Friday, 3 April 2009

Inspiration, Inerrancy and Biblical Authority: Some Thoughts for Those Navigating Treacherous Waters

By the Right Revd Dr Stephen Pickard.

‘Scripture is the unique and irreplaceable witness to the liberating and reconciling activity of God in the history of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ’ (Migliore 1991:40). This proposal of Daniel Migliore provides a useful point of departure for this brief paper. A number of elements in his definition stand out. The key words ‘unique’ and ‘irreplaceable’ are worthy of note – nothing quite like it and nothing that can substitute for it. However beyond this Migliore invites us to consider scripture as a text that bears witness not to itself but to God’s activity in Israel and ‘supremely’ in Jesus Christ. Migliore thus gives a decidedly Christological focus for Scripture. As his discussion unfolds that particular focus is shown to be absolutely critical in the way the sacred text is heard and interpreted.

This has echoes of Karl Barth’s discussion of the threefold word of God: the incarnate living Word of God, Jesus Christ; scripture as the written word of God; and proclamation as the preached word on the basis of the written word pointing to the living word. Barth’s recognition of the dynamic and layered Word of God meant that scripture was dynamically related both to the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the community of faith that bore witness in word and deed to the gospel of God. Authority, and inspiration of the bible could not be abstracted from the web of relations in which it was received and functioned. There was no simple, pure and detached mode of authority; nor room for a doctrine of inspiration that could be secured apart from faith.

However Migliore’s definition refers to a ‘liberating and reconciling’ function of Scripture. This has a more contemporary ring about it. For Migliore scripture generates new freedom, overcomes estrangement and reconnects people and the world to each other and God. The liberative function of scripture is related to Jesus Christ and picks up an ancient biblical theme from the Exodus. It is one I shall return to at the end of this paper.

It is clear from the above that the authority of the bible is related to its place within the community of faith; it’s character as inspired and its liberative capacity for God’s world. Biblical authority cannot be abstracted from this web without fracturing the delicate and fragile ecology of its witness to Jesus Christ. Impatience with this reality and a desire to create a protected space for the bible within the disintegrating framework of modernity has led to the development of a variety of less adequate conceptions of biblical authority.

In this respect Migliore identifies the dead letter of biblicism. On this account the bible is authoritative by virtue of its supernatural origin. This approach developed in post reformation Protestantism. It was associated with the emerging scientific culture of seventeenth century Europe with its emphasis upon experimentation, observation, empirical evidence and the quest for certainty. In such an environment traditional theological claims for the veracity and authority of Scripture appeared tenuous if not fragile. Could Scripture deliver a certainty commensurate or better than that achievable in the sciences? In this context the doctrine of inspiration ‘became a theory of the supernatural origins of Scripture’ (Migliore p. 43). On this basis the bible was considered to be our canon. Thus the Westminster Confession of 1643 refered to the Old Testament written in Hebrew and the New Testament written in Greek as ‘immediately inspired by God’ and the Apocrypha ‘not being of divine inspiration, are not parts of the canon of Scripture (Peters 2000: 61). Yet such an approach begged the question; how do we know that these writings are inspired and thus authoritative? Calvin, following a long tradition including Origen, referred to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Belgic Confession 1561 and the Westminster Divines acknowledged the inward illumination of the Spirit of God ‘that leads to our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority’ of the bible (Ibid).

The supernatural origin of the scripture required a doctrine of double inspiration. This secured the longed for certainty within an emerging enlightenment culture. It also led to the concept of the bible’s inerrancy ‘as a whole and in all its parts’: ’every book, every chapter, every verse, every word was directly inspired by God’ (Migliore, p. 43). The softer form of this refers to the bible being inerrant in its original form. Either way a claim is made for its infallibility and authority founded upon a theory of double inspiration. This doctrine of the plenary inspiration of scripture accords to all scripture equal authority.

Not surprisingly the only sensible option within such a context is to adopt a practical or working ‘canon within a canon’ and privilege certain parts (e.g. Pauline texts; Gospels). However to the extent that this move is neither recognised nor defended but simply operates as a practical default the deeper hermeneutical reasons for such an approach remain masked and accordingly underdeveloped. What it also means is that theory and practice operate in a disjunctive manner. What it also points to is the difficulty of sustaining the notion that the normative status and authority of the bible is dependent upon its inspiration divorced from the community of faith and its witness to Jesus Christ. No longer is the bible taken as authoritative ‘because of what it says, or because of the transforming effect it has on human life, but simply because its words are identified without qualification with God’s words’ (Migliore p. 44). As a result scripture is prevented from operating in a liberating way.

