The origin of the Bible
The Christian teachings were first passed on by the apostles through oral transmission. The letters of St Paul came shortly after that, from 50-60 CE. Paul’s letters are teachings that he sent to various churches that were then copied and spread around. The Gospels came next, with Mark around 66 CE, Matthew and Luke around 85 CE and John around 90-110 CE. Other letters and Revelations (a book of prophecy) were also written during this time period. The 4 Gospels and Paul’s letters were seen as the most important writings during the 2nd century.
These are the three criteria that guided the early Church in their decision of what to canonise:
- Connection to the Apostles
- Connection with the Churches, supporting faith and practices in a diverse range of places.
- Not contradicting any key Christian beliefs such as the Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection.
The writings of the Apostolic fathers reveal that there was debate about including the book of Hebrews and the Revelations because of doubt over whether their authorship was apostolic. However those doubts were eventually put to rest and the books were canonised.
The official canon was decided on in the 4th century. Today there is general agreement over the 27 books of the New Testament.
Inspiration: The Bible and the word of God
The Bible says that ‘Ru-ach’ – God’s breath, was breathed into the authors of the bible – directly inspiring them. 2 Timothy 3:16. ‘all scripture is God-breathed’. “Inspire” comes from a Greek word meaning “God-breathed”. Christians believe that the Bible was inspired by God.
The question of this topic is what it actually means to be God-breathed. There are different views about how much God contributed, and how much the human writers contributed.
For example, does it involve God completely controlling what was written, which would make the Bible the literal word of God, or could the inspiration have been more indirect and thus blended with influence from the human mind of the authors of the Bible?
Dictation theory is the traditional view is conservative and objective: that the Holy Spirit directly moved biblical writers to write the words of the Bible. There are clear examples of this in the Bible, such as God speaking either directly through or to a prophet like Moses, or inspiring people via the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus claimed that the scriptures are “perfect” because they were “spoken by the Word of God [Christ] and his Spirit”. Augustine claimed there are no contradictions or falsehoods affirmed in the Bible, and that believing otherwise would have “disastrous consequences” because that would cast doubt on the entire thing.
The enlightenment period critique. During the enlightenment period, scientific, historical and literary methods of analysis were greatly improved and applied to the Bible itself. This led to evidence of scientific inaccuracies, historical inaccuracies, and literary evidence such as that the writers of the Bible had different styles which seemed to depend on their nationality, culture and age. They narrated the same events differently, appeared to have made efforts to gather information, and made grammatical mistakes. None of this looks like the words of an omniscient being. It became difficult to ignore the human influence in the scriptures.
Different theories of biblical inspiration resulted from this challenge:
Conservative/Objective views of inspiration attempted to hold on to the traditional view that that Bible was the perfect word of God. These theories are objective, meaning mind-independent. An objective view of inspiration claims that the inspiration for what was written in scripture was independent of the minds of the authors; it came from God.
- Literalism simply denied any challenge to the view that the Bible was the exact word of God.
- Plenary verb inspiration attempted to claim that although there is evidence of human influence, nonetheless the Bible is still the exact word of God because the minds of the divine and human authors somehow worked together.
Liberal/Subjective views of inspiration accept that the writing of the Bible was a human process and thus did not produce the exact word of God, leaving its meaning up for interpretation.
Neo-orthodox views of inspiration claim that although the Bible is not the exact word of God, it is a miraculous document through which the word of God can be heard.
Most notably in America, Literalism takes the view that the Bible is literally true. Ken Ham is a literalist and he makes the argument that the Bible is all or nothing; you can’t say some parts are true and others are not, you either think it’s all true or it’s all false. Their approach to the evidence of human influence which began being discovered during the enlightenment era is to deny that evidence. For example, creationists will deny the scientific evidence for evolution because they think it contradicts the Genesis creation story and thus must be false.
Conflict with science. Denying science is a difficult position to maintain. Science can clearly explain so much of the world around us that it can successfully manipulate it into ways no one in the past could have dreamed of. That same science, when applied to biology and geology, tells us that we evolved and that the earth is billions of years old. This makes plenary verb inspiration look like a more attractive theory of conservative objective inspiration.
We do not have the original manuscript of the Bible. B. Ehrman “we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals … What we have are copies made later- much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.” Furthermore, textual criticism suggests that some entire parts of the Bible which were added later. There is debate over which letters of Paul’s are authentic, for example, and many scholars think that the ending of Mark’s Gospel was added by a different author to the original one.
Plenary verb inspiration
Plenary verb inspiration means ‘every word inspired’. It is another objective and conservative view of inspiration. It is arguably more realistic than literalism because it accepts and acknowledges the evidence of human influence on the Bible. It still holds that all the words of the Bible are equally inspired and come directly from God, but somehow the gospel writers at the same time did have some influence.
William Lane Craig is a proponent of this view. He explains that biblical inerrancy is the view that “everything that the Bible affirms to be true is true.” There are many examples of metaphor and symbolic language in the Bible, which the Bible is therefore not presenting as literally true. This allows Christians who hold to this view to believe that the genesis story of creation is symbolic and thus not affirmed as literally true by the Bible, so they can agree with what science says about creation.
