The Christian doctrine of inspiration says that the Bible is the word of God, and therefore uniquely authoritative.
The academic discipline of biblical criticism insists that the Bible is a human word, and therefore subject to ordinary methods of enquiry regarding authorship, interpretation, and so on.
Can these two perspective be reconciled? And, if so, how? This is dealt with by John Goldingay in an early (1976) article entitled Inspiration, Infallibility and Criticism.
I would like to summarise Goldingay’s article because I think it’s interesting (not because I necessarily agree with all of it):-
For evangelicals the doctrine of inspiration has, as its corollary, the notion of infallibility (or something similar). This is taken to mean that the Bible is correct in all that it affirms. So, when criticism suggests, for example, that substantial parts of Isaiah were not written by the prophet of that name, and that they date, in fact, from the time of the Exile, or that Daniel does not date back to the Exile, but rather to the 2nd century BC, evangelicals have tended to react by finding these conclusions to be in conflict with infallibility, and therefore problematic. If Leviticus and Deuteronomy ‘claim’ to be written by Moses, how can this be squared with the critical conclusion that they were not?
So the question, once again is this: is the notion that the Bible is ‘the word of man’ necessarily in conflict with the belief that it is ‘the word of God’?
Evangelicals have tended to respond to this dilemma either by rejecting criticism altogether, or by adopting a criticism that was maximally conservative.
Of course, the situation is not completely black-and-white: evangelicals have (especially since WWII) been more sympathetic towards, and involved in, critical enquiry; and some ‘liberals’ have sought to re-instate some kind of belief in the Bible as divinely inspired.
Jesus, for all his personal authority and independence of mind, accepted the Hebrew scriptures as ‘God’s word written’, and would have embraced Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:16. On the other hand, he recognised the hand of David in the writing of the psalms (e.g. Mark 12:35-37 w Psalm 110).
Some of the biblical writings are ‘prophetic’, in the sense that the divine initiative is primary (although with the human author and historical context still important). Others are ‘scribal’, in sense that human thought and research is primary (think of the introduction to Luke’s Gospel). But in all there is this combination of the divine, which invites our faith, and the human, which invites criticism.
What are the implications of this for questions of historicity? At the macro-level, Biblical faith requires us to believe that God has acted in history in the exodus, exile, and restoration. At the micro-level, there is something incongruous about the idea of a divinely-inspired book that contains mistakes.
But even conservative Christians do not suppose that everything in the Bible is ‘literally’ true. They may well accept that the world was not created in six literal days. They may well suppose that some of the statistics mentioned in Numbers and Chronicles are meant symbolically.
The notion of ‘authorial intent’ helps: Scripture is true in that it accurately conveys everything that the author intended it to. The author of Chronicles provides, according to the custom of the day, a number that indicates the scale of the victory, rather than a literal head-count. The writers of the Gospels provide accounts of the life of Jesus that orders events sometimes chronologically, and sometimes topically. A modern writer of history might not put it that way, but that is beside the point.
The trouble is, however, that the weight of evidence has forced conservative scholarship to concede such points as have just been made. But we must be suspicious of an approach that insists that a biblical passage must be read literally unless there are absolutely compelling reasons to do otherwise; for this is to pre-judge the author’s (and God’s) intention and to close down avenues of legitimate enquiry.
Could it be, for example, that Genesis and Kings contain examples of ‘saga’ – stories with an historical kernal but retold and applied in ways that make it difficult to get back to the original event? This does not make them false; it means that we are working with a genre other than ‘literal history’. Similarly, we may not have in John’s Gospel recordings of the very words and deeds of Jesus; we may have, rather, those words and deeds as they have been preached and meditated upon. And, if they are such, they are still exactly what God intended them to be.
Can we regard the Bible as infallible, given the diversity of theological perspectives represented within it? How do we reconcile James, who says that Abraham was justified by works, with Paul, who says that he was not?
Again, we must note that the Bible emerges from specific human situations. So when we ask, ‘What misunderstandings of the gospel were Paul and James each addressing?’ we have a fruitful way forward.
Moreover, a specific message within the Bible may not disclose the full and abiding mind of God on the matter addressed: Jesus regards Moses’ regulation as a concession to human sinfulness. We might find in the latter phases of each Testament fuller and more definitive teaching than in the earlier phases. This is not to propose a ‘canon within a canon’, but simply to recognise the process of development maturation.
It was an accepted convention in biblical times for an author to attribute his work to an earlier, revered figure. Thus Jude 14 refers to the Book of Enoch, ‘the seventh from Adam’, even though this work is known to date from the intertestamental period. No-one would have been misled. Even conservative scholars tend to agree that Solomon did not write all the works attributed to him in the Old Testament, and may entertain the idea that Isaiah 40-66 was written by an unknown prophet of the Exile. Less conservative scholars regard much of the Pentateuch as post-Mosaic, and a number of the epistles attributed to Paul as post-Pauline.
Is there anything disreputable about this, if there was no intent to deceive? It might be replied that Jesus himself attributed Leviticus and Deuteronomy to Moses, and therefore that settles the question. But to ask, “Did Jesus really think that Deuteronomy was written by Moses?” may be to ask a question that is simply not pertinent. Jesus’s intention in ascribing a certain passage to Moses was not to teach that it was written by Moses himself (and not by ‘P’, say), but rather to affirm the location and authority of that passage.
The New Testament writers’ approach to the Old Testament is phenomenological: it may describe something as ‘written in Isaiah’ in the same way that they (and we) talk about the sun ‘rising’.
In Scripture there is a difference between what is affirmed and what is simply referred to. The former, which includes the theological and ethical teaching, is binding; the latter, which includes geographical and historical data, is not.
Evangelicals have often found themselves disagreeing with critical scholars on the basis of philosophical or ideological presuppositions. The critics’ late dating of Isaiah 40-66 and Daniel is believed to be due, in large measure to the belief of those critics that such prophecy is impossible.
Conservative Christians, however, need to take care that they deal with the actual data that other scholars point to, and not simply dismiss all critical theories as being determining by non-Christian presuppositions. And evangelical scholarship seems to be influenced by presuppositions too, since such scholars tend rather predictably to gravitate towards conservative conclusions.
Evangelical, Liberal, Conservative and Radical
The gulf between evangelical and liberal scholarship is not, or need not be, as wide as it is sometime thought to be. It should be possible to integrate a view of the Bible as divine inspired and authoritative with one that does not necessarily run to the most traditional and conservative conclusions on critical questions.
Evangelical theology looks something like this:-
It denotes a belief in the transcendent God who is there even when we are not (he is not just the ground of our being) and who raised Jesus from the dead (resurrection was not just something that happened inside the disciples); an acknowledgment of the lostness of man, who can only come to God with empty hands to be accepted despite his unworthiness on the basis of Christ’s death (he cannot achieve anything before or for God independently of the work of grace that has its effect through the cross); and an acceptance of the Bible, which confronts me with paradigms of God’s words to man and the responses God accepts in different situations, which demand my acceptance, and which provide the sole check on what is to be taken as emanating from God.
This theology depends on the basic historicity of the Bible story. A line has to be drawn somewhere. But it does not require us to deny that Luke may have been a 2nd-century rewriting of the Christian faith or that Ephesians was written by an anonymous follower of Paul, but equally as inspired as the Apostle himself.
We have assumed that evangelical theology must go hand-in-hand with conservative criticism. But evangelical theology and radical criticism may not be such a strange combination after all. In the light of the realities of the Incarnation and the Cross it is not for us to determine, a priori, how God should make himself and his will known.