Towards a Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration

Yesterday I attended the Evangelical Theological Society’s regional meeting for the Pacific Northwest, held at Western Theological Seminary in Portland, OR. I made a new friend there with a brother who is like minded, and shares a lot of concerns that I do, theologically. His area of emphasis (as he heads into the beginning stages of PhD study), in regard to research, has to do with a Christian biblical doctrine and understanding of inspiration. He in fact delivered a paper, which I listened to, where he proposed a kind of trajectory for developing a Christian Dogmatic frame for locating biblical inspiration relative to God. After he finished reading his paper, as is customary at such conferences, there was a short Q&A period. During that time one of the questioners brought up the issue of how the words of Scripture are somehow properties of divine disclosure; divine discourse. This led further to an even more general consideration, brought up by my friend in response, in regard to: ‘How is Scripture God’s Word for us today?’

I think these are very pertinent questions, and as such I would like to provide some response; response in engagement with two lights in this particular area: John Webster and Angus Paddison. Throughout the rest of this post we will consider some ways that might be helpful toward thinking about what in fact inspiration actually is (from a Christian Dogmatic vantage point), and how God’s Word might be God’s Word for us today. Shall we begin?

I would submit that as Matthew Levering has duly noted and developed[1] the primary way that Scripture is God’s Word for us today reposes upon the reality that Scripture lives and breathes within the web of God’s present (not just past) life for us. In other words the category of participation becomes a powerful resource for how we should conceive of how Scripture not only has signified God’s Word for us from the past, but continues to do that for us in the present. In other words, Scripture itself has an ontology or is webbed into a relationship of discourse from on high; i.e. it participates in the Divine discourse as an embassy of God’s Triune speech, speech that is enlivened by the Holy Spirit as He (the third person of the Trinity) bridges the heavenly discourse with our discourse and knowledge of God. This introduces a host of directions we could take (like: the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the complex of divine and human agency relative to inscripturation, etc.), but let’s try to focus our attention, in this post, in one dominant direction.

Signum and Res (‘Sign’ and ‘Reality’); these are the two categories that best help us, I submit, towards understanding how we ought to think of ‘inspiration’, theologically, and attendant to that (definitively) how God’s Word for us is his Word for us today. I could put this in my own words, and will (by way of reflection below), but let’s allow Angus Paddison a word on this:

Seeing Scripture is an exercise in seeing the actions in which it is a participant, and so we should properly seek of not just seeing Scripture but also of seeing beyond Scripture. Karl Barth’s category of Scripture as a ‘witness’ is helpful here in reinforcing the kind of vision required. To have one’s attention grabbed by a witness is to look away from her and towards that which she witnesses. The aim of reading a text written by a biblical author like Paul is not to seek out the putative historical circumstances behind this or that pronouncement, but to look towards the reality which so radically reorientated Paul’s life. Just as when we look out of a window at people staring upwards and yet cannot see the plane they are doubtless staring at, so too Paul ‘sees and hears something which is above everything, which is absolutely beyond the range of my observation and the measure of my thought’. Reading Paul as a witness upturned by grace, rather than prioritizing his status as author, is to follow the direction of his gaze, daring to see that which he points us towards. Good witnesses urge us to look not at them but at that which they indicate to us – a ‘successful’ witness is one who recedes as his object of attention begins to absorb our attention. Scripture is then not the end point of our vision, but is rather an invitation to see in what kind of contexts it is intelligible as Scripture.[2]

Paddison identifies at least three helpful hooks we might hang our doctrine of Scripture (vis-à-vis doctrine of inspiration) upon: 1) the category of ‘participation’, 2) the Barthian category of ‘witness’, and 3) the category of ‘vision’ or ‘reality’. As you think about it, what encompasses all of these categories is an uber-category of ‘instrumentality’; this a category not far removed from John Calvin’s own thinking about Scripture as spectacles. But let’s not stop here, lets push further into what Paddison introduces us to by hearing from Webster on how this might relate even further to developing a theological understanding and doctrine of biblical inspiration and how understanding the word’s of Scripture as ‘signs’ might accomplish this for us; indeed, Webster’s thoughts dovetail quite well with Paddison as he writes,

