Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation
by Andrew S. Kulikovsky, B.App.Sc (Hons)
December 2, 1996
The doctrine of Biblical Inspiration is fundamental to evangelical Christianity. Without this essential notion, the uniqueness and authority of the Bible is destroyed. The Bible just becomes one of many ancient books and the truths of historic Christianity are reduced to a collection of religious myths.
The doctrine of Inspiration also implies that the Bible is authorative for all humanity in all aspects of life. Unless the Bible is truly inspired by God, there is no reason why it should be considered any more authorative than any other book. Francis Schaeffer recognised that rejecting these two most fundamental doctrines was an enormous problem and called it The Great Evangelical Disaster (in The Complete Works 1982, vol. 5 pp. 320-321).
The purpose of this paper is to explore the meaning and implications of these doctrines and highlight how they relate to the hermeneutical task and how we apply these truths to our lives.
There are various theories of inspiration. These include natural inspiration which proposes Biblical authors were merely natural men that possessed a superior insight. Therefore, the words of the Bible are simply intense, elevated religious perceptions of the human author like the writings of Aristotle and Socrates. Dynamic inspiration suggests that God gave the Biblical authors the ability to communicate trustworthy religious truth but didn’t guarantee infallibility in matters of science and history. Another theory posits that only the actual words of Jesus are inspired and therefore the rest of the Bible is only useful for historical and literary study. The rest of the Bible only expresses the author’s and their community's interpretation of God and Jesus Christ. Existential inspiration is the idea that the Bible contains the words of humans, which God can make his own at the moment of personal encounter. The Biblical authors wrote about their encounters with God and incorporated into their writings various supernatural myths and miraculous tales to convey spiritual truths. The interpreter’s job is to filter out all the mythical aspects of the text in order to discover what God's spiritual message is for humanity. Dictation inspiration is the notion that the Biblical authors were merely spiritual secretaries that listened to the Holy Spirit and wrote down everything He told them (Thiessen 1979, pp. 63-65) (Milne 1982, pp. 36-38).
The word "inspiration" is a legacy of the rendering in the King James Version of the Greek word theopneustos in 2 Timothy 3:16, which is a hapax legoma in the New Testament. The word literally means God-breathed so using the word "inspiration" to describe this doctrine is a little misleading. The idea is God breathing out rather than God breathing in (Packer, "Inspiration" in New Bible Dictionary). Therefore the New International Version renders it as "God breathed".
Thiessen (1979, p. 65) explains that inspiration is the supernatural act of the Holy Spirit guiding the Biblical authors, making use of their own personalities to write what He wanted them to write and ensuring that what they wrote was accurate, reliable and without error. The Holy Spirit guided the authors in selecting which material to include and how that material was to be presented and arranged according to that author’s style and personality. Inspiration implies the Bible is God's authorative self-revelation (Milne 1982, p. 34). Packer (1993, p. 3) calls the Scriptures "God's own testimony and teaching in human form".
Many conservatives hold that inspiration extends to the "very words" of scripture (Thiessen 1979, p. 64)(Geisler 1976, p. 362). The passages most often quoted to support this are Exodus 24:4, 2 Samuel 23:2, Matthew 4:4 and 1 Corinthians 2:13, which speak of the words of God. However, this view not only borders on the dictation theory, it also disregards the nature of language and communication and the most recent linguistic research. There is a difference between a meaning and the word(s) used to express that meaning. Although words are used by Biblical authors to express a particular spiritual meaning, communication is based on far more elaborate constructs than individual words. The fact is that all languages have several ways of expressing the same meaning with different words. Rarely do complex concepts consist of only one word (Black 1988, p. 123). In any case, the Greek word for "word" is logos and may be rendered as "word", "book", "account", "saying", "speech" or "message", with the focus always being on the content of what is being communicated (Louw & Nida 1989). Therefore, inspiration refers to God inspiring the complete message of the Bible rather than the "thoughts" or "words" contained in it. It is the content of the words that is inspired not the words themselves. This is how we may say that a translation of the Bible is virtually inspired, since only the original autographs were actually inspired. The original autographs were penned in Hebrew, Aramaic and Hellenistic Greek but are now lost. However, the message content is still present in manuscript copies and translations.
Scripture is essentially propositional truth written by servants of God as they were directed by the spirit of God in history (cf. 2 Peter 1:20). This includes every scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is written revelation (Packer, "Inspiration" in New Bible Dictionary) and the nature of this revelation is what Schaeffer termed "true truth" (Schaeffer in Complete Works, v. 1 p. 218). It communicates God’s word to humanity truly but not exhaustively (Schaeffer in Complete Works, v. 1 p.100). So everything in the Bible is God’s word to humanity and speaks truth about God himself and about history and the cosmos (Schaeffer in Complete Works, v. 1 p. 263). This means that wherever the Bible does speak about history and the cosmos it is open to historical and scientific verification.
