But why must there be some [intermediaries] between God and me, and why must they be so remote, therefore needing so many others? Is it simple, is it natural that God should have sought out Moses in order to speak to Jean-Jacques Rousseau? – Letter from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Christophe de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris. 1763. (Source here.)
Questions concerning the special status of the Bible in Christianity are among the most difficult questions for the thinking Christian. The Bible is variously described as Holy Scripture, the Word of God, divinely inspired, authoritative. Christians have contended that the Bible, in addition to its human authors, also has God as its author; there is a notion of double authorship. The Bible is taken to be a special communication from God Himself, not only to various individuals (like Moses) at various historical times and places, but also intended for us all to hear. (Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)
The present post is devoted to figuring out what on earth that means, or could mean. My aim is modest: I should like merely to distinguish the different issues at stake and the questions that one might ask about these issues.
We use the term special revelation to refer to the belief that God has specially communicated with some human beings at some points in history, and has entrusted them with the content of that communication, and the mission to communicate it to everyone else.
Here, I think, are the questions, together with rough thoughts.
Q1. Is special revelation plausibly something that God would do?
Here the question is not whether special revelation is something God could do, but whether it is something that He plausibly would do. It seems perfectly possible for God to do more or less whatever He wants. The question, rather, is this: If God had a message of general significance to everyone, why would He entrust it to some particular individual or group? Why not write it in the sky, or emblazon it in everyone’s faculties of reason or conscience?
It might be urged that the Bible describes universal ethical truths (“Thou shalt not steal”). That’s true, but what we’re really concerned with are those things reported in the Bible which can’t be confirmed by general powers of reasoning or moral intuition. We’re thinking of specific claims about, say, God’s actions in the Old Testament (like the Exodus), or the words and deeds of Jesus.
What I think: I don’t have any terribly good answer to this question. Lesslie Newbigin suggests (in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society) that (i) the biblical conception of human nature is fundamentally about personal relationships, (ii) it is therefore fitting that God should want humans to talk with one another about Him, as a kind of universal call to mediate God’s presence to one another. God likes to tell me something for your benefit. There may be something to this. I’m not entirely convinced, though.
It seems to me that the Holy Spirit has many means available to Him to get His messages across, whether that be by somehow guiding or prompting the human authors, or perhaps dictating everything into St Paul’s left ear. But it remains important to ask: What is the locus of the divine inspiration? What exactly is inspired?
Is it that the authors were inspired, being graced with a specially clear vision of God, so that anything from their pen is inspired?
Is it the words of the Biblical text itself that are inspired? (This is the “St Paul’s left ear” view.)
Was it the community of early Christians and the later ecclesial councils that were inspired in their selection of the texts to canonise as Scripture?
Or is it the individual reader, here, now, experiencing God through the text, who is the locus of inspiration?
What I think: I guess the Holy Spirit had better be safeguarding every step of the authorship, transmission, canonisation, and interpretation of the text if we’re to have any hope of the divine communication getting from God to us successfully. So I suppose I want to answer that all the above processes are inspired.
I’m not really sure whether this question is all that important, though. I am fairly confident that God can get His messages across, so long as He exists and wants to talk to us. The really hard question is figuring out what the message is. Which brings us to the next question…
Q3. How do we evaluate whether this book contains a divine communication?
The Bible is not the only book that is claimed to be a communication from God (there is, for instance, the Qur’an), and these books don’t all say the same thing. How do we evaluate which (if any) is right?
What I think: Well, I’m still thinking. Some will point to the historical evidence that the books of the New Testament were written by twelve apostles, or their close associates and friends, who in turn were close to Jesus. If we believe the central claim that Jesus rose from the dead (which, these people will argue, can be defended on independent historical grounds that don’t require us to take the Bible as inspired), then what Jesus said is probably inspired, and so any historically accurate and reliable report of what Jesus said has a very good chance of being inspired.
The main worry here is that even if you believe that Jesus was a reliable source of knowledge about God, you still need to account for all the intermediaries. We don’t have anything written by Jesus himself; so far as we know, his only writing was in the sand. (And that story is probably apocryphal, too.)
It seems to me, then, that we don’t get to trust Jesus at all unless we trust the Church at least a little bit. Could we ever trust the Bible more than we trust the Church? Or will it be the case that, functionally, the Church’s tradition and teaching has more authority for us than the actual New Testament documents?
The Protestants will be squirming here. Laura Smit has some interesting thoughts to help them out: http://laurasmit.com/posts/c-s-lewis-on-the-authority-of-scripture-vs-authority-of-tradition/
Q4. How do we evaluate whether this part or aspect of the book is part of the divine communication?
When Paul writes to Timothy asking him to bring him his cloak, it’s probably not a divine communication to us. So what exactly is God intending to communicate to us through the Bible?
I take the problem of hermeneutics (interpretation) to be fundamentally about discerning in what respects the Bible is a divine communication, not just a human one. For sometimes the divine authorship seems to come apart from the human authorship (like the cloak example). It’s also about bridging the gap between different audiences, different addressees of the message. How are the biblical texts addressed to us, and in what ways are they authoritative for us?
What I think: I’m not sure whether this question can be settled by any theoretical answer prepared in advance. Different texts are different. Meeting a new text is like meeting a new person. You can’t lay down rules ahead of time for how they will communicate to you. You just have to listen attentively and figure out what they’re like.
Q5. Is the Bible infallible?
What I think: I find that the language of infallibility and inerrancy tends to obfuscate more than enlighten, so I prefer not to use those terms. Instead, I prefer to frame the discussion in terms of double authorship.
It seems to me, in light of the foregoing discussion, that if we have reason to believe that X is a divine communication to us, then it must be correct. All the hard questions are in figuring out whether X is really part of the divine communication or not.
Stephen Mackereth ’15 lives in Mather House and concentrates in Mathematics and Philosophy. He is a former editor-in-chief of the Ichthus.