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Rethinking “Inspiration” – 05; Looking to Ourselves

31 December 2010

We began the series trying to establish some benchmarks, and it seems appropriate to revisit them here from another angle before pressing too far ahead.  Far more important than any other benchmark is to establish precisely what it is that we are asking.

In that regard, then, qb affirms that our canonical scriptures are divinely inspired and that, with appropriate attention to the limitations in scope that Kevin Davis has spelled out thus far in his responses, the writer of II Timothy 3:16 – whom I am delighted to call “Paul” – the scriptures are indeed profitable “for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV).

Our question is not so much whether or not the scriptures are divinely inspired, but rather:  what coherent meaning can we reliably attach to the word “inspired” vis-a-vis some agreed extent of the canon to which we take the word to apply? Or, to put it another way:  What narrative of “inspiration” best fits the data we have before us concerning the degree of our canon’s internal cohesion, its multiplex literary nature, and its historical-critical liabilities?  Are the findings of modern, Enlightenment-driven criticism in its various forms fatal to the orthodox notion of “inspiration,” or is there a credible, substantive understanding of “inspiration” that accounts for those liabilities and yet retains enough strength to undergird the canon’s practical utility as a potent vessel of the divine will?

To repeat, then:  we are not necessarily rehearsing the arguments over the extent of the canon per se.  qb has little interest (here, anyway) in exploring the question of which scriptures belong in the canon and which do not.  This is another way of stipulating, to be pithy, that we can identify a canonical ensemble of works to which all both of my readers can agree, and start there.

We then outlined a couple of possibilities by looking at Caravaggio’s two versions of “St. Matthew and the Angel” and one from Rembrandt.  The most popular evangelical view appears to be some variant or mixture of #1 and #2, with YHWH dictating some of it – or even most of it – but giving rein to at least some of the authors such that any resulting errors or contradictions are the fruit of human fallenness but do not impinge upon the overall reliability of the canon as an expression of the will of YHWH.  This understanding of “inspiration” appears to qb to be little more sophisticated than fitting a spline to a series of ordered pairs and coming up with R^2=1.000; of course we can come up with an explanation for apparent excursions by adding more parameters or discretizing our domain into more intervals (e. g. going from chapter-by-chapter theories of inspiration to verse-by-verse theories, and so forth).  But in doing so what we gain in apparent accuracy we lose in actual explanatory power.  That is, we eventually interpolate perfectly but we lose any credible ability to extrapolate.  And given our apparent need to plumb scripture to address a breathtaking array of modern and postmodern quandaries, ethical conundra, and extra-canonical discoveries, what we really need is a basis for extrapolating scripture with a sense of narrative coherence.

(Yes:  qb presupposes narrative coherence as a fundamental property of the word of God.  Those of you who wish to hoist qb on the petard of logical circularity have every right to do so, but only after you tell us whether or not you, too, presuppose a coherence to scripture, narrative or otherwise.)

Evangelical Protestants (speaking of the popular masses, here) seem to have adopted a weighted average of qb’s #1 and #2, with the weighting factor being different for at least each pericope, if not for each verse or phrase.  And qb’s gut feeling is that we organize ourselves into groups – congregations – at least in part on the basis of a common weighting scheme, ultimately represented by the scheme adopted by the dude in the pulpit each Sunday.

—–

Sir William of Ockham was surely no great fan of splines, and he would not look kindly upon an arbitrarily fine-grained theory of inspiration, either.  No, there must be a way of understanding “inspiration” that is more parsimonious with the number of parameters, more broadly applicable, more potently predictive, and truer to the nature of the canon and the story that it tells.  Recall:  we have stipulated that our consensus canon is God’s primary, or at least most objectively and transparently available, means of communicating his will to his creatures.  So it probably follows that how God reveals himself to us is consistent with his character and his intentions for and of us.

—–

To make much headway, though, it occurs to qb that several other gremlins lurk in the shadows and brambles.  The first one is likewise analogous to splining.  Just as a mathematician must specify a priori one or more of the derivatives of the first and last functions at the two extrema, it seems probable that we devise our pet theories of inspiration, at least tacitly, in the service of some practical or ideological agenda.  That is, we have a data set that is more or less fixed and independent (this would consist of the canonical data plus whatever critical and extra-canonical data we might agree to bring to the table) and publicly in view; and we have certain other data points or logical trajectories that are not publicly known and not canonical in themselves but through which we feel constrained to send our spline in order to convince ourselves that our model really *does* have explanatory, extrapolative power.  This, friends, is known as self-delusion, and we must be ruthlessly transparent with ourselves and with one another about where these dangers lie in our own cases.  For example:  if we have decided a priori that “inspiration” must be interchangeable with “inerrant” even though “inerrancy” is a modernist category rather foreign to the cultures from which the canon sprang, we need to ‘fess up.  Now.  Or if our agenda includes an a priori commitment to the persistence of a certain denominational order or institutional hierarchy, we need to be aware of that as well (“Yikes, qb, if we go *there*, what do we do with the whole Campbellite tradition?”).