Contradictions in the Bible. E.g. the birth and resurrection narratives. This suggest a subjective view of inspiration. Bart Ehrman claims that it is “impossible” to reconcile the differences in the birth narratives. He points out that in Luke, Jesus is presented at the temple and the family then returns to Nazareth. However, in Matthew, the slaughter of the innocents causes the flight to Egypt until Herod dies in 4bc upon which the family returns to Nazareth. Ehrman concludes: “If Matthew is right that they fled to Egypt, how can Luke be right that they went back to Nazareth a month later? The chronology doesn’t work.”
N Geisler claims that when two parts of the Bible appear to be contradictory, that does not prove that the Bible contains an error. It could simply be that we do not understand how the seemingly contradictory passages are to be harmonised. If we understood more about the meaning of the texts by studying the historical and cultural context, we might learn how they are harmonised. Ultimately, passages appearing incompatible only shows that we do not know everything. It cannot prove that one of the passages must be false.
The Catholic view of the Bible & its link to tradition
The Catholic view of inspiration is similar to plenary verb inspiration.
The second Vatican council’s document Dei Verbum states that the Bible is indeed written by humans but inspired by God via the Holy spirit such that it is “without error” and contains “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings”.
“In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.”
Sacred Scripture ‘is the word of God’ as it was written “under the inspiration of the divine spirit” and sacred Tradition “takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors” so that they can faithfully “preserve” and “explain” it.
“Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence”
“But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church … explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”
“It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”
Cardinal Newman: “though the Bible is inspired, and therefore, in one sense, written by God, yet very large portions of it, if not far the greater part of it, are written … with as little consciousness of a supernatural dictation or restraint, on the part of His earthly instruments, as if He had had no share in the work … Though the bible be inspired, it has all such characteristics as might attach to a book uninspired, – the characteristics of dialect and style, the distinct effects of times and places, youth and age, or moral and intellectual character
The paradox of Plenary verb inspiration. Plenary verb inspiration insists that there is a “confluence”, meaning the Bible was authored by both humans and God. This seems to result in a paradox as to how that could possibly work. It seems the inspiration for the words of the Bible must have come from one mind, yet to acknowledge the human influence yet still insist on the divine authorship leads to this paradoxical view that it came from both. J. Newman admits that Bible is divinely inspired, but has characteristics of a book that was not divinely inspired. Newman reflected on this by simply admitting that this is a mystery: “In what way inspiration is compatible with that personal agency on the part of its instruments, which the composition of the Bible evidences, we know not”.
Arguably Christians should simply have faith that God’s omnipotence somehow has the power to cause this confluence despite it seeming paradoxical to us.
Liberal subjective views of inspiration
The liberal approach to the Bible views it as a product of the human mind, not the perfect word of God. It began during the enlightenment period where scientific, historical and literary critique began of the Bible. The Bible was shown to contain scientific and historical errors as well as literary evidence of the human author’s influence on the text.
This suggests that the scriptures were written by witnesses of God’s divine events in history like the incarnation, or times when God communicated or revealed himself. What came to be written down as a result however was merely what those people took away from such events, or from hearing about such events from the testimony of those who witnessed them. The words of the Bible are therefore just human interpretations of what the authors felt and understood of God’s revelation. The Bible is a human record of divine events.
The bible thus reflects the cultural and historical context of its human authors and requires interpretation and continual re-interpretation to ensure its relevance. It is not the perfect word of God. Liberal Christians will point out that Jesus himself seemed to be progressive in that in the sermon on the mount he modified some of the old testament laws. Christians should follow this example and continually update and improve Christian theology and ethics.
John Hick thought that we should view the Bible as a record of how ancient humans interpreted events like the life of Jesus. They wrote it down not as a set of historical facts but as stories which had a symbolic meaning. For example, the resurrection symbolises God’s gift of renewal and the possibility of life after death. Hick does not believe the resurrection actually happened. He views Jesus as a ‘guru’.
Liberal inspiration leads to a crisis of authority. The problem with liberal views of inspiration is that it’s difficult to see how it could grant authority to the Bible if it derives from human minds. Furthermore, it opens up the Bible to interpretation and every person will have their own interpretation. This cannot provide the kind of stable consistent theology that a religion needs for it to persist. This is why traditional Christians criticise liberal Christianity for allowing people too much freedom to believe whatever feels right to them and their opinion, which results in the disunified chaos of everyone believing in their own God and the interpretation of the Bible which suits them.
Just because it leads to the “chaos” of everyone having their own interpretation, that doesn’t mean it’s a false view of biblical inspiration. Perhaps God wants everyone to have their own interpretation! Traditional Christians point to the chaotic theology of liberal Christianity where everyone believes their own interpretation as evidence against the subjective view of inspiration. Augustine says it would have “disastrous consequences”. However, this assumes that God wants the kind of Church where everyone is told to believe the same thing. Perhaps in ancient times people needed to all believe one thing so that society could hold together because society was in a more fragile state, but now that we have developed historical, literary and scientific criticism that suggests we have reached a stage where we no longer need to believe the same thing for society to function.
Karl Barth’s Neo-Orthodox view
Neo-Orthodoxy accepts that the scientific, historical and textual criticism of the Bible show that it could not be the word of God. He concluded instead that while the Bible was not the word of God, by meditating on it with proper faith it is possible to experience the word of God through it. He viewed the Bible as miraculous, capable of creating a kind of religious experience which connects the mind of a faithful believer to God’s word. This has the strength of taking seriously the issue of the evidence of human influence on the Bible.
Religious experiences and the lessons people take from them are also quite different. A Neo-Orthodox view of inspiration also seems to lead to theological chaos.