Understanding “Inspiration” – 01

Caveat emptor:  This post is experimental, unfinished, incomplete, and contingent.  It is certainly NOT a serious draft of some scholarly article destined for later submittal to a high-impact journal.  In this post, qb is merely airing a set of ideas into a quasi-public forum so that they can be tested.  qb will own what he says here, but none of what is contained in this post is fully settled as qb’s “position,” whatever that might mean.  For concision and readability, qb will write as if it is all settled, but only so that he doesn’t have to keep repeating the caveats ad nauseum.  On that basis, then, let’s proceed.


Caravaggio's "St. Matthew and the Angel" (1602)

In the midst of my religious crisis of 2005-07, which morphed into a faith crisis that persists to this day, I began my studies toward the M. A. in History and Theology at Abilene Christian University.  I first studied with Craig Churchill, who led me into the theological library’s vast world of Christian literature and then turned me loose as a free agent of inquiry.  (Craig, well done.  And thanks for complicating my life.)

The next semester, an unlikely looking pair, Drs. Trevor Thompson and John Willis, rocked my world with their Introduction to Biblical Exegesis, the classroom adventure of which started with a discussion of a couple of artists’ works from the 17th century.  Caravaggio’s first attempt at capturing the inspiration of Matthew the Evangelist, above at left, started the shifting of the plates, followed hard by the aftershocks of Caravaggio’s second attempt and Rembrandt’s famous 1661 painting of the same scene:

Caravaggio's "The Inspiration of Saint Matthew" (1602)
Rembrandt Van Rijn - "St. Matthew and the Angel" (1661)

Caravaggio’s works, in particular, made me laugh out loud.  They still do.  Especially the bumbling, musclebound simpleton (with the impressive brachioradialis…wow!) in Caravaggio’s first try, which, rejected by the church that commissioned it, gave way to the only slightly more sophisticated Matthew in Caravaggio’s second try, which I view as just a more subtle, clever edition of the same, basic idea:  the writers of the canonical scriptures were rubes and peasants, naive pawns of a manipulative, intolerant God.  I doubt Caravaggio would put it quite that way, but it’s pretty hard to look at those two paintings and detect any high regard the artist might have held for Matthew.

Rembrandt’s Matthew is stroking his beard, listening intently to the angel but sifting what the angel says through whatever thought-filters a Hebrew publican might have had in place – theological, rhetorical, existential, whatever.  But  Rembrandt clearly respects Matthew, and his angel trusts Matthew.  The angel touches Matthew affectionately on the shoulder and is there for the duration, but there is no one-to-one correspondence necessarily implied between the angel’s words and the words Matthew subsequently put on the page.  Matthew, for his part, is thinking.


So, out with it, dear reader!  When you say that the canon “is the inspired word of God,” what on earth do you mean by that?  Have you ever thought about it at any length?  Have you ever chased it back upstream to its headwaters, to the glacial mass of presuppositions, assumptions, and premises from which your understanding of inspiration flows?  Have you ever stopped to consider how your theory of inspiration works out in practice in the way you read the Bible, the way you behave in Bible class or Bible studies, and the way you apply biblical “truths” to your everyday life?  Which of the three Matthews in the paintings above most closely approximates the way you think of biblical inspiration?


Let’s put some possibilities in propositional form.  Maybe that will help us sort this out a bit.

#1 – God dictated to each author precisely what He wanted to say and how He wanted to say it, and each author complied in full.  The result is a perfectly reliable set of documents that, like the stone tablets of Sinai, represent the will of God with unchallenged and unchallengeable accuracy; the scriptures are therefore fully authoritative and need no human interpretation, for if we cannot understand them as readers, we simply are not submitting to a God who perfectly designed the documents with respect to content, style, and order. Caravaggio’s first caricature looks something like this; Matthew is too stupid to write God’s will himself, so God uses an angel to move Matthew’s hand.

#2 – God committed the ideas and stories to human authors and gave the authors some latitude for expression with respect to content, style, and sequence – but He retained the final say on what was written, and each author knew it (along with the assurance of what unhappiness would result if he tried to resist God’s editorial prerogative).  The result is also a perfectly reliable set of documents, albeit with a range of literary styles reflecting the identities and personalities of the authors. Caravaggio’s second caricature looks something like this, although there’s a lot more room for interpretation of Caravaggio’s agenda in the second case.  Rembrandt seems to operate in this realm, too.

