Monday, January 11, 2010

What About Inspiration?

For some time now, there has been a growing skepticism about the ability of higher criticism to provide adequate answers to the questions we bring to the Bible. In its place, it would seem that literary criticism is taking its place as the biblical study du jour. I, for one, think this is largely a good thing. This means that the biblical text is taken as it exists and studied as such without feeling any compulsion to do the messy work of attempting to pull it apart limb by limb. Dissection gives way to observation as identifying literary devices supplants finding redactors.

In spite of the strengths of bib-lit-crit, I wonder if in its rise something that has historically been emphasized has been neglected. Upon completing my first semester of seminary, I was asked by a friend what I thought about biblical inspiration. To my chagrin, I realized that I had not even thought about it at all during the previous semester. If that brief dialogue were isolated, I might have just assumed it was discussed in class while my brain wandered through the Alps or something. However, subsequent conversations with classmates revealed that this is more than incidental. An emeritus faculty member even mentioned it as a criticism of where the school as a whole is headed. Needless to say, this is troubling. What about inspiration? If my school represents anything of the trends happening in 21st century evangelicalism, what has changed that this no longer warrants discussion?

My suspicion is that inspiration has been lumped with a good deal of theology that has, in many places, fallen out of fashion. And so, as premillenial dispensationalism and Dobson-esque Republican Christianity have disappointed many younger evangelicals, and therefore been (probably rightly) abandoned, inspiration has likewise been tossed out with the proverbial bathwater. This is further enhanced by the rise of an approach to biblical studies that does not demand inspiration as a key doctrine. Whereas much of the older conservative biblical criticism attempted to hold out against form criticism by emphasizing inspiration, the new criticism is amenable to both liberal and conservative approaches. The Bible then becomes, reverently, very good literature, but what makes it distinctive from Dostoevsky is lost.

Any thoughts from the other corners of Christendom?


P.D. said...

I think your last point is probably where i feel at my weakest. What makes scripture better/more reliable/more important than Dostoevsky?

Do you think maybe there's no "proof"? It is a position of faith and grace, one granted to us? I remember Hays talking about the efficacy of it to form of a community. I find speaking in those terms much more helpful, but it does, or can, eschew some tougher questions about inspiration.

david gentino said...

Nice pic.

I think inspiration, especially of the verbal-plenary stripe, has long since fallen into the trough of doctrinal mush. We can't stand dying on any hill with fundies. We speak with rounded edges.

I'm always amazed at how willing conservative scholars are to 'engage' liberal ones on the latter's ground, particular in this area. It makes for really bizarre conversations.

Collin said...

Jon, you probably don't remember me, but we met occasionally in the library in my first semesters at CIU. Anyway, you are right to point out the trend among younger evangelicals to jump on board the literary turn in biblical studies; it enables us to surmount (bypass?) historical criticism while giving us a place at the table of academic respectability alongside our liberal brethren. We already wanted to repel the threat of historical criticism. Now everyone is calling it passe, and we can join the throng, too! But your question about what is lost when we participate so wholeheartedly in the postliberal, literarily-oriented fad of the day deserves introspection. My own personal fear is that we younger evangelicals who flirt with various textually-obsessed, dubiously realist programs will be so unacquainted with the strengths of our evangelical forebears that we will have no footing from which to spot the weaknesses of the moment. No one I know who writes off Warfield and Hodge and Henry as hopelessly mired in modernist "foundationalism" has read much of them, if any. We need commentators who have the breadth of reading to stay true to historic orthodoxy while entering current disputes. It's hard to find the time, though! Beyond this, I don't doubt that we also need some good old intellectual resilience: the doctrine of inspiration has been around a long time, and we should give it a spate of credence on that basis alone before we dump it as antiquated.

More Questions:
How much does desire for academic respectability really lie behind contemporary evangelical rapprochement with the postliberals, narrativists, and other dissenters from Enlightenment Christendom?

How little can an evangelical interpretive program care about the referentiality of biblical texts, and still maintain its evangelical identity? I've been reading Brueggeman's "de-ontologized" OT theology, and it is depressing and disorienting how antirealist it is. All we have is texts talking about God, rather than a God "out there" who can save us beyond the scope of our rhetoric! Have you lads heard of Bruce Marshall's book, Trinity and Truth, or the other way round?

Where are you all at? I read your disembodied words and find in them a distillation of much contemporary theological fracas. But what are you actually doing with yourselves? What lives do people live who talk about these things?

Love the blog. Collin Cornell

Jon Furst said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Furst said...

Thanks for weighing in Collin.

In response to your question, sometimes I have wondered if the push for evangelicals to be "relevant" (ostensibly in the name of evangelism) has not pushed us to give up some doctrinal distinctives wholesale. We might hate heresy, but we hate looking outdated and ignorant more.

In light of the conversation and in order to avoid a gnostic tendency, I am studying at Regent College (where Bruegghamen actually spoke not so long ago, much to the chagrin of the same professor who pointed out innerrancy issue). I'll let the others speak for themselves. Where are you?

David, what do you mean by "bizarre conversations?" Care to elaborate?

P.D. said...

Good comments, I have recently been thinking about the role of research as a "referee". Perhaps that speaks to where our culture and society is at currently, but I think your questions are valid. I think sometimes what happens with these discussions between inerrantists and errantists is not unlike the difference between cricket and baseball. Barth calls it a wicket but Hodges swears its 2nd base.

Jon Furst said...

You might be on to something PD