Thursday, May 15, 2008

Inspired Inspiration

This blog post is a result of MANY conversations (some much nicer than others towards me...and I admit that I can get defensive online) and a common root to those discussions. No matter what the topic of conversation is (dealing with Christianity), a divide of beliefs is bound to happen. It can usually then go one of several ways multiplied by the number of people involved in said discussion.

1) We have a nice discussion, ask questions, listen to each other's opinions, and walk away with new nuggets of thought to process.
2) The person begins drilling me on my comments in attempts to prove me wrong, inefficient in my "arguments", and attempts to poke holes in my theology. MOST of the time this is done in a civil manner and is not meant to be harsh or demeaning. However, by it's very nature it puts me on a defensive platform, and becomes not a conversation but a debate. The difference between 2 and 3 is the usual civility and there is still a fair amount of listening going on, yet toleration is more the theme here rather than acceptance in #1.
3) The person begins calling one such names as "heretic", "apostate", "non-Christian", and false prophet. (I'm waiting for someone to combine all these together and just call me a "Harry-false-no-Christ-Ape:) At this point, NO listening is going on on either end, everyone is trying to "prove" they're right, and it is the furthest thing from conversation.

So, when speaking of Christian issues, the most common disagreements that arise can be followed back to ONE issue. That of Biblical inspiration. I wrote a couple of posts back about Biblical Interpretation (literal v. other) and the disputes and actions that rise from that (see the article to see about the teacher being fired for questioning a literal interp.) However, I purposely left out a key factor in this discussion/debate. You see, those that argue for a literal interpretation are usually arguing about a kin, yet slightly different subject: that of Biblical Inspiration!!! What is the theological stance on the book that inspires all of Christianity. How do we understand this "Inspired Inspiration"?

The main theories are three-fold
A) God spoke to the writers and they wrote down word-for-word what God is saying, thus making the Bible "the word of God".
B) God actually led the hand of the writers of the Bible (as well as those that copied and translated the manuscripts down through history), and again, word-for-word it is God speaking.
C) It is a book written by different people (perhaps more than one author to a single book) from a certain point of view, with a specific audience and agenda. Thus, not technically, the "Word of God" (at least as far as it goes word-for-word).

Can you see where the arguments would come in? That's right, not between A/B, but between A and/or B v. C . Because you can't logically have infallibility and inerrancy without believing first A or B.

(I must now state that there are other positions, but in the blog world where these debates are happening, these represent or most closely represent the majority.)

So, what happens with C? Well the Bible becomes a collection of humans writing from their own experiences in a specific context and culture, with a specific reason and audience in mind. I tend to explain it this way: "It is the human record of humanity's (from a Hebrew to an early Christian context) attempt to understand and explain their experiences with the Divine and mankind's relationship to that divine through the use of language." So it is a certain culture, specific experiences, and a message being delivered through the writings.

What does this mean?
Well it means that things in the Bible might conflict. A culture who does not record history in the same way we understand recorded history (preserving the actual events), is not trying got make the Bible a "history book", but instead a book with a metaphorical understanding of the Divine. These writers knew that language was not adequate enough to describe God, and only serves to contain God to a being within our understanding. But how else are we to understand except through language? So they use stories and metaphors (the most elegant of comparisons) to communicate God and their experiences with him. That doesn't mean that things like the Exodus didn't happen, but the story (preserved through verbal transmission for centuries before someone wrote it down) is not concerned with being accurate, rather it is concerned with preserving the message. Therefore ACCURACY is not the highest priority for any of the writers...even the "history books" (Acts, 1&2 Kings) have conflicts with historical details put forth in other books mentioning the same histories. But does the Bible have to be 100% accurate in the same mindset we think of accuracy in the modern mindset in order for it to be inspired, inspirational, reliable, informative, and most importantly: sacred?

Another example:

Jesus understood all of this. Why do you think that he chose to speak in parables that even his closest disciples couldn't understand at times. One of his most used phrases is, "________ is like _____________ ."
"The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed."
"The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field."
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field."
etc... (that's just the first part of Matt. speaking about the Kingdom!

"God, Heaven, the is LIKE ______, not exactly, but it's a good example....oh, and it's also LIKE ______ too. As well as it being LIKE__________....." And that's kinda how Jesus speaks of things that our language can't quite express.