#3 – God committed the ideas and stories to faithful human authors and their disciples, giving each author’s community a great deal of latitude in how the ideas and stories were framed and expressed, including the latitude to make mistakes.  Throughout history, though, God has limited the errors to a manageable degree…so that what we have in our canon is still highly reliable, at least at the level of meaning (if not the precise historical details).

#4 – Start with either #1 or #2, except God has for some reason allowed the original, perfect manuscripts to be lost and their copies and replacements subjected to human errors that have accumulated over time. The result here is a set of documents that are not necessarily reliable but that probably contain strong echoes of the original perfection; unfortunately, we have no trustworthy means of determining where the errors and willful editorial work are present.


There are a lot more possibilities.  In fact, there may be as many theories of inspiration as there have been human beings throughout history.  At very least, the first three are probably paradigmatic for the great mass of conservative, modern evangelicals.  And that fact can be explained pretty easily (even if in a terribly circular fashion, logically speaking) in light of II Timothy 3.16, a scripture that we Campbellites learn from our earliest Bible classes:

All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…(KJV)

Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness…(ASV)

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness…(NASB)

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…(NIV)

And so on.  Now, pile on top of that fearsome statement by “Paul” the stark warning revealed to John on Patmos:

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.  And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Revelation 22.18-19 (KJV)

It’s pretty clear that, as a practical matter, if you subscribe to theory #1 or theory #2, you have little choice but to conclude that II Timothy and Revelation are of a piece and that these two Scriptures ought to be read together.  The logic itself does not require it, but again, that seems to be the way Campbellism and other fundamentalist strains of evangelical Christianity have worked out and continue to work out in practice.  There are lots of interpretive moves embedded in the syllogism that moves us to that piont, but inspirational theories #1 and #2 amply provide the warrants to make those moves without much in the way of apology.

I should also piont out the implications of this reading:  our reading of Scripture is governed primarily by fear.  That’s right, fear:  fear that we will misunderstand, fear that we will be wrong, and above all, fear that we will teach our children our errors and so have their blood on our hands.

This reading of the canon also flattens out every metaphor in it.  Think about it:  metaphors just leave too much to the imagination to be reliable vessels of propositional truth.  The result is a remarkable degree of literalism, especially when we read about our eternal destiny (!) and the “Second Coming.”  The moon will turn into blood, the earth will be burned to a crisp, and there will be a war between Jesus’ armies and Lucifer’s demons that will last for a thousand years over in the valley of Megiddo, near Mt. Carmel.  Hannegraff, Lindsey, Peretti…they all think and write in these terms, and evangelicals gobble up their teachings without much forethought or afterthought.


It will come as no surprise to you that I do not subscribe to #1 or #2 as credible theories of inspiration.  Not any longer, anyway; that is what I seem to have picked up as a child, although I do not recall having been taught such things explicitly.  They seem to have been just part of the theological furniture in the churches where I grew up.  And I loved our home churches of Christ:  Waterview in Richardson, Montgomery Blvd. in Albuquerque, even the A&M CoC in College Station.  I never questioned the furniture; I just went merrily on my way, like the rest of the members, assuming that when I read the Bible I was reading the very voice of the Creator Himself.

So I have no regrets; we lived and loved each other as best we could, steering clear of any of the controversies that might have emerged had we paid closer attention to our intellectual consciences as we “studied” together.  Evasion was the default position, and it was the safe position because it preserved a certain doctrinal uniformity that we naturally thought essential to credible witness to a lost world.  If we don’t agree, and if the world sees that we don’t agree, why, who would want to be a part of that kind of dysfunction?


What may be more of a surprise to you is that I have abandoned #3 as well, and #4 just has never seemed plausible.  We need a #5.

Does that tease you?

Thanks for stopping by.


2 thoughts on “Understanding “Inspiration” – 01

  1. OK. For now a short comment from someone who moves on the continuum between #3 and #4.

    Even the word “inspiration” rides on the wings of wind or gives breath to word, words, and phrases which in turn give life to metaphor after metaphor in a marvelous dance. Metaphor breathed is dynamic. It liminally links the immanent to the transcendent. It is incarnational. The written word was originally written to be spoken and heard, i.e. it was communal and communicated both mystery and clarity, fascination and function. Literalism and magical thinking are modern forms of idolatry. It is part of a common sense, functional, naturalistic form of thinking which in the extreme separates God from our world. In measured amounts it helps us organize, make efficient, and manage the workaday world better than the Ancients. But it discounts or even eliminates what C. S. Lewis in his Narnia writings termed “deep magic.”

    My take: yours is not a crisis of faith but the very evidence of faith, for you “diligently seek Him.”

    Eliot in his “Four Quartets” writes these lines:

    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”



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