In recent months, I have become incredibly interested in the topic of Scriptural inspiration. It largely draws from studies in 1 Corinthians 2 and my growing conviction that 1 Cor. 2.6-16 is Paul describing the way that God’s wisdom emerges in the community, and not individual teachers and believers, in virtue of the Spirit’s diverse inspiration of various teachers and the mature to understand wisdom. While Paul’s account there is explicitly NOT an account of Scriptural inspiration, there is a certain idea that I found particularly compelling to consider for understanding Scriptural inspiration: that of collaborative inspiration of persons.
To understand what I mean by collaborative inspiration, it is first necessary to look at a similar concept of inspiration before I describe the account of collaborative inspiration. Thomas à Kempis wrote in his classic The Imitation of Christ that “TRUTH, not eloquence, is to be sought for in Holy Scripture. Each part of the Scripture is to be read with the same Spirit wherewith it was written.”1 In this account of inspiration, we find something that differs from many standard accounts of Scriptural inspiration today. Many understandings of inspiration consider the Scriptural text itself as inspired, with the implication that anyone who reads the Scriptures can then possess the truth. While the author is inspired, the reader doesn’t have to be inspired themselves to possess knowledge of the truth. Instead, can come to know the truth in virtue of rightly interpreting the Scriptures, which among the more dedicated and reflective readers of the Bible may lead to the question of Biblical hermeneutics. However, Kempis’ account of inspiration treats the inspiration of the reader as a necessary condition for understanding, not just the author. While Kempis does not expand this idea further, one can try to provide a model for what can explain Kempis’ account, although we do not need to treat the extrapolated accounts of necessarily being authentic to Kempis.
One way to develop this account is to suggest that the Holy Spirit influences the Scriptural reader to direct their understanding of the words in the right way so as to understand what the inspired author wrote. That is to state that a person can understand the truth from the Scriptures because the Spirit provides what is missing in the mind of the interpreter to make sense of the words that are given. My problem with this account, however, is that it treats the Scriptures essentially as containing a secret knowledge that can not be rightly understood at all (or at least, usually won’t be rightly interpreted if one imagines the uninspired persons are simply ignorant but not being actively hindered from understanding it) unless a person is inspired in their comprehension. It isn’t actually reading the words that provide the ability to comprehend the Scripture. Reading is largely a superfluous activity, but the Spirit comes in to provide the right reading. This feels a bit too much of a “God-of-the-gaps” for human cognitive and hermeneutics for me to be comfortable with the idea.
Another account is to suggest that the inspiration of the Spirit leads the reader to understand the same content as the author, but the inspiration does not come in the act of reading, but it comes through other events prior to reading, such as in prayer, service, or even as per Kempis work, imitating Christ. In this case, the act of reading and interpreting the Scriptures is instrumental for a person to come to a knowledge of the truth, but it can only be done successfully by the Spirit’s inspiration of the person in other parts of their life. I consider this a stronger account than the first model for that reason. In addition, it corresponds to what I deem to be the cause of Spiritual comprehension by the mature in 1 Cor. 2.15: the ethical formation of people by their behaviors that are consistent with the leading of the Spirit rather than working against the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 3.1-4; 6.14-20).
Nevertheless, I think this account falls short for another reason. The problem is with the idea that the purpose of the Scriptures is to provided truth. To be clear, I am NOT rejecting the idea that Scriptures convey something we can call the truth. However, notwithstanding the thorny philosophical problems that are connected to defining what exactly truth is, is a more pragmatic concern: knowledge almost never is SIMPLY about possessing truth. Most forms of knowledge in day to day life can be considered to generally provide other epistemic goods in addition to the epistemic good of truth. For instance, the knowledge that a therapist possesses does not simply help them to accurately understand the thoughts and feelings of their clients; it is also instrumental in helping their clients to change from old patterns into new patterns. The professional knowledge of a therapist provides not just truth but also effective action.
For a more religious example, the Sermon on the Mount is not generally considered to provide a true account of Jesus’ ethics. To simply be able to know ethical truths about God’s will and speak about them isn’t the intention of the Sermon on the Mount. One can simply speak such truths while lacking it in actions, such as the wolf in sheep’s clothing which uses the expression of the truth to cloak their destructive behaviors. Jesus’ words of wisdom should also deliver a sense of moral virtue that is consistent with the truth. And, it seems that the way Jesus distinguishes himself from the common hermeneutical practices (5.17-48) and religious practices (6.1-5) of the Pharisees and hypocrites does more than simply say “This is what is true” but can actively direct the audience to a form of knowledge that directs them to be different in their religious and moral behaviors.