Ok, so what does all this mean about INSPIRATION?
Well, anytime we come "face-to-face" with God/the Divine...anytime we experience something Holy...we are inspired. These authors recounting the stories, experiences and messages that were holy to them were inspired. It doesn't matter if God led their hand, or took over their body and mind so that each drop of ink was directly from him. He's been using mankind all throughout history to share their experiences and work together (dare I call this communal aspect community) in order to understand him and his wishes. He then sent Christ to give us even more direction and inspiration for humanity's journey. I think the Bible can still be INSPIRED even if it was written by man in his own words because the experience and tradition (stories) that prompted the writing was indeed inspired by God.

But doesn't this make the Bible less SACRED?
Again, I would argue that the Bible is still JUST AS sacred in this understanding as it is in the "Divinely Inspired" approach. Some would even argue that it is MORE sacred from this vantage point! Let me explain. Sacred has traditionally been tied to the source of said topic. However, that is always in hindsight. What MAKES something sacred is us! How we treat and approach something is what makes it sacred. Why do you think idolatry is high on the "no-no" list? It's not that making en graven images, or having icons is in itself idolatrous, it is how we approach and treat these icons that makes our acts idolatry.

For Centuries, these writings have been held in the highest esteem. They have been considered "sacred" by more than one religion because of how they speak to us! There were many writings that didn't make the Bible's "cut", yet were considered sacred to different communities in a different time.

Addition: (I don't feel like I finished my thought process here)...
I sometimes feel that in the way we approach the Bible, there's a fine line between that sacredness and idolatry. I have had people point this out with the above idea..."don't you think that this view/approach leads to an idolatrous view of the Bible?". I would have to admit that yes, it can be a tendency. However, admitting that it is NOT God's dictation, and that it is in fact errant and fallible stems people away from treating it as MORE THAN sacred. In fact, I would argue that in modern Christianity, the A and B view has actually LED people to allow the Bible to become an idol. When we allow the Bible to be something MORE than what it is, when it becomes an extension of God (part of God), or hold the same qualities of God (without error/ never wrong), it can become a sort of god in our lives. There are many people that focus so much on the Bible (like the argument that God CAN'T reveal himself outside of the 66 leather-bound books) that they can fall victim to a form of idolatry. Modern Christianity has had a habit of raising the Bible BEYOND the sacred, to the all practicality, worshipping the Bible rather than worshiping God. Worshiping their pick-and-choose scriptural God, over a God that is not bound in or by the scriptures. As Marcus Borg Says, "The Bible is the finger pointing towards God, not God himself. There is a big difference in worshipping the finger, and worshipping God." (Reading The Bible Again For The First Time emphasis mine and slightly paraphrased).

In addition to C's view still being sacred, when people view these writings as human beings and communities struggling to understand God and our purpose in the world (the same question that people and communities of faith are asking today!!!), there is a connection that transcends time and space. We can relate to their humanity, their struggles, their mistakes, and their victories. We add their stories to our own stories; their experiences with the Divine to our experiences with God and his Kingdom/work!!!! This timeless, seemingly supernatural, connection makes the Bible even MORE sacred to many people!
So, nutshell version of this approach. What are the implications? Well, there is a language barrier... an understanding barrier when two people (one who belongs in A or B and thinks anything else is wrong, thus cannot converse with C because their theology (built with this cornerstone) begins to fall apart if questioned) simply cannot accomplish true conversation. It leads usually, to either #2 or#3.

The question I'm pondering is how to get around this hump. This theological and religious structure we call inspiration, seems to be the biggest dividing point amongst Christians because everything else Biblically derived is tied to a person's personal understanding of the inspiration of the Bible. Until we can cross this language/viewpoint barrier...I'm afraid, I'm afraid that we will continue this trend in Christianity to keep dividing when Unity is needed most. I wish we could switch our focus from unity around beliefs to unity around something else? ! That's where our conversations need to be centered! We need to be finding what it is we can unify ourselves around, not continually debating that which continues to divide us!

What are your thoughts?


  1. Hey man, love your 'out loud' thinking on this topic. There are whole denominations based on "C". They hold the bible as sacred. As Peter Rollins points out in his book, How (not) to Speak of God, some things can be true, yet not factual. Christianity is about experiencing God. Encounters with God can't ever be adequately by words - in any language. Men were 'inspired' by these encounters and told their story. We aren't to argue about it's factuality, rather we must embrace the truth of the encounter. Think 'Second Naivete'. I beleive that Christendom must totally re-examine their notions about inspirtation if Christianity is ever going to engage the world as the power of God. Our muddled notions of inspiration distract us from what the Spirit longs to do among us.