Peters argues that the above account of inspiration changed how the doctrine of inspiration was held in the church. For example the early church fathers could affirm with 2 Timothy 3:16 that ‘all scripture is given by inspiration [literally ‘God-breathed]from God’ but could also use the term inspiration to describe an exposition on scripture. But Gregory of Nyssa could also describe Basil’s commentary on Genesis as an “exposition given by inspiration of God” (Peters p. 60). Following the result of an exhaustive survey of the early church fathers of the first four centuries Everett Kalin ‘failed to turn up a single instance in which any of these writers referred to an orthodox writing outside the New Testament as non-inspired’ (Ibid).

In more recent times the Anglican philosophical theologian, Austin Farrer, recognised the same multi layered approach to inspiration in his discussion of the relationship between sacred text of scripture and poetic writing and the role of the imagination (Farrer 1976: 37-53). Peter’s argues that inspiration alone was not the basis for the bible as canon. He states, ‘We think of the bible as canon or measure not because of some contrived doctrine of its inerrancy “as a whole and in all its parts”. What does in fact make it canon for Christians [and thus authoritative] is the church’s firm belief that it is trustworthy. The people of the church, gathered together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are confident that it will convey to us the gospel of Jesus Christ’ (Peters p. 60). This is a broader and richer approach to the authority of the bible than a narrow doctrine of inspiration.

Besides the ‘dead letter of biblicism’ Migliore identifies other less than satisfactory approaches to the authority of scripture. At the other end of the spectrum from biblicism is what he refers to as ‘the uncritical assumptions of historicism’. In this scenario the rationalism of the enlightenment and an emerging historical consciousness reduces the bible to an ‘historical source’. As Migliore notes this has brought many gains. But to the extent that it became preoccupied with ‘what really happened’ and what could be verified as ‘factual’ according to the canons of historical inquiry it displaced the received text as authoritative and in its place erected the ‘facts’ behind the text as reconstructed by the historian as authoritative. Biblical narrative as such disappears from view; ‘the meaning of the bible is separated from its literary form’ (Migliore p. 45). The biblical scholar becomes the arbiter of truth.

Gerard Loughlin discusses this development in terms of the transposition of scripture into history (Loughlin 1997: 45). Scripture is ‘no longer understood as mutually constituted by the story it narrates and the community to whom it is narrated …rather, the scripture is seen as unreliable, and that which it distorts only really available through the labours of historical science, which looks behind the scriptural narratives to the historical events they partially and quaintly disclose’ (Ibid). A variant of this approach treats the bible as a religious classic; a great literature worthy of study and meditation. On this account the tradition of disciplined pious reading and liturgical enactment are rendered superfluous.

Unsurprisingly a reaction to the above biblicist and historical approaches to the bible’s authority can be observed in the modern use of the scripture as a private devotional text ‘whose authority is located in the saving meaning it has for the individual’ (Migliore p. 45). Who can deny the importance of such an emphasis? The saving reality of Jesus Christ as unfolded in the sacred text is the clue for living in the world. The pious reading of scripture is a necessary component in the life of faith. The real danger with this approach can be observed when Christians seem preoccupied with their own salvation to the neglect of the bible’s significance for the community and for the world. The scripture illuminates more than the inner life of faith for the individual pilgrim. In this scenario scripture becomes authoritative for personal and private life but mute towards the world and the public realm.

As Migiore notes, beyond these reductivist approaches to biblical authority ‘lies the real authority of Scripture in the life of the community of faith’ (Migliore p. 46). This same note is struck by Ted Peters and Gerald Loughlin. Scripture read within the community of Jesus Christ; relating believers by the power of the Holy Spirit to the living God Jesus Christ in the world loved of God; this is the cauldron in which the inspiration and authority of the bible is to be located. For Christians the hermeneutical key is Jesus Christ read backward and forward through the great narratives of holy scripture. This occurs within the domain of the believing and worshipping community where the story of faith is held, lived and shared in the world. In this context scholars have their proper place but not pride of place. Much more could be said at this point but time and space preclude this.

I want to end by taking up an intriguing suggestion by the Roman Catholic scholar William Thompson. He proposes the cloud as a symbol for scripture to highlight how scripture functions in an authoritative way for Christian community. His starting point is the reference in Hebrews 12:1 to the cloud of witnesses which surround the church and the importance of this for the onward pilgrimage in faith. He sees the cloud as an archetypal symbol to express the witnessing role of scripture in Christian existence. From this he identifies the cloud in Exodus 13:21 – the pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way. Thomson states ‘Holy Writ is like that. The cloud of witnesses that constitutes it is the norming guide that leads as well as accompanies us. Its authority is derivative but real’ (Thomson 1996: 199) for the Lord speaks to them in the cloud (Psalm 99:7); so too at the transfiguration (Matt 17:5). ‘So too Scripture reflects the authority of Christ to whom it witnesses. From its cloud, the voice says…’ (Ibid).

