12 September 2008

Inspired or Inerrant?

Just how ecstatic do we have to be to use the word "inspired" when we talk about what we do in obedience of the Holy Spirit? Just how letter-perfect do our words have to be before we can trust them to be from God? The reason I'm asking is that as a Friend, I am accustomed to sitting next to ordinary people in meeting who stand and speak as prompted by the Holy Spirit. To me, this is what "inspiration" is all about--a motivation by the influence of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ to respond to an immediate leading with a thought, word or action, as directed by the Spirit. But they are often somewhat ordinary about it.

Back in the old days, ordinary Quakers flopped on the floor and foamed at the mouth under "inspiration." Some still do, I suppose, but it isn't routine by any means, at least where I live. But I know people who do suddenly have things to say in meeting that are clearly directed by outside supernatural forces. Or they walk up to my wife and say things that seem incomprehensible but which mean something to her. This is what I know of as inspiration in the real world. I believe that this inspiration is the same as that granted the apostles, and as far as I know may be granted to a modern Friend in the same measure.

But I don't think it follows that inspiration from the Holy Spirit requires inerrancy in the delivery of the inspired Friend's message. When a minister in my meeting stands to speak, she does so with a distinct Ohio accent, and her words are constructed out of the cultural context of the Ohio River Valley, in the eastern United States. She may make an inspired point that is True while using imperfect grammar, or she may later write an inspired letter that contains spelling mistakes. Her inspired words may illustrate a point using an incorrect knowledge of fact or circumstance. It's the letter that's inspired, not the envelope.

Likewise, when a first century epistle writer sat down at a table, it's clear that he wrote using the vocabulary and cultural framework of a first-century Christian. This epistle writer might have written an inspired book that was preserved as Scripture for the future, but which reflected his contemporary knowledge of factual matters that we know more about today. Those mistakes don't make the words or writings of the author any less inspired, or any less True, in the areas in which he was ministering--just human. An imperfect implement, but good enough for the task.

I've written elsewhere about the inarguable fact that Christian Scripture contains errors of geography, history, and science. The errors are easy to find, and the fact that they're there doesn't impress me. The point that I want to make is that these errors do not in any way by themselves render Scripture uninspired, or faulty, or without the value given it by the Holy Spirit. Just as a Quaker minister may misidentify the species of a bird in a parable about God, a Jewish author might misidentify a mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds, or a Greek writer misquote an Old Testament prophet, in an account where that information is not the point.

Many times people attack inerrancy by assembling lists of various Scriptural errors or inconsistencies, and then trot them out to say that because Scripture is erroneous in these small details, it must be untrustworthy in a larger context. They often wrangle with people who defend inerrancy, who themselves say that if Scripture is believed to be capable of errors in details, then it can't be trusted in a larger context. The arguments work from the same assumption--that Scriptural Truth depends on inerrancy. As I see it, the value of Scripture as the inspired words of God do not rise and fall on unrelated errors or the writer's lack of a modern education.

My faith in the message of the Scriptures isn't shaken by the many minor internal inconsistencies or the contradictions with modern knowledge, because I don't expect them to be perfect or treat them as a science textbook. Likewise for geography, or history. Their value is elsewhere. I believe the messages are True, so I don't worry about the little stuff that crept in here and there, or the hiccups in the delivery. This is hard for some Christians to accept, because they have been taught to look to a Book for the direction they need, instead of the Author patiently standing next to them, waiting for them to notice.

But I think it's what we're called to. So I don't sweat the small stuff.

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