Tuesday, March 29, 2005

More Thoughts on Inspiration

I’ve been reading through Beginning Old Testament (ed. Rogerson, Westminster, 1982) in preparation for my OT comp exam. The book is written by a collection of generous English OT scholars who are clearly post evangelical in their doctrine of scripture. Though the primary purpose of the book is not to challenge evangelical assumptions, which are commonly and condescendingly (though I think unintentionally) referred to as “beginner assumptions,” the authors obviously feel a need to address the deficiencies of what they would deem a more simplistic (read evangelical) view of scripture, particularly in relation to the historicity of the OT. It has been both an interesting and challenging read. Helpful in many respects.

I have been reminded once again however, the extent to which one’s presuppositions regarding the ontology of the text dictate interpretation. For these authors, the OT text seems to be little more than a collection of traditions and stories (some not at all historically accurate) that reflect the faith of the ancient Israelites. In their minds, such a view of the text does not in anyway minimize its value for contemporary ecclesiological edification. Yet their attempts to explain how this is so seem inadequate in my estimation. Recognizing the difficulty in such an approach, Rogerson writes,
If the biblical writers could have been wrong about the exact sequence of events, how can we take seriously their claim to discover a divine purpose in them? If the events did not happen, or happened entirely differently from how the biblical writers believed, how can there have been a divine intention in them?(52)

Good question. Rogerson, not wanting to abandon the pietistic usefulness of the text, attempts to resolves this difficulty by appealing to indirect intention, and maintaining that even though the author may have unknowingly accessed inaccurate historical data to build his case, he nonetheless saw divine intention in the historical data/sources that he had available to him. Thus, according to Rogerson, it is
…possible to accept that compared with modern historical reconstructions, OT accounts of happenings may contain inaccuracies, but that this does not invalidate the OT claim to have discerned divine intention in the events (53).
But this does not really resolve the tension that Rogerson himself raises (If you have a difficult time following Rogerson's logic here, you're in good company). It is one thing to say that the authors thought they saw divine intention in certain historical events, and altogether another thing to say that the authors were right about seeing such divine intention. If the events themselves did not really exist, then it is difficult to understand what value the author’s opinion of divine intention retains for us. It must be remembered that the OT authors used history as the basis of divine instruction. For the ancient Jewish mind, providence was in some measure the voice of God and could be interpreted as such. The exodus was not merely illustrative of the idea that God had chosen the people of Israel, but was for the Jewish mind, in many respects, God’s actual statement about his choosing of Israel. It was definitive proof about God’s concern for the Jewish people. To take away the miraculous events behind the exodus, for the Jewish mind, would have been like taking away the very words by which God affirms his choice of Abraham.

Of course my observation here does not necessarily invalidate Rogerson’s main contention that the narrative accounts of the OT are merely a collection of tradition and stories that are limited in their historicity. But it does raise a pragmatic question: How are we to view the conclusions of biblical authors regarding the nature and purposes of God, when they have drawn such conclusions from their interpretation of historical events which did not actually occur? In my mind, Rogerson’s first question remains unresolved and renders application uncertain. If I were to assure you that God was leading me to sell all of my possessions, based primarily upon a profound encounter I had with poor person, you might be cautiously inclined to think that such an encounter was evidence of God’s leading. But If I never actually met any such person, in what way would my sense of God’s leading still have merit, particularly if the event itself served as the foundation of my sense of leading?

And further, it is always interesting the extent to which other ancient sources are seen as superior to the OT sources. When the OT conflicts with ancient Assyrian annals, it is assumed that the OT must be in error. Why do we feel the need to give away the benefit of the doubt?

But Rogerson gets to the crux of the matter when he writes,
Discussions that take place well away from the biblical text… tend to only convince the already converted. It is essential for the beginner to study a text closely and carefully, so that he or she becomes fully aware of the genuine problems that it raises and, in light of this study, re-examines his or her beliefs about inspiration, whatever they may be (47).

Agreed. Doctrine, though not based upon experience, must conform to experience if it is to be credible. If the biblical text itself continually and overwhelmingly points away from an evangelical view of inspiration, it is time for evangelicals to readjust. But I am not convinced that such is the case.


Rob Bradshaw said...

Hi Gerald, Many thanks for this entry, which I thought was very helpful. I have noted it in my own blog here: http://biblicalstudiesorguk.blogspot.com/2005/12/thoughts-on-inspiration.html

Keep up the good work.
In Christ,

Gerald said...

Thanks much Rob. Blessings.