In other words, while the Scriptures can convey knowledge truth,2 the Scriptures are normatively intended to provide more than just knowledge of the truth. It also provides knowledge that can direct people in wisdom, form people in virtue, provide comfort and direction in trying circumstances, etc. etc. Most evangelical accounts of inspiration tend to focus on the epistemic good of truth and overlook the rest.
This is where I can consider a collaborative inspiration fitting in: the inspiration of the Spirit provides the capacity for the interpretation of Scriptures to be direct towards the right epistemic goods, besides or in addition to truth. That is to state that an inspired interpreter is inspired to have the sort of knowledge from Scripture that delivers the epistemic goods that God purposes. An inspired interpreter does not simply reconstruct the thoughts of the inspired author, but rather uses what the author inspired for purposes that the author did not have directly in mind. In other words, the interpreters of Scripture are inspired in the usage and application of Scripture and knowledge that comes from Scripture.
Let me use Jesus’ teaching on divorce as an example. One can clearly see that Jesus teaches against divorce, describing divorce as causing of adultery (Matthew 5.31-32). However, in some very conservative, evangelical circles, they consider the Scriptures to provide an inspired knowledge of the truth, and they consider this form of knowledge to be in the form of as a universal moral rule that allows for no exception. If a woman is in an abusive marriage, they may be encouraged to remain in that marriage rather than getting out of it. For them, the Scriptures are inspired to provide truth, and then through their own ways of transforming the ethical truth into a universal moral rule, apply that knowledge is a way that supports marital abuse.
My account differs in that while the inspiration of the author makes the Scriptures reliable for coming to the truth, the interpreters are inspired to know how to use that knowledge in the appropriate ways that are consistent with God’s will and purposes. For instance, in 1 Cor. 7.10-11, Paul shows awareness of Jesus’ teaching about divorce. However, in 1 Cor. 7.12-16, Paul seems to allow an “exception” to Jesus’ teaching under conditions of an unbelieving spouse who leaves. What I would suggest, however, is that Paul isn’t making an exception, which assumes that Jesus’ ethical teaching on divorce should be understood as a universal moral precept. Rather, Paul considers the Spirit to be leading him to provide instruction about martial matters as he concludes his instructions on marriage in 1 Cor. 7 with the statement “I think that I too have the Spirit of God” in 7.40b. I take this to be Paul’s way of stating his authorization to present the teaching about marriage that he does from 7.12 to 7.40a: the Spirit has inspired him to provide ethical instructions regarding marriage, including providing freedom to the spouses of unbelievers that they are free if their spouse leaves. As Paul’s expression in 1 Cor. 7.12-16 has the knowledge of Jesus’ teaching in the immediate context, one can consider the Spirit to have inspired Paul in the application of Jesus’ teachings. In a similar, an inspired interpreter who recognizes God’s purposes for life could recognize that Jesus’ teaching on divorce should not be used in a way that compels such abuse for the sake of keeping a marriage together.
However, I want to clarify my point here. My model for understanding the inspiration of the interpreter by the Spirit is not that the Spirit simply provides a specific application of Scriptural knowledge. One can come to the conclusion that Jesus’ teachings on divorce should not apply to situations of abuse based on some other form of moral reasoning that doesn’t necessitate the inspiration of the Spirit. For instance, one can interpret Jesus’ norms against the background of a consequentialist ethic that considers the consequences of when and where one applies Jesus’s teaching on divorce, coming to the conclusion that it is wrong because it leads to an evil result in perpetuating abuse. Rather, the Spirit inspires the interpreter to recognize good and evil in a more expanded sense by teaching them to recognize and pursue God’s purposes. The Spirit inspires the interpreter of Scripture to comprehend the larger vision of God’s will that the Scriptures testify to, rather than just getting the application right in a specific circumstance or type of circumstance.
