Ancient History, Church, History, Theology

Following Up on the Authority and Reading of the Scriptures

A couple of days ago, I posted about Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam. It was interesting to watch how people reacted to the idea that Adam might not have been a historical person. There were some great comments and discussion, and it became obvious from the start that there are two camps – a dichotomy of opinion. What the debate really hinges on is our understanding of how to read the Scriptures.

For the moment, let’s put aside any arguments that do not believe the Scriptures are inspired of God. I know there are many who hold that opinion, but they would not be considered orthodox Christians by any camp. They’re off to the side in this discussion.

Front and center are the views that see the Scriptures as inspired but they vary on what this word inspired means.

To give us a bit of context, I am going to crack open my seminary systematic theology book because I feel that Millard Erickson’s treatment of this question is worth considering. He begins: “Several questions should be on the agenda of anyone attempting to formulate a theory of inspiration.”

  1. Can we really formulate a theory of inspiration?
  2. Does the Bible supply us with a basis for formulating an understanding of its inspiration?
  3. Should we, in formulating our understanding, give primary weight to the Bible’s teaching about itself, or should we primarily emphasize the nature of Scripture, the characteristics it displays?
  4. Is inspiration uniform throughout the Bible, or are there different degrees or differing levels of inspiration?
  5. Is inspiration a detectable quality?
  6. How does inspiration relate to the use of sources?
  7. If inspiration includes the use of sources, does inspiration guarantee their accuracy?
  8. Does inspiration relate to the shaping and preparing of the material prior to its actual utilization by the author of Scripture?
  9. Is inspiration broadly or narrowly related to the Scripture writer?
  10. Is inspiration a quality permanently attached to the Scripture writer, or to the office of prophet or apostle as it were; or is it a special influences at a particular time?
  11. Is inspiration properly to be attributed to the Scripture writer or to the Scripture written?
  12. To how much of the material deal with by the author does inspiration apply?

Of particular interest to us should be numbers 3 through 8 because they are key to understanding how to respond to works like Enns’ book. Inherent in questions 7 and 8 are the answers to Enns’ type of interpretation.

We must define the term accuracy (#7) because that is a matter of perspective. I meant this quite literally. If we view some passages of Scripture as people living in the age of reason, then we would say they are inaccurate. But to read them as contemporaries to the text, we find them to be accurate in deed.

A perfect example of this is Luke 2, where the gospel writer states of the census that drove Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem:

αυτη η απογραφη πρωτη εγενετο ηγεμονευοντος της συριας κυρηνιου
This  the census       first      was       governing            in Syria     Quirinius (was).

Atheists and critics have had a heyday with this passage because secular records show that Quirinius did not become the governor of Syria until 6 CE, far too late for Jesus to have been born during his administration. How these critics that the word governing appears in the participle is beyond me. The text does not say he was governor (legatus in Latin) but that he was in the act of governing. This would seem to indicate a much smaller focus than his appointment. Rather than looking for Quirinius as legatus, we should be looking for a time when he was called into governor without being governor. This indeed may have happened, although we have nothing concrete.

Erickson provides us with five theories as to the nature of revelation:

  1. The intuition theory: inspiration is the functioning of a high gift, perhaps almost like an artistic ability, but nonetheless a natural endowment, a permanent possession.
  2. The illumination theory: there is an influence of the Holy Spirit upon the authors of Scripture, but involving only a heightening of their normal powers.
  3. The dynamic theory: the Spirit of God works by directing the writer to the thoughts or concepts, and allowing the writer’s own distinctive personality to come into play in the choice of words and expressions.
  4. The verbal theory: the Holy Spirit’s influence extends beyond the direction of thoughts to the selection of words used to convey the message.
  5. The dictation theory: God actually dictated the Bible to the writers, word for word.

My own view is somewhere between 3 and 4.

But the question at hand for dealing with Enns is not how the Scriptures were written but how they are to be read. As I see it, there are a few theories about this as well:

  1. Ubiquitous authority: all of the Scriptures are equally inspired and are to be understood by all readers in their own context.
  2. Cessational authority: some texts no longer apply to “this age” and should be disregarded. Other texts remain true.
  3. Applicable authority: Scriptures do not address every matter and only have authority to the situation to which they were applied.
  4. Matrix authority: the texts had authority first to its original audience and continues to have authority to us when read as the audience received it.

There are probably a lot of other ways to view Scriptural authority, but I think these represent the big camps in evangelicalism/fundamentalism. There are some who try to use numbers 1 and 2 whenever someone like Enns shows up, and I think that is a mistake.

Numbers 2 and 3 are also very popular among those who pick and choose what texts apply to them today. So, they can treat 1 Corinthians 16:20 as not normative, but demand that 1 Corinthians 14:34 must be obeyed to the letter. (You’ll have to look them up to get what I mean.)

For my part, I hold to  number 4. It is my job, as a student of the Scriptures, to learn as much as I can about the original audiences of the texts and to attempt to read them as they were first received. If a text has been received by Western society one way for the past three hundred years, it is still wrong if that reading does not conform with the original intent.

Sometimes I get labeled as a liberal and sometimes I get labeled as a fundamentalist. I can’t help it. You read Paul different than you read John; and you read both of them different than you read Ezekiel or Deuteronomy. You read Job different than you read Peter, which is different from the way you read Proverbs. It isn’t all painted with a broad brush, but it is all inspired.


3 thoughts on “Following Up on the Authority and Reading of the Scriptures”

    1. I think it is important for the readers to understand that when I present something like the couple of articles I wrote on Enns that I am coming from a perspective of someone who embraces a very high view of the Scriptures – a view I believe is a true literal interpretation.

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