The inspiration of scripture: devotion to the divine

A portrait of the apostle Paul, attributed to Rembrandt (c. 1657).Thus far in this series (please start with the introduction if you haven’t read the other segments yet), I’ve surveyed some biblical texts that contain explicit claims or strong implications that they originated in their human authors’ responses to divine dictation, divine disclosure, or divine deeds. But I don’t think those three categories quite cover the entire spectrum of what biblical authors have to say about where their words and ideas came from, so we need to add (at least) one more broad category to the list: inspiration by devotion to the divine.

Texts like 1 Corinthians 7 demand that we have some sort of category like “devotion” (as a synonym for “commitment”) in any taxonomy of inspiration. Paul explicitly states his basic motive for writing 1 Corinthians 7 in, well, 1 Corinthians 7:1: “Now, about what you wrote …” (CEB). He’s responding to a letter he received from his addressees. In his response, he differentiates between teachings that he is passing on from the Lord (that is, Jesus; vv. 10–11) and advice that he is giving based on his own judgment (vv. 12–13), some of which is tied to specific historical conditions (vv. 25–26). Calling the advice in vv. 12–13 and vv. 25–26 “Paul’s own judgment” does not disparage that advice; it simply reflects what Paul explicitly says about the source of that advice. (It’s also worth noting that you are able to read this paragraph because your parents chose a lifestyle that Paul considered a concession to human weakness rather than a Christian ideal.) Paul did not pull his advice out of a hat, of course. He clearly reasoned to the advice in vv. 12–13 based on the Jesus traditions mentioned in vv. 10–11. He clearly reached the advice he gives in vv. 25–26 after weighing various factors such as his (apparently erroneous) belief that “the world in its present form is passing away” and that only a short time remained for people to experience marriage. All of his advice derives from his devotion to the Lord—but that is not the same thing as transmitting teachings received from the Lord.

Although it’s not quite as explicit, I would offer Ecclesiastes as an example from the Tanakh, and moreover, an example in which the entire book was pretty clearly “inspired” by the writer’s “devotion” to God. Certainly Qoheleth does not claim any sort of divine dictation or revelatory experience, nor do his reflections seem to have been prompted by specific divine deeds. Rather, Qoheleth draws inferences about God from his observations of the world, and tries to understand various aspects of human life in reference to divine activity in general. If you wanted to call that “inspiration by deeds” I wouldn’t fight you on it, but clearly something very different is going on with Qoheleth and Paul than what seems to be going on (on the surface of the text) with Moses and Jeremiah, for example.

So now my spectrum of “types” of inspiration has four broad categories:

  • Inspiration by dictation: God tells somebody what to say or write
  • Inspiration by disclosure: God reveals something to someone, and that person passes on these insights
  • Inspiration by deeds: people compose texts (oral or written) in response to things they believe God has done
  • Inspiration by devotion: people compose texts about various topics, informed by their commitment to God

These categories undoubtedly overlap each other, and you might wish to refine my spectrum into finer distinctions. Even so, I think this “4-D model of inspiration” does a decent job of representing the range of claims that biblical writers make about divine involvement in their own writing activity.

That’s not all that I have to say on this subject, however. In the next installment, I’ll step away from just systematizing biblical claims and reflect on a couple of different ways of assessing the truth value of those claims.


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