Degrees of Separation, Part 5
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness… 2 Timothy 3:16
Biblical scholars debate whether the second letter of Paul to Timothy was actually written by Paul or to a follower named Timothy. That discussion is beyond my knowledge and interest. What does interest me is the description of the nature of the origin of scripture given in 3:16, that “all scripture is inspired by God.” This passage is commonly quoted to establish the authority and reliability of scripture. I am not aware of any biblical translation, however, that renders the word inspired as dictated, which is a critical distinction to me. If scripture had been dictated by God then we would have good reason to interpret it literally. In other words, if God dictated the Bible and the authors simply wrote down was they were told, then the words written in scripture would be the actual words of God (ignoring the various translations between languages), and reading those words would be equivalent to hearing God say them directly to us.
Instead, this passage says God inspired scripture, which sends me down a different and less certain but more interesting path of exploration. I believe my experience with and understanding of inspiration is relevant to the interpretation of scripture. There are two distinct but related meanings for inspiration. The first has to do with breathing – specifically, the in-breath. The second is an emotional or intellectual response to something we experience. It is a reaction, like the writing of a poem inspired by a beautiful sunset. Such reactions are not limited by time, space, or reality, as we can be inspired by memories of past events, by something happening in the present, or by something we imagine may or may not happen. The two meanings merge in the Hebrew word rauch, which is translated as air, breath, wind, and Spirit. In the creation story of Genesis 1, God’s rauch (breath or Spirit) swept over the face of the formless earth and initiated the on-going process of creation. In other words, creation is a response to the life-giving Spirit of God breathing over or into an otherwise formless substance. While the creation is a response to the inspiration, it is not the inspiration itself. Rather, the inspired response is shaped by the receiving media, i.e., the material or person who receives the inspiration. As such, the creation is birthed from the inspiration but is shaped by the nature of the recipient. Importantly, there is always a degree of separation between the inspiration and the response.
As an example, I find sunrises particularly inspiring and have written numerous songs about them. Here is an example:
When the sun peeks over the east horizon
And the darkness slowly flees,
And a new day dawns and the old is gone,
It feels like home to me.
This musical response to an inspiring sunrise is only diminished by attempting to understand it literally. The sun doesn’t peek over the horizon, nor does the darkness flee, nor can a sunrise be home. The song attempts to metaphorically recreate the emotions I feel with a beautiful sunrise in hopes of leading others to a similar memory or experience. The song is inspired bymy experience of a part of God’s creation (a sunrise), but the creation (the song) is a product of my life experience — my beliefs, biases, understandings, and writing abilities. In a similar way, the biblical authors used poetic and metaphorical language consistent with their abilities and understandings to reconstruct the inspiration they received from their encounters with God in their lives. Interpreting scripture as factual is a recent development in religious thought. Historically, scripture was considered fodder for meditation and struggle, as well as being a provider of new insights for the changing landscapes of our lives.
When we believe the Bible was dictated by God, as opposed to being inspired, we dig ourselves into a deep dark pit from which we cannot deny anything the Bible says without simultaneously denying God. When God inspires us to something, even though the inspiration may be pure, once that inspiration is processed by our human person, what comes out is determined by our human biases, tendencies, and limited understandings. When the Bible is taken literally there is no grace for the authors’ imperfect human understanding of events or God’s nature. We must then accept countless horrible acts, then and now, as apparently being condoned by God – murdering babies (Hosea 13), enslaving people (Exodus 21), and other heinous acts committed by those in power against innocent people as recorded in scripture.
To minimize the degrees of separation between ourselves and the source, understanding how sacred writings come about must be factored into how we apply them.
This is the 15th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.