no basis in archaeological or literary evidence. Either some well-meaning teacher messed the information when giving it, or the right material itself was misunderstood. But it has little or no relevance to the issue. The mainstream Jewish community never considered ONLY the Torah inspired (the only group that took that view was the Samaritan community). But I have met modern Jews who, knowing next to nothing about their Bible, believed that only the first five books were sacred (and some thought there were no other books — I kid you not).

(2) “And later yet, learning of the Bible Codes with it’s slant towards election of only Jews…”

Bible codes are nonsense. More crudely, the idea is sanctified crap. For those who think such a thing is harmless and silly, for this person the bogus notion perverted not only the idea of inspiration, but OT theology itself. Yes, the Jews were elect among the nations … but the foundation of Judaism, the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3) includes the blessing of the nations … and Gentiles could become believers … and then there’s this thing called the Church, the Body of Christ, that is “circumcision neutral,” rendering the whole distinction irrelevant. †And then there is the whole error of making “election” and “salvation” the same thing (they weren’t if you’re paying attention in the OT to what happened to the “elect” — most were not saved, but were apostates — the issue was never ethnicity, but belief in and exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, no matter what you’re starting point).

So the result of this God-awful “Bible teaching” is that this person says, “I am at a point of total discouragement of ever finding God’s true message to us.” No kidding. If I had been taught this sort of garbage, I would be, too.

This sort of thing is why it’s so irritating to encounter, within the Church, the idea that since the Bible is for everyone, anyone can teach the Bible … if they are led by the Lord, have a desire, feel called, yadda yadda yadda. Amen. World without end.

Sorry — but no, they can’t, nor should they. All Bible teaching is not equal, nor is sincerity a qualification. And an opinion popping into your head isn’t the prompting of the Holy Spirit. If it was, Paul wouldn’t have told believers to handle the Scriptures carefully or hold up diligence in searching them as a model (2 Tim 2:15; Acts 17:11). He’d have told them to “feel” their theology (how contemporary is that). We have too much Bible Buddhism in the Church. Churches would be much better off if bad or inept Bible teachers (even of children) were told to find some other ministry and then barred from doing it again until they prove they actually know something. But this really isn’t realistic when so many are so poorly taught in the first place. And to suggest this is to invite the charge of elitism.†It’s not elitism; it’s an attempt to rescue people from the sort of struggle that this commenter is enduring.


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14 Responses to “Survey on “What Troubles You About Inspiration?” And a Rant”

  1. Charles says:

    Is hyper-perspicuitism a word? If not, can we make it one!?!?!?

  2. Patrick says:

    Just concerning God and lack of accurate biblical science, it seems to me IF Yahweh had given the Jews scientific knowledge above their neighbors, might not the Jews have done worse?

    How easy would it be for the Jews to abuse their neighbors if they were advanced like that? How easy is it for the USA to go to war today when we appear to have what is essentially a 10 year advance on competitors?

    • MSH says:

      I follow; you’d think they would have also vaulted far ahead of other cultures in areas of medicine and science in general.

  3. Richard Brown says:

    Mike this is a great post. Just summarizing these and then commenting really works for me.

    I’m in my 50’s now and have been a [attempted… ] follower of Christ for about 36 years and a fairly serious student of scripture for that period. The church I now attend, not dissimilar to the one I last attended, really does not have a regular program of “Bible Teaching” – no from the pulpit nor from any class. I’m ok with that actually. What bugs me to the point of having to bite my tongue a lot is that the primary means of “discipling” the less mature followers is through small groups, in which the format is to follow a Bible script that the pastor lays out, with sample questions intended to provoke discussion. The “leader” of the group is deliberately chosen to be more sociable, and not a “teacher” at all [such would be weeded out]. So what happens is that scripture is read, the folks start commenting at random, triggered by leading [very leading in some cases] questions. As you would expect a LOT of nonsense gets thrown on the table, and often goes uncritically examined. The Word may be inspired, but this method sorta leaves people stuck in a very small space with a very low ceiling.

  4. BkMitchell says:

    In your opinion does the canon of scripture’s ‘inspiration’ differ from other literature, art, and music. Mozart was talented and some might even say inspired, he surely was no ordinary composer or musician. Others, might claim to have been inspired by Mozart’s music. The word ‘inspire’ at least the term that I am familiar with in modern English seems to have range of nuances in fact I will state directly now, that I have been inspired by your site, and that I believe it inspires “Ad Fontes”!

