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Saturday, 11 June 2011

Consider the view that scripture is divinely inspired (35).

The notion of scripture being divinely inspired is riddled with philosophical problems. Some of the issues arising from it being divinely inspired are: how the text came to human beings?; Did God give it directly or was it human in origin?; moreover, what can we actually learn about God from this text via its inspiration? In attempting to address this question we shall look at a propositional approach to assess the validity of divinely inspired scripture and then a non-propositional approach.

For scripture to be divinely inspired in the traditional sense, a propositional approach is required. Evangelical fundamentalist believers wish to maintain that the text comes directly from God. That it reveals ‘truths’ or propositions (facts) about the divine. In this sense the ‘words’ are directly from God. Yet this assertion is unclear. We shall work through different understandings and assess whether they can be held philosophically. The most obvious is a literal revelation for example Moses is believed by some to have experienced a theophany (God revealing God’s self to Moses) and literally giving him a physical copy of the five books of the law and the two stone tablets with the ten commandments on. In this sense scripture is divinely inspired as it comes directly from God. It can contain no errors (inerrant). If this view were held then scripture would indeed be divinely inspired. However, the problem of interactionism causes issue here as it is difficult to see how a non-physical being, outside of the spacio-temporal universe, or transcendent in the traditional sense can act within the physical realm. Moreover, how can Moses be expected to maintain any notion of free will? If God reveals Himself then Moses has no choice but to do God’s bidding because of fear of reprisals and sure knowledge of God’s existence. The appearance of choice here is simply ‘Hobson’s Choice’ – no choice at all. Also how do we ‘see’ or ‘hear’ a non-physical being? These problems serve to demonstrate that a view of scripture as being physically ‘given’ by God is too problematic. A believer may suggest that it comes down to faith for them, faith that God can do all these things, which does not seem to solve the issues identified above.

Perhaps then the bible/scripture was dictated by God or the Holy Spirit. One view is that of amanuensis that humans have simply copied the text down through divine dictation. This idea is seen in Jeremiah 20:8 “whenever I speak I cry out” implying that God is speaking through the prophet in front of the king. This would mean that the scripture was inspired as the individual was simply told what to write. Someone like Henry Morris would hold that the Holy Spirit was with the writers (Adam at creation for his argument) to ensure inerrancy. This view holds that God inspired the scriptures. Yet it is difficult to maintain this view for the same reasons outlined above. This issue of interactionism hasn’t been resolved here, God (transcendent) is still interacting in a spacio-temporal way. Also here the writer’s free will is being directly compromised. They have no choice but to write these words, the scribe is simply the body which God takes over to use for his own purposes. William James might suggest that this is an example of mystical experience and hold that the nature of these religious experiences is passivity which has been demonstrated in numerous accounts of these experiences. But an issue with this is that James also states these experiences are ineffable (cannot be put into words). How can the religious experience of amanuensis be ineffable if the aim of it is to write the words of scripture? One way would be to maintain that the person has no knowledge of what they are writing. But we still face the challenge from the violation of free will which questions whether this view can be reasonably held.

Perhaps then the scriptures are divinely inspired because the believer/writer has had an experience of the divine and has been inspired to write because of this. In this view the writer would be like the child who is inspired by an excellent footballer or music artist to follow in their footsteps. God plays a more passive role in the writing of the scriptures in this way and partially overcomes the problems of free will and interactionism in the sense that the individual writes their own interpretation because they are inspired by their experience of God. If this view holds then they are inspired to write freely about God. In order to hold this view we must accept that the individual has had an actual experience of God. Swinburne and James suggest that testimony of individuals should count in some way for evidence of God’s existence in the world (Swinburne’s Principle of Testimony) and that people tend not to lie (Principle of Credulity). Even if we accept this then it can only ever be revelation for the individual as the biblical text will always be second hand truths for others who did not experience and were therefore not inspired by the event. Moreover we still must maintain that God has revealed himself to the believer before the writing of the text. This whole issue of whether religious experience can reasonably held to happen casts a vast shadow over this view of scripture’s nature. This issue is too vast to explore fully here save to say that the notion of the individual’s perception of events and the actual reality of these events do not necessarily tally, for example what is the difference between a dream where I experience the divine and a religious experience in a dream? Can I ever be sure that my experience comes through God rather than a phenomenological or material origin? This view seems to lack coherence for scripture being divinely inspired as the free will, interactionism debate is still unsolved as we need to rely on the philosophical soundness of an individual’s religious experience. Also it opens up new problems. How can we maintain a propositional approach that this scripture reveals ‘facts’ about God if it comes from a human source using human language; a language of past, present and future tenses as Dummett points out, a “tense of timelessness”. This could never be an absolutely literal revelation of God. Not to mention the limitations of a spacio-temporal language describing a timeless and spaceless God.

It appears then, at this point, that no view so far discussed would allow us to maintain that scripture is divinely inspired because of the problems surrounding free will, interactionism, the limits of language and the certainty of what it tells us of the divine. However, perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at the problem, maybe the ‘truth’ of God comes through a non-propositional approach to revelation in the sense that it is action that demonstrates inspiration.

If we accept that God revealing Himself is too problematic for scripture then we are holding that we cannot know whether it is divinely inspired yet the non-propositional approach can avoid the problems discussed above. If propositional revelation is ‘belief that…’ something is the case, ‘God is love’ for instance then non-propositional revelation is ‘belief in…’ scripture. In this view scripture reveals more about ourselves and it is our reaction which ‘reveals’ God. However this view cannot give any ‘knowledge’ about God’s nature directly but is still echoed through Bucky Minster-Fuller’s ideas of God being a verb; that when we are inspired by what we read, regardless of ‘fact’ or propositions our actions in some way echo God’s will. Take the parable of the sheep and the goats’ notion of giving practical help to the needy. If I read this and ‘believe in…’ its message I act in the world. This could be seen as the divine inspiration of the scriptures. However this view cuts both ways. It seems to resolve the problems of interactionism, free will and experience of God but only at the cost of not being able to tell us anything about God as scripture maybe removed from God’s word and left as a purely human document.

In conclusion it seems as though holding a propositional approach is too problematic for us to accept that scripture is divinely inspired in some of the more traditional ways and that the main revelation of God comes through human action and inspiration. But one final point needs addressing. It seems that we cannot accept a non-propositional approach, belief in the truth of the Bible, without holding that the Bible contains some form of propositional truth. Otherwise why would religious believers act on these ideas? Since the Bible is not self-authenticating then we must accept that we have to ‘believe in…’ the words in order for the words to have any meaning. It is here that we reach the impasse, without faith in the scriptures the notion of whether the Bible is divinely inspired becomes irrelevant but it is clear that even with faith the assertion that scripture is divinely inspired in the traditional sense is too philosophically problematic to accept.

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