May 6, 2013
This is the third in a series of posts about the Bible in which I want to say how and why I find the Bible essential for my spiritual life. (The first is here. The second is here.) I hope these musings may be useful to others. The reflections in these posts about the Bible draw on material I presented at the Midyear gathering of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative, and on reflections that Friends at that gathering shared with me, as they welcomed me into their midst.
Whoever put pen to paper (quill to scroll?), we do best to look at the Bible as having been written by a community of believers, who sorted through a larger quantity of written material and selected out the books most valuable to them in their spiritual life. We should look at the Bible we now have as a gift from the earliest communities of Christians, and be grateful for this gift. Those two sentences are a quick summary of the first two posts in this series. [Image: Rembrandt, Evangelist Mathäus und der Engel (1661)]
If we can have confidence that the writing of the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, then we will value this gift all the more. That is what we say, isn’t it, when we want to affirm that there is special value or special authority in the Bible, and that is what we deny, isn’t it, when we dismiss or discard the Bible?
Quakers know a thing or two about divine inspiration. This is our gift to others: the steady affirmation that that there is an Inner Light that provides guidance if we will still ourselves and listen. We proclaim George Fox’s joyous epiphany that Christ has come to teach His people Himself – even if some of us have grown reluctant to speak of Christ. We believe that the possibility of such divine inspiration is within each and every human being, and so we treat every human being as sacred.
We organize our worship to allow spontaneous vocal ministry from those who receive an inspired message (one meant for others, too) in the midst of gathered worship. That is the whole of the plan for worship in an unprogrammed meeting, and even pastoral Friends Churches provide a time for such unprepared messages in the middle of their more programmed worship services. We conduct meetings for business is a worship setting looking for guidance from the Holy Spirit. The dramatic experience of hearing inspired messages in worship is largely what drew me to Quakerism.
So if we know about the possibility of divine inspiration, if we trust that this is an experience open to each and every human being (even to those who deny the possibility), what does such inspiration have to do with the divine inspiration of the Bible?
For some Christians, the divine inspiration that created our Bible is a different, higher, more miraculous inspiration than any inspiration we can know today. They believe that the inspiration that created the Bible was a limited time offer of the Holy Spirit, one available to a relatively small number of human beings in the two centuries or so after Jesus’s death. That era of super-divine inspiration created texts with a perfection that is unapproachable in other texts or messages. Those who hold this view often speak of these texts as “inerrant” (without error), and sometimes speak of the guidance the authors were given by the Holy Spirit as “plenary inspiration.”
With many other Christians, I believe the Bible is an inspired set of texts. But I also believe the inspiration that created them is the same sort of inspiration that can seize a person today in worship or prayer. It was not a super-special, limited-time, higher, better, more exalted kind of inspiration than what is available to us today. How is such inspiration available to us? There is no formula, and could happen at any time or place, but likely the possibility of such inspiration is increased in a gathered meeting for worship. So if the first is a “super-inspired” conception, I think a more sensible view is a “community-inspired” conception of how the Holy Spirit works among us.
I believe this community-inspired view is much more consistent with how Friends have viewed God’s message to us. We are reluctant to ascribe special divinity to particular places or particular days. We think ministry is an opportunity and responsibility for all, not just something for priests or those specially ordained.
Robert Barclay’s Third Proposition (“Concerning the Scriptures”) reminds us “the Scriptures’ authority and certainty depend upon the Spirit by which they were dictated.” And he adds:
If by the Spirit we can only come to the true knowledge of God; if by the Spirit we are to be led into all Truth, and so be taught of all things; then the Spirit, and not the Scriptures, is the foundation and ground of all Truth and knowledge, and the primary rule of faith and manners.
On Barclay’s understanding, we can only understand the Bible fully because the Holy Spirit opens the text to us. Even with the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit must still work among us.
I refuse to believe that the Holy Spirit ceased speaking to us nearly two millennia ago. And thus I believe the Bible is an inspired text and an essential one, but I believe the inspiration that created it is a kind of inspiration we can and do know today. Such inspiration we can know today, through worship, is also wonderful. But I would not take any message, however inspired, to be “perfect” or “inerrant.” And so I do not take the Bible to be “perfect” or “inerrant:” wonderful, yes; essential, yes.
I wrote something related about a year ago in a post on The Reach of Divinity.
Next: The Bible as Unfinished Work