Inspiration and oracles

Some interesting discussions going on at the moment on Internet Monk and the BHT on the subject of the canon of Scripture, including a superb, essential-reading guest post by Josh S on the Lutheran understanding of the canon.

One thing that struck me in these discussions (and in related discussions about “inerrancy”) was the confusion that sometimes arises over the word “inspired”. A commentator on iMonk illustrates this well:

Likely the Spirit has inspired quite a few Christian authors since the New Testament was written; good luck getting a consensus on whether we should include any newer writings.

The problem is the breadth (and vagueness) in meaning of the word “inspired”: “the Bible is God’s inspired Word”; “I felt inspired to write this worship song/book/blog post”; “I found reading this devotional work inspiring“. I’m told that Christian publishers often have difficulty dealing with people who are convinced that the book they’ve submitted for publication has been given to them – inspired – by the Holy Spirit himself, and that to refuse to publish the book (or to insist on editing it) is tantamount to rejecting the Spirit’s work.

So how do we distinguish between the sense in which Scripture is said to be “inspired”, and the other meanings? One answer is found in those modern translations (such as the NIV and ESV) that have taken another look at 2 Timothy 3:16 and concluded that the word theopneustos (traditionally translated along the lines of “inspired by God”) is better rendered as “God-breathed” (NIV) or “breathed out by God” (ESV). In other words, Paul’s concern is with the ultimate origin of Scripture (who “breathed it out”) rather than the mechanism or experience of “inspiration” (what the human authors “breathed in”).

But another helpful perspective is provided at the start of Romans 3, where Paul writes:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

What are “the oracles of God” (or, as the NIV puts it, “the very words of God”)? Answer: the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

Here we see a clear distinction between Scripture and other literature that people might describe as “Spirit-inspired” or “inspiring”. Yes, the Holy Spirit may well have played a role in leading someone to write a particular work, and he may well use that work to impress the truths of the gospel upon us in an “inspiring” way. But there is a big difference between saying that, and saying that a work is an “oracle of God”. It is clear that, for Paul, the “oracles of God” are not a general category of spiritually-enlightening literature found in many places and at many times. Rather, they are an identifiable body of work that has been specifically “entrusted” to a particular people.

So this enables us – requires us – to distinguish between Scripture and other writings or creative works that we might choose to call “inspired” or “inspiring”. But it also provides us with a space in which we are free to acknowledge the “Spirit-prompted” and “Spirit-employed” nature of many, many different works, without encroaching upon that category in which Scripture stands unique: “the oracles of God”.

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One Response to Inspiration and oracles

  1. Andrew says:

    That was inspirational! I am so inspired that you were inspired to write this. Maybe we could list it as an appendix in our Bibles : )

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