—–

I don’t mean to muddy the waters too much, although by now you may think I’m a hopeless case.  But we noted that we all have a pretty sizable stake in this discussion, whether we are aware of it or not, and we mustn’t be too careless in preparing the field of battle.  So:  I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.

qb

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. K. Davis permalink
    13 January 2011 11:48 am

    “And given our apparent need to plumb scripture to address a breathtaking array of modern and postmodern quandaries, ethical conundra, and extra-canonical discoveries…”

    Solely for illustration purposes and not to take issue with the above claim, are there any of these that are more troubling to you than others – a top five or a top three list of specific examples? The programmer in me has developed an unswerving habit of referencing at least one known input during development and testing of an algorithm.

    Plus, if you haven’t documented this premise elsewhere you might want to do so here. No hurry. My apologies if you’ve already covered it.

    (Obviously, this is going to be a challenge to the inerrant crowd and, as such, potentially more controversial than you care to be. I’ll understand if you don’t want to go into it here so as not to get dragged too far afield.)

    • 28 March 2011 10:13 am

      No, I don’t have a Top Ten List [TM], and in my current state, my mind is so muddled from Heim and Brueggemann that I can’t even piont to ONE at the moment.

      I’ll have to recenter a bit on this whole thread before I can respond fruitfully to your question.

      As to documenting the premise – I simply take it as an evangelical article of faith that when a philosophical quandary, an ethical conundrum, or an extra-canonical discovery emerges from the maelstrom of daily life, among our first and preferred resources for coming to grips with it is this question: “what do the Scriptures have to say about it, or what resources do the Scriptures make available to us?”

      Nor do I think that is an unfortunate impulse.

      qb

  2. TheDude permalink
    10 February 2011 12:47 pm

    I’m new here, so if the following is lame … please disregard.

    You have a nice vocabulary and are well-read, and then there’s the ‘real’ side of you that climbs mountains and eats hamburgers. I wonder if you’ve ever introduced these two sides of yourself to one another? I think it might help you in your quest to understand inspiration.

    You are surely aware of ‘form criticism.’ Try allowing elements of that to influence your scripture from 2 Timothy 3.16 … and then think of that as your ‘real guy’ self. That “scripture” isn’t just a scripture, it’s a letter from an old guy named Saul to his young apprentice, Tim. If you start that paragraph at its beginning, instead of the verse-ectomy you have tried, you’ll discover an important pronoun there: “you.” I believe you’ll find that ‘you’ is a singular. That means that Paul was writing Tim and explaining that HE (Tim) knew these scriptures that he’d learned from his mom and his grandmother … and it was Tim that understood what ‘inspiration’ means.

    My view of inspiration is different than what’s on your list. I believe a guy sat down to write stuff for a reason, and because he was a godly man, his reasons coincided with God’s. While he wrote, there was a sort of Divine Grammar checker that fixed stuff (like adding weird twists to prophecies unintended by the author, etc). I’m a CofC guy, too … and I came upon this approach in grad school, and as a former science student, I simply took a scientific approach. I made the theorum that ‘what if the bible’s true and inspired just as these old guys have said’? Just because the old guys are morons doesn’t mean they’re wrong. They just didn’t push it enough. They quit before they had all the answers to their own questions.

    So far I’ve found it to be true – and what’s more, the bible becomes a consistent whole. You quote Revelation and Psalms and Tim, and those are three very different forms (poetry, apocalyptic & letter) – and IF they are all word for word true, then one must ALSO accept the meaning of the form itself!

    So … what do you think Paul’s intententions were, and what do you think he knew about how Tim would learn that lesson … and remember that probably Paul expected this letter to be read aloud to the church in Ephesus where Tim was preaching – so what message was Paul trying to hint at for the Ephesians? If you get that stuff, THEN you’ll be in a much better position to ask the right kind of questions about his use of that word: inspiration.

    • 28 March 2011 10:19 am

      I can’t affirm the generous claims you made for me at the outset, but I do agree that my writing betrays a certain schizophrenia. And I find much to like in your sort of blue-collar approach to reintroducing my two selves in regard to inspiration theory. Let me ponder some…as I mentioned before, I’ve been grappling with Brueggemann and Heim for the last several months, and my brain is exhausted.

      qb

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