Thomson also notes that the cloud not only leads but accompanies. Thus in Exodus 13:22: neither the pillar of cloud by day not the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. In like manner Holy Writ accompanies, ‘again in a pale but adequate reflection of the Lord….Holy Writ has accompanied the Church on its long journey of sounding the depths of the Christological mysteries. It’s objective presence echoes and testifies to the objective presence of the Lord, the Emmanuel, the One Who Is With Us’ (Thomson p. 200).

However Thomson stresses that this accompanying is not at a distance but ‘profoundly interior’ and finds expression in the Transfiguration when the ‘cloud overshadowed the disciples as they entered it (Luke 9:34). Thus the Scripture are able to overshadow us ‘in such a way as we can enter them, as the disciples entered into the cloud of the Transfiguration’ (Thomson p. 201). There is also the darkness of the cloud (Exodus 14:20 – and so the cloud was there with darkness) which protects the Israel from the Egyptians. Thomson offers a fascinating reflection on the otherness of God manifest in the and through the cloud. This arises in a twofold sense: by virtue of our own limitations and sin we cannot see the cloud’s luminosity (we are all Egyptians; and from the side of God, God’s presence is ‘thick’ (Exodus 19:9, 16; 1 Kings 8:12). God’s transcendence is here symbolised and this generates an appropriate awe in the presence of the Holy God. ‘Now I began to wonder with myself, that God had a bigger mouth to speak with than I had heart to conceive with, “wrote John Bunyan (Thomson p. 202).

Another author speaks of the ‘bright mystery’ (Hardy 1997: 17-19) of faith which we might link to the way Scripture as cloud is both luminous yet resistant to being captured. Thomson calls this the opening ‘onto a larger mystery’ whereby God can be present through scripture as cloud like but cannot be captured by it e.g. Exodus 19:9 (Thomson p. 201). Finally Thomson points to the sense of movement in the cloud: Jeremiah 4:13 ‘He comes up like the clouds’; Psalm 68:4 ‘him who rides upon the clouds’. 'The cloud seems to symbolise the to-be-counted-on presence of God within history’s flow’ (Thomson p. 203). So too scripture and its witness belongs to the flow of history and point us towards an unfolding if unclear history. Thomson sharpens his reflections: ‘the Scriptures (as mediated and liturgically celebrated in the Church) can illuminate, tracing out the path for us into the future’ (Ibid).

Thomson’s insightful and provocative reflections are a good place to conclude this brief paper on scripture. His imaginative construal of scripture as cloud reminds us that above all else we are called to be a scripture formed people. This is at the heart of Anglican self-understanding and is most powerfully captured in the Anglican Collect:

Blessed Lord,
You have created all Holy Scriptures to be written
For our learning,
grant that we may so hear them,
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them,
That by patience and comfort of your holy word,
We may embrace and ever hold fast
The blessed hope of everlasting life
Which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen


Farrer, Austin. Interpretation and Belief, London: SPCK, 1976.

Hardy, Daniel. God’s Ways with the World, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997.

Loughlin Gerald, ‘The Basis and Authority of Doctrine’ in Colin Gunton, ed. The
Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, CUP, 1997.

Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology,
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991, p. 40.

Peters, Ted. God The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era, Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 2000, p. 60

Thomson, William The Struggle for Theology’s Soul: Contesting Scripture in
Christology, New York: Crossroad Pub., 1996.


  1. I recently heard Peter Adam, principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, speak on the topic of Biblical authority. He, as you have done, raised questions about human imposed categories such as inerrancy. However his strategy after asking some questions, was then to do an indepth study of the whole of the Bible to find out how the Bible refers to itself, that is, how the various authors of the Bible refer to other books of the Bible. The results are fascinating, and reinforce strongly the idea not only that the Bible is God's Words spoken to humanity, but that they are also God's fresh Words spoken right now, despite their ancient origin. I'm looking forward to exploring his ideas further in his recent book "Written For Us".

  2. Hi Tony

    So are you saying that Peter Adams defends biblical inerrancy? If so, I'm a bit puzzled. How does self-reference entail inerrancy? If that were to happen in a human being we might be rightly suspicious of pathological behaviour. Just in case you're wondering, I'm not making that judgement on the Bible, but that's because because I don't buy the alleged entailment between self-reference and inerrancy.

  3. No Phillip, I am not saying that Peter Adams defends biblical inerrancy. I'm not certain what his view on that would be. What I was saying was that Peter Adams raised questions about human categories such as inerrancy. Instead of imposing categories such as that on the Bible, his strategy was to study the Bible to come up with a conclusion as to what the Bible says about itself.

    I hope that I was a little clearer that time :)