July 12, 2008

On the Inspiration of Scripture

Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but it is always written in a human tongue. People do not speak God’s language, or have God’s knowledge, so God, when speaking to people through inspiration, must employ the human language of the culture and time of the one inspired, in order to impart any knowledge at all. God always “talks down” to us, and our finite human capacity always limits how well we understand the infinite God, and express that understanding. One cannot put the ocean in a bottle; and new wineskins must be used for new wine. As Jesus himself would later say, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13)

The inspired recipients of God’s word in Genesis believed the sky to consist of a dome, in which the sun, moon, and stars were set, and which had windows to admit the rain stored in the pool of waters above. God, of course, knew that this was not true, literally or in any other sense, but the minds of those God inspired could have no place to hold such concepts as gravity and freely floating planets, stars and moons — or that the earth was not stationary at the center of a revolving universe. They had the evidence of their senses to the contrary, and would not, as Jesus would later say, have been able to “bear” the truth. So God communicated to them in a language that did not seem outrageous to them, that met their expectations, and explained and ratified what they perceived. The primary truth God intended to convey, after all, was not a literal account of the composition of the cosmos, but the theological principle that God is the creator of all that is.

In the same way, the accounts in Genesis 2 through 4 do not present a literal history of the first human beings, but a theologically relevant account, God’s word designed to explain truths to people in keeping with what they perceived, within their time and place — to address the really big questions to which the account provides the answers: primarily, why is it that people do wrong things; why do they die; why do they marry; and why should a perfectly natural thing like childbirth be so painful.

Tobias Haller BSG


Erika Baker said...

I'm not sure I understand why painful childbirth ended up in your list of answers. Isn't that rather a part of the other group of "answers" that were born out of the times and culture people lived in?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

What I meant was that the account gives an explanation for why childbirth is painful. (Gen 3:16) It also explains the origin of agriculture (a not unsophisticated vision of the movement from hunter/gatherer life to simple farming). In other words, these opening chapters are about "why things are the way they are" and set the stage for what is to come.

(You are no doubt aware of the extended opposition in the 19th c. to the introduction of anaesthesia for childbirth, on the basis of this text. No similar biblical fuss was made about developments in making agricultural work less "sweaty." Women always get stuck with these "eternal" interpretations while men get off the hook left and right. It wasn't until Queen Victoria had had enough and said, "We should like the aether," or words to that effect, that it became acceptable.)

Erika Baker said...

Thank you, I understand now.
And I shall be eternally grateful to Queen Victoria!

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Yes, I find this to be true, not only of the Bible but when the Spirit of God speaks to me. I'm never sure I've heard entirely accurately because I know I'm having to frame the wordless thing I sense in human language.

As for the Bible, I was posting about this topic earlier this week but in a much less scholarly way than you do. I was writing about my personal journey from fundamentalist reading of the Bible to one that takes genre, culture, and historic context into account among other things.

June Butler said...

And this is less blogging, Tobias? Well, maybe your posts are shorter than usual.

I'm going to link to this post and borrow a quote, if you don't mind.

it's margaret said...


A side comment but very related to your discussion --in the 1928 BCP, the word WORD was never capitalized unless it was in reference to our Lord. On the other hand, when referring to our Holy Scriptures, the word was rarely (if ever) capitalized....

Thus there was no confusion as to thinking of the word of Holy Scripture as being synonamous with the living Word of God, our Lord.

just thinking....

Brother David said...

I can see a large extended family sitting around a fire. They have worked hard all day. They have enjoyed a good meal, the result of their labor, perhaps from many different hands, from foodstuffs recently gathered or prepared & preserved at various times when available. The children are clean and ready for bed, but begging for a few minutes more with their elders. A little boy climbs into his Grandfathers lap, looks up into wise and experienced eyes and says, "Grandpa, tell us again why snakes do not have any legs?"

Doorman-Priest said...

Thank you for this. It says it all beautifully.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Ruth; I visited and read your essay: a wonderful and faithful testimony.

Mimi, this is actually an excerpt from something I wrote for the book, so it's doing double duty!

It's Margaret -- thanks for the reminder. The BCP tradition was always a lot less enthusiastic about capitalizing things. Note that neither the KJV nor BCP capitalize He or Him in reference to God.

Dahveed -- a wonderful image; I'm sure old Abraham did exactly that.

D-P thanks for the kind words.

"Sir" said...

I, too, intend to include it in a post. I hope your permission to Mimi extends to me retrospectively.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Leo,
Please feel free. Over at "Guy in the Pew" someone pulled the old, "If Genesis isn't literal we can't trust the rest of Scripture." My response is that just because I later learned that my parents weren't telling me the literal truth about Santa Claus, does not mean I distrust my parents. I understood they were just trying to get me to be a good boy by telling me that someone somewhere was keeping a list and checking it twice. The fact that parents have been using such a device as a means to discipline, should probably be good evidence that God did the same -- as, indeed, we are assured that "the Law was a disciplinarian until Faith came..."

Anonymous said...

Margaret, the 1928 BCP is not as you represent it. The invitation to confession at the beginning of Morning Prayer contains in part:

And although we ought, at all times, humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.

Again, in the service of Holy Communion, we find the following:

And grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.

Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and other Ministers, that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments.

And to all thy People give thy heavenly grace; and especially to this congregation here present; that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.

There are other portions in which the referent of “Word” is ambiguous, but likely is Holy Scripture.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the correction. It is strange, on reviewing the earlier prayerbooks just how much they liked to capitalize things -- yet didn't capitalize pronouns referring to God. I think the issue here, though, is the extent to which the phrase "Word of God" has two meanings, which can sometimes only be discerned by context: 1) the Son, the second person of the Trinity, and 2) the Holy Scripture. In Scripture itself Jesus is referred to by John, simply as "The Word" -- and "word of God" usually means some specific prophecy, though sometimes the whole of Scripture. A similar ambiguity on that ground comes with the use of Scripture and Scriptures.

Ultimately, I think the point is that we ought not think that the Bible is the same as the second person of the Trinity.

Erika Baker said...

"Ultimately, I think the point is that we ought not think that the Bible is the same as the second person of the Trinity."

Or the third, seeing it's the Spirit that is often relegated to history in favour of Scriptures.

Erika Baker said...

Did my post on Santa Clause get lost this morning or did you not think it was relevant?
Just in case it was the former:

When my children asked me why I had "lied" about Baby Jesus (who brings the presents in Germany) I told them that this was the only way we parents had to convey the same excitement, sense of mystery, joy, hope and anticipation to children that adult Christians obtain from the birth narrative.

I hope my children have learned early on that it's not literal truth that matters but the deeper meaning behind texts and honestly told stories.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

This is the only version I rec'd -- I'm glad you persisted, as it is very much to the point.
Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

Some of the best theology I have seen as of late. Thank you for giving me new thoughts.

Talk about things getting "lost in translation!"

Monk-in-Training said...

Br. Tobias

I have been involved with some friends discussing Genesis lately, and I put an excerpt from this in a post on my blog. Wow, I really like this line of thought. I am going to ponder it for a while.

I am so looking forward to seeing you next week at Convocation!