Inspiration and Interpretation 1

For many people in my context, the science / faith relationship directly touches people’s views of the Bible. In particular, scientific questions and discoveries push people to clarify how they read the Bible (interpretation), and how they think God relates to the Bible (inspiration). This outcome is to be expected, since both the Bible and science — natural science especially — refer to the same world, and to some of the same features of the world.

As people work through the Bible / science relationship, however, it is not infrequently that a confusion arises: many people of Christian faith confuse inspiration and interpretation. In short, many of them think that the inspiration of biblical passages is the same thing as their current way of reading and applying those passages. As a consequence, they might resist different ways of reading the Bible as threats to, or denials of, inspiration.

Inspiration. When reading the Bible and various biblical-theological works, “inspiration” can refer to the wide variety of ways in which God is believed to relate to the biblical writings. For instance, the word “inspiration” might refer to God’s relationship to the writing of a particular passage. It might also refer to the belief that God continues to use these writings from the past to convey messages and meanings in the present. I include both of these angles in my use of the word “inspiration” here.

In general, as you read through the Bible, you will notice two features relevant for how you imagine God inspiring various passages. (1) The Bible is not one writing, but a collection of writings with varying literary genres: e.g., narratives, genealogies, hymn-poems, laws, wisdom-poems, prophetic oracles, and more. However you think about God inspiring the biblical writings, this variety of genres needs to be accounted for. God’s inspiration of one genre may not work the same way as his inspiration of another genre. This is especially so when you consider the second feature.


God’s inspiration of one genre may not work the same way as his inspiration of another genre.


(2) While some biblical writings make claims for God’s relationship to their origin, many of them make no such claims. So, for instance, you will read passages in which God speaks to Moses and Moses speaks to Israel and/or writes down for Israel what he has heard (Exodus 24:3-4). You will read passages that report God speaking to a king (1 Kings 11:9-13) or a prophet (Jeremiah 1:4ff.). These passages present one form that inspiration may have taken.

Numerous biblical passages make no claims that God told an author which words to speak or write. As an exercise in noticing this feature, when you read various narratives, psalms, and proverbs, to name a few examples, you will see how often the narrative is just simply told, or the psalm presented, or the proverb given, without any reference to how God related specifically to the author’s own thoughts and actions. Is this to deny God’s action or influence in relation to what has been written? No. It is to engage thoughtfully with the passages as they present themselves to the reader.

In my experience, many believers obligate themselves to singular views of inspiration, imagining that God inspired different biblical passages in much the same way each time. The biblical writings themselves resist this view: not only because most of them do not specify God’s inspiring activity, but also because the biblical writings portray God acting in the world in so many ways, using so many means and agents, that it becomes hard to appreciate why Christians would think that God would resort to one way only of inspiring numerous writings composed of numerous differing genres. Is this a case of simplifying one’s view of God to make God — and belief in God — more manageable?


It becomes hard to appreciate why Christians would think that God would resort to one way only of inspiring numerous writings composed of numerous differing genres.


Even New Testament passages that address the inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21) do not require a singular view of God’s inspiring activity. So, when Paul describes Scripture as “inspired by God” or “God-breathed,” he does not specify how God inspired or breathed into the various messages contained in Scripture. Similarly, when 2 Peter 1:21 (in referring just to prophecy, mind you) describes the prophets as “moved” (NRSV) or “carried along” (ESV) by the Holy Spirit, how they are moved or carried along is neither specified, nor limited to one form of activity on God’s part.

When Christians respond to scientific discoveries, questions, and claims, then, they have options available to them for thinking about the inspiration of the Bible in relation to science. Moreover, if Christians witness other Christians relating the Bible to science differently than they do, they should not conclude that those other Christians are denying the inspiration of the Bible. For one, this is a logical error: reading something differently is not the same thing as denying God’s role in its origin and ongoing use.


If Christians witness other Christians relating the Bible to science differently than they do, they should not conclude that those other Christians are denying the inspiration of the Bible.


For two, this response is hasty, immature, poorly thought out, and potentially manipulative: the Christian who thinks this way may be drawing “heresy lines,” making decisions about which Christians are on God’s side, and which ones are compromising. Not that Christians should never concern themselves with defining God’s side. But it is awfully convenient when Christians who classify other Christians in these ways always wind up on the right side, while people who read the Bible differently wind up on the opposing side, effectively amid God’s enemies. Convenient indeed. And self-serving. It makes one wonder what these response are really about. Are they really about truth as such, or about self-validation?

Commitment to the inspiration of the Bible should include a commitment to a God whose inspiring work is inexhaustibly creative and resourceful. A small view of inspiration may reflect a small view of God. And if, in response to science, Bible readers never let a text say something that they do not like, it may not be a commitment to inspiration that drives them, but a commitment to keeping God and the Bible in place so as not to disrupt, disorient, and inconvenience their beliefs. Could it be, though, that science is one of God’s gifts to do these very things to us, so that our views of him do not sit still and stagnate into idols that do not demand anything new of us?


Continued in “Inspiration and Interpretation 2.”

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