I occasionally find myself wondering if it would be possible to trace every Christian controversy down to a single question: what does the word “inspiration” mean?
Don’t worry, I know that’s a bit oversimplified. On the other hand, perhaps only a bit! Differing views of inspiration account for an amazing amount of argument. Which is why I think a lot of people would be surprised at the remarkably nuanced understanding of inspiration found in Article 3 of the Belgic Confession – they might be even more surprised at what it doesn’t say.
Let’s start with that: the Belgic Confession does not promote a “dictation” theory of inspiration, or even, really, a “verbal” concept of inspiration. There is no talk of “infallibility” nor even the suggestion that there were, at one time, “perfect originals.”
Indeed, from the perspective of Article 3, the written word isn’t really as big of a deal as we tend to make it.
Yes, you just read that correctly.
Now, let me backtrack a little (it’s actually a bigger deal than we tend to make it, too). The written word is given to us: (1) with special care for us and for our salvation, and (2) by God’s command. Nonetheless, it is a humanly-written account of the “revealed Word.”
The word “Word” here is key. It’s being used the same way we see it in John 1:1. The “Word” is the 2nd person of the Trinity – Christ. The scriptures, then, are the revealed Christ committed to pen and paper.
Imagine it this way: The Bible is to Jesus what the incarnate Christ is to the 2nd person of the Trinity.
Think about that for a second, and you’ll quickly realize that this raises a plethora of problems (both the incarnation and the inspiration of the written word!) I’m not going to spend much time on the problems raised by the incarnation here, but bear with me as I fess up to the key issue raised by this view of scriptural inspiration.
Specifically that, although written at the command and special care of God (and for our well-being), there’s no getting around the fact that consigning the divine existence to a human reality and then committing that incarnate Word to the written page is limiting (to say the least). There must have been, in writing, something similar to the “kenosis” we find in the incarnation. Whatever else that means, it requires that we be careful about what is “descriptive” and what is “prescriptive.”
I reference that distinction a lot in my preaching. Descriptive aspects of the scriptures merely explain how things were. Prescriptive parts of the Bible instruct us on how things should be. It’s remarkably difficult to tell the difference between the two sometimes (indeed, occasionally even impossible).
The kicker is: I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. Quite the opposite.
The idea that God became human (that divinity endured potty training and zits, lived in a patriarchal society, followed a legalistic religion, and became a man… not just a “human”) is one of the most beautiful (albeit messy) aspects of the Christian faith. (The incarnation is a doctrine overflowing with complex issues related to description and prescription.)
The idea that the same Word was committed to writing is equally as beautiful (and equally as messy!) Other concepts of inspiration may raise fewer complications, but theological messiness isn’t something to be afraid of. I’d even go so far as to argue that the most powerful and transformative aspects of the Christian faith are usually found hidden in the middle of the messiest doctrines.
We’re not done with the Bible, so stay tuned! Articles 4, 5, 6, and 7 continue in this vein!
Until then, thoughts?
Grace and peace,
As a side note: this is one of the reasons that the Reformed tradition has, historically, required preachers to be well-educated. While education doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand the faith (often, quite the opposite), at least it makes sure that whomever is climbing in the pulpit (physically or metaphorically) has had some of the dangerous paths pointed out to them before accidentally (I hope…) leading entire congregations down roads that they’ll later regret (eg. “Dictation” inspiration, although eliminating many of the description/prescription questions, pretty much always leads to legalism and biblical idolatry).