Understanding “Inspiration” – 02

In the first post in this series I laid out the origins of my search for an alternative understanding of “inspiration” as it pertains to our Holy Scriptures.  And they are holy.  So much so that I must admit to being obsessed by them and the risen Christ to whom they piont.

That first post briefly criticized the two notions of inspiration exemplified by the portraits of Matthew and the angel by Caravaggio and Rembrandt, both of which suppose that God actually transmitted language in some form to the authors, who either wrote it down verbatim or translated it into their own styles.  All four of the options I set forth as working understandings of “inspiration” have that in common:  God gave humans language that he intended them to write down, in one way or another.

I wish now to set forth a fifth possibility, the one that intrigues me the most and seems to be most consistent with the nature of the text, and in particular, with the Old Testament text.  (The OT dominance of my current thinking should come as no surprise; I am currently reading Brueggemann’s magnum opus, Old Testament Theology:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.  So, to foreshadow an idea I hope to develop further as we go, Brueggemann has inspired a great deal of my thinking along these lines.)


BTW, all of the caveats that I invoked in the first post are still in force…and even more so here, for I will be treading out some pretty heterodox pathways for my readers (both of them) to follow.


Let’s begin by letting Brueggemann himself prod us to conversation rather than pitched dispute.  The following is taken from the foreword of his The Book that Breathes New Life:

In the end, scripture is not a contest to see who can prevail in interpretation.  It is, rather, an address that offers a “newness” and a “strangeness” that are out beyond all our pet projects.  It is urgent, even if difficult to remember, that it is “The word of the Lord” and not our word.  The “world” given us in the text, moreover, is not our world but God’s new world into which we are ourselves invited as sojourners and eventually as citizens.  The offer is a homefulness amid our deep, shared homesickness.  It is, however, home on terms other than our own!

If you have persisted this far, dear reader, with the first post in the series and to this piont in the second, I plead with you to walk and converse with me, not to judge me and write me off as the infidel.  I seek truth, not power, and not self-satisfaction.  Or at very least I hope I do.


Can we agree on the basis of Brueggemann’s words above that we are dealing with this subject on the basis of an implicit commitment that each of us has already made, in a confessional posture, to the Jehovah revealed in Scripture?


So I understand that we are here opening many fresh wounds and dealing with ultra-sensitive matters of faith that are so close to the core of our various identities as Christ-followers that they cannot even be mentioned without the embedded nerve endings shrieking in revolt, like the epileptic demons before Jesus in the trans-Galilee.  Or to change the metaphor, we are circumcising ourselves anew.  Nothing can be the same after such an operation, and we know it.

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7 (NASB)

I’m no Hebrew scholar, so take what follows with a grain of salt.


The breath of the LORD God (vai·yip·pach Yah·weh e·lo·him “the LORD God breathed;” nish·mat chai·yim “breath of life”) was into man’s nostrils (be·’ap·pav):  not his ears (ve·’a·ze·nav), and not his mouth (pi·hu).

The result of this operation was not that Adam spoke, nor that he wrote.  The result, we are told immediately, was that Adam lived.  The breath of God gave life to man.  Eventually, we would reach a piont at which Adam’s seed would feel compelled to write and to speak of Yahweh elohim.  But to write and to speak were secondary.  At the outset, the need was life:  vibrant, mysterious, ambiguous, tragic life.  Adam owed to YHWH not his words nor his pen, but his chaiyim.  From the very beginning, Adam could not turn his head or take a step without being confronted with the fact that but for YHWH, he would not be.  At every moment, Adam had no choice but to deal with YHWH.  The psalmist would later take up this idea in the famous doxology of Psalm 139:

You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

Psalm 139:1-10

The central idea I wish to highlight here is that according to the canonical testimony YHWH’s primary interest has always been to possess his people.  Thus:  “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  “The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”  And the climactic judgment on Gomer’s children?  Lo-ammi, “not my people.”  Israel’s identity would always be framed in the most painful terms of God’s possession – or not.


Genesis 2 is not the only place we encounter the “breath of YHWH” in conjunction with man’s “nostrils.”  We’ll have to explore that in the next post.  For now, it is enough to suggest that from the very earliest piont in the historical chronology of Israel, the creation accounts, God’s breath has been not a source of words, but a source of life; and that life is lived by Adam as a gracious, revocable, contingent gift, the Giver of which is never out of sight or out of mind.



5 thoughts on “Understanding “Inspiration” – 02

  1. I realize that this medium is intended to be more conversational in nature than an argumentative essay. I find the topic interesting and have nothing but encouragement for the author with the single exception that if he continues to stereotype as recklessly as he has he shall be quickly and ruthlessly taken to task…or at least taunted….er….from a safe distance.

    But, I’m having difficulty determining exactly what is at stake in your argument. It seems to be nothing less than the reliability of the scriptures, the character of God, and the Gospel itself.

