Listen as you read
Want to listen as you read? Go to the podcast and hit play. Then just follow along.
Christians take the Bible pretty seriously…except when they don’t. Christians, as well as the ancient Jews before them, have always believed that some words came from God in a way that others didn’t. Such words were understood to have unique authority, power, and veracity beyond all other human words. For the Jews these words consisted of the law, the writings, and the prophets, what Christians call the Old Testament, and Christianity has a Newer Testament as well.
But how do words from God get translated into human ones? Seems a bit wooly. Well, the scriptures themselves occasionally hint at the process. In fact, the last recorded words of David, the psalm-writing king of Israel, were about this very thing, “The Spirit of Yahweh spoke through me; his word was on my tongue.” However it works, the process of turning divine speech into human words is a task credited to…you guessed it… the Holy Spirit.
Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
I have to be honest. This homily feels like a bit of a diversion from the main topic. We’ve been reflecting on the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work somewhat historically, starting from creation, on through the Old Testament, then to Christ in the Gospels, and in coming homilies we’ll move on into the life of the Church and the epistles.
This homily, however, considers the Spirit’s role in the production of the scriptures. I have always felt that discussions on the nature of the Bible interrupt the telling of the story in the similar way a person talking about how films are made during the movie is a nuance to every who’s trying to just enjoy the film.
I suppose that’s true of any human art—the appreciation of the thing is something rather different than the consideration of how it was made. It’s the difference between enjoying food, and enjoying a lecture about how to prepare food. Both might be nice, but they’re hardly interchangeable pleasures. Again, like listening to your favorite music is different than having a music engineer standing at your elbow commenting on the levels of equalization used or the sorts of compressors employed in mastering the digital tracks. It may be interesting but certainly isn’t the same as just listening to the music.
Taking about the Bible is a lot like that. When we talk about what’s in the Bible…tell the story…we’re doing good and interesting stuff, but when we have to back up and talk about the bible as a piece of literature, its composition or history, all the technical things…It may be necessary, but it always feels to me a sort of second thing. And by definition a second thing is not a first thing…and the first thing about the Bible is meeting God, and then living in the light of that encounter.
But we cannot avoid it, because, whatever else the Bible is, it is an artifact…it is a “thing” with a particular character and history and therefore proper and improper uses. You may be all about creating a beautiful piece of metal sculpture, but if you try to use a hammer in place of a saw, where a saw is required, you’ll ruin the art. That’s true not just for artists, but for art aficionados as well. Sooner or later, even the non-artist like me has to know something of hammers and saws, or my appreciation will always be a rather shallow thing.
Insofar as the Bible is a “tool” by which we live out the art that is “life in Christ,” we likewise, sooner or later have to have some conversation about what this thing is and is not. What sort of thing is the Bible? Or to come to the specific point of this series, in what sense is this book a product of the Holy Spirit’s work?
So to be clear, I am not here interested in how we know which words are products of this special Spirit-work—which books belong in the Bible and which don’t. That subject, canonization, is the process by which the Church recognizes this special work of the Spirit in certain writings, and is a great question, but comes later. I’m interested in that logically prior action—that special work of the Holy Spirit in making the scriptures what they are. How does the Holy Spirit make divine thoughts into human words?
Now as you might expect, this is a profoundly thorny question. It was one of the central theological questions of the 20th century and split the theological liberals and fundamentalists of the day so thoroughly that even now it’s hard to get intellectually behind their conversation. Nevertheless, the holy ass would like to reflect upon a few of the really pressing issues surrounding the work of the Spirit in the Scripture’s production.
This process of producing scripture might be called “Inscripturation”—that event wherein humans write down words that are or become “divine scripture”—God’s own speech. Whatever this means, two texts are usually understood to be describing it …
The first is II Timothy 3:16— “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
That phrase “inspired by God” used by the King James version simply means “inspirated” or breathed. So when modern translations use “God-breathed” in its place, they are merely giving an ironically more literal translation of the Greek word theopneustos. The point is that scripture is somehow sourced in God, comes from God, and is meant to do God’s work in the Christian.
Scripture is somehow sourced in God, comes from God, and is meant to do God’s work in the Christian.
The second passage is II Peter 1:20-21—”Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.“
This passage says that God by means of the Holy Spirit was doing some work in the human authors such that what they produced could legitimately bear the label “scripture”—God’s own speech.
From here things get interesting. Peter, with his focus on the prophets and their prophecies, seems to be concentrating more on the original orations—that is, their first spoken oracles that only later came to be written down. But Paul’s “scripture” is almost certainly the law, writings, and prophets of the Old Testament in the form he himself had studied them in his days of theological education—that is, as written stuff, as the documents that made up the Jewish canon.
