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Inspiration, Authority, and Revelation

The Problem of Meaning

Even if you think you understand a sentence, it is not always easy to answer the question “What does it mean?”

So ask yourself “What do I mean when I say: ‘The Bible is inspired?’ and What do I mean when I say, ‘The Bible has authority because it is inspired.’”

Now try to answer these questions before reading any more. Write down your answers.

The Basic Question

Can we derive the authority of the Bible from its claimed inspiration; that is, can we deduce authority from inspiration?

Four Propositions

  1. The term inspiration is both complex and ambiguous, referring sometimes to the process of production, sometimes to the product.
  2. The idea of authority is distinct from the idea of inspiration.
  3. Appeal to “inspiration” cannot and therefore does not establish the authority of the Bible.
  4. The idea of “authority” involves recognition. Authority means that someone, some group acknowledges influence.

The Question of Authority

One essential aspect of the meaning of the word authority is influence. That which has influence has authority. That which has authority does something in the world. No influence, no authority! Authority may exist even when a person does not acknowledge that authority. Sometimes people brought for trial say, “I don’t recognize the authority of this court.” But somebody does, and that’s the point. Society acts upon the decisions that, as we say, the law demands. Even the person who claims not to recognize the authority of the court is affected by what it does. It has influence over him.

The crucial question is, “Wherein does the authority of the Bible lie?” Put in another way: “What are the grounds for asserting the authority of the Bible?” Let us be clear what we are asking and what we are not asking. We are not asking, “Does the Bible have authority?” There is no doubt that it does. We are asking about the grounds for that authority.

We might consider three possible answers: The authority of the Bible is:

  1. Intrinsic: The Bible has authority by virtue of certain qualities the writings have, and/or it has such qualities because of the way it came into being.
  2. Functional or instrumental: The Bible has authority because of what it does, or what it is the means of doing.
  3. Extrinsic: The Bible has authority because those for whom it has authority think about it in the way they do, or because of what they do with it.

The Idea of Inspiration Is Complex and Ambiguous

Inspiration has been related to various events:

  • The process of getting the message into the “writers” mind;
  • Writing the message down;
  • Preservation of the message and its transmission;
  • The interpretation and effect of the reading and receiving of the message;
  • The quality of the product.

(1)–(3) say that the writer was inspired; (4) says that the writing is inspiring as it is read; (5) says that the Bible has authority, unique and intrinsic. It is as if “is inspired” and “has authority” were synonyms. But they are not.

Now, it is very clear that the idea of inspiration becomes a very complex idea indeed, if it is to perform all of these five tasks, since they are by no means identical. It will be made to do a very different job when it stands for:

  1. The divine initiative in originating and delivering the message;
  2. The psychological state of the writer: the condition in which (it is claimed) divine and human are in a particular relationship, be it spirit possession, ecstasy, domination of human by divine, or filling up the mind with thoughts or images or sounds;
  3. The divine superintendence of the history of the transmission of the text;
  4. The effect of the writings in bringing about an awareness of God in the reader, leading the reader to respond at the end of the long chain of events;
  5. The quality of being authoritative, as unquestioned and infallible source of doctrine or, more plausibly, having influence, doing something in the world. This quality is often extended to the doctrines derived from scriptural texts.

To make the concept of inspiration carry each of these meanings, as well as others we might mention, is to overstrain the concept, to make it unduly ambiguous, and so to render it obscure. A term you must explain every time you use it, because it is so highly ambiguous, is neither clear nor useful. Inspiration was intended to explain. But if it first needs extended explanation and qualification to such an extent as we have indicated it has become misleading. It is not that the views it expresses are simply different. They conflict. To use the term is to invite unclarity and confusion.

We must not try to make the materials fit a stereotype. Some inspiration theories were at fault in that they stereotyped their explanations.

  1. The role of the prophet is made the one model for the theory. This creates a stereotype then taken as normative. This procedure deliberately overlooks the many varied ways in which to take only a few examples:
    • How the historical books came into being,
    • How the evangelists worked out their writings as they remembered Jesus in the synoptic Gospels;
    • How the apostle Paul quite deliberately uses his own judgment in what he says (1 Cor. 7:10, 12, 25, 40).

  2. Within the model of the prophet, the principle of dictation attempts to explain how all the writings came into being: God “spoke” to the prophet and the prophet wrote down the divine words unerringly, or God filled the prophet’s mind with thoughts which he then put into words.

The difficult question is, How does God put words or thoughts or images into a human being’s mind? This raises a much bigger question: How does God do something in the world of human beings? What does it mean to talk about God’s action as the cause of events within the world?

There are the very rare instances that come close to the model of overpowering divine influence. The writer may claim the dream or the vision had God for its cause. This is already an interpretation of its origin. But then there is a gap between the receiving of the message—verbally or quasi-verbally—and its final form in a Hebrew, Greek, English, or other modern language Bible. It is just not possible to make the great range of materials fit the stereotype. Nor can you, in these matters, determine in advance what the answer to an historical question must be by imposing the stereotype on the varied materials.

The content of the Scriptures remains the same whether or not you speak of them or of the writers as being inspired. The authority of the Bible rests in the understanding of that content, or the contents (since here is such a diverse body of writings). Their influence and employment, their acknowledgement as source of teachings, is what constitutes their authority.

Christians have always held that God reveals himself through the words of Scripture. Only if that happens does the Bible have authority of the appropriate kind for the believer, that is, religious authority. So this leads us to ask for an appropriate doctrine of revelation. A satisfactory doctrine of revelation has no place for a dubious theory of inspiration. If God reveals himself through these writings, then the writings have authority, however they came into being. The idea of “inspiration” can quietly drop away.

A Quotation

The non-biblical category of inspiration cannot provide a satisfactory basis for the re-statement of the truth concerning the authority of the Bible in the age of science.

It has become clearer today that the authority of the Bible, as Christians have traditionally understood it, cannot be explained by means of the highly subjective categories of ‘inspiration’ and ‘religious experience.’ To attempt to find the explanation of the phenomenon of biblical authority in the sphere of ‘inspiration’ is to seek for understanding in a place where the Bible does not look for it.’

The very word inspiration is hardly a biblical word at all.

The older view of inspiration and those that repeat it do not take into account the revolution in historical studies the nineteenth century brought to its culmination.1

Notes and References

1. Alan Richardson, The Bible in the Age of Science (London: S.P.C.K., 1961), 75, 76.

Theologian Edward W. H. Vick writes from the United Kingdom. His publications include books and articles for further study on the subject of this lesson, which can be obtained via his Web site:

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