This vision of inspiration can apply to more than just ethical application, however. It can also provide a basis for biblical theology and theological exegesis. Understanding the meaning of a specific passage or even a specific book, which is the task of traditional exegesis, is different from connecting the interpretations of various parts of Scripture together to a coherent whole. On the assumption that God did inspire the various producers of the whole canon of Scripture for the Christian tradition and that this inspiration included true beliefs about God, then the diversity of portrayals of God throughout the Scripture can be considered to be able to be brought together into a coherent understanding. The account of collaborative inspiration would suggest that the authors of Scripture did not have to have the larger, coherent account in mind to communicate within the specific communicative situation, but that in virtue of God’s inspiration, their inspired communication can be regarded as consistent with that of another person’s inspired communication, even if the way to hold the accounts as consistent may not be easily or readily apparent. However, an inspired interpreter could have the ability to make sense of the whole that the original authors of Scripture did not. In so doing, their inspiration provides a form of truth and knowledge that is (a) entirely dependent upon the Scriptures and its interpretation but (b) is not reducible to the Scriptures and its interpretation.
However, once again, this account of inspiration does not state that the Spirit provides a theological account of the whole Scripture and knowledge of God. One might consider it possible that a person who is not inspired to come to an understanding of the Scriptures as a whole can still derive true beliefs about the Scripture. However, it is the Spirit who provides a deeper sense of understanding of God and God’s will that enables theological exegesis.
The distinction I am making between the getting the right ethical application of Scripture of a right theological interpretation and the Spirit who inspires people to understand of God and God’s will that determines the way they interpret the Scriptures is that the inspiration of the latter is reliable in a way that people in the former conditions can not be. Put differently, the uninspired interpreter may get the right application of theological understanding in virtue of some reason other than understanding God, which means that the rightness of their interpretations and applications are contingent upon how much their other reason corresponds to God.
For instance, let’s assume the doctrine of the Trinity is true and an uninspired reader, whether a believer or an unbeliever, and believes the New Testament is rightly understood through the lens of the Trinity. Their knowledge about the Trinity in the abstract sense will impact how they interpret the references to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. However, if the Spirit has inspired a person to understand God in a Trinitarian manner in a more concrete way that resembles God’s own self-knowledge, the way that they might interpret those same references will differ in virtue of their concrete rather that differs from the abstract form of knowledge of the Trinity. In this case, we can imagine that the inspired interpreter will be more reliable than the uninspired interpreter.
To conclude, the reason this account is a collaborative account is that the inspired interpreter is absolutely dependent upon the inspired communicators of Scripture. The Spirit does not provide them a form of knowledge or wisdom that makes them independent of the priests, prophets, apostles, witnesses who were inspired in their communication. They don’t get a God’s-eye view of the God and the world that allows them to judge the inspired communicators of Scripture and accept or dismiss them in virtue of having some criteria of truth to make such a differentiation. A person that God inspires in interpretation is always dependent upon God’s inspiration of other persons. Furthermore, a collaborative account recognizes that the inspired interpreter may bring something new to the table from God that can not be reduced to what the Scriptures say.
However, what is brought “new” isn’t necessarily some new, big idea that everyone needs to accept to be faithful to God part from situation and circumstance, but it is a newness that is for the specific range of situations and circumstances that God intends. While, hypothetically, God could provide a new revelation that all believers should accept, I would say from my own personal feeling and thinking that God’s inspiration is primarily focused on bringing something new not on a universal scale but to specific circumstances and needs. In other words, to be an inspired interpreter is not to have a wide, sweeping epistemic authority across various people that should be accepted, but that God is bringing about His will and purposes within a specific context or contexts through the Spirit’s inspiration of an interpreter.
Finally, this view of inspiration still allows for the role of interpretation of the Scripture through traditional hermeneutical principles and the possibility that they can be instrumental in getting at a right or true interpretation. The inspired interpreter isn’t necessarily getting the true knowledge as directly expressed in Scriptures in virtue of their inspiration, but rather the application of the Scripture as a different epistemic good or the theological comprehension of Scripture as a different type of truth than the form of truth expressed in Scripture. It does not rule out the role of education and learning in some sort of anti-intellectual aversion, but it does place a fence around the role that education can and does have in the interpretation of Scripture for the purposes of God’s Kingdom.
- Incidentally, John Wesley quotes Kempis in a personal letter to a Rev. Dean (John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 12, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 464).
- However, as a brief aside, I am a pluralist that recognizes there are different types of knowledge that can all be legitimately described as true. For a brief, illustrative example, both “John is tired” and “Tired people need sleep” can both be considered true, but in virtue of them being different types of propositions (the first being specific, the other generic), the conditions that make such propositions true are significantly different.