Sunday, March 22, 2009

Verbal Inspiration (1)

In setting out his doctrine of Scripture, Wayne Grudem asserts that "all the words in Scripture are God's words". That's a pretty typical (albeit very brief) statement of the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. The doctrine states that the very words of Scripture - not merely the message they convey, or the impression they make - come from God. This is stated in such a way that it does not in any way deny human agency (i.e. many different human authors wrote the Bible), or the fact that it is the message conveyed that is primarily important. Nevertheless, the doctrine asserts that not only the content of the message but also the form of the message - the words, grammatical arrangements and the like in which that message comes to us - is arranged by God and finds its ultimate source in him.

I take issue with the way this doctrine is often applied in evangelicalism today. But that is not my concern right now. Right now, I take issue with those who attack this doctrine without understanding what they are doing in undermining people's faith in Scripture. The doctrine of verbal inspiration performs a very important role in theology. I'd like to illustrate in a very roundabout way that will occupy several posts and will probably initially seem like it's wandering into hopeless irrelevance. Hope that's okay.

Our journey begins in Deuteronomy 4. Moses is reminding the Israelites of their experience at Sinai, and in the course of his discourse he says a number of interesting things - you'd best read the whole chapter, but I want to pull out a couple of remarks. Firstly, Moses says "You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord" (v2). Then he points out "You heard the sound of words (at Sinai), but saw no form; there was only a voice" (v12). And then this becomes the rationale for avoiding idolatry: "Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you... beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourself..." (vv15,16).

The gist of the passage is this: Israel must keep God's words in their entirety - no addition or subtraction - and they must avoid making an image of the God they have not seen.

What is particularly interesting from our point of view is that it is not difficult to see the same issue behind the two parts of this exhortation. If you add to or subtract from God's words, you are allowing your own preference, imagination (pious or wicked) or priorities to over-ride the concrete message delivered to you, and therefore the information that has been conveyed to you about God. Similarly, if you make an image of God, given that you don't know what he looks like, it will inevitably be shaped according to your own preference, imagination or priorities.

The principle is this: you are dependent on revelation to know about God, and that revelation comes to you in such a concrete, solid form that you are not permitted to use your imagination. In this sphere, your creative faculties must be chastened and restrained, or you will be an idolater.

See where this is going over the next couple of days...

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