God’s Word, human words

I have these two different books that offer to teach me how to understand the human and divine nature of the Bible.

The first, and most recent, is Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible. Here is an extended quotation in which he sums up his views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture:

I’ve suggested in this chapter that inspiration is not dictation but divine influence, on both the writer and the readers. I’ve suggested that divine influence on the writers was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences us by the Spirit today. The difference between biblical texts and some contemporary writers also influenced by the Spirit is that the biblical authors lived closer to the events of which they wrote, their writings served as instruments through which God spoke to the community of faith over long periods of time, and these writings are the founding documents of our faith. This view allows us to value the Bible, to hear God speaking through it, yet gives us permission to ask questions of the biblical text and to recognize that some things taught in scripture may not represent God’s character nor his will for us today, and perhaps never accurately captured God’s will.

The second passage comes from John Stott, who unfortunately does not have Hamilton’s habit of writing summary paragraphs that capture his major points in one nice bundle. But his discussion of the nature of Scripture in his book Between Two Worlds does highlight some of the contrast with the vision of the Bible that Hamilton develops in his book.

To define Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’ says little if anything, however, about the human agents through whom God spoke and through whom his Word was written down. Hence, the need for the qualification I said was necessary. When God spoke, his normal method was not to shout in an audible voice out of a clear blue sky. Inspiration is not dictation. Instead he put his Word into human minds and human mouths in such a way that the thoughts they conceived and the words they spoke were simultaneously and completely theirs as well as his. Inspiration was not in any way incompatible with either their historical researches or the free use of their minds. It is essential, therefore, if we are to be true to the Bible’s own account of itself, to affirm its human as well as divine authorship. Yet we must be careful to state the double authorship of the Bible (again, if we are to be true to the Bible’s own self-understanding) in such a way as to maintain both the divine and the human factors, without allowing either to detract from the other. On the one hand, the divine authorship did not override the human authorship; on the other, the human authorship did not override the divine inspiration.

It is probably not inconsequential to the differences in emphasis between Stott and Hamilton that Hamilton’s book starts with questions raised by people about the Bible and how we should read it. Stott, in contrast, starts by speaking of convictions of God and God’s activity before drawing some conclusions about the nature of Scripture from this theocentric point-of-view. Also likely important is the fact that Stott’s book is for preachers and Hamilton’s is for a general audience.

If Fundamentalists — whom both Stott and Hamilton distance themselves from — place an over-emphasis on the divine action in bringing Scripture into existence and secularists reject any divine action, then we can see both Stott and Hamilton trying to find a Chalcedonian balancing point. I hear Hamilton leaning more toward human agency with his democratic pneumatology.


8 thoughts on “God’s Word, human words

  1. I was chewing on some of this yesterday. (There is a group in my Church which wants to do a study on Hamilton’s book. I admit I have only skimmed it.) The thought I had was that it maybe isn’t very helpful to talk about how the Bible is inspired, how it is divine and human, etc. What is more helpful is maybe to talk about the relationship of Scripture and revelation. Scripture testifies authoritatively to revelation (God’s revelation of himself to Moses and Israel’s prophets, the revelation of Jesus Christ in the flesh). It is not itself the revelation of God (as a contrast, for example, the Qu’ran is the revelation of God for Muslims).

    It surprised me as I had this thought that the idea of revelation is not always at the forefront of these discussions, whereas that of inspiration is. The temptation seems to be to offer some articulation of ‘inspiration’ as an antidote to the more “Qu’ranic” approach of fundamentalists (“the Bible is the revelation of God”), rather than offering a different emphasis on what we mean by revelation, that God reveals by speaking through Moses, his prophets, and finally his Son, and not through a text which he delivers to us. The text of scripture preserves and testifies to these revelations. The idea of a revelation on God’s part which precedes the testimony on our part seems to me significantly less fungible than ‘inspiration’ while also equally un-fundamentalist.

