The nature of inspiration and the purpose of Scripture

This is the third of a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

We can summarize the previous discussion by saying that 2 Timothy 3:15-17 teaches that these writings collectively known as the Bible have been infused with the breath of life from God’s own lips, and we may confidently infer that the Bible has therefore taken on all the practical properties for which God ordained it. This post examines those properties.

Paul is clear in this passage that the Scriptures are “able to make [one] wise for salvation” and are also “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV). Paul makes absolutely no claims that Scripture is to be used in any other way, and gives no intimation that it had any other purpose. Indeed, no one seems to disagree that the Bible’s usefulness has its limits: no one can find building schematics for a skyscraper, or coloring pages for children, or a recipe for peanut butter balls between the covers of any Bible. That is understandable, for the Bible contains no information about those subjects: the debate enters when trying to determine if the Bible is useful for every subject about which it does contain information. Now we are getting into the question of the value and purpose of the Bible, which is in part answered by looking into the more mechanical aspects of the Bible’s inspiration. Whether or not we construe Pauls “instruction en dikaiosune” (in righteousness) as pertaining to “teaching”, “rebuking”, and “correcting” in addition to the more obvious “training”, we may be sure by the greater context that the Scriptures’ focus on righteousness was Paul’s point. In verse 17 he summarizes the purpose of the Scriptures: “so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV). It would be hard to argue that this description of the Bible’s usefulness was meant to extend to the man of God being fully informed about the distribution of the descendants of Noah’s sons throughout the earth.

I do not mean to give the false impression that the Bible was independent of God’s influence until after man had written it down. This elevation of the works of mankind was not based on an afterthought or incidental approval (“Hmm…I think I can use that…”), but was an act God’s providence had foreseen in His election of the Israelite people. Thus, even when ignorant men were writing with their own purposes and emphases, God was ordaining that work concomitantly to be useful for the things Paul noted in 2 Timothy.

Moreover, God’s influence is the very subject of the Bible. It is a compilation of testimonies about God’s encounter with man. It is a history of mankind’s pursuit of God and of God’s pursuit of mankind. Its efficacy is the legacy of the latter and its existence a testimony to the former: a person’s pursuit does not begin without God’s prior decision to meet that person, and man’s contact with God leads him to express this relationship, and thus we have the Bible. This means that in the Bible, we have the stones of foundation laid by men of faith before us; they have created for us the steps upon which our spirits and minds may climb to reach an understanding of God’s heart and purposes. In fact, at times, God personally invaded and virtually dictated whole portions of literature with special messages of a theological nature: this is what we call “prophecy”. Such exceptions would necessarily be inerrant and free of the author’s interpretation of the message, except that they retain the natural stylistic and contextually relevant mode of delivery pertinent to the individual author. In these cases, the Holy Spirit, as described in 2 Peter 1:21, bore along the prophets, and thus God ensured that what these men reported from their encounters was accurate, lest some portion of God’s specific revelation be twisted by man’s ignorance and His intended message become obscured.

The human writers of Scripture, although unavoidably influenced by the Holy Spirit’s promptings, may truly be said to be the authors of Scripture because each one bears witness to God’s guidance by imprinting his own mind, heart, and aspects of his very consciousness in the work. This is not a spontaneous creation of anything but a discovery of something that has existed quite regardless of previous human imperceptions. For the writer of Scripture, this is the mode of operation: God ordains an author to bear testimony to some aspects of His truth; the author is then confronted with the truth and gives it literary expression.

The last issue I wish to address here is the issue of the author’s intent. Although I am persuaded that God’s intent was never limited by nor necessarily the same as that of the writers at the time of composition, we cannot recover God’s intent for any given passage without understanding its primary importance, the importance intended by its author and perceived by the original audience. Determining authorial intent and audience relevance is the cornerstone hermeneutic because this makes the most sense of God’s decision to choose human authors and audiences who existed within different cultural contexts in order to present Himself and His truth to us, even though we’re in different contexts. He wanted His followers to bear testimony to Him and the truth they had obtained by their encounters with Him.

I hope we can all agree that there is no more patently absurd notion than verbatim dictation as the method of inspiration. Ruling this out, I suggest further that if God had intended to convey unfiltered, unprocessed Truth, he could definitely have chosen a more sanitary (objective) vessel than literature written down by man. Coupling this with a view of Truth as something much too large and unwieldy for even an infinite number of authors to exhaustively address or describe, I am left with the conclusion that God’s purpose was not to lay out cold, hard truths in a series of unanalyzable propositions. Therefore, the author’s intent is undeniably relevant to what God was trying to say: he chose Luke to write a gospel, not in spite of, but because of his point of view and his take on the issues that God is concerned about.

The upshot of this view of the origin of the Scriptures in regard to interpretation is that we are left to discover and know the Truth of God through a veil more opaque than many of us in our modern era would choose. But an examination of every human’s experience in finding and understanding our Creator and His ways, including this very study, shows that the sum of theological epistemology follows the same principle. Sure He could have built in a network link so that His communiqués would never be subject to human obfuscation! He chooses to have us learn things through study and from one another. Like it or not, it seems that this is God’s preferred mode of operation in dealing with humanity.

What bearing does this view of inspiration have on the issues of inerrancy and infallibility? The next installments will discuss those issues and present the literary-generic principle of biblical hermeneutics.

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  • we may confidently infer that the Bible has therefore taken on all the practical properties for which God ordained it.

    Amen! That being said, I’m curious to know how groups like Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research argue that one of the Bible’s purposes is to provide the reader with scientifically-accurate information that, to the original reader, would likely have boggled the mind and dismissed it as so much nonsense. Likewise, athiest Sam Harris claims that, because the Bible did not predict the advent of such fantastic inventions like rocket ships or the Internet, that the Bible is false. Interesting how the athiest and the scientific creationist can make the same error regarding the nature and purpose of Scripture.

    I suggest further that if God had intended to convey unfiltered, unprocessed Truth, he could definitely have chosen a more sanitary (objective) vessel than literature written down by man.

    Such as … a DVD, perhaps? 😉

  • we may confidently infer that the Bible has therefore taken on all the practical properties for which God ordained it.

    Amen! That being said, I’m curious to know how groups like Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research argue that one of the Bible’s purposes is to provide the reader with scientifically-accurate information that, to the original reader, would likely have boggled the mind and dismissed it as so much nonsense. Likewise, athiest Sam Harris claims that, because the Bible did not predict the advent of such fantastic inventions like rocket ships or the Internet, that the Bible is false. Interesting how the athiest and the scientific creationist can make the same error regarding the nature and purpose of Scripture.

    I suggest further that if God had intended to convey unfiltered, unprocessed Truth, he could definitely have chosen a more sanitary (objective) vessel than literature written down by man.

    Such as … a DVD, perhaps? 😉

  • Oh come on, it’s all going Blu-Ray. 🙂

    The creation science crowd are taking the bait. Materialistic empiricists and rationalists told them that the Bible had to address those things, and they took them at their word. Sad, really.

  • Oh come on, it’s all going Blu-Ray. 🙂

    The creation science crowd are taking the bait. Materialistic empiricists and rationalists told them that the Bible had to address those things, and they took them at their word. Sad, really.