Category Archives: New Testament Theology

Why “Inspiration” is a Problem

Most evangelical Christians hold to some sort of doctrine of inspiration. What is generally at stake here, so it is believed, is the trustworthiness of the Bible. As such, the doctrine offers some guarantee that the Bible really is the Word of God. However necessary this doctrine may be, it is also a sticky wicket, a technical term a friend of mine uses for a divisive impasse. Why is this so is the topic of this blog.

The fundamental problem is that the Bible does not formulate a clear doctrine of inspiration. Generally when people articulate such a doctrine they piece together various texts from the Bible, generally the NT. What the texts do not say individually are merged together to form an argument that appears to be convincing to those who believe it. Allow me to share with you just a few texts that often show up in the inspiration discussion and why they don’t really meet the challenge of providing a comprehensive doctrine of inspiration. The first is from the Gospel of Luke:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” (Luke 24:44–45 NRSV)

This text is often cited to show the inspiration of the OT. However, two issues rise. First, law, prophets, and psalms may correspond to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, the three main collections of books making up the Hebrew OT, but this is not totally clear from this text; and, secondly, inspiration is not in view in this text. What is in view in the larger context is that the witnesses named point to Jesus. Incidentally, this text implies that without some kind of illumination, people will not see Jesus in the OT. This latter issues begs the question of where “inspiration” lies: in the prophet/writer? In the text? Or, as this text suggests in the process of illuminating the reader/hearer?

Another text often deduced to support a doctrine of inspiration is from 2 Pet:

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15–16 NRSV)

This little letter attributed to Peter had a bit of a rocky history. As late as Eusebius (4th century), some still considered it a “disputed” part of the NT. However, putting aside all the challenges this little letter had in the process of canonization, on first reading this text seems to support that Paul’s letters are scripture. However another reading might be closer to the target. For example, the text could reasonably be rendered, “… as they do other writings.” If interpreters go with “other Scriptures” then they have the problematic issue that 2 Peter seems to rely on books, such as 4 Ezra, 1 Enoch, and et al., that the church did not eventually accept into the canon. One of the reasons I prefer this latter reading is that the earliest church fathers who quote Paul’s letters certainly value them but do not cite them in the same “it-is-written” way they cite OT texts (and a few that did not make it into the Protestant OT canon).

Nonetheless this text is really not about inspiration but a warning about how some misread Paul and other writings–what those other writings are are left unnamed and it is intriguing to think that some of Paul’s letters no longer extant could be among those in the author’s mind.

Perhaps the most important text for any doctrine of inspiration is 2 Tim 3:16-17

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17 NRSV)

As much as some would like, this text is about the Hebrew Bible since Timothy had “from childhood … known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15). One should note the high regard with which Paul holds the OT as a conduit for saving knowledge. What is often missed by interpreters of this text is that it is a comment on the function of the OT in the Christian community as used by Timothy in his work. In short, Scripture is inspired (God-breathed) to accomplish a teaching function in the life of the church so that the outcome will be that God’s people will be ready and equipped for every good work.” While this may properly be extended to any book perceived to be scripture, the point remains that is not what the text “meant” but what some hopes that it means.

Again, this text does not solve the problem of “which books,” even with the OT. Only a few verses before this text, 2 Tim speaks of the Egyptian magicians, Jannes and Jambres, who opposed Moses. The names of these magicians did not come from the OT; however, we do find them in ancient Jewish Targums and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So perhaps there is a better way to think about “inspiration” but that will have to wait another time—for me, anyway.

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