  2. Thanks Bill,
    Rollins...speaking my language now. He has a new book I saw????!!!!

    Yeah, i wanted to say this in the post, but it got long. Up until the last year, I really didn't think this was an issue anymore...but I see now how wrong I was.

    I thought that the majority of people (esp. as I distanced myself from the SBC) fell into the "C" category.

    I didn't have to deal to omuch with it in Div. School, although it was present, it was minimal amongst those students. Most of them simply transfered to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Not dissing them, just glad they found a place that was a better fit for them. But my Div. school was not Liberal in the least. It was and is safely moderate, but def. taught a historical-critical approach to exegetical studies. I learned this in undergrad, and it has always just made sense to me.

    But it seems that this issue of Biblical inspiration still runs rampant on the web and amongst many Christians I run into. ESPECIALLY when people who hold these views are taking shots at the emergent church, and Postmodern Christianity. I understand it, but then again, I have trouble with it. It's a hard thing feeling like the A/B approach is a healthier and more realistic way of understanding the Bible, and yet seeing people who CHOOSE (this goes beyond indoctrination which I understand), but people who choose to view through the A/B lens.

    I have trouble RELATING (that's the better word) to that, thus this post. To be fair, the communication issue is something both sides need to work on. The postmodern/"C" group needs to work on better language to the "A/B" group, and the "A/B" group needs to learn the art of conversation when 2 views don't match up. Although, I have to admit, I have seen some that classify themselves with Emergent guilty of the exact same hateful and bitter language as I've received from non-emergents. That saddens me:(

    thanks for reading Bill, and great quote!

  3. good post.

    but you sure sound awfully defensive... :)

    i think most of the people in 'C' rarely venture out into the internet to interact with people like you and i do.

    i find it amusing that someone thinks 'C' might lead to idolatry of the bible; 'A' and 'B' are the groups i commonly call bibliolators. they've elevated the written word above the Word revealed in john's gospel.

    i try not to come down fully in any one camp, which generally means people say i'm relativistic and don't believe in any 'absolute truths,' which i don't think is fair. just like salvation seems to be both a work of God and a movement towards Him on our part, i think scripture is a similar mixing of God and man. i do not hold to inerrancy, but i do see the bible as possessing authority and being inspired, though my take on those words may not be exactly how someone else understands them.

    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa

  4. Hey Mike,

    You're prob. right. I don't mean for it to sound defensive, but through another's eyes it probably does come across as such. I think part of that is because my recent interactions with people was what inspired this post. I kept asking "why"..."why can we not converse civil-like about theological topics?"

    My other worry, is that I don't want to sound condescending. I have lived in the world of academia for the last decade, and I have seen how condescending and plain rude people are who fall into "C" towards "A&B". I have to admit, there are times when I have found A&B archaic in its views, but at the same time, we should retains some sort of mystery and supernatural mystique in scripture. It is REALLY hard to speak on this subject and not be read as condescending. So I'll take defensive over that any day:)

    I'm totally with you on "Bibliolators". Nice way of phrasing that!

    I am also in agreement with you on where I come down. If I HAD to classify myself (which I don't), I would say "C", but I agree with what you say. I think the difference is that "inspired" doesn't mean the same thing for us as it does for the "A/B" groups, but that doesn't mean it means anything LESS! I think that the events and people are def. inspired. I BELIEVE that the hand of God (not the literal hand, but metaphorical:) can be seen all throughout scripture. And, even though I may not believe that it has authority because it is "Gods own words", doesn't mean it has less authority in my life.

    In fact, no matter what approach a person takes, there is NO other substitute for authoritative inspired text for Christianity. None! So, in essence, we always come back to the same place with inspiration and authority. But what comes next (interpretation that stems from this issue) is where everyone begins to depart ways.

    I wish there were more "C"'s on here in dialog with us.
    fantastic comment, as always, it is a great pleasure to interact with you. Saw your comments on generous orthadoxy aboout the manifesto. great topic I'm following, and I really liked what you had to say.

    thanks for venturing here buddy!
    peace and grace