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A Brief History of Biblical Inspiration

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 3

By Reta Halteman Finger


Origen Adamantios
Image from a French book of the 16th century.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In our last lesson, I quoted the late Jerry Falwell, who insisted that the biblical writers copied God’s words “verbatim, but through their own personalities.” Where did this idea come from? Much of the historical outline below is from The Bible: An Introduction by Jerry L. Sumney (Fortress 2014, 2nd edition), which I am presently using in a class at Eastern Mennonite University.

Where did the idea of biblical inspiration come from?

The concept of texts as divine revelation was not an important issue until the 6th century BCE, over 400 years after King David. By then, not only had the kingdom of Israel broken into two separate kingdoms, but both of them had been conquered by different enemies. The Northern Kingdom of Israel (composed of ten tribes and retaining the name Israel) had been swallowed up by Assyria in 722 BCE. And by 587 BCE, the Southern Kingdom of Judah (composed of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with Jerusalem as its capital) had succumbed to the Babylonians. The upper classes were taken into exile at Babylon (now in Iraq).

Bereft of their promised land, their temple, and their priesthood, the Judeans confronted searching questions about why their God had let this happen. Relying on oral memory and various texts they had brought with them, they then began shaping the material into a coherent history and theology. Through worship and study, the written word became divine revelation to them. By the time some of them returned to Jerusalem from exile (permitted by the Persian ruler, Cyrus, beginning in 539 BCE), they had a collection of writings that became guides for their priests, prophets, and all the people of Yahweh (see Nehemiah 8:1-12).

Adjustments in the early church

These writings became the scripture of the early Christians, but they believed God also spoke to them through their members who had the gift of prophecy. Rather than predicting the future, Christian prophets spoke messages from God addressed to their particular situations. Think, for example, of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, other speeches in the book of Acts, or Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14.

As the Spirit came upon many non-Jewish converts (e.g., Cornelius in Acts 10:44-48), the church was forced to seriously re-evaluate their scriptures. Acts 15 records the debate over whether to accept male Gentile converts without circumcision. A novel interpretation of Amos 9:11-12 from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) marked a shift away from this major Torah command. Even the Apostle Paul did not read the Bible for its literal sense. Galatians 2:15-21 and Romans 14 are vivid examples of how the example of Jesus and the activity of the Spirit trump the letter of the law.

Pros and cons of allegory

Paul and later interpreters like Origen (185-250 CE) and John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) used allegory to explain certain scriptures. (See how Paul uses Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-31). Various Christian interpreters used allegory—taking something concrete to represent an abstract or spiritual meaning—to make sense of commands they did not keep, as well as to explain factual or historical mistakes in their Bible. Even inaccuracies could reveal a true spiritual message. Sumney calls this “plenary inspiration,” meaning that the text was full of God’s word, even when not factually accurate (p 37).

But during the 16th century Reformation, both Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected allegorical interpretations because of the way some texts were abused and misrepresented. Luther did allow a “spiritual” interpretation of some texts, but Calvin rejected the allegorical method and insisted on the literal meaning of Scripture. Nevertheless, a contradiction exists between claims that scripture is infallible and must be read literally, when there are obvious historical and factual errors.

Challenges to an infallible Bible

During the 18th century Enlightenment in the West, questions about biblical inspiration increased. Emphasizing human reason, some interpreters denied the existence of miracles and considered some of the Bible stories legends. As older copies of Hebrew or Greek biblical texts turned up, so did many more variant readings. People would wonder which reading of a text should be considered infallible. By the 19th century, says Sumney, such questions “made it difficult to maintain the ideas of inspiration and inerrancy that had developed since the Reformation” (p 39).

Enter fundamentalism

But greater use of human reason and historical criticism aroused strong reactions throughout the 19th century, especially at Princeton Theological Seminary. Calvinist professors like A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, and B. B. Warfield saw the above questions as attacks on the Bible. They defended the Reformation definition of Scripture as infallible. Responding to variants in texts, they insisted that the wording of the “original autographs” were without error of any kind (even though no original autographs of any biblical text have ever been found.)

Not all proponents of inerrancy went that far. Falwell’s statement is probably typical of many fundamentalist church leaders who insist the biblical writers recorded every word as coming from God, yet somehow allow for the expression of human personality. This is usually called “plenary verbal inspiration.”

But scholarly definitions of inerrancy are often misused among lay Christians. To some, the King James Bible is the Word of God without error. Newer English translations using older and better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are viewed with deep suspicion. Fundamentalists strongly opposed the Revised Standard Version (1946) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) when they were published.

The next lesson will deal with inerrancy in more detail: its political influence in the U.S. and its inherent weaknesses. Later we will discuss its connection to evangelicals, Christian feminists, and the current turmoil over homosexuality.

Questions for discussion or reflection:

1. What is your view of biblical inspiration in relation to the views presented above?

2.  Have you ever had a discussion/debate/argument with a Christian holding a different view of inspiration?



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