Last week there was a bit of conversation on my Facebook page about what difference it might make for interpreting the biblical book of Daniel if someone believes that the Bible is inspired by God.
By “interpreting Daniel” I mean, specifically, what sorts of conclusions might one come to about the date on which it was written, the legitimacy of its rather “unique” naming of kings, etc. Historical questions.
And, when we’re talking about “inspired by God” we’re talking about something more than one might say for other “inspired” pieces of literature–something that would distinguish the Bible from even, say, Flannery O’Connor (pbuh).
This is a challenging question for many folks, especially as we start getting knee-deep into biblical studies. Do critical scholars question the historicity of certain passages simply because they don’t believe in the God who wrote it? Do scholars read the theological intent of certain passages, in ways that we don’t, due to their rejection of the God whose hand is behind it?
What difference does it make that the Bible is inspired?
First, a positive:
If the Bible is, as we believe, inspired, then this is the particular Bible that God wants us to have.
If we strain the data to make the Bible into something we presume it should be based on our theories of inspiration, we call into question God’s goodness in giving us the Bible we actually have.
If a doctrine of scripture constantly causes us to deny the data about the actual Bible we have, we are clinging to an idol of our own devising rather than gratefully receiving what God has given.
This brings us to the question of history.
We should be very careful about when we demand a different reading of history–limiting our different “readings” to instances when, in faith, we are called to recognize the hand of God at work in a narrative.
Christians will interpret history differently from non-Christians. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.
We believe that Jesus did miracles, fed thousands, walked on water.
But we don’t have to believe that Quirinius was governor with authority over Judea while Herod was still alive, or that the census that he took about ten years after Herod died occurred ten years earlier.
The former questions are questions of faith. The latter questions are questions of historical record. The Bible we actually have contains a number of geopolitical statements that do not line up with what we know from historical sources that had access to better records.
We need to exercise caution when we confront a historical discrepancy. The Bible God actually gave us contains this sort of thing, and we need to allow it to shape what can qualify as an “inspired” text.
What about theology?
We should not disallow an interpretation of a passage because we know that such an interpretation is theologically incorrect.
If a passage tells us that God changed his mind, we should assume, at least at first, that the writer intended to tell the reader that God changed His mind.
This is not to displace the issue of hermeneutics: we may very well reread a passage in light of the fuller Biblical picture. But such “rereading” should not overwhelm the voice of the text we’ve come into contact with until full justice is given to the text itself.
But this leads to the question of why we should reread at all? What positive value does inspiration have? Here, I go back to the famous 2 Timothy passage:
The purpose of scripture is to make us wise for salvation in Christ Jesus.
Everyone loves the part that comes after: “all scripture is God-breathed…”
But the part that precedes helps us understand what the content of this inspiration is. Scripture can teach, correct, and reprove because it is the God-inspired, yes. But it is an inspired story:
“You have known the sacred writings that are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
To claim an inspired Bible is to claim an overarching unity that is found in a story that climaxes in Jesus Christ. Inspiration means that I can read the parts as tied to a whole.
That whole isn’t a systematic theology. That whole isn’t a history of the entire world. That whole is the story of God reconciling the cosmos to himself in Christ Jesus.