  2. I can assure you that the endgame has nothing to do with abandoning either God or the Gospel, Kevin. That’s precisely why I began with Brueggemann, who is widely known beyond his “mere” OT scholarship as a bulldog in the pulpit and a devastating rhetorician and apologist for discipleship to Christ. It is clear that his view of inspiration, especially with regard to the OT (since that’s primarily where he does his academic work), differs vastly from the one I inherited and have now begun to question.

    So it is also clear that one can ask these questions, pursue them to what appear to be heterodox ends, and still retain a muscular, Trinitarian-shaped faith. In fact, I suspect the faith can be not only retained and maintained, but powerfully enhanced.

    But you’ve now thrown down the gauntlet about “stereotyping.” Do tell. I always stereotype because it is a convenient shorthand; those who know better can see through it, and those who don’t are none the wiser. But it’s tedious to cover highly familiar ground in detail in a blog post; all three of my readers are among the CoC cognoscenti, so they know the turf I’m characterizing better than most.


  3. Not being familiar with Brueggemann it seems wiser to remain silent and see where you go with this. A few comments and then I expect to fade quietly into the background for a while.

    While it is possible, in light of Brueggemann’s ministy, to abandon orthodox views of scripture and still maintain a vibrant and healthy faith, it is also possible to destroy that faith. It may be that B. maintains his faith inconsistently or in opposition to what logic dictates in light of his view of scripture. It may be that his faith has become unmoored and he is in search of more intellectually satisfying grounding. Maybe he has found that firmer foundation. Maybe he knows that his faith is irrational but can’t bring himself to let loose of it – like those who cling to the idea of church and religion, not because it is true, but because it is beneficial to mankind and society in general – or profitable. I do not know. B. may be a genius, but you and he seem to be outside of any view of scripture through at least the 17th century. That’s a long time for God to withhold a proper view of his word from mankind.

    I do not mean to be judgmental or dismissive in the least. I mean only to say, “Be careful”.

    As for my comment about stereotyping, I think the final “so I have no regrets…” paragraph of “Inspiration – 01” misses the mark, somewhat. Yes, there’s some truth there but it’s oversimplified and the forces responsible are certainly not unique to the C of C. I would venture that a solicitous Catholic or Baptist or Pentecostal could lodge similar complaints. For example, Catholics jokingly lament the fact that Protestants are more familiar with the Bible than they are. Yes, we have problems. To what extent we can attribute them to a failure or unwillingness to engage in self-examination, or worse, slothfulness, or a purposeful evasion of requisite conflict is unknown. Thus, the objection is not to the practice of stereotyping, but (respectfully) the use of it here.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts on this topic. BTW, I do believe there is a non-circular formulation of your “scripture is god-breathed…” syllogism. One possible answer to the question is not “scripture tells me so” but, at a minimum, “Paul (II Tim 3:16) and Peter (II Peter 1:21), two witnesses, testify that it is so”. There may be others. It is critical to use “scripture” unambiguously, treating it as a collection of works, not a single work. Also, obviously, you can’t claim a broader scope of work than Paul or Peter did in making their claims of inspiration.

  4. Kevin, the only reason I have pionted my guns in the direction of the CoCs is that they are the community that I know and know the best. I am under no illusion that the CoC as a whole is more guilty than any of the other Christian traditions. But I do not know those traditions to anywhere near the same extent that I know my own. So when I write in stereotyping shorthand, I expect that those who know the tradition as I do will detect the resonances and will be eminently capable of skimming off the dross of caricature.

    Some time ago, as my firstborn emerged from childhood into adolescence and lost his innocence before my very eyes – as will happen with the other two, as happens to all of our children – I determined that if he was going to reject Christ, I wanted to reject the REAL Christ, not the cartoonish version that popular evangelical Christendom sets before us from the pulpit and in popular, nominally Christian media. I would hate for him to reject Christ on the basis of the popular conception. So my chips are all in, you might say.

    “Be careful?” That is all I have done my whole life, Kevin, and it left me with the kind of incoherent faith that gets rocked to the roots when the wind blows…if it can indeed be said that they are roots at all. As of 2005, I am no longer willing to subscribe to unexamined, facile pap for the sake of religious “safety.”

    Having said all of that – and I’m sure it sounds like a harsh rebuke rather than what I intend: merely a candid, hard-edged, unapologetic description of where I now am, with no rebuke implied, of you or of anyone else – neither is this a case of “being blown here and there by every wind of doctrine.” To the extent any human can say it with a straight face, I am in full possession of my faculties and am well aware of the dangers posed by clever rhetoric qua Trojan horse. In fact, that is precisely why I air my thinking in a venue like this, a venue that is more likely to be seen by long-time Christian friends than any other venue I can imagine. If life’s circumstances – and in particular, distinctly religious circumstances – are going to strip me naked anyway, I might as well go with it.

