37 The basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority (Part 3)

To continue this discussion of the basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority, we can demonstrate much more simply that the Bible appears to have been composed in much the same way as other literary products not attributed to the action of God, and so its authority does not come from a magical character. We do not need to settle definitively the questions of cosmogony (“how the world began”) or eschatology (“how the world ends,” presumed to be the subject of much biblical prophecy) that are likely to be the subjects of perpetual debate among readers of the Scriptures. We may simply observe the biblical writers at work.

At one point in his epistle, for example, the author of Hebrews is trying to warn his readers against spiritual complacency. The metaphor he chooses is “striving to enter God’s rest.” To demonstrate that “there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God,” he quotes the opening section of the book of Genesis, where it is written, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” The only problem is, the author of Hebrews doesn’t seem to remember exactly where this is written, so he introduces this quotation by saying of God, “he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way” (emphasis added).

If our expectation of the Bible is that it came about through a process that is qualitatively distinct from the normal process of composition, in that God inspired and aided the authors, would it not be reasonable to anticipate that God would at least have helped this author remember that the statement he wanted to quote came from one of the most conspicuous passages in all of the Hebrew Scriptures? If God were going supernaturally to override ordinary human weaknesses in the composition process in order to signal a divinely inspired product, this would have been an awfully good place to intervene!

But it is not the only such place. Paul confesses to imperfections of memory on his own part, even as he is composing what we consider an inspired epistle, when he writes to the Corinthians, “I do not know whether I baptized anyone else” besides Crispus, Gaius and the household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:14-16, emphasis added).

His admonitions to these same Corinthians about marriage provide another insight into the “ordinary” process of composition behind this epistle. He prefaces these various admonitions with statements about the source of their authority. “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband,” he says at the beginning of his discussion (1 Cor. 7:10). But shortly afterwards he writes, “To the rest I say, not the Lord,” that a believing husband should not divorce an unbelieving wife (v. 12). And he later writes, “Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v. 25).

It is important to explain that when Paul writes “the Lord says,” or speaks of a “command of the Lord,” he is referring to statements of Jesus on various subjects passed down to him through Christian tradition (as in 1 Cor. 11:23, “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you”). He is not speaking of a direct revelation from God to him on a subject about which he was seeking guidance.

So the contrast here is not between (1) subjects on which God had “inspired” him and (2) those on which God had not sent inspiration but on which Paul was writing anyway. (This would constitute evidence that the Bible, by its own admission, is not uniformly inspired!) Rather, the contrast is between (1) instruction passed down from Jesus and (2) instruction that Paul is giving “as one who by the Lord’s grace is trustworthy.” In neither case does he consciously understand or describe himself to be inspired as he writes, even though the church has judged him to have been inspired as he wrote. Indeed, even within his own generation, the apostle Peter classified Paul’s letters with “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). But in whatever way Peter, as an inspired writer himself, recognized Paul’s epistles as Scripture when he read them, it was not because he saw that Paul always knew just what to say because God told him directly as he was writing.

The end of 1 Peter and the beginning of 2 Peter in the Papyrus Bodmer (c. 3rd Century A.D.), the oldest source for Peter’s second epistle, in which he describes Paul’s letters as “Scriptures.”

Nor was it because Paul never made a mistake, even when he was referring to the earlier Scriptures themselves. When he was warning the Corinthians against immorality, for example, he appealed to the experience of a previous generation of Israelites and wrote, “We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Cor. 10:8). The chastising plague Paul is referring to is described in Numbers 25, but we discover there that the total of its victims was actually twenty-four thousand. Some have suggested that the confusion arose in Paul’s mind because immediately afterwards a census is reported and the tribe of Levi, which was instrumental in stopping the plague, is reported to have had twenty-three thousand men of fighting age (Num. 26:62). But whatever the explanation, Paul got the number wrong, contrary to what we would expect if we understand “inspiration” to mean a divine overruling of the normal composition process, a process that ordinarily does include such lapses of memory.

Some Christians are so insistent, however, that inspiration must consist in such divine intervention that they have developed elaborate theories to account for phenomena such as the “missing thousand” of 1 Cor. 10:8. It has been asserted in all seriousness, for example, that the actual number who fell in the plague was 23,500, and that the author of Numbers is rounding up, while Paul is rounding down. There are many obvious objections to this assertion. Paul knew about the plague only by reading the Scriptures, where the number given is 24,000, so he really never faced the question of whether to round 23,500 up or down. Even if someone were to make the extreme claim that God supernaturally revealed the real number to Paul, why would he, as an inspired author, have rounded down, when the earlier inspired author had rounded up? What is the “inspired” way to handle a half-thousand? It seems to be different in the case of two different “inspired” authors. What this proposal is ultimately saying is that the Bible gives the wrong number in two places, not just one!

But what is most dangerous about such proposals is that they create a “meta-text,” that is, another version of events beyond that of the Bible’s. This “meta-text” ends up saying things that the Bible doesn’t say anywhere, such as that 23,500 fell in the plague, or that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. (This explanation is adopted to account for John’s description of the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry even though Matthew, Mark and Luke place it at the end.) But even though it says things the Bible doesn’t say, this meta-text possesses greater authority, because the Bible is made answerable to it. We thus surrender the Bible’s supreme authority while trying to establish its inspiration, if we insist on understanding inspiration as divine intervention in an otherwise natural process.

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