Inspiration and the Scriptures

A reader St. Willie asks a question regarding the transcript of my recent sermon.

I have read the text of the sermon of which, I guess, you prepared and delivered.
Do you think that your sermon was prepared under the inspiration of God?
I do think so.
What, if you disagree, is the difference between inspiration of your sermon and Scripture?

I'm glad the sermon packed a spiritual punch for you.  I was just trying to share the Gospel  in a way that is more faithful to the key ideas in Scripture.  But before I wrote it, I hoped and prayed that the Spirit would lead me to effectively present his word and his will to my audience.  And at times (as in this exchange) I have felt that I was writing God's truth better than I could have without God's help.  So does that make it inspired?

"Inspired" is a word that means guided or breathed-through by the Holy Spirit.  An inspired text or speech is one in which God is speaking, not just a human being.  Not that it ceases to be a human product; it still comes from the personality of the human author, which is being used as an instrument for communicating his message.

Now, obviously, there is a sense in which God does everything all the time, and that the wicked and the righteous alike are his instruments.  Yes, but this does not mean that the words we say to our neighbor are always graced by his presence, that they are the words which he would say.

Inspiration [in-spirit-ation] does not imply that the words are simply dictated to the human author.  (Although dictation can happen.  Some biblical texts, such as parts of the Old Testament prophets, seem to have been dictated with the direct voice of God, but other parts are clearly in the writer's own voice, and this does not make one text more "inspired" than the other.  Similarly, inspiration may be consciously known by the author, or it may be unconscious.)  God is speaking through an instrument, but that instrument is not a mere pen but rather a whole human life and personality as gathered into a particular moment of communication.  This makes sense because the true Word of God is Jesus, God come in the flesh, and so true prophecy will testify to him: "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10).

Now, Christians are to be like Jesus in that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity; the difference being of course that he was filled "without measure" whereas we Christians each have our own "spiritual gifts" or charisms which we exercise as part of the body of Christ:

Now concerning what comes from the Spirit: brothers, I do not want you to be unaware.  You know that when you were pagans, you used to be led off to the idols that could not speak. Therefore I am informing you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit.   There are different ministries, but the same Lord.  And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person.  A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial:

to one is given a message of wisdom through the Spirit,
to another, a message of knowledge by the same Spirit,
 to another, faith by the same Spirit,
to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
 to another, the performing of miracles,
to another, prophecy,
to another, distinguishing between spirits,
to another, different kinds of languages,
to another, interpretation of languages.

But one and the same Spirit is active in all these, distributing to each person as He wills. (1 Cor 12:1-11)

This is a major difference between the Old and New Covenants: in the Old only some very special people like prophets and kings were filled with the Spirit, but in the New the Spirit of God is poured out on the entire people of God.  Today is the feast of Pentecost where we celebrate this very fact.

Thus each individual Christian has the Holy Spirit inside of them, and is, to a greater or lesser extent, inspired by the Holy Spirit in their words and actions.  (When I say individual, of course I don't mean individual as opposed to the community of believers, for the Spirit of Jesus is present in a new way when two or three are gathered in his name.  But it would be quite heretical to say that the Spirit is only in the Church as an institution, and not in the particular individuals which compose it!)

OK, but this raises a potential objection: how does this compare to the Inspiration of the Scriptures?  Because the language we use to describe that is very similar:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Tim 3:16-17)

We see here that all parts of Scripture are (a) inspired by God, and (b) useful for the Christian life.  For this reason it is backed by the authority of God, and is (one of the) instruments which he uses to perfect us into the image of Christ, who is the ultimate Word of God.

(Note that this passage does not say anything about inerrancy, which I do not think is the most useful word to apply to the Scriptures.  I believe that all Scripture communicates some truth God wished them to say, and of course these truths are reliable and accurate when we have understood them properly, but I do not think it follows that the Bible is free from e.g. contradictions concerning historical trivia, or that passages like Genesis 1-11 must be taken to teach scientific truth.  Conversely, if I write 2+2 = 4 on a napkin, that napkin is inerrant, since it contains no falsehoods, but that does not make it inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Also, the word "inerrancy" isn't very useful for describing passages which don't contain factual statements, e.g. commandments or complaints or questions and so on.  I would rather stick closer to the language that Scripture uses about itself.)

