Wednesday, September 17, 2008

inspiration of scripture

whenever we talk about the bible critically (by which i mean: academically, in context of its original languages/manuscripts, or in reference to the original [as best as we can determine] date/date/place/issue writing of each piece of the bible) it makes people nervous.

yup. talking critically about the bible makes people nervous.

it makes us nervous because it forces us to deal with the fact that the bible is not, strictly speaking, an answer book (though, of course, many of us find great comfort in the answers revealed to us through the bible).

the bible itself poses many questions. questions like: who wrote this? where did this come from? why did they say that like that? who thinks this was? etc.

for those of us who grew up in a christian household these questions often seem irreverent, iconoclastic, and un-christian.

but they are actually the most god-honoring questions we could be asking about the bible. they force us to wrestle with the context in which the bible was written, and we can never have confidence in our interpretation without knowing that context.

context is king.

but the context is not always obvious or clear, as in the case of genesis 1.

and sometimes there is great debate among scholars as to when/how/why something was written, as in the case of genesis 1.

the typical evangelical response to this kind of debate is to run, screaming and in terror, and cling to the safest version of the context we can find; which, typically, means we ignore the real conversation about scripture and hold fast to the version of the truth we learned as a child.

now, there is nothing wrong with child-like faith. but child-like faith refers to innocence, not fear. child-like faith refers to a willingness to believe and trust and find peace in god; not to a panic and an anxiety that there may be more to learn than what we already know...or that what we already know may need to be enhance by those who know more.

i do not consider myself a biblical scholar. i am simply a pastor. but my job is to learn from scholars and transmit what i've learned into the normal, every-day life of regular people.

sometimes this means challenging what we all learned in sunday school.

and, remember, what we learned in sunday school isn't bad. far from it - children can't make sense of the complexity of adult life or thought, far less can they be expected to make sense of biblical textual criticism. but what we learned in sunday school is only the finger food preceding the main course. it is nutritionally insufficient.

you can't grow up eating cheese sticks and veggies with dip.

anyway - back to criticism.

we feel scared when we talk about the bible critically because we think it undermines the inspiration of the holy spirit.

but it doesn't.

i am a staunch believer in the fact that all scripture is breathed by god. everything in our bibles has been inspired by the spirit. we have the bible god wants us to have. we have it in many (slightly) different shapes and forms, with some (negligable) differences in (small) portions of the text.

but it's the bible god gave us and wants us to use.

and the more we use it, the more we learn from it, the more we let it edit our lives, the more we come to understand just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

the bible is like a pond, safe enough for children to play in, but deep enough for adults to dive.

our learned and academic study of the bible is the diving bit...the bit that makes us all nervous at first.

but rest assured - whether or not a piece of the bible was written in 550 BC or 1400 BC, it was still inspired by the spirit. god was still at work motivating the author to think, to perceive, and to record.

how is this possible?

well, maybe you've never really thought about it...but do so now. when we talk about the inspiration of the holy spirit we don't mean that people were possessed by god (as if the biblical writers were divinely possessed, much like william blakey told us about demon possession). they didn't lose control in a trance and have god take them over, making them write what he wanted to write.

it was much simpler, and much holier.

god directed the authors of the bible to write things down. god may have done this by giving them an idea to write it down; or through the encouragement of their friends; or through some outside circumstances that made them think they ought to write it down so no one would forget what happened.

then they wrote. they wrote with their own words, in their own literary voice, and largely they wrote about their own first-hand experiences or observations.

in the case of the prophets who foretold the future, they likely received a clear mental picture of how things would turn out. they then put that mental picture into their own words, which their scribes/assistants wrote down later.

in the case of the prophets who spoke against the evils of the present world, they likely reacted in their spirits against the grossness and injustice of this world and god's spirit inspired them to criticize it.

my point is that - to interpret the bible well - we have to know who wrote which part and why and when.

and learning that helps us understand better. it doesn't limit the inspiration of god, it demonstrates the marvelous nuance(s) of god's spirit. it demonstrates how god works.

it shows us what god is like.

in the case of genesis 1, i see no "danger" in learning that it was a priest in 550 BC who wrote it verses moses writing it in 1400 BC.


neither do i see a problem in noting the similarities between genesis 1 and the enuma elish.


the simple fear here is that, somehow, genesis 1 is a copy of the enuma elish - which makes some afraid that god is a kind of plagarist, like the great illegal-mp3-downloader in the sky.

but the language of genesis 1 is different enough from the enuma elish to tell us 2 important things:
1. the author knew he was referencing the enuma elish
2. the author deliberately changed A LOT of things about the enuma elish

and why would he have changed the enuma elish? just to make it "christian?" or "jewish?"
no. the only reason a jewish author would have referenced the enuma elish was to criticize it.

to tell the world it was wrong.

so, does it compromise the inspiration of scripture for a priest to have used the enuma elish?


in fact, it's quite consistent with the prophetic critique(s) we see throughout the first testament, where the prophets of old say: the world is not right, god is not happy with it, and god will make it right soon.

what could be more inspired than that?

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