The nature of Biblical authority is two-fold: Intrinsic and Extrinsic (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 20). Intrinsic authority is what one possesses due to who or what they are. A person with a gun has intrinsic authority - they can enforce their demands. The laws of nature also have intrinsic authority. The Intrinsic authority of the Bible is derived from the fact that it is inspired - it is authorative in matters of faith and practice because it is the word of the living God (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 20). We are obligated to take the word of God in the Bible and make it God’s word to us (Marshall 1985, p. 336). Extrinsic authority is what someone has because it has been attributed to them. A politician or policeman has Extrinsic authority. Extrinsic authority relates to how people understand and respond to scripture (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 21).
Barr (as quoted in Marshall 1985, p. 335-336) indicates there are two views of Biblical authority: Hard and Soft authority. Hard authority means the Bible is authorative before it is interpreted and that authority is generally applicable. This view is only appropriate if the Biblical text is correctly interpreted. Soft authority means the Bible is authorative after interpretation and is limited to passages where authorative effect is indicated. The problem with this view is that it opens the door for the interpreter to interpret a text in such a way that it loses any authority that it should have. It also opens the door for interpreters to interpret a text any way they like and then claim that their interpretation is authorative. There is too much subjectivity involved.
According to the claims of the Biblical authors, the words they spoke and the words of the people they wrote about were the authorative words of God. They also indicated that it was these words were the only authority and therefore the highest authority (Exodus 4:22, 1 Samuel 15:2, Isaiah 3:16, Matthew 28:18, John 14:6, 2 Corinthians 10:8-9, Colossians 2:10). In matters of salvation, faith and life Jesus cites and follows scripture as a unique authority (Larkin 1988, p. 271). In fact Jesus made no distinction between His own authority and that of the Scriptures (Schaeffer in Complete Works v. 1 p. 263).
The extent of Biblical authority is restricted to the message and principles the Biblical author and Holy Spirit intended to communicate (Black & Dockery 1991, p.26). Twisted and theologically biased interpretations are not authorative (Thiessen 1979, p. 66). The authority of Biblical content is also restricted to the Biblical form and does not extend to any hypothetical pre-Biblical form (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 28).
Biblical authority extends to the entire Biblical record, unless the context clearly shows that this is not the case. All scripture is universally applicable either directly or indirectly (Larkin 1988, p. 277). Although the Old Testament writings were written primarily about and to the Israelite nation, they are still authorative in an indirect way and serve as examples and warnings (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). Also, Christ and the New Testament authors often took Old Testament passages and either reinforced them (Matthew 5:17-48) or reinterpreted them (Matthew 10:35-37, Romans 8:36, 1 Corinthians 14:21) (Marshall 1985, p. 338).
Sometimes the Bible contains records that describe practices rather than prescribe them. These records are not universally applicable (cf. Acts 2 & 15) (Marshall 1985, p. 344). In the Old Testament, a distinction needs to be made between moral, legal and ceremonial aspects. In the New Testament cultural and occasional elements are not authorative (eg. Romans 16:16, 1 Corithians 11). The precise application of the story of the Rich Young Ruler by all christians would be silly but the basic moral principle is applicable to everyone. The Bible communicates eternal principles rather than direct problems to current situations. These principles are authorative when translated into the current age and culture because human conduct, human nature and human relationships don’t change (Marshall 1985, p. 345).
Ultimately, the issue is whether the authority of the Bible is translated into obedience. Scripture is only really authorative when a person does what it says (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 21).
The impact of the doctrines of inspiration and authority on hermeneutics are legion (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 21). If complete inspiration of the entire Biblical message is not accepted then the Bible is no different from other great pieces of ancient literature. If this is the case then why should it be interpreted any differently from other religious texts? Why should anyone believe what it says is accurate and reliable? Why should it be accepted in preference to other religious writings? If the complete authority of the Bible is not accepted then it is only useful as a subject of historical study. It contains no truth of any importance or relevance and should have no or very little affect on beliefs and practices. It also creates a great deal of scope for speculation about the author’s theology and philosophy, their motivation and agenda and their sources.
By rejecting inspiration and authority, people have found a way to remove the absolutes from the Bible, making it all relative. Many truths have been stripped out and labelled as scientifically or historically incorrect or simply cultural. Easy divorce and remarriage and order in the home and church are examples of this. Therefore the Bible is made to echo only what the current morality says instead of standing as judge of this morality (Schaeffer in Complete Works v. 2 p. 147).
If we accept the Bible is completely inspired by God and absolutely authorative then we are also acknowledging its uniqueness. However, there are still a number of hermeneutical problems to deal with. How is the Bible to be interpreted and applied? How do we interpret the diversity of Biblical literature? What about changes in world outlook and world view between the authors and the modern readers? (Marshall 1985, p. 335).
If God has caused his message to be recorded in the Bible then we would expect him to use communication that is simple and understandable (ie. propositional truth expressed in human language). Therefore when we interpret the Bible we must approach it as if it is God’s plain word to us, spoken through His prophets in time-space history, and is to be taken literally and accepted completely, unless the context indicates otherwise. This notion rules out ripping apart the text to discover the actual historical words used or reconstructing hypothetical sources because the Bible is inspired and authorative as it is. This also rules out the rationalisation of miracles and other supernatural events. Narratives should be taken as literal and historical rather than analogised unless the context indicates otherwise (eg. dreams and visions) because, unlike other religions, the Bible is rooted in history (Schaeffer, in Complete Works v. 1 p. 180, v. 2 p. 23-24).
