The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 2: What is Inspiration - Which Books are Inspired?"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

We have just seen a false notion of inspiration as proposed in NJBC. Now we should see what the true doctrine is.

Athenagoras, an apologist of the second century, said the Holy Spirit used the human writer, "as if a flutist breathed into his flute" (Legation for the Christians 9). Not much later, around 181 A.D., St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote (To Autolycus 2. 10): "Moses... or rather, the Word of God, who used him as an instrument, said, 'In the beginning God made heaven and earth. '"

These texts imply that God Himself is the chief Author. A more explicit statement found in the Ancient Statutes of the Church (DS 325: 5th-6th century) says the one who is to be ordained Bishop should be asked, "if he believes that God is the one and same author of the New and Old Testament."

Vatican I (DS 3006) taught: "The Church considers them [the books of Scripture] sacred and canonical, not that they were written by mere human diligence and then approved by her authority, nor only that they contain revelation without error, but because being written with the Holy Spirit inspiring them, they have God as their author, and as such were handed down to the Church herself."

We notice Vatican I was rejecting two theories of inspiration: 1)It is not enough to say the books were produced by mere human labor and then approved by the Church. Then God could not be said to be their author. This was the old error of Sixtus of Siena in the 16th century. 2) Nor is it enough to say Scripture contains no error. That too would not be enough to let us say God is the author. So there is more.

Pius XII in Divino afflante Spiritu (EB 556-- to which a note on DV # 11 refers us) wrote: "The sacred writer in producing the sacred book is the organon, that is, the instrument of the Holy Spirit, an instrument living and endowed with reason... He, working under inspiration, still uses his own faculties and powers in such away that all can easily gather from the book he produces 'the proper character, and as it were, the individual lines and characteristics, '" of the human writer (internal quote is from Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus of 1920, EB 448).

This does not mean that God dictated the words as one would do to a shorthand stenographer. Then the human being could not also be called the author. And what could we do with the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:14-18? First Paul says he is glad he baptized only Crispus and Gaius. Then he adds - as his memory wakes up in stages - that he also baptized the household of Stephanas. Still further, he adds that he is not sure if he baptized any others. So clearly, this could not fit with a stenographic dictation theory - such a theory was generally given up by the end of the 19th century.

We really have a remarkable picture. God can so employ the human writer as His instrument that the writer will write all that God wills, and do so without any error, but yet retain his own literary style and grammatical ability.

If we ask precisely how this can be, we must take refuge in divine transcendence, that is, we know He is above and beyond all our categories and classifications.

To illustrate we think of the question of how God knows things. We humans know things in either the active or the passive mode. In the passive mode, we receive, we take on an impression from outside, gaining something new. But God cannot be passive, nor can He lack anything. In the active mode: if a blind man is pushing a chair, he knows the chair is moving only because he is pushing it. But we must not make God like a blind man.

Some have wanted even so to say God knows things only by causing them. It is true, He does cause all things. But St. Thomas Aquinas does not limit His manner of knowing to that. Several times over, St. Thomas deals with the problem of how God can know a future free decision, for example, one I will make tomorrow at 10 AM. There are no causes lined up, which will, as it were intersect at 10 AM and cause me to make that decision. Then it would not be free. Further, the decision has not yet been made, and so it is non-existent.

St. Thomas explains (e.g., in Contra gentiles 1. 67; De Veritate 2. 12. c.; and Compendium theologiae 1, 133 # 272) that God's duration is eternity - a life in which there is no change at all. We creatures who live in time see ahead of us a moment we call future - it quickly changes to present - then to past. But since God cannot change, there is no past or future for Him. (Here is another case of transcendence. We say He made the world - a past statement. But to His eternal mind, creation is present. Again, we say Christ will return at the end - but to God, that too is present).

To return to our question. God can know my decision - which is future to me - because eternity makes it present to Him. Viewed as future, it would be non-existent, and so, unknowable. But in the present, it is knowable. However, St. Thomas always stops at precisely this point in making such explanations. He never goes on to say how God knows the thing, once it is present to Him. If St. Thomas really meant that God knows the future decision because He intends to cause it - there would be no need to go into the long explanation about His eternity making the thing present. Thomas would merely say: He knows it because He intends to cause it.

