I’m working my way up through a day’s worth of commentary (kids’ sleepovers have a way of interrupting blog productivity). And along the way I got sidetracked by Jerry Rivard’s comment:
“It all falls neatly into place if you consider the hypothesis that the bible was written by mere mortals without divine inspiration and that as such it reflects the knowledge and moral values of the times they lived in.”
These days this is an enormously popular objection to the claim of biblical inspiration so it is definitely worth a closer look. Let’s begin by outlining some ecumenical, big-tent agreement. Orthodox Christian bibliology has always agreed with Jerry’s claim that “the bible was written by mere mortals….” Occasionally theologians have veered into divine dictation models of inspiration but those models are widely recognized as failing to maintain the humanity of the text.
Unfortunately the agreement stops at the second bit: “without divine inspiration”. Why think this is the case? Jerry provides the reason: because the text “reflects the knowledge and moral values of the times [the authors] lived in.”
Let’s consider an analogy. Imagine that a manuscript for a previously unknown play is discovered which dates to 1605 England. On the cover it claims authorship by William Shakespeare. Was it in fact by Shakespeare? Well imagine further that there are many plays which falsely claim Shakespearean authorship. The next thing we would do to discern whether this play was in fact authored by Shakespeare would be to read it. Does it contain the trademark eloquence, wit and pathos of a Shakespeare play? Let’s say that when we read it we discovered a play which, in terms of literary quality, could have been written by any moderately literate denizen of Stuart England. It had none of the eloquence, wit and pathos that you’d expect from Shakespeare. One suspects that at that point it would be consigned to the ever-growing pile of forgeries fairly quickly.
Nameless interlocutor: “There is one important disanalogy between the play and our present case: we have no background canon of accepted works against which to compare the Bible to see that it matches up.”
I’m not sure that makes a difference for the function of the analogy but fine, here’s another. You find an unsigned painting at a garage sale. It looks exactly like something Thomas Kinkade would have painted: blurry, sentimental, sickeningly commercial. Is it the product of a great anonymous artist? If you pay the ten bucks will you become the next star of “Antiques Roadshow?” Not likely. If every visual cue from the painting suggests a desperately average, uninspired painter, then any other conclusion would be unjustified.
So are Christians clutching their Bibles like a person clutching a garage sale Kinkade and claiming it’s a Rembrant?
The history of apologetics is full of failed attempts to provide an evidential case for the Bible’s unique inspiration. Let’s briefly survey some.
Unique unity. It is common to argue that the Bible has an inexplicable unity, written by dozens of authors over hundreds of years, and yet a single unifying storyline emerges. I don’t dispute that such a unity may bring the text together. But I would contend that this is quite ineffective as an apologetic given the inherently subjective nature of the judgment. To illustrate, collect several dozen important literary texts from various Americans ranging from Puritan Cotton Mather to Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Luther King and on down to the latest speech by Barack Obama. If you are determined to fit all these diverse texts into a common architectonic theme (e.g. a “City on a Hill”) you can do so. And then you could claim that this unity is a sign of the providential hand working through all the authors. Even if some of the texts seem to be a rather poor fit for the chosen theme, the same could be said of many biblical passages (how does Ecclesiastes fit into the big story?). The bottom line is that one could mount an apologetic case for a providential hand unifying these texts by great Americans as surely as one does so for the Bible. (And if you want to hear backmasking in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” you’ll find that too.)
Unique literary quality. This appeal is a two-edged sword since some passages of scripture are of great literary quality (e.g. Job, Luke) but others are not (e.g. Revelation with its poor grammar; sections of the Pauline corpus which define “run-on-sentence”). Moreover, to appeal to literary quality as a sign of inspiration immediately raises uncomfortable issues about the putative inspiration of other great literary works. Are they inspired too?
Fulfilled prophecies. This appeal is not nearly as popular as it used to be. So far as I can see this is for three reasons. To begin with, many of these “prophecies” in question are understood today to have been written after the events they purport to predict. The prophecies of Daniel are an excellent example. The evidence is overwhelming that Daniel was written in the Maccabbean age. And that judgment arises not from an “anti-supernatural bias”. Rather, it arises from the sheer weight of textual evidence. Second, many of these “prophecies” were not originally understood as such. Count up the number of messianic prophecies Matthew claims were fulfulled by Jesus. How many were understood by the original authors to be a messianic prophecy? Finally, there is a subjectivity in most claimed fulfilled prophecies. Is Isaiah 52-3 really a prophecy of the messiah? I may accept that interpretation but I understand why a non-Christian would be under no compulsion to do so.
Unique moral teaching. It is occasionally tempting to focus on the inspired authority of a text like the Sermon on the Mount. But there are three problems with this. First, there is the extent to which teaching like this has a precedent in the immediate surrounding culture. Critics of this kind of argument love to point out that the Golden Rule wasn’t invented by Jesus. We should all be glad about that. If human beings didn’t innately know the Golden Rule it is doubtful that society could have developed. Even granting this fact some apologists have claimed that the Golden Rule is still unique. This is because all prior formal statements of the maxim state it in negative terms: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself.” It is only with Jesus that we have the rule stated in positive terms: “Do unto others…” I’m not sure whether Jesus is the first person in history to state the Golden Rule in a positive fashion or not, but I’d caution Christians about placing apologetic weight for the Bible’s inspiration on this eminently falsifiable claim. I also must admit that it seems to me a positive statement of the Golden Rule does not exactly constitute a moral revolution. While other aspects of the Sermon on the Mount are more compelling for carrying a truly unique authority, we are still very far from a general defense of biblical inspiration.
Scientific information. From Answers in Genesis to Reasons to Believe there are dozens of parachurch organizations which spend much of their time attempting to demonstrate that various aspects of the Bible contain accurate scientific descriptions of the world, descriptions that suggest the text’s divine source. This is a uniquely modern enterprise which reflects the deference to scientific explanation in our age. Not only do such efforts typically reflect a hermeneutical naivete which reads current theories of x or y into ancient near eastern texts, but by doing so these apologists wed the text’s authority to the scientific spirit of the age. And remember what happens when you wed the spirit of the age? Right, you’re soon a widower. A nineteenth century apologist might have argued that Genesis is inspired because it accurately predicted the existence of phlogiston. So what happens when everyone agrees that phlogiston doesn’t exist?
Secret codes. This is the one apologetic attempt to ground the Bible’s inspiration which can be slotted into the category of “fad”. In the late 1990s Bible code books were all the rage. (Thank you Michael Drosnin.) You don’t hear about these Bible codes so much anymore. I guess the enthusiasm diminished once it was recognized that by the same loosey goosey principles you could find signatures of the supernatural in your weathered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Prophecies redux. Our first appeal to prophecy looks at prophecies fulfilled in biblical times as a sign of inspiration (up to and including the Fall of Rome). The second appeal looks to prophecies purportedly being fulfilled in our age which were prophesied in biblical texts, especially Revelation. Like many Christians in the seventies and early eighties I initially bought into Hal Lindsey’s vision of prophecy fulfillment. As a professor who teaches church history in a seminary I know now that these claims have been made in virtually every generation since the time of Christ. Everyone thinks that prophecy is being fulfilled in their day. Needless to say the apologetic value of such fanciful interpretations for defending biblical inspiration wore off several centuries ago.
So wherein does the defense of a doctrine of biblical inspiration lie? To answer that we must first answer another question: what do we mean by biblical inspiration?