Now pretty much all Christians believe that the canon of Scripture is closed, meaning that no new books are to be added.  In addition to the Old Testament books (about which there is disagreement among Christians concerning the exact scope of the canon), there are 27 New Testament books written by the apostles and their close companions, and nobody seems to expect any more to be added.  Except for some nutty groups like Mormons whose theology is way out of the mainstream.

Some Protestants (called cessationists), usually from Reformed traditions, believe that the overtly supernatural gifts of the Spirit (such as miracles, prophecy, and speaking in tongues) were only for the first generation of Christians and ceased with the death of the apostles.  But I cannot find anything in the text of the New Testament which suggests or implies that prophecy will cease.  Quite the contrary, the New Testament seems to treat prophecy as a normal part of the Christian communal life.  Now of course the NT was written during the time of the NT, but it was written to provide guidance for all believers through the centuries.  To postulate what would amount to a new dispensation (i.e. a period of time in which God interacts with people in a different way) but with absolutely no Scripture written to guide us during that new time period, seems absurd.

The main proof-text on the other side is 1 Cor 13, where St. Paul talks about the end of prophecy:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  (1 Cor 13:8-11)

But this is obviously referring to the Second Coming, not to the closure of Scripture, for St. Paul goes on to say that

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  (1 Cor 13:12)

However valuable it might be that we have all books of the Bible instead of some books of the Bible (back when the Apostles were still alive), it is clear that it does not amount to the radical change of seeing God face to face, "for nobody can see God's face and live".  So that moment when we all see him directly is yet to come.  Since that's the best proof-text they have, I think it's fair to say that there's no good evidence in Scripture for the position.

(There are also some passages about prophecy ending in the Old Testament, but these presumably allude to the end of the period of Old Testament prophecy.  Also they do not generally seem to treat the end of prophecy as though it were a good thing.)

Experience suggests that, although prophecy is indeed rarer in later generations than during the time of the Apostles (being less necessary), it has never entirely ceased.  Indeed, as a result of the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century, those claiming to exercise this gift are more common now than ever.  And I myself have (very rarely!) been given a specific message by God for a church or another person.  That is prophecy, by definition.

What's really going on here, is that cessationists are privileging a theory about Scripture (that because it is closed, no future prophecy can occur) over the teaching found in Scripture (that the living God speaks to his people).  That's not a good way to do interpretation.

So if prophecy is still around, why don't we go around adding new Scriptures to the Bible?

Well, first, because most of what we do and say is merely partially inspired by the Holy Spirit, with an admixture of our own earthly opinions and wrongheaded ideas.  Whereas Scripture is totally inspired by God.  Even if e.g. some of St. Paul's crankishness or St. David's curses got into the final product, we still confess that even those parts are sanctified and hallowed by their role in God's plan.  They are intimately connected to the message conveyed by Scripture, so that they are still "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness".  Humility suggests that for most of us, our offering to the Church is not so thoroughly worked-over by the Spirit as what we know we experience when reading the Scriptures:

 Let the [false] prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord.   “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  (Hebrews 4:12)

I see the Holy Spirit working powerfully in the writings of e.g. Sts. Lewis or Chesterton, but that does not mean that their every opinion should be enshrined as the very word of God; that would be terrible!  And I see that Plato anticipated many aspects of Christian truth, surely due to divine guidance, but that does not make his random opinions authoritative.  These writings are partially inspired, not completely inspired.

But this distinction is not sufficient as it stands.  Suppose God were to speak to me tomorrow in a voice clearly his, telling me to be a missionary to Zimbobia, or whatever.  If I wrote it down while adding nothing of my own, or adding things of my own only as appropriate while drunk on the love of God, it is clear that the end product would be totally inspired.

But it does not follow that we ought to print it in the back of our Bibles.  That is, I think, because there is a second criterion besides inspiration.   An act of communication is defined not only by its author but also by its intended recipient.  The books of the Bible are in the Bible because they are universal, that is given to the entire Church for purposes of being its foundational literature.  In short, they are not just complete in their inspiration, but also complete in their intended audience.  They are for everyone because they are our primary literature about the primary revelation of God, namely the preparation of Israel for Christ, his advent here on earth, and the resulting New Covenant, which is "the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all" (Jude 1:3).

