07 March 2013

The Bible and Inspiration

One of the challenges of teaching a general ed class on the entire Bible is that freshmen just aren't developmentally ready for some of the critical thinking that is required. A hurdle I have to guide the students past at the very beginning of each semester is the theories of Scripture's inspiration. Is it more divine (dictation) or human (intuition), or maybe a bit of both (dynamic)?* Of course, this raises some tough questions from the students. This semester, one student wrote:

"If the Wesleyan belief is the hybrid between the Divine and Human, how do you actually distinguish between what you do take as what is considered true and straight from God and what maybe is exactly not? Maybe that question is just a personal opinion on what one decides to believe, but i was just wondering what you thought about it."

These students keep me on my toes. There are two challenges: presenting an answer in such a way that is understandable to a 19-year-old student and quelling the panic when they realize that the Bible may have some mistakes.

Here is my carefully thought-out response:

God has a history (literally) of partnering with flawed human beings and using them for his glory. The Bible is full of examples. Even Jesus was fully human. He probably was clumsy sometimes and misspelled some words in school. Does this make him less than the perfect sacrifical Lamb that we needed? Of course not! Jesus wasn't sent into the world to be the world's best spelling bee winner. Jesus was sent to be sinless, not mistakeless. In the same way, God also partners with the Church, a body made up of both God and humans interacting together.

The things that dynamic theorists would view as "human" are inconsequential to the message the original authors were trying to convey when they wrote Scripture. In the OT world, for instance, if a woman did not bear children it was thought that it was her fault, that it was her womb that was sterile. Modern science tells us that sometimes it's not the woman, but it's the man who's actually sterile. The Biblical people did not know this. This does not make the story about Sarah untrue, because the authors were not making a scientific claim about how a woman's womb functions. The plain meaning of the story, that Elizabeth could not bear children, is still understood. This is what the authors want us to know.

It is important to note that Christians who hold to a dynamic theory of inspiration would NEVER say that Jesus never resurrected from the dead or that Moses never led the people out of Egypt. Since communicating these events were the authors' intent, we trust that they are not lying to us. The problems arise because the Israelites lived in a particular cultural and historical location. We have faults and inaccuracies in our own modern culture as well. But this does not prevent our intentions and ideas from getting across. When it all comes down to it, the Bible's intent is to communicate salvation history. Because of this, who is to say how to separate the Bible between the human and the divine? I don't think we can make that definite distinction. We thus believe that the Bible, in its entirety, is sufficient to lead us to God and salvation.

That's the beauty of the Bible -- God, in all his mercy, chose to partner with flawed creatures and to communicate his truth through a finite language. The end result is something that is both beautifully human and divine, not one or the other. It's a mistake to try to separate every part of Scripture into one category or the other.

*I recognize that these are very broad categories and some people may even fall into a hybrid category. Since this is an entry-level class, we don't go into great detail about all of the various theories of inspiration.

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