I grew up in a church where 2 Timothy 3:16 was almost as important as John 3:16. It declares, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” This verse was quoted regularly to defend the divine authority of every word in our Bible. The obvious problem here is the author was not referring to the New Testament, as the only Bible that existed at the time was what Christians now call the Old Testament. The second problem is there’s no single unified theory on what divine inspiration means in Christianity. The third problem is trusting in the divine inspiration of Scripture is much more complex than believing God told the authors what to write and “poof”—there was the Bible.
Trusting in the divine inspiration of Scripture means trusting in the divine inspiration and leading of many people and processes over a long period of time.
It means trusting for almost 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection that God’s Spirit was guiding the early Christian communities as they passed on the Gospel message of Jesus, stories of his life and his teachings, orally. It means trusting that over the span of a century numerous human beings were led by God’s Spirit to write new sacred texts for “people of the way.” It also means trusting that God had a reason for not safekeeping any of these original manuscripts as we have none today.
It means trusting that God guided the messy process of increasing numbers of people copying these texts over centuries so the Church would have enough material to discern the essence of the original manuscripts later in history. It means trusting God’s movement through this process even though we know many scribes made mistakes and some scribes made intentional changes.
It means trusting the Holy Spirit guided and moved through the conflicted proceedings of men debating, researching and deciding which books should be included in our Bible, knowing these bishops, scholars, priests and church leaders were endowed with a great deal of authority and at times engaged in ongoing power plays to ensure their version of competing Christian views “won” in the end.
It means trusting that God guided this centuries-long canonization process even though virtually no women were involved, suggesting the male-dominated “worldly” culture influenced this process more than the culture of equality Jesus had christened his Church with.
To trust in the reliability, authority and inspiration of Scripture is to trust that God’s Spirit successfully guides and moves through flawed human beings and imperfect human processes. So, if we can have such deep trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead and guide so many humans, over such a great span of time back then—why not us, today?
The wonder of the doctrine of divine inspiration is not so much that the Bible is inspired (although I believe it is) but that human beings like us can be divinely inspired! Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2 that regardless of the inspiration of Scripture, we cannot understand God’s truth (including the spiritually discerned words of Scripture) unless we are also inspired, or “in the Spirit.” Paul concludes this chapter saying, “Who can know the mind of God? We can, because we have the mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ (Spirit-filled consciousness) is the necessary ingredient to understanding God’s truth.
Most Christians and churches now place far more trust in the divinely inspired Bible than in the unfettered guidance, inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit in people today. This is probably because the Bible is a tangible object and the leading of the Holy Spirit is elusive and uncertain. The words of the Bible are easier to manage, master and manipulate whereas the Holy Spirit is free to do new things and move in ways we cannot predict or control. Is there a danger of being led astray by what we think is the leading of the Holy Spirit? Without question. But risk has always been essential to following the way of Jesus. It’s no coincidence that Jesus chooses the one guy willing to get out of the boat and attempt to walk on water amidst a raging storm, to lead his church after he’s gone.
Our closed canon of Scripture is a wonderful gift of God’s past revelation as long as it does not close us off to present revelation. Can you imagine if the early church had not been open to adding to their closed canon of Scripture—now known to us as the Old Testament?
Troy Watson is pastor of Quest Community. This is part of the series, “The Role of Scripture for Postmodern Life.”