People who go to the Bible for help often find nothing which can be directly applied to their situation. This is because the Bible communicates eternal, generic principles rather than direct solutions to current problems (Marshall 1985, p. 347). Because God’s message in the Bible is eternal and generic it is authorative at all times and in all circumstances.
Although the Bible is to be accepted completely and literally as propositional truth, it does not always act as a referential standard (Larkin 1988, p. 282). The Bible does not contain an exhaustive list of laws to be obeyed. It would be impossible to be completely exhaustive (Fee & Stuart 1993, p. 155-156). Rather, the Bible contains many models, principles and paradigms that can be generically applied to many different situations (Larkin 1988, p. 282). This is demonstrated by Paul telling churches to pass around his letters (Colossians 4:16) and by the Old Testament serving as an example (1 Corithians 10:11).
Although the Bible was written between 2 and 4 thousand years ago, it is still possible for the same message to be communicated to a different audience in a different time. This is due to the adequacy of human language to communicate divine revelation and the nature of truth and meaning. This is shown by the way the New Testament used the Old Testament (Romans 3:9-18, Galations 3:7-9) (Larkin 1988, p. 280).
The goal of hermeneutics is not to find what no-one else has ever found before but to discover the ‘plain meaning’ of the text. However, an interpretation may seem unique to those who have not seen it before (Fee & Stuart 1993, p. 14).
The plain meaning of a text is not always plain to everyone and interpretation is not a trivial exercise. Everyone who reads the Bible is an interpreter whether they like it or not. People tend to think that our understanding of the Bible is the same as the Holy Spirit’s and the human author’s intent. We fail to see that everyone brings to the Bible their own culture, personal experiences, pre-understandings of words and ideas and their own theological/philosophical presuppositions. If we aren’t aware of this, it may lead us astray or cause us to read thoughts and ideas into the text that aren’t actually there (Fee & Stuart 1993, p. 14).
In communicating His message, God used virtually every kind of available form of communication including historical narratives, genealogies, chronicles, laws, poetry and songs, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, apocalypse, dreams and visions. Therefore, to understand what God is communicating it is necessary to learn not just general principles of interpretation but also specific rules for each different form. It is also necessary to understand how these different forms function in communicating God’s word (Fee & Stuart 1993, p. 19-20).
Interpretation is demanded because of the ‘tension’ between the Bible’s eternal relevance and its historical peculiarity (Fee & Stuart 1993, p.17). Every Biblical book is conditioned by the language, time and culture in which it was written. Because we are so far removed from that time, culture and language, hermeneutics is vitally important. In order to truly understand what God’s word is to us, we need to understand what God’s word was to the original audience (Fee & Stuart 1993, p. 18-19).
Genre refers to the ‘type’ of the literature. In the Bible, the following major types are found: historical narratives, legal writings, prophetic oracles, wisdom writings, psalms, gospels, letters and apocalypse. The gospels also include various subtypes such as parables, sermons and miracle or pronouncement stories. The type of a text has a significant effect on the way it should be interpreted. Commands in historical narratives are not universally applicable. Letters are occasional and its text must be read with respect to its context. The apocalypse is full of symbology. All this impacts interpretation (Klein et al. 1993, p. 259-374)
Historical context includes the occasion and purpose for writing the book and the social, cultural and political background and geography. Understanding the historical context aids in understanding the nature, force and content of the message (Klein et al. 1993, p. 172-179).
This is one of the most crucial tasks. Words only have unambiguous meaning in sentences and sentences often only have unambiguous meaning when set in relation to surrounding sentences. It is important to trace the author’s train of thought and determine why they wrote a particular paragraph or sentence and what contribution it makes to the overall text. Many erroneous doctrines have come about by not reading verses and paragraphs in their context (Klein et al. 1993, p. 155-172).
Content is what the text actually says or communicates. In order to determine what is being communicated key words need to be identified and examined to determine their meaning in this current context. Objects, people, places and concepts referenced need to be understood in the same way as the original audience. Grammatical relationships must be noted and any cause/effect, reason/result, conditions, questions or commands must be analysed (Fee & Stuart 1993, p. 24).
The Bible should always be approached with the assumption that it is inspired, inerrant and authorative. Always compare scripture with scripture because the best interpreter of scripture is scripture. The two testaments form a complete unit and must be interpreted in the light of one another. Total reliance on the Holy Spirit is essential for correct interpretation. All scripture should be taken literally unless the context indicates otherwise. Scripture cannot mean what it never meant when it was written. There is only one meaning in any one scripture although there may be multiple applications. Always be aware of the presuppositions we bring to the text. These are unavoidable but awareness of them usually prevents subjective interpretations (Pacific College 1989, p. 86-87).
The Bible is God’s authorative word to humanity, set in history. It is understandable, eternally relevant, always applicable and completely sufficient for all our spiritual, philosophical and psychological needs although it does not always satisfy our curiosities. But it is when the Bible is read, understood and obeyed that it truly becomes the inspired and authorative word of God.
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