So we again appeal to His transcendence when we say He is the Chief Author, and the human author is a real author too, with his own style, but yet God causes the human to write all that He wills, and to do so without any error whatsoever.

Now that we know what inspiration is in general, it is obvious we need to ask which books are inspired. For in the first centuries there were many so-called Gospels in circulation in addition to the four we recognize, with the names of Apostles on them. So we ask: How can we tell which is which?

We must not start out by saying: Ask the Church. For there could be a vicious circle: believe the Church because the Gospels say so - believe the Gospels because the Church says so.

To avoid such irrationality, we will indeed start with the Gospels, but we will not at the start look on them as inspired. That is something still to be proved. Rather, we look on them at first as merely ancient documents. There is no doubt they are such.

We ask first: has the text come down to us substantially correctly? Textual Criticism deals with this problem. It is especially easy with the Gospels. In the case of pagan works, e.g., Julius Caesar's wars, there is a gap of nearly 1000 years between the copy he wrote or dictated, and the oldest manuscript we have. But for the Gospels the gap is far less. The Sinai and Vatican Codices each date from around 350 A. D. We have others, the Alexandrian Codex and the Codex Bezae from around 400 A. D. We can narrow even this small gap. We have papyri giving parts of the New Testament. The Chester Beatty Papyrus II comes from the early 200s, and includes most of the Epistles of St. Paul. Bodmer Payprus P 75 also comes from around 200, and has parts of Luke and John.

There are major new finds. In the library of Magdalen College, Oxford there are three small fragments of St. Matthew's Gospel. Carsten Thiede by careful paleographic analysis dates them to the 60s AD. (in: Eyewitness to Jesus, Doubleday, 1996). There is also a smaller fragment found at Qumran that is said to be from Mark.

There are other checks too. The Old Syriac and Old Latin versions go back to at least the late 100s. The Coptic and Sahidic versions come from the early 200s. Besides, the Fathers of the Church were quoting Scripture still earlier.

But really, no scholar at all worries about the accuracy of our texts, for the variations between the manuscripts are mostly trifling. They surely have no effect at all on the six key points we are going to be using soon.

A sad mistake was made by the famous scholar Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago. In his Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, p.26 he claimed "No ancient texts reflect the attitudes of the modern western world." He clearly had not read much if anything of the ancient historians of Greece and Rome. From 5th century BC. Herodotus (Preface 1) and Thucydides (1.22) and Roman Livy (7.6.6) and Tacitus, Annals 1.1) and numerous others we see that their chief aim was to record facts. They added interpretations more than we do, but there is no harm in that. They also includes speeches, which we do not do. But Thucydides explains he tried to get the actual text or at least he wrote what seemed to fit. Since he so honestly tells us this, we need not be deceived. Modern historians would give Thucydides and Tacitus an "A" for facts (some think Tacitus is rather hard on Tiburius-- which is debated today). Livy and Herodotus would rate a B.

Next we ask what genre of writing the Gospels are. It is evident, they mean to give facts about Jesus, plus interpretations for the sake of faith. This is the sort of writing we would expect, in the Jewish factual tradition.

The objection arises: can we tell the facts from the interpretations? Is there any such thing as an uninterpreted report? The answer is: Many times it is very possible. We need two conditions.

First the item in question should not be entangled with an ancient culture, which might be hard to reconstruct. (Really this is hardly worth a mention, for the Hebrew culture is known so well).

Second, some happenings are such that anyone present could pick up the facts with eyes and ears, with no possibility of damage from bias. For example, a leper stands before Jesus asking to be healed. He says: I will it: be healed. Someone could fake the whole thing, but other than that, there is no room for any effect from bias.

Would someone fake the basic facts about Jesus? Definitely no: the first Christians believed their eternal fate depended on knowing about Him.

Someone will say: Muslims and others die for their beliefs. True, but that proves only sincerity. In addition, we must see whether they have the facts. Muhammed went into a cave, claimed revelations there. But there is no check whatsoever on it.