And to muddle it further, listen again to the author of II Peter, who says in chapter 3:15-16…
…[you should] regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.
This is a remarkable admission. The writer of II Peter actually compares the letters of the apostle Paul to “the rest of the scriptures.” The first generations of the Church were already accustomed to attributing this special inscripturating work of the Spirit to the writings of the apostles or at least some of them.
But what does this work exactly involve? What does the Spirit actually do that makes human words the words of God or, saying it in reverse, turns God’s words into human speech?
Now understand, we do not have certainty on this. It is a debated point of theology, and what we have are various theories that seek to incorporate all the data. My goal here is not to give the definitive answer, but rather equip you to begin thinking the matter through on your own.
I think it would be helpful to summarize a few of these options up front before we consider what we actually find in the Bible. They form a sort of continuum, where on the far right we find emphasized God’s efforts in the production of scripture and on the far left, the human effort.
On the far right end of the spectrum we find what is often called Dictation theory. This was popular in 19th and 20th century Fundamentalism, not because the most educated thinkers of the movement advocated it—indeed Charles Hodge, Gresham Machen, and other fundamentalist academics had very nuanced understandings of inspiration—but rather it enjoyed prominence in the pulpits and pews of fundamentalist churches. In various forms, it argued that the human authors contributed very little to the production of scripture. They were, at most, copying down exact words given by the Spirit. In its most extreme form, which we might call a “hard dictation theory,” it almost approached a kind of automatic writing, as if the human authors entered a sort of uplifted trance and then woke up to find holy writ upon the page. But more often Dictation theory consists of some sort of intent listening and writing as the Spirit gave the exact words, letters, and so to speak punctuation that was to be used. This theory had the advantage of removing human agency to the greatest possible degree, thereby supporting Fundamentalist commitments like inerrancy—at least when conceived in its modernist sense.
Now as you might expect, on the far other end of the spectrum, you will find the bulk of protestant liberal theology, holding what has been called a “metaphorical” view of inspiration. This name is actually a slight of hand with the word, because it really only means that scripture is “inspiring,” not uniquely and supernaturally inspired. It is “metaphorical” because no supernatural work of the Holy Spirit is actually involved. Gifted human authors wrote the best words they had, and just as in any other religious tradition, the best words have lasted because they were seen by others to be valuable. But they are in the end only human words…great words to be sure, but not divine in any real metaphysical sense. This theory was very useful to modernists who were uncomfortable with all things supernatural. They could have a book that exhibited all the flaws of any human book and yet could still be used in their churches alongside all the great books of history. It was a fraternal, generous, and noncontroversial position.
Now lots of possibilities exist between these poles. Here are two. Leaning toward the Dictation end, is the Deputized Discourse approach. This means that, while God did provide the authors with the intended meaning, it was left up to the human authors to put it into words of their choice. Therefore we have words chosen by humans to express meanings that were given directly by God.
Or leaning toward the other end, is Appropriation. This argues that the human work came first based on human needs and by human means, afterward God appropriated it as divine speech. So for example, Paul’s ranting against the church in Corinth really is initially just Paul frustrated and choosing his words based on his own agenda, personality, and limitations. When it’s all done, however, God says in essence, “yup that’s mine. I embrace that as my own.” So Paul’s letter becomes God’s speech because God as appropriated it.
Now I’ve offered these options without any sort of prejudice on my part, because in the end you are the one who will make a choice, and you are the one who will live with it. My desire here is to call into question the need to make such a choice. I don’t say this in an attempt to be fashionably postmodern, as in all the options are subjectively true, or agnostic, as in no one can know which one is true. No, no, I simply mean that when looking at the actual thing that the Bible is, I think the pressure to choose between these options goes away. It was a false dilemma to begin with.
Here’s the mistake in the conversation as I see it. We must not establish a criteria for inspiration and then go see if the Bible can meet it. It’s no good coming up with an idea of what an inspired book ought to look like, or what we think would be most coherent, or most apologetically defensible, and then going to see if the Bible meets our criteria. That’s backwards. Whatever inspiration means, it means what the Bible actually is. Stated differently, Inspiration is not a criteria that the Bible “meets,” but one it “establishes.” This means, you should be able to open the Bible randomly, point at a text, and say, “However that text came to be, that is an example of how inspiration works.”
Inspiration is not a criteria that the Bible “meets,” but one it “establishes.”
So what do we actually find when we let the Bible be itself? What does the work of the Spirit actually look like? Here’s the interesting thing: If you embrace any one of these models as the answer, none of them actually work for every part of the Bible. Not all its parts are composed in the same way. The Spirit did not use the same means everywhere.