To speak of these signs as divinely instituted is to say that they are brought into being by an impulse which simultaneously employs and sublates human authorship. This, we shall see, does not compromise the integrity of text or authorship and authorial intention, but it does set those realities and activities in a movement whose primary agent is God himself. God initiates and directs this movement; to say anything less would be to compromise the notion of revelation. This divine direction is such that the biblical signs bear the divine Word to their hearers. The speeches of the prophets and apostles are not simply a sort of linguistic wager, rather perilously reaching towards divine speech. They are the actual occasion and mode of its utterance, and the presence of its authority to judge, command and bless. And this, not by way of conversion or confusion – the prophetic and the apostolic signs remain human, not divine or angelic words – but by way of the mystery of divine institution. Here, as Augustine puts it, God did not ‘broadcast direct from heaven’ but spoke ‘from his human temple’.

There is, therefore, a relation between the words of the biblical text and divine speech. It is not that the sermo humana is just occasionally or accidentally related to the sermo divina, or that the divine Word is so loosely annexed to the fallible human word that all we may legitimately discover in Scripture are traces of divine speech rather than God’s self-utterance. As a divinely instituted sign, Scripture is not a response to a distant Word, a Word which does not take determinate creaturely forms into its service; nor does Scripture signify the divine Word merely by traces of ‘excess’. If scriptural signs do, indeed, constitute the temple from which God makes divine utterances, then we need not be overzealous in separating divine Word and human service, or too pessimistic about God’s capacity to sanctify human texts. God so acts as to make the text capable, fitting and fruitful in the publication of his Word. This is part of what is meant by verbal inspiration: God’s Word is not at risk when spoken through the ministry of the prophets and apostles.[3]

Conclusion

I walk away from this engagement with these thoughts: 1) God’s Word is God’s Word for us insofar as we understand its participatory relationship (i.e. its ontology) within the web of God’s Triune speech and discourse for us today bridged by the Holy Spirit’s witness bearing role in relation to the publication of Scripture’s words; 2) that the primary category under which a confessional and principled Christian doctrine of Scripture and inspiration ought to be framed is ‘instrumentality’, in other words, Scripture is not an objective end in itself, but given its ontology in relation to its direct giveness by God, it becomes the sanctioned instrument through which God intends to make his reality known; and 3) the words of Scripture do not have any capacity in themselves to be ‘revealing things,’ but they only become this continuously as they by the Holy Spirit’s charge point us beyond themselves to their reality (the ‘signum’/’res’ matrix), their living reality found in God’s eternal Logos, as he communes among himself in Trinitarian discourse and bliss – so it would be wrong, then, to attempt to reduce the words of scripture themselves down into a ‘qualitative’ understanding as if the words themselves could serve as ‘containers’ or ‘receptacles’ of God for us, they cannot (this takes us, later, into a discussion about the impact that substance metaphysics has had upon the Western church in regard to developing not just our relative doctrines of Scripture, but everything else theological and ecclesiological as well).

 

[1] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 1-310.

[2] Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (New York, NY: T&T Clark. A Continuum Imprint, 2009), 2-3.

[3] John Webster, The Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York, NY: T&T Clark. A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 10.

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7 Responses to Towards a Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration

  1. I do appreciate this. I’ve been struggling with developing (for my own edification) a doctrine of inspiration that properly accounts for the enculturation of the prophets and apostles and how their message speaks into our present circumstance. How exactly that relationship should be maintained is unclear to me. Nevertheless, good thoughts here.

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  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Joshua,

    Thanks. What do you mean by “accounts for the enculturation of the prophets and apostles and how their message speaks into our present circumstance? That almost seems as if you are looking more for a hermeneutic rather than a doctrine of inspiration (not that one’s view of inspiration is not related one’s hermeneutic.

