Inspiration and Authority by Paul J. Achtemeier

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Scripture
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The Christian community has always affirmed the inspiration and authority of Scripture for the community of believers.  However, the Christian community has not come to a consensus regarding the nature of that inspiration and authority.  In this paper we will explore several common perceptions on divine inspiration and authority of Scripture.  In the final analysis, I will provide my own viewpoints about inspiration and authority.

There are essentially three ways, with various nuances, in which to view the composition of the Bible.  First, some believe that Scripture is entirely God’s work.  In other words, Scripture is literally God’s Word that He both inspired and had transcribed.  This is usually labeled the conservative position.  Counter to that position, liberals tend to ascribe the texts of Scripture to the work of human ingenuity.  There may be some manner of inspiration on God’s part, but the work of Scripture is largely attributable to humans.  Both the liberal and conservative positions find it difficult to converse on a similar plane with one another.  Each position perceives a threat from the other position.  However, there is a third viewpoint that merges both the conservative and liberal agenda.  “Dynamic authorship” portrays Scripture as both divinely inspired and humanly crafted.  This viewpoint maintains that God’s inspiration occurs through and is not hindered by human creativity and authorship.

Paul J. Achtemeier points out that there are two traditional viewpoints for the locus and mode of inspiration.  One side attributes inspiration to the authors while the other camp places inspiration in the actual words found in Scripture.  There is a predicament with both of these positions.  We do not have access to either!  All authors of Scripture are deceased and none of the original ancient manuscripts have been found.  The manuscripts we do have are incomplete, damaged, and copies of copies of copies that have layers of editing or “corrections”.  Furthermore, those texts are translated into other languages that often use different words to convey similar meanings.  For instance, the English language uses the word love to replace several Greek words that have slightly different meanings.  Most of us only have access to translations (which are numerous) of those copies.  At the very least, both of these positions are problematic for asserting and maintaining the inspiration of our contemporary Scriptures.

Achtemeier suggests a third viewpoint that allows inspiration to continue beyond these other two loci.  “That position would want to affirm that what is inspired is to be understood not exclusively of the person, though he or she of course shared in the inspiration, nor solely of the words written down, though they too were not unaffected by the power of God’s Spirit.  Rather, the content of Scripture, the thoughts that the authors sought to convey in the words they chose, is the locus of inspiration” (10).  So, not having access to the authors or the original words does not threaten the inspiration of Scripture.

The classic liberal position emphasizes the human hand in the construction of the Scriptures.  The proponents of the liberal position point to the discrepancies and conflicting narratives that occur throughout Scripture.  For instance, Genesis 1 and 2 have conflicting timelines for creation.  They are mutually exclusive.  If Scripture is dictated by God, wouldn’t He know the correct timeline?  These anomalies are not secluded to the Old Testament alone.  For instance, the rough timeline of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospels is also in conflict.  From a chronological standpoint, these stories do not mesh.

Another problem that the liberal position wants to point out is the pre-scientific ideas that are propagated which contemporary science dismisses with ease.  The idea that the sun revolved around the earth was considered true for many centuries.  The Bible was even used to promote this idea.  Galileo’s discovery of heliocentricity did not meet open arms in the religious community because it “contradicted” the Bible, although we now know Galileo was correct.  If God had written down the Scriptures or spoke them verbatim to a scribe, would He have made such a mistake?  Such evidence bolsters the liberal camp’s position.  “What all of this means is that the Scriptures have been conditioned by the culture within which they originated in the same way that all other writings are so affected” (30).

Thus, the liberal position effectively demonstrates the human hand involved within Scripture.  However, with such evidence of discrepancies we must inevitably ask how we can be certain that Scripture holds authority and inspiration about trans-sensory realities when they are incorrect about sensory realities.  The conservatives point to this as a tremendous shortcoming from their opponents’ standpoint.

