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.