    Glad you’re tuned into this channel from time to time.


    P. S. I’m not sure I buy your alternative as a “solution” to the circularity; from here, it looks like just another, perhaps slightly more sophisticated circularity. And in matters of faith, perhaps we’re just doomed to that.

  5. Well, let me take a proper stab at this, because so much seems to hang on it. Or does it?
    So, the original argument was phrased:

    All scripture is God-breathed.
    How do you know?
    Scripture tells me so.

    What’s at stake seems to be the authority of scripture, for if all scripture is not dictated by God, or at least controlled by God, then it is man-made and subject to error. I say “seems”, because I don’t believe it does. The Bible’s own claims of inspiration are not the root of the authority of scripture. That comes through fulfilled prophecy and was culminated in the arrival of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. In Him we have not merely dictation, but the incarnation of the Word itself! But, that’s a bit beyond the scope of this exercise.

    The problem of circularity exists only if our reasoning incorporates the thing we are trying to prove. If we accept Paul’s claim that his words are inspired *as proof* that they are then we are guilty of circular reasoning. However, if we are trying to argue that Ezekiel was inspired, while we may view the claim with varying degrees of certainty, we are not guilty of circular reasoning if we cite Peter and Paul. Here we have two different authorities making the same truth claim. True, those claims happen to appear in the same collection of works (the Bible), but discounting them for that reason would be a categorical error.

    In the argument above ambiguity exists if “scripture” is not properly defined. If scripture as defined as “the Bible”, and the third line is a reference to II Timothy, then the argument is circular. If, however, “scripture” is used consistently with Paul’s use of the term in II Timothy, it is not. “Scripture”, as Paul used it, would not have been “the Bible”. It could not have included the New Testament, and certainly not II Timothy. Accordingly, the above argument then becomes:

    The scriptures (the Law and the Prophets) are God-breathed.
    How do you know?
    II Timothy 3:16 (i.e. the Apostle Paul) tells me so.

    In this form the argument is not circular. It is an appeal to authority. And in this case it is a legitimate authority, so there is no fallacy.

    We can sneak the problem back in if we claim that our authorities, Paul and Peter, derive their authority from the view that the Law and the Prophets are inspired. The extent of the problem would depend on the degree to which their authority was linked to the scriptures in question. But, we can’t question our authorities without coming to terms with Jesus, because Peter and Paul would be unknown to us but for Jesus. The Apostles’ authority comes from Jesus. But what if His authority comes from “scripture”? Then the circle just gets a little bigger.

    If Jesus’ authority is derived from the view that the Law and the Prophets are inspired the circle becomes: scripture -> Jesus -> the Apostles -> scripture. Here, again, the extent of the problem would depend on the degree to which Jesus’ authority was linked to the Law and Prophets, and I think that’s where we find our exit.

    Jesus decisively breaks the circle. His authority is in accordance with the Law and the Prophets but not dependent upon or derived from them exclusively. You have to take into account His ministry, the miracles He did, His own prophecies. And ultimately His authority was affirmed by His resurrection.

    “Oh, but how do you know that? Scripture, no?” No. Not the same “scripture” referenced in II Tim anyway. Here we rely on the concept of “witness”. We have the advantage of four Gospels, not just one. The Gospels are written records of eye-witness accounts. Having four of them makes the information in them more certain, at least where we recognize agreement in the accounts.

    At this point there is another way to sneak the problem back in; We can attack the notion of establishing a matter through the testimony of two or three witnesses. It is, after all, a Biblical concept . “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” – Deut 19:15. If we do, though, we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that this principle has been embraced by courts throughout history. Accepting this principle, using scripture in a consistent manner with which Paul used it, there is no problem of circularity.

    There is another ambiguity that must be avoided. It is natural to assume that if we say, “scripture says so and so” that we are referring to the words of the authors in the Bible. This is not necessarily the case. Consider the following argument:

    The New York Times is a liberal rag.
    How do you know?
    The Times tells me so.

    In this case we’re not talking about any internal claim, but placing the Times in a category based on direct observation. We might also say:

    The Old Testament is written in Hebrew.
    How do you know?
    The Old Testament tells me so.

    In the original argument it is possible to define “scripture” as “the Bible”, or “the OT”, and be making a direct observation. If so, the argument is not circular; It is an appeal to prima facie evidence. In fact, I have a Thompson Chain Reference Bible. In the table of contents under the heading “The Books of the Old Testament” there is a subtitle that reads “River of Inspiration”. (http://i768.photobucket.com/albums/xx328/zbeagle/TOC.jpg) I think this is just such a claim.

    To summarize, ambiguity exists in the original argument. There is at least one form in which the argument is circular and at least two forms in which it is not.

    For reference, here are the passages I considered in this argument:

    II Timothy 3:16
    16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

    II Peter 1:21
    20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 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.

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