Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2022
There are senses of the term “inspired” that we would all agree do apply to the Bible. It has served as the sacred text for all the various Christian traditions for their long histories. In some sense, they all have treated it as such because they have believed it comes from God. The presence of that belief is a descriptive reality whether we think it is appropriate or not. It also seems descriptively the case that the Bible has provided insights and inspiration for many, many people over many, many years.
However, if we add another dimension to the meaning of “inspiration,” some of us are more likely to demur. Some of us, in fact, will believe that this added meaning actually undermines the meaningfulness of the Bible. What if we mean by “inspiration” that the Bible’s existence and content cannot be understood in human, historical terms but must be understood as a direct revelation from God? Many Christians seem to believe that the Bible is different from “merely human” writings and thereby create distance between the Bible and other human writings.
Problems with “inspiration”
Belief in this difference lends itself to the acceptance of ideas about the Bible that may be demonstrably false—such as the idea that the Bible contains no errors, that the Bible contains no internal contradictions. Belief in this difference lends itself to assertions about the Bible’s authority in Christian communities that end up being, in practice, assertions about the authority of human interpreters of the Bible. Ironically, emphasizing the Bible’s inerrancy and its authority often leads to de-emphasizing the actual content of the Bible. The Bible itself is extraordinarily anti-authoritarian. Anyone who uses the Bible in authoritarian ways is actually displaying a commitment to human ideas about the Bible over letting the Bible speak for itself.
Another problem that arises due to belief in this distance between the Bible and other human writings is a tendency to think of the Bible as a kind of magic book that gives us directives that come straight from God. Sometimes this leads to affirming ethical directives that may be supported by specific Bible verses but are not supportable based on human experience and are actually inconsistent with the broader message of the Bible. An obvious example would be the persistent support for slavery in the United States among the most orthodox Christians well into the 19th century. Pro-slavery Christians had a wealth of support from what they claimed was the direct teaching of the Bible.
I note one problem that has become apparent in recent generations with the influence of the understandings of inspiration that I have just mentioned. Many people who disagree with the leaders of Christian communities or with authoritarian practices or with the oppressive ethical practices agree that those leaders and practices are “biblical.” Thus, they conclude that in order to advocate for more egalitarian and humane approaches they need to jettison the Bible. The liberating message that is actually present in the Bible is thereby missed, and the Bible’s potential to empower human wellbeing is diminished.