If you take Moses on the mount receiving the 10 Commandments, you’re looking at something that seems very much like dictation. “Here, Moses, write exactly this, and no liberties.” Or perhaps the apostle John with his vision on the island of Patmos that gave us the book of Revelation. “I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.” If that’s not a form of dictation, it is at least a deputized discourse. Or consider the prophets, who say so often “The Word of the Lord came to me…” Twenty-seven of Ezekiel’s thirty-eight chapters begin so, and in chapter 2 he specifically says, “I heard the Spirit speaking to me.” That doesn’t sound like the Spirit left much wiggle room in what words to use. So sometimes inspiration does have a dictation-like quality it to it.
But not always. We are also told that, while Solomon himself composed a lot of his “wise sayings,” he also gathered wisdom from all the nations. The book of Proverbs contains material already known to the Egyptian wise man Amenemope, who lived 1000 years before Solomon. And in his presentation on Mars Hill, the apostle Paul similarly quotes a known pagan poet as having rightly grasped a piece of the metaphysical puzzle. So the obvious question is, when were these particular words “inspired,” when this unnamed pagan poet first thought them up or when Paul pronounced them aloud in his sermon or when Luke, his chronicler, wrote them down years later? It begins to feel like the wrong question, doesn’t it?
Further, for many parts of scripture the authors tell us directly that they were composing in ways that look much more like appropriation—as when Luke tells us in the beginning of his Gospel that he had to do research to sort out which stories about Jesus were true, or when the apostle John tells us twice that he had a particular agenda behind which of the infinite Jesus-stories he knew to include in his gospel. “These have been included that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” These authors give not so much as a hint that they are aware of a higher power influencing their work. And we know John would say so if he did because he does in Revelation. Such sections of the Bible seem to be the product of simple recollection or research. Which form of inspiration is this?
Or a hundred other examples I could give, as when Paul specifically tells the Corinthian church that he is giving merely his opinion (apostolic opinion, to be sure, but opinion nonetheless) on the question of unmarried women. Does its inclusion in the Bible then make it ironically inspired? Or what of his forgetting who he baptized back in I Corinthians 1? Or Matthew, who was just a tax collect and not a scholar, when he credits Jeremiah with a quotation that’s actually in Zechariah, probably because he was harkening back to some vague memory from synagogue as a child. On and on we could go with these diverse examples of how inspired text found its way onto papyrus.
What are we to conclude from all this? Well, once we put away the assumptions of the sort of book we think God was supposed to give us and then didn’t, we begin to realize that whatever the Spirit’s work of breathing the scriptures out into human space-time is, it is not a single process. Sometimes the author seems aware of it, other times not, and almost none seem aware of the intended use the Spirit will put their words to. Sometimes it approaches dictation; other times deputation, still other times it seems like appropriation, but never does it look like God’s use of human authors compromises their humanity. Glaringly present on every page of the Bible are the human authors’ perspectives, personality, limitations, choices, and motives. People who cannot see this have simply never learned to read in any meaningful sense—or are being dishonest, and to such people, I have nothing more to say.
It seems to me based on the actual scriptures we have being given that as these men and women were laboring over the needs and concerns of their heart, there was the Holy Spirit constantly working to insure that what they wrote was exactly what God wanted, and would be profitable for instruction, reproof, correction, and producing righteous living in God’s people.
It sure seems that the Spirit’s work of inspiration means that, not only is the Bible completely God’s book, but that it is an intensely human book too. And let this be a comfort to you, for it means that when God uses people, God truly uses them, warts and all. God breaths out the scriptures not despite the human authors but in and through them in all of their finitude. God does not give a transcendent and untouchable word, but one that is earthy and fleshly. God’s words have become human words, without losing an ounce of their divinity. It is a mystery to be sure, but it is a comforting one.
When God uses people, God truly uses them, warts and all.
If God can use wrecked and troubled people like Moses, David, Amos, Peter, and Paul to author words that would frame divine truth in human speech for all generations, what might God be able to do with similarly wrecked people like you and me?
Thanks for helping me think this through here at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
 I recommend Nicholas Wolterstorff,’s dense little book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
 Revelation 1:10-11
 I Kings 4:32
 Ecclesiastes 12:9
 Acts 17:28
 Luke 1:1-4
 John 20:31, see also 21:25
 I Corinthians 7:24
 Matthew 27:9, Zechariah 11:3
If you’d like to drop the saintly ass a note to let him know what you think, please look him up on Facebook, or if you’d like to support the production of these little reflections, please visit his Patreon page. We’ll see you next time and may the peace of Christ be with you.