Divine Inspiration – January 1999

Question: Is the Bible inspired?

Publication Month: January 1999

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Like so many questions asked of process theology, the answer is that it all depends on what the questioner means. If the question comes from one who thinks in very conservative categories, the answer must be an emphatic “No!” The words of the text were not dictated by God. Certainly the hand of the writer was not controlled by God. And even in the more modest sense proposed by some proponents of divine inspiration of Scripture, that God protected the authors from error, the emphatic “No!” remains. The Bible is full of errors of fact, of moral judgment, and of theological teaching.

But if the word “inspired” is being used as in ordinary language outside the conservative theological tradition, then the situation is quite different. We say that someone’s performance in a concert or in a play was inspired. We speak of poets as inspired. Even a preacher may be inspired. That is, people may be moved by the Spirit in extraordinary ways. They may be so totally caught up in what they are doing that they are not consciously controlling their actions. What results exceeds the best product of their ordinary voluntary acts.

A writer may find that sometimes the words “just flow.” A composer may feel that the music “comes to her.” Inspiration in this sense is rare enough to be greatly prized, but it is common enough that many of us experience it to some extent. Indeed, it is not altogether discontinuous from quite ordinary experience.

Process thought affirms that at a very basic level all life is inspired. That is, there is no life at all except as God’s Spirit participates in constituting us. It is that participation of the Spirit that leads to our being, in each moment, something more than the deterministic outcome of the forces from the past that also play so large a role in shaping us. The times when we think of ourselves as inspired are those when this creative novelty contributed by God’s Spirit plays a particularly strong and effective role and is less inhibited than usual by the other causal factors in our lives. So process theology affirms not only that the common use of the language of inspiration is meaningful but that the inspiration is truly the work of God.

When we think in this way, there is no reason to be skeptical of claims that many passages in the Bible are inspired. Indeed, it would be artificial to think that ancient Hebrew poets and prophets experienced inspiration less often than our contemporaries. The contrary is a reasonable guess. Our contemporaries are on the whole less intentionally open to God that were the Hebrews, and it is at least plausible to suggest that openness to God’s inspiration is conducive to it. Also the results that come down to us show many indications of inspiration.

The high ration of inspired passages in the Bible is partly due to the process of selection. No doubt there was much very ordinary writing in ancient Israel. What we now have was selected by the community through the centuries. That a community selects on the whole the more inspired parts of what is available is to be expected.

What follows from the judgment that much of the Biblical writing is inspired in this sense? Certainly not that it is free from cultural influence or class bias or patriarchal perspective! The writings are thoroughly human, and that means just as conditioned as any writings by the contexts in which they arose. But to be conditioned is not to be wholly determined. It is the element of transcendence over that determination where we find the work of the Spirit. And there is much of that creative transcendence in the Bible.

What follows from this judgment is that we do find God’s truth transmitted to us in very earthen vessels. The texts we encounter deserve our deepest respect. Of course they should be studied by all critical methods, but when the assumptions of the critic are reductionistic, then we must be open to more than the critic finds.

But is this to be said only of the Bible? Certainly not. There is inspiration in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Hindus and Chinese as well. There is inspiration also in the writings of Shakespeare and Goethe and of contemporary poets and dramatists as well. All this deserves our respect and listening.

Hence the question of the uniqueness of the Bible cannot be answered by the category of inspiration. It must be answered in terms of the importance for us of the history of Israel. That history consists of events and their interpretations inextricably connected. Without inspired interpretations the events would not be important to us today. But without unusual events the inspired writers would not be more important than the inspired writers of other communities. For us, as Christians, the most important events are those that surrounded the person of Jesus. If it had not been for these events the history that has shaped us would have been a very different one. 

These events would not have been possible apart from inspired interpretations of previous events. We cannot appropriate them today apart from interpretations, and if these are not inspired, our tradition will die. Thus inspiration is involved at every point.

So my answer, as a process theologian, is that “Yes, the Bible contains much inspired material.” The healthy continuance of our Christian tradition depends on our intense appreciation of that material and continual recurrence to it. It depends, equally, on our distinguishing inspiration from any notion of inerrancy. And finally it depends on our inspired interpretations of that inspired material through relating it to all the wisdom we can gain from other sources.

Today, we may be inspired to reject some of the ideas that are found even in the most inspired passages of scripture. We have been inspired to see through patriarchy, for example, a patriarchy that pervades the Bible. In this and other respects, we must preach against the Bible. But if this negation is to be healthy, it must be qualified in two respects. First, we should continue also to listen to the truth even in those passages that we feel have done most harm and continue to be most dangerous. And second, we should recognize that, at least for many of us, the call to attack Biblical ideas is grounded in just that tradition we attack. For example, when we attack particular ideas of the prophets, our doing so continues the prophetic tradition. We may be taking the inspiration of the Bible most seriously when we are most free to critique its specific teachings.