Sunday, July 13, 2008

On the Inspiration of Scripture

Another gem from Father Tobias Haller:

Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but it is always written in a human tongue. People do not speak God’s language, or have God’s knowledge, so God, when speaking to people through inspiration, must employ the human language of the culture and time of the one inspired, in order to impart any knowledge at all. God always “talks down” to us, and our finite human capacity always limits how well we understand the infinite God, and express that understanding. One cannot put the ocean in a bottle; and new wineskins must be used for new wine. As Jesus himself would later say, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13)

The inspired recipients of God’s word in Genesis believed the sky to consist of a dome, in which the sun, moon, and stars were set, and which had windows to admit the rain stored in the pool of waters above. God, of course, knew that this was not true, literally or in any other sense, but the minds of those God inspired could have no place to hold such concepts as gravity and freely floating planets, stars and moons — or that the earth was not stationary at the center of a revolving universe. They had the evidence of their senses to the contrary, and would not, as Jesus would later say, have been able to “bear” the truth. So God communicated to them in a language that did not seem outrageous to them, that met their expectations, and explained and ratified what they perceived. The primary truth God intended to convey, after all, was not a literal account of the composition of the cosmos, but the theological principle that God is the creator of all that is.

In the same way, the accounts in Genesis 2 through 4 do not present a literal history of the first human beings, but a theologically relevant account, God’s word designed to explain truths to people in keeping with what they perceived, within their time and place — to address the really big questions to which the account provides the answers: primarily, why is it that people do wrong things; why do they die; why do they marry; and why should a perfectly natural thing like childbirth be so painful.



Read it here and join an interesting conversation.

7 comments:

Gary said...

Jesus, all of the Old Testament saints (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, et al) and every New Testament writer believed that Genesis was literal history. They disagree with the writer, and so do I. If Genesis is not historical, then the remainder of the Bible, including everything Jesus said, makes no sense.

Tobias Haller said...

Gary,
If your parents tell you about Santa Claus bringing you presents as a child, and then later you discover there is no Santa Claus, do you distrust your parents on everything else?

When the world was young, God "spoke in many and various ways through the prophets" (Heb 1:1) but later through the Son. Jesus, the Son, used parables -- or do you think these are literal accounts, too?

Like Father, like Son.

Gary said...

Tobias,

Telling me about Santa Clause was not necessary for me to understand where my Christmas presents came from. Even though I was a child, I would have understood just as well had I been told the truth.

Those people in Genesis were very intelligent. Adam may well have been the smartest man who ever lived, except for Jesus Christ. God would not have had to hide the truth from them, or from Moses, who wrote Genesis.

Those in the Bible who possessed faith based their lives and theology and staked their eternal destiny on the historical accuracy of Genesis. Genesis is the foundation for all of the doctrine and theology in the Bible.

Tobias Haller said...

Gary,
Since Genesis wasn't written until Moses wrote it, how could it be the basis of the faith? Abraham had faith, because he knew God, not because he had read the Bible, which didn't exist until centuries later. Its historical accuracy is irrelevant to salvation.

And if it were, how are we to explain that the sky isn't a solid dome, or the discrepancies between Genesis 1 and 2? I think God gave us the discrepancies in the two creation accounts precisely to make it clear that this wasn't to be taken literally. Either the animals were made before mankind (as per Genesis 1) or after (as per Genesis 2). Moses includes both stories of creation for their value in teaching different things: 1) that God is creator of the whole universe; and 2) that it is not good for humans to be alone.

Gary said...

Tobias,

I'm sorry, but I don't have time right now to properly answer your last post. But I would like to say that for a fictional man, Adam sure did have a lot of heirs (see Luke 2:23-38). Quite an accomplishment for a myth!

Riley Stone said...

Very interesting post and very interesting blog! I am a former Christian (now an atheist), and my husband is a Christian. (A Lutheran, although we both started out as evangelical, fundamentalist Christians.) My husband and I have been discussing this very issue lately. His current position is that not all of the Bible is inspired by God. I think this perspective (and your perspective) demonstrates a degree of kindness and compassion that is not allowed by other views of the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, I do have to agree with the poster who pointed to the genealogies provided at least the book of Matthew. As I asked my husband recently, if the Old Testament stories were not historical, why did the author of Matthew seem to think that they were? Surely he would not point to genealogies if he thought that Adam, Abraham, etc., were characters in a story. It seems to me that not only did the author of at least Matthew believe that the entire Hebrew Bible was intended as a historical narrative, but Jesus himself (who quoted Deuteronomy repeatedly in the book of Matthew) viewed these books as historical.

Anyway--interesting discussion and commentary! Thank you! If you'd ever like to weigh in on this issue at the Atheist-Christian marriage forum I've set up, please do! The password for participation is "discuss."

Tobias Haller said...

Riley, I don't for a moment doubt that the people living in NT times and writing those scriptures believed that the accounts of the creation in Genesis were historical. (They overlooked the contradictions in detail between Genesis 1 and 2, but no doubt thought these were "history.") Just as, as I pointed out in the original post, they thought the sun went around the earth.

Questions about the "historicity" of the biblical account begins to be raised seriously in relatively more recent times. (Though there is a wonderful debate in the Talmud among rabbis as to whether the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones is historical or a parable.)

There is a difference, in the long run, between "facts" and "truth." The "Truth" of the Bible isn't so much about the details -- even the Gospel has some disagreements about who was crucified with Christ; though there's no doubt he was crucified. More importantly, Christians believe that his crucifixion was more than a fact -- that it had and has cosmic significance.