Our commenter Hanan e-mailed me about the issue of scriptural inspiration. He’s been interacting with Dr. Michael S. Heiser, who has an interesting range of views, some of which I agree with, and others not. Although it’s not strictly on the blog’s main theme of creation, it’s an interesting topic. I won’t comment on all the issues Hanan discusses with Heiser – just too diverse a subject. I won’t even deal with all Hanan’s own concerns, as I see he’s had some extensive discussion on the subject on a BioLogos thread about Denis Lamoreux’s views about Scripture.
Instead, I’ll just pick up on two points Hanan makes that do focus the mind somewhat. First, he asks what was actually written on the stone tables placed in the ark, regarding the justification for the sabbath (which troubles him because it’s based on a 7-day creation, suggesting that Yahweh was a YEC, or a deliberate misleader etc). The second is point is Jesus’s own strong reliance on OT Scripture (Hanan is Jewish, but assumes the divinity of Jesus for argument’s sake, at least, with Christian interlocutors).
Now Michael Heiser has a pretty high view of both Scripture and providence, but is anxious to avoid any suggestion of God’s dictating Scripture to passive “transcribers”. Instead, he proposes that God providentially prepared writers, editors, redactors or whoever was involved (given the possibility of complex textual history, late composition etc) so that they wrote what, in the end, he wanted written. Significantly he adds that God also prepared the people (Israel and the Christian Church) to receive the Scriptures as inspired.
Apart from avoiding a “dictation theory” of inspiration, I sense that he wants to leave some leeway for “human error” creeping into even the autograph text (as he readily concedes in the copying history) – but even if he doesn’t, there are many that would see it as inevitable in what, to outside observers, would appear a very human process.
Now, I agree substantially with much of this. Starting at the end, it can’t be too highly emphasised that the Bible is self-validating in the sense that believers of all ages have recognised its unique authority, and that is the case despite (a) presence or absence of an “offical” canonical process in both Jewish and Christian ages, (b) some differences in the actual range of the canon, or of the degree of authority of the books within it and (c) modern (and to a much lesser extent ancient) doubts about Scripture – even those counting themselves as liberal Jews and Christians at least pay lip service to the inspiration of Scripture.
Speaking purely personally, my regard for the Bible is a matter of spiritual testimony. I was converted in a context in which the Bible was central, so dutifully began to read it and even make notes on it. But it was a struggle, until a particular spiritual experience some 6 years later, after which the book (all of it) seemed to come alive to me, and to be clearly God’s own word to me. Even the dry notes I’d written suddenly seemed full of truth. I haven’t lost that feeling half a century later, despite increasing theological understanding, historical knowledge etc. So at least a big part of inspiration is in the Holy Spirit’s confirmation of its message to believers – if nobody actually believe it to be God’s word, its only purpose would be in final judgement.
Given that, the “providential” aspects of the actual writing are less problematic than they might be. Standard Evangelical wisdom has long been that God used the culture, thought and speech of human writers, so that one can (for example) get an idea of the different characters of Paul, Peter or James, or even Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos, from their books. More recently, it’s been (rightly, in my view) suggested that for God to speak at all through humans, he must “enculturate” the message, as our culture actually forms what we are. Maybe this answers one of Heiser’s points to Hanan – that the differences in Chronicles and Kings make no sense on a “dictation” theory of inspiration. Why, he says, would God give different messages about the same events, basing the later on the earlier text? Well, one answer is that he was speaking to a later culture. Another is that he was emphasising a complementary truth. A third is that the authors had different agendas. All could be true, yet none necessitates “disagreement” or “error.”
But the special cases Hanan raises do need more reflection. Michael Heiser seems to be saying that, although he believes in a possible Mosaic core to the Pentateuch, it is not vital as the factors given above mean that God would be speaking even if the Decalogue were written by some post-exilic scribe prepared by God. That is much more difficult, simply because the Ten Commandments are recognised as being the treaty stipulations of God’s covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai. The covenant was the basis on which God made them his people at all, and gave them the land, and the failure to keep the commandments was the basis on which they were judged and exiled. You simply can’t make covenants retrospectively, and the vassal party can’t put words into the mouth of the one who makes the covenant.
To make a direct comparison, you can’t claim a divorce settlement on the basis of a marriage contract you’ve concocted yourself long after a casual relationship ended. So in this case, at least, a version of “dictation” seems completely apt, if not mandatory, especially in the context of the narrative in which Moses, uniquely, speaks with God face to face. Incidentally, in the matter of the reason given for the sabbath I agree with Eddie’s Robinson’s BioLogos comment that the writer of Exodus (especially if it was Moses himself) could well have added that explanatory text, so that it wasn’t actually carved on the stone tablet. But that doesn’t mean it’s not “inspired”, nor that one can simply dismiss the “YEC error” as reflecting a human author’s ignorance. Personally I go with John Walton’s view that in functional terms, God’s creation was a literal seven-day job aptly commemorated in the Sabbath – neither Yahweh, nor Moses, nor Israel, was reading the text materially and empirically.
The example of Jesus is also instructive, if we once refuse to solve our problems by talking about Jesus having the limited and faulty knowledge of a first century Jew. He had written the book himself, for goodness sake, through the Spirit given him without measure. The authority he showed in interpretation, at which the Jews marvelled, was the authority of the divine author. And so it’s interesting how, like other NT characters, he sometimes hinges entire arguments on single words – even though the differences we now appreciate in textual traditions (especially the divergent Massoretic and Septuagint streams) were then well-known.
Even more interesting is how Jesus grants Moses (I’m not here insisting that Jesus assumed sole Mosaic authorship of torah) divine authority even when he re-interprets him. So in commenting on divorce, we can’t take his words that Moses gave his command “because of your hardness of heart” as a denial of inspiration at this point, because he immediately cites Genesis 2 as the primordial, definitive, concept of marriage. And it’s part of the same Mosaic torah. Indeed, it’s notable (as I said in a recent post) that the Bible nowhere negates its own authority, even where it is reinterpreted and reapplied by, especially, Jesus.
To draw this to a close, this leaves hanging tempting questions about what it means to be an inspired writer. Moses may at times have heard words direct from God: at other times decisions he made as the prophetic leader of Israel were enshrined in torah as being from God. The later prophets spoke the word (dabar) of God, actually sometimes distinguishing oracles from other prophetic utterances – and there’s no doubt that who they were, by the providence and grace of God, affected their message. But how much did they know they were writing “Scripture”? Other prophets spoke from God and yet did not make the canon, and not all the canonical prophets said is recorded either.
Did the writers of the histories, the psalms, the story of Ruth or the Song of Solomon have a sense of inspiration, or was it only the judgement of God’s people that turns “human” writings into divine writ? Speaking even as an ordinary writer, it’s hard to believe they had no sense of the Spirit’s moving. Especially in songwriting, there’s often a feeling of having snatched something pre-existing from the air: one is hoping to get the thing down right rather than being creative. Surely the writer of the “very oracles of God” senses no less?
But the truth is, we can’t know. Like men who’ve walked on the Moon, the canonical writers are a highly select bunch. They’re not available to ask, and Scripture is not being written now, to be capable of scientifically investigation. In the end, the judgement on inspiration can only be made by faith: we either perceive these writings to be from God, or we don’t. If we do, we stand with many million others over several thousand years. And you can’t say that about many books.