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  3. Bobby, what does a doctrine of inspiration do for evangelicals that a more robust devotion to the Spirit-through-scripture– such as your own– does not do as well or better? Reading your OP, I find myself in general agreement with your position, as usual, but also thinking about how best to present it–

    (1) DOI language traps some into a piety that unhelpfully attributes the Creator’s work in the Word to a divinised creature. One can better acknowledge the real presence without a doctrine of transubstantiation; can better acknowledge the Incarnation without mariological dogmas; one can better acknowledge the Word in the scriptures without a doctrine about their properties. Ceteris paribus, it is better for believers in the Trinity to say “the Holy Spirit teaches…” than to say “the Bible teaches…” Persons who are new to belief in God are better helped by teaching language that works with their new understanding that those in Christ refer all good to the Creator.

    (2) Systematic elegance aside, Holy Spirit language is more converting for many sorts and conditions of (wo)men than Authority-from-inspiration language alone. There will always be people who are consoled by such strongly patricentric themes as time-defying order, highest authority, unquestionable certitude, etc. In some season of our lives, nearly all of us want the scriptures to be, as the temple in Jerusalem once was, a consoling sign of the immutable. Verba aeternum manet. However, I sense that many more sinners actually transit from flesh to spirit by praying with John Donne “Batter my heart, Thou Three-person’d God…”

    It does no harm to point out, as you do, that your participation language is doing the work of received inspiration language. It seems to do good to acknowledge that it does that work better.

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  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Bowman,

    I still think from a Reformed vantage point, and so I do take the word’s of Scripture in a sensus literalis, sense (pace Calvin et al). And so I refer to *inspiration* (but God breathed might even be better) as a good translation of θεόπνευστος in II Tim 3.16. I think for us evangelicals/Reformed to say the *Holy Spirit* teaches wouldn’t really be all that distinct from saying Scripture teaches given the idea that Scripture is God-breathed. I do like that emphasis though since it places the emphasis on the personalising presence of God by the Holy Spirit in Scripture’s witness and reality, and have no problems using it. But w/o explanation most evangelicals would be thinking “inspiration” anyway.

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  5. I see our hermeneutic (and understanding of it) to be temporally prior to our doctrine of inspiration, even though the DOI is logically prior to it in the sense that it corrects and stands over our hermeneutic — whatever it is. Often we speak of the limits of language and the boundaries of culture only in terms of how it affects the way we read the Scriptures; I see those questions reaching through the words, as it were, to also the Spirit speaking the words; that is to say, the God-breathed-ness of the text is affected (maybe not the best word?) by the culture into which it was spoken and in which it was being heard in a similar way to how we hear and 1st c. people heard the word differently.

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  6. Bobby Grow says:

    Joshua, I see what you are saying. I think I would prefer to see Jesus as the regula fidei of rule of faith that shapes our hermeneutic and thus as the lens through which we understand ‘inspiration’; and this is where I would, as I noted in the post, want to tie this back into the signum/res binary in re to how the written Word functions in relation to the living Word as its reality (as it participates within the Triune dialogue). But yeah, I don’t disagree that the there is a particularity and thus scandal to the the text of Scripture in its prefigural/preincarnational reality as much as the shadow becomes reality in the Deus incarnantus, the God incarnate. I think this ought to bear heavily on the current and popular attempt to Marcionize the text, and read it through through a modern rule of ethics etc.

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  7. Reformed ‘lettrism,’ if I may call it that, is still a reasonable project. The Second Temple documents of interest are densely textual at every level of meaning, and their authors, editors, collectors, and copyists saw them as both timely and timeless. But that very project nudges us to bracket meanings associated with 2 Tim 3.16 that are far more weighty and precise than its time or context leads us to expect. Sticking to the regula fidei allows us to acknowledge those meanings without excluding other implications of God-breathing through the centuries of Israelite faith.

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