    1. Your point about making a distinction between revelation and inspiration is a good one. But I don’t think it removes all the questions about to what extent is Scripture a reliable witness to revelation? IF we limit Jesus as the entire revelation in the NT, then what do we make of Acts, the epistles, and Revelation. These are all outgrowths of the revelation of Jesus, but not in the same way the gospels are. So, how do we sort that out?

      Stott speaks to the revelation/inspiration divide in his book by arguing that God acted and spoke but that his revelation would have been lost to us if God did not also provide for the writing down of what we have as scripture. He argues the Bible is necessary for the goal of having the revelation reported throughout time and space beyond the specific time and place in which it happened.

      If this is true, we would expect some degree of special work of the Holy Spirit here.

      Hamilton’s case that the Holy Spirit works in us exactly the same way the Spirit worked in Paul or Matthew or Isaiah strikes me as a radical proposal in many ways. It certainly would tend to de-privilege Scripture. If it is the same Holy Spirit process, then why would we assume proximity to Jesus is a requirement for faithful witness to Jesus, for instance?

      1. Hmmm.
        So Hamilton thinks divine revelation is possible today?
        Hamilton believes there are “seers” today?
        To de-privilege scripture would mean we must have a Moses an Apostle Peter or Paul or two around somewhere.

        You would also have to believe the dead can rise today, man can be struck down dead by the words spoken by man ( as Peter did) , the sick are healed instantly because that is what the Apostles were able to do.
        Those things are not happening today.

        1. This is perhaps where the distinction between revelation and inspiration is important. Hamilton appears to be arguing for inspiration being ongoing not special revelation.

  2. I have my reservations about putting too much emphasis on modern writers attempt to explain the prophets writing of the Holy Word. The prophets of scripture give an account of where their words come from

    The problem is
    1. Explanations about the prophesy received by the prophets are given by the prophets themselves .Less weight is given to the prophets explanation than is given to others who try to explain what the prophets themselves have already given explanation for.

    2. Most of the questioning of scripture, its authenticity accuracy and origin has been dealt with at the great councils of the church. These challenges are not knew. The challenges are old. The challenges have been addressed and settles and yet modern writers write as if these challenges are new to the Christian Church.

    From 1918
    For this reason the great prophets also depended largely upon dreams and visions, at least in their consecration to the prophetic mission, when one solemn act was necessary. After that the message itself and its new moral content set the soul of the prophet astir. Not the vision or its imagery, but the new truth itself seizes him with irresistible force, so that he is carried away by the divine power and speaks as the mouthpiece of God, using lofty poetic diction while in a state of ecstasy. Hence he speaks of God in the first person. The highest stage of all is that where the prophet receives the divine truth in the form of pure thought and with complete self-consciousness. Therefore the Scripture says of Moses and of no other, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to another.
    Jewish Theology
    Systematically and Historically Considered Kohler

    The Chalcedonian Creed or “Two-Nature Doctrine”, was adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

    1. Your point Number 2 strikes most home with me. The church has confronted and answered most of these questions long ago. That does not mean the church might not be in need of reform — but it should always be reform toward rather than away from the apostolic witness.

  3. “The astonishing statement that the Bible is his Word has been called an axiom. But it is such only in its logical form…the truth of the statement stands or falls with the reality of this sovereign act preceding from God and authenticated by him.” (Karl Barth, cited by Billy Abraham, Canon and Criterion, page 371) The accent should fall on “preceding form God and authenticated by him.” Never preach anything less…

    1. Wasn’t it Barth who also said, “God has spoken. The rest is commentary.” ? If not, he should have 🙂

      We all submit to something. I think the Bible is worth submitting to. Call it what one will – inspired, inerrant, infallible, revelation, whatever – but I have found it true, pure, good, reliable, holy and creative in my life. As Wesley said, God has condescended to put the way to heaven down in a book. Give me that book! At any price, give me that book!

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