Reviewing "The Living Word of God" – Pt 3
Inspiration Without An Expiration Date – How Does Inspiration Work?
There are many Biblical texts, and life would be so easy if they all worked the same. But they just don’t and treating them as if they do robs the biblical text of its full and original meaning.
Paul says all Scripture is God-breathed, a challenging and troublesome word. Peter says prophets speak as they raise their sails and the Holy Spirit carries them along. Jeremiah‘s inspired book includes both sides of his intimate conversations with God. Ezra quotes Persian archival records. Luke does extensive research in compiling his two-volume church history. Ezekiel and John of Patmos receive stunning visual revelations, which they proceed to describe, not directly, but by simile, telling us what THEY thought these revelations were LIKE.
These different forms of Biblical revelation, Dr. Witherington suggests, force us to stretch our thoughts to encompass them if we intend to deal with the word God has given us, rather than the word we would craft for ourselves. This has been a major complaint of mine as we in the churches of Christ strive to deal with questions of Scriptural authority and teaching: we approach the Scriptures with our theories already in hand, rather than approaching Scripture empty-handed and allowing it to show us the proper questions to ask.
“…We do not know what inspiration looks like until we actually examine the texts and their problems and promise. What we can agree upon at this juncture is that there are claims in the Bible that both individuals and texts are inspired, and that when an individual is inspired he or she is inspired to speak God’s word in the words of human beings, which sometimes involves a verbatim transfer of an oracle heard, and sometimes involves more of a human component… The theories of mechanical communication or even mechanical dictation of inspiration do not suit the majority of biblical texts… Revelatory experience, revelatory expression, and revelatory writings are all involved in this process.”
A question we never hear in churches of Christ is, “What is the relationship of the Bible to the Word of God?” In fact, showing any curiosity whatever about this relationship is sometimes enough to get a person labeled unChristian. Dr. Witherington braves the course, though, seeking to break down the various answers others have proposed to the question.
The Bible “contains” the Word of God, and the reader must discern between divine and non-divine portions;
The Bible “becomes” the Word of God as the reader encounters it, but if you don’t receive it thus, then it is not the Word of God for you;
The Bible contains testimony to revelation, to the Word of God, but not the very things themselves. 2 Tim 3:16 and other passages boldly aassert, though, that the Scriptures we possess are indeed God’s Word in and of themselves.
“I doubt that Paul, Luke, or whoever wrote 2 Timothy was unaware of the problems and interpretive issues involved in various aspects of the OT, which makes the claim in 2 Timothy 3:16 more audacious, as if the writer were saying, ‘The Bible is the inspired word of God in every passage, despite its warts, wrinkles, and problems.'” A short discussion of Ps 137:9 follows, along with reminders of other passages where the Bible records ungodly activities. A preliminary conclusion is, “the Bible does not teach everything it touches.” That is, different genres and different points of view must be taken into account as we seek to understand how God reveals himself in his word. A detailed exegesis of 2 Peter 1:19-21 points the way home as we seek to understand the relationship between inspiration and truth.
Finally, Dr. Witherington interacts vigorously with Tom Wright’s The Last Word, particularly with Dr. Wright’s assertion that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ must be understood as shorthand for ‘the authority of God exercised through Scripture.’ He sympathizes with Dr. Wright’s concern that “the story [of Scripture] be heard as a whole, and that the parts be judged in relationship th the design, trajectory, climax, and intended ends of the whole story.”
Dr Witherington feels, though, that in stressing Scripture’s role as “a change agent, an instrument of transformation…”
(DON’T tell the editors of the GA or SS that the Bible is a change agent!!!!! They might command us to disfellowship it!)
“…Dr. Wright finesses, and in effect, dodges the truth question, or at least lays it aside for another day.”
At the risk of sounding like a Wright apologist, I would suggest that there were already several texts wrestling with the truth claims of Scripture when he published his monograph on authority, but Dr Wright seeks to deal with the role of Scripture as God’s word, not its nature in itself. He does not contribute to the “truth decay in Western culture.”
A couple of chapters from now, Dr. Witherington will tackle head-on the different kinds of truth claims put forth by different NT texts, striving to take them seriously for what they say about themselves and how they expect to be received. Before that, though, he offers an extended commentary on Peter Enns’ incarnational analogy that the relationship between the Bible and the Word of God is the same as the relationship between Jesus and God.
Here, Dr Witherington hints at his conclusion with two important Isaianic passages that bookend the Servant Songs.:
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
(Isaiah 40:8 ESV)
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55:11 ESV)
If the Bible is always inspired and always working to do God’s will, then the nature of its truth claims will testify boldly about his purposes in an age when so many, scholar and student alike, proclaim the Bible’s falsehood and untrustworthiness.