So we must ask now: could the Evangelists have access to the facts? Very definitely yes: (1)The First Epistle of Clement to Corinth is dated about 95 A. D. The writer says Peter and Paul were of his own generation - that is obvious, for Peter and Paul died around 66 AD. Clement became Pope in either 88 or 92. We would expect he was around to hear them - as were countless others still living later. (2)Quadratus, the earliest Greek apologist, wrote around 123 AD. He says that in his day, some were still alive who had been cured by Jesus or raised from the dead by Him. This need not be as late as 123 of course. But it would surely cover the period 80-90 when leftists think Matthew and Luke wrote (they think Mark wrote a bit before 70). (3)Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis c. 130, and also the Antimarcionite Prologues (late 2nd century) and St. Irenaeus (died c 200) all report Mark wrote from the preaching of Peter. Even Martin Hengel of the University of Tubingen - the source from which so many unsound critical and rationalistic views have come -- believes these reports about Mark. There are still other sources, but let us mention merely this: Jesus died around 30 or 33 AD. A person then in his/her teens would be about 65 by the year 80, the period when some think Matthew and Luke wrote. So there would be some still alive - as Quadratus said - who had heard Jesus in person.

Up to this point we are able to gather this: The Gospels should be able to give us at least a few of the very simple facts - not enmeshed with an ancient culture, and such that there is no room for bias in the report unless there was complete fakery, which their concern for their eternity ruled out. So we look for and find six facts, all of which match this description:

1) There was a man called Jesus. This is obvious from all over the Gospels. We have even pagan evidence. Tacitus, a Roman historian admired by modern critics, comments in connection with Nero's persecution (Annals 15. 44): "The author of this name, Christ, was executed during the reign of Tiberius, by the procurator Pontius Pilate."

2) He claimed He was sent by God, as a sort of messenger. This is evident all over the Gospels. He often demanded belief in Himself as a condition for a cure.

3)He did enough to prove He was such a messenger not just by working miracles, but miracles done in a framework where there is a tie between the miracle and His claim, e.g., when He healed the paralytic let down through the roof to prove He had forgiven the man's sins. As to the miracles themselves - not even His enemies in His own day denied them - they just said He did them by the devil or magic. (Incidentally, His miracles are in continuity with the scientifically checked miracles of Lourdes, many worked when the Blessed Sacrament passed in procession. This implies an abiding, not just a transient Real Presence there - which no other church claims is true).

4) We would expect this item: In the crowds He had a smaller group to whom He spoke more.

5) We would also expect this: He told them to continue His work, His teaching. We cannot imagine God sending a messenger with such power for just one generation.

6) Again, knowing He is a messenger sent from God, and seeing His power so often, we are not surprised when He promises God will protect their teaching: "He who hears you hears me" (Luke 10:16). We notice that although He identifies with the poor as poor, in this case He identifies with His teachers as His teachers. Again: "If he will not hear the Church, let him be to you as a heathen and a publican" (Mt. 18. 17).

Now, after this process, in which we did not appeal to faith at all, we have before us a group - we could call it a Church - commissioned to teach by a messenger sent from God, and promised God's protection on that teaching. Now it is not only intellectually permissible, but mandatory - if we have followed the reasoning - to believe what the group/Church says. It can then tell us which books are inspired, it can tell us that the Messenger is divine; it can tell us there is a Pope, and what authority he has. It can tell us many more things about the Gospels, so we do not have to fight our way through numerous incidents questioned by critics. We have made, with the six simple facts, a bypass around all their worries.

We notice that there is no other way to determine which books are inspired. Luther thought if a book preached justification by faith strongly, it was inspired. But he did not prove that was the standard, and further, he could write such a book, and so could I, and it would not be inspired. John Calvin thought we know which books are inspired by the interior testimony of the Spirit (Institutes I. 7). But that is hopelessly subjective.

There is another quote from Luther which is very interesting. In his Commentary on John, ch. 16, he wrote, "We are obliged to yield many things to the papists—that they possess the word of God, which we received from them. Otherwise, we should have known nothing at all about."