The conservative position tries “to show that Scripture contains no factual errors, i.e., statements that fail to conform to the external reality we know.  On the admission of conservatives themselves, any single statement of such nature would invalidate the idea of the inerrant inspiration of Scripture” (47).  The conservative position is often embarrassed by such inconsistencies within Scripture.  However, errors in a testimony do not negate the entire validity of a testimony.  In life, we are often quite comfortable with an individual’s story, despite knowing that not all the facts are accounted for or are entirely accurate.  Despite embellishment or neglect or ignorance, we are comfortable with understanding the “general truth” of a person’s story.   So, we need not have an errorless document for it to contain Truth.

Undaunted, the conservatives try to harmonize those passages that “seem” to be in conflict.  “Most attempts at harmonizing, and they are as numerous as the discrepancies within Scripture, are attempts therefore to show how discrepancies could be accounted for it the event to which they point could be constructed in a certain way” (54).  This creates another problem.  You have to go outside of the Scriptures to perform this task.  This conservative method of interpretation effectively demonstrates these passages are not “inerrant, since none of them know what really happened” (55).  Unfortunately, many people that discover this position to be inadequate leave their faith.  Since conservatives assert that the Bible is God’s Truth without error, many assume there must be no truth when error is found within its pages.

My understanding of the nature of biblical inspiration has changed as a result of ideas we have discussed.  Previously, before starting my theological studies, I would have classified myself as a conservative in some fashion.  The historical veracity of Scripture was essential to my faith.  When my historical understandings were challenged, my faith was assaulted.  Although I had journeyed quite a ways from literalist thinking in the past two years, this class has helped me to better affirm the human role in the composition of Scripture without compromising a high view of Scripture.

Achtemeier suggests that God is a Being of continuous revelation, not simply in past history.  He writes:

It becomes clear that to understand the varied witness in Scripture as the result of continuing attempts to fathom God’s will for new times is to understand the Bible as the product of a living attempt, never ended, to determine the kind of future into which the God of Israel and of the church is leading his people.  To understand Scripture in that way, rather than as a timeless deposit of the will of God that never changes, is to recognize that the task of interpreting God’s will for a new time is never finished (76).

We see Jesus operate in this way throughout the Gospels.  He re-interprets the Law and prophets and even re-interprets the role of the Messiah.

The development of the canon is a great example of this.  There were many texts from which to pick and choose.  It was the community of believers over time that not only developed these texts but officially recognized their inspiration and authority for the community.  “Church and Scripture grew up alongside each other – the traditions shaping the life of the church, and the church interpreting and reshaping the traditions in the light of its own proclamation of those traditions” (78).

Achetmeier believes that it is “tradition, situation, and respondent” that is the locus of inspiration.  I believe that this formula for inspiration and authority is adequate.  Achtemeier summarizes, “The final form is the culmination of a process of growth of Scripture that began with the primal event that shaped the community of faith and that has continued through the process of forming and reforming the tradition on the part of faithful respondents to new situations confronting that community” (119).

Critical methodologies can be quite useful in helping us to understand tradition and situations found within the text.  They help the contemporary community of believers to be as well informed as possible about the context of the Scriptures.  And, seeking to know Scripture well is especially beneficial if God is continually revealing Himself rather than simply having left behind an historical record of His revelation.  Critical methodologies help us to reflect on the myriad facets of Scripture, whether historical, literary, or grammatically.  They help us to appreciate the depth and beauty of Scripture.  And, when employed properly, they help us to encounter the text so that we may grow closer to God.

Brevard Childs’ Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture was exceptionally beneficial in shaping my understanding of Scripture.  Child’s canonical criticism gives a handle for interpreting Scripture holistically rather than independently from its canonical setting.  The interpretation of Scripture must be found to be cohesive (not necessarily harmonized) with its other parts.  It is the final form of our Scripture that is most important, not the individual parts that have been edited or redacted (although this can give us insight into an author’s emphasis).

Both Childs and Achtemeier provided a foundational block for understanding the locus and mode of inspiration.  We only have access to the final canonical form of Scripture.  If God can use it to reveal Himself today, then inspiration does not ultimately lie in original texts or authors, but in the traditions, situations, and respondents found throughout the tenor of Scripture and throughout the history of God’s people.  We shape our Scripture and the Scripture shape us.  And, most importantly, God’s Spirit breathes life through the whole process.


Works Cited

Achtemeier, Paul J. Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture.

Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.


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