    Thanks in Advance

    • MSH says:

      The biblical idea of inspiration concerns (1) written material whose ultimate source is God (i.e., people wrote either as prompted or, more commonly, as they were providentially prepared for the writing occasion) (2) for the purpose of informing readers (initially Israelites) of the true God’s activities in the world, the condition of humankind, his creation, and his plan to redeem humanity / all nations of the earth. Those ideas are fundamental. Since the biblical story makes clear that God (at the “Babel point”) chose to redeem the nations through a new nation (Israel) created out of one man by direct divine intervention, a lot of inspired material follows the story of that people, as it was through them that God began to work his plan to redeem humanity.

      Kind of over-simplified, but sometimes I think it’s good to simplify.

      As such, while you, I, or others may (rightly) credit God for the source of our talents, which talents inspire others and which might be light years ahead of all else in quality, such inspiration in that sense isn’t what the biblical idea is about. That said, that in no way prevents God from using such things to move a person toward his truth (God can use anything to do that, even suffering caused by the evil of free will agents). If God can use the Simpsons in someone’s life to get across a pointed truth that might move them along a path toward Christ, I’m guessing he can use Mozart.

  5. Jason Leonard says:

    I’m glad I didn’t respond to your survey. I really wanted to as I love to give opinions, but the more I considered it I realized I wasn’t sure how to answer the questions. I don’t even have any issues with inerrancy myself, if anything I could predict arguments like these.

    Perhaps my gifting is more rare than I realize, since studying your site along other apologetic resources has given me a clear view of what it means to say the Bible is inspired. I’ve also discovered many ways in which it’s not in error or in contradiction and how quips about ancient cosmology aren’t 100% accurate (ie, the idea that a flat earth is taught has to do with misunderstanding erets)

    In conclusion, I still think the evidence I’ve seen makes the strongest case for the fact that the “inaccuracies” or “problems” aren’t the issue for Biblical inspiration (as they don’t really exist) but it is our understanding of the concept of inspiration that is heavily flawed.

    I really look forward to seeing you flesh out responses to these since the survey shows you have quite a bit of influence and a good portion of your audience still trying to grasp your teachings!!! May god continue to bless all your work…

    • MSH says:

      I’m looking forward to perhaps being able to put some of this in video form (the Nashville trip). I haven’t had a chance to actually prepare anything, but that at times is a good thing. It means I can’t over-think things if I want to get something accomplished.

  6. bkMitchell says:

    Thank you for your clear and concise reply MSH. That helps a lot!! Although, I had the privilege of studying Biblical texts as literature and form the stand point of textual analysis in undergrad I didn’t have the opportunity to take any courses in theology. Through, reading post on your site I’ve come to realize some biases that I have when approaching the texts, even though I thought my education had exempted me from that. I suppose that is the never ending struggle to approach texts with critical mind.

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to respond and especially for your post on syntactical database of the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible in Logos.

  7. Kirk Shelton says:

    I feel as though this blog has done more for me than anything else to help understand inspiration, and I’m currently in seminary. I feel I’ve rapidly adopted a more “realistic” position on inspiration and peripheral issues. Like Jason, I hope to see more to clarify and flesh out inspiration. So much hinges on our understanding of this point, including issues of the historicity of Adam and creation.

  8. Jody Annan says:

    What bothers me about inspiration is this . People like to say this is inspired, or that is inspired . the fact is all endeavors of expression are inspired (i.e. in spirit) . the puzzle is deciphering whether the inspiration is from YHVH or the adversary.These days the task becomes even more challenging as the legerdemain dujour is to mask a few serious lies or false teachings within an abundance of truthfull facts.
    Personaly I am not allowing any other person or persons to determine for me what is inspired scriptures..Many ignore writings outside of what is considered canon. personaly I believe this is in error.From my personal experiences I know that the modern music industry, as well as the Hollywood movie industry are satanic cults..Many performers and bands openly worship satan and many actors and actresses channel spirits for thier inspiration. The bible does not talk about this , yet if you read ” The Apocrypha of Adam and Eve” it states satan invented the musical instruments and the music. It continues to say at that time the people from the other side of the mountain would gather in small rooms,drink strong drink, and use the music for seduction purposes. These statements reverberate echoes from the past which sound much like the bars and taverns of today, do they not? So is the “Apocrypha of Adam and Eve” inspired ? You tell me . Perhaps it was just waaaaaaaaaay ahead of its time !

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