On Biblical Inspiration and Human Freedom

It is very difficult to talk or write about the inspiration of Scripture – how it is that God speaks to us through the canonical texts of the Bible – as, for one thing, inspiration is in and of itself a process that is unavoidably mysterious to us; and for another, it is one of those areas in which many people have constructed theories and set criteria of their own, and cling tightly to them. Therefore, before I begin to examine the question of how Scripture is divinely inspired, and attempt to provide an answer of my own, I shall provide some criteria which, hopefully, should not be too controversial:

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4)

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.

Dei Verbum, 11.

            The above statement emphasises both the divine authorship of the canonical books, and the use made by God of genuinely free human beings to do so. These are boundary conditions that, I hope, anyone who takes seriously the divine inspiration of Scripture would recognise, and that can therefore act as a good starting point for discussing the mode of that inspiration. God, as Dei Verbum makes clear, is the primary author of all that is in the canonical books of the Bible (which books one recognises as such does not matter for the present discussion), and used men to write what He wanted known, though they remained themselves ‘true authors’.

This of course does not cover how it was that the Holy Spirit inspired men to write what God wanted to reveal to us whilst maintaining them in their true freedom – i.e.; not compromising their role as genuine cooperators. It cannot be possible that the human writers of Scripture were slaves of the Spirit, dictated to, and not engaging the full range of their critical and creative faculties, as this would compromise the incarnational aspect of scriptural inspiration – God chose to work with men in this work, and that requires allowing them to be fully themselves in the process.

Essentially, as Dei Verbum continues, ‘God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion’ (12), and ‘the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men’ (13). There is a real analogy here between the condescension of God that we see in the Incarnation, and His condescension to speak to us in and through human modes of expression; and, just as doing justice to the human and divine elements in the Hypostatic Union requires a fine balancing act, so does any assessment of the mode of biblical inspiration.

One of the most difficult things to get around when trying to discern the relationship between human forms of speech and the divinely revealed message within them is the heterogeneity of the Bible – it contains numerous different types of literature, and therefore care must be taken to understand what precisely is being said through the genre of writing we have before us. Truth is communicated differently in poetry (e.g.; the Psalms) than in history (e.g.; 1 Samuel – 2 Kings), the way the Prophets express themselves is different to the way the Evangelists describe the events of Our Lord’s earthly life, and there are many stylistic changes within particular books that need to be appreciated before we can satisfactorily uncover their meaning.

On top of this though, which is something any responsible interpretation of the Bible must take into consideration, many of the biblical writings are beset by apparent contradictions (the Gospels are a case in point here, as they provide us with four different perspectives on one life), some are quite frankly rather dull and (in superficial terms) uninspiring, and many are decidedly unsystematic – the epistles of Saint Paul are the best example of this, in which a great deal of theological treasure is transmitted to us in language that veers between the sublime and the intractable. The disorderliness of much of the Bible’s texts seems therefore a very good place from which to examine the relationship between God’s infallible word and the human means He uses to deliver them.

The messiness and occasionally prosaic nature of many passages, as well as, in the case of Saint Paul particularly, the rapid changes of pace, style and subject matter that can make for rather difficult reading, are evidence of how much God values the personality of each biblical writer – their temperament, learning, life experience, background; everything that makes a person who they are – and so how much He values their free cooperation in the process of writing Scripture. In other words, it is clear from the wide variety of writings we have in the Bible that God wanted to speak to us in very human terms, and did not wish to compromise the human contribution to His speaking by dictating to the writers or in any way compromising their personalities.

Moreover, if we appreciate that this is the way God wanted to reveal Himself in the Bible, then it may shed some light on how He ensured that His word was delivered through those very distinct, very human, personalities. For, if God wanted to use Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Moses, Isaiah, etc, to deliver His word, knowing that the full range of their personalities would go into the content of their writings, it follows that He chose these people precisely because of their personalities – i.e.; He elected Saint Paul because he was exactly the sort of person who would write the sort of letters that God wanted written; He elected Isaiah because his personality rendered him more open to the prophetic message than others.

If this is the case, we cannot then write off certain passages in Scripture because they were ‘just’ part of the cultural influences or personal preferences that shaped the writers view of the world, as it is precisely that complex matrix of influences that went into the writer’s view of the world that God wanted, so that His word might ‘flow’ through their character and perspective. We must, in interpreting Scripture, take cultural influences into account, so that we might better understand what the writers’ intentions were, but we must only do this to deepen and enrich our understanding of what God is thereby saying to us; we cannot use those cultural differences as excuses to ignore difficult teachings.

Nature and grace are not at odds; rather, grace perfects nature, building on what is already there – this is just as much the case with biblical inspiration as with anything else in God’s work of salvation. We can say that the biblical writers had their faculties augmented in some way, made more open to Truth and the working of Providence around them, their vision clarified and their will purified, but it is still very much their faculties being elevated, their thought that God chose to express His word. Grace never destroys what is there already in nature – instead it converts, redeems, transfigures; and most importantly of all, it never acts in opposition to the free will of the subject.

Thus, the writing of Scripture can actually be seen as part of the larger work of God’s bringing together a People for His own purposes, of the Holy Spirit drawing together a wide range of people with different and complementary talents in order to perpetuate that great work started in the Incarnation; in essence, the writing of Scripture is but one part of the work of building and growing the Church. The biblical writers are not performing isolated acts, inspired in a context separate from the rest of the Christian phenomenon, but are men chosen by God for their particular personalities and gifts, and consciously writing to build up an already existent Body of Christ.

When we see it in these corporate, ecclesial terms, the process of biblical inspiration becomes something much more understandable (albeit as unexpected as the rest of the New Covenant) – it is part of an organic process wherein God uses the people He has brought together in Christ to become co-workers in the act of communicating His word and bringing redemption to the world. It is because the biblical writers are genuine partners in God’s work that the writings we have are so very human; but it is also seeing them in this context that gives us confidence that it is really God speaking to us through these writers, as this is the way God works and has done in all His dealings with the world – He is a God that is always willing to come down to our level, and also always keen that we work with Him.

One final though on the manner in which Scripture is written, and how God’s word reaches us through it is that having so much of the Bible be messy, dull, hurried, etc is actually of great benefit to us. If we instead had been given a Bible that was basically a book of systematic theology and elegantly written histories, how much would we then really dig into it? The very fact that there are surface contradictions between different authors forces us to look more closely at what they are saying in order to find the resolution that we know exists, as they are both speaking God’s Truth; the fact that Saint Paul sometimes writes in a dense, obscure way, requires us to really wrestle with the essence of what he is trying to communicate, and thereby gain a richer understanding of it.

As all Scripture is divinely inspired, there is bound to be layer after layer of meaning which we, the reader, can uncover in it. If we had been given a neat, ordered series of texts, the chances are that many of us would read through it once or twice, and then treat it as a reference book to occasionally consult, but not really engage with. With the text we actually have though, we are forced to get stuck into it and struggle with the differences and the obscurity; to look past the occasional dullness and discover a deeper meaning to the passage. Thus it seems that God’s commitment to working with the messiness of human nature is not just humility on His part, but a great kindness and benefit to us – He speaks to us on our terms not just so that our freedom can be respected, but because this is the best way for us to draw close to Him.


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