While other Christians might be incidentally benefited by the words calling me to Zimbobia, to require everyone to accept and read it would be more likely to lead to division rather than unity.  It is not a text which was read aloud in the churches, and which organically grew up alongside of God's people in order to constitute its identity.

For this reason, we accept into Scripture only the writings of the Old Testament prophets (and the histories and writings which put them into context) and the New Testament Apostles who witnessed Jesus' Resurrection.  Any additional prophecy is to be tested by the words of the Bible, and rejected if it conflicts with it.

But as I said, there is no explicit promise of God in the New Testament that no new books of the Bible will be inspired.  Some think that the Apocalypse of St. John contains such a statement:

I testify to everyone who hears the prophetic words of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book.   And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophetic book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, written in this book. (Rev 22:18-19)

However, at the time that Revelation was written it was a separate book in a separate scroll from the rest of the Bible.  It was centuries before the binding technology existed to put the entire Bible into a single codex.  So this passage probably refers to adding new material to the Book of Revelation, not the rest of the Bible.  It is also very similar to passages in the Old Testament:

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.  (Deut 4:2)

Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.  Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar. (Prov. 30:5-6)

but these were clearly not the final books of the Bible.  So while these words could potentially mean not to treat human traditions as being on par with divine revelation, they do not imply that there will be no new divine revelation.

However, it is very hard for me to believe that any new spiritual events could be sufficiently earthshaking to justify the publication of an additional portion of the Bible.  What could God possibly do that would be comparable in drama to the revelation already given?  (The Second Coming would be important enough, but presumably seeing Christ face-to-face will obviate the need for any written Scriptures.)

I can only think of one thing which is (a) promised in both Testaments of our current Scriptures, and (b) as important and universal as some events in the Old Testament and Acts (if not the Gospels).  And that is if the Jews converted as a group to Christianity.  As St. Paul says:

But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!   I am talking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry  in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.  For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?...

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in,  and in this way all Israel will be saved.
(Romans 11:12-15, 25-26)

So, if a prophet like Elijah or St. John the Baptist were to arise in modern day Israel, and if by his ministry the Jews as a group believed in Jesus and were saved, then I speculate that the writings (or youtube videos?) of that prophet might well be worthy of inclusion among our Scriptures, being clearly endorsed by God.  But that is for those who live at that time to worry about!  If indeed the world lasts long enough afterwards for it to matter...

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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2 Responses to Inspiration and the Scriptures

  1. Philip Wainwright says:

    I think 'defined not only by its author but also by its intended recipient' is right, but in a deeper sense than 'who it's intended for'. The recipient plays an important part in establishing authorship, or origin might be a better word in this case. You would have to recognise the voice of God in the call to Zimbobia, which you would be able to do because you have heard God speak to you before, in the words He has already given. So it would not only be the intent to speak to the whole people of God that would be required to elevate your transcription of His message to the status of Holy Scripture, but the acceptance of it by the whole people of God, the universal recognition of it as something from the same God Who has already spoken to His whole people and whose voice can therefore be known by them. Contrary to much popular scholarship, the early Christians were very careful about what writings they accepted as Scripture.

    A very interesting and helpful post.

  2. TY says:

    ""Inspired" is a word that means guided or breathed-through by the Holy Spirit. An inspired text or speech is one in which God is speaking, not just a human being. Not that it ceases to be a human product; it still comes from the personality of the human author, which is being used as an instrument for communicating his message."

    This paragraph reminds me that last week, in my church, Pentecost Sunday, was the fist week of Pentecost and the First Reading was from Acts 2:1-11, which is perhaps one of the best examples of inspired speaking where even Jesus' uni-lingual, Aramaic-speaking disciples were enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit to speak in the languages of the foreign Jews who had come to Jerusalem to pray. On this day the Church was born and the Holy Spirit, 3rd person of the Trinity, was physically there.

    When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
    they were all in one place together.
    And suddenly there came from the sky
    a noise like a strong driving wind,
    and it filled the entire house in which they were.
    Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
    which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
    And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
    and began to speak in different tongues,
    as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

    Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
    At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
    but they were confused
    because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
    They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
    “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
    Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
    We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
    inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
    Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
    Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
    as well as travelers from Rome,
    both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
    yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
    of the mighty acts of God.”

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