Friday, March 27, 2009

Biblical Inspiration and the Rendering of Scripture

A Facebook quiz I recently took called "Which Anglican Theologian Are You?" said that I am Austin Farrer (1904-1968). Intrigued, I just read a very insightful passage from Interpretation and Belief (1976) by Farrer on the meaning of biblical inspiration that I want to share.

But first, a brief biographical sketch:

The son of Baptist parents, Austin Farrer became an Anglican as an undergraduate at Oxford, where he read Classics and Theology. After a curacy in Dewsbury he returned to Oxford in 1930, and in 1935 succeeded Kenneth Kirk as chaplain of Trinity, where he served for twenty-five years, until his final eight years as Warden of Keble. A devout Tractarian in spirituality, he was a notable philosopher of religion, an imaginative student of scripture, and one of the most brilliant preachers of his generation [Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 658].

Now for the passage from the book.

If God inspires St Paul to speak, how are we to strain out St Paul, so as to be left with the pure word of God? ... How are we to draw the line between the Apostle's oddities and the word of God?

It would save us a lot of trouble if we could find a cut-and-dried answer to that question; but cut-and-dried answers to spiritual questions are always false, and in the special matter of understanding God's word Christ rules such answers out. 'He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear', he said. We cannot hear the voice of God in Christ's words, let alone in St Paul's or Isaiah's, unless we have an ear attuned. After we have done our best to understand the words by the aid of mere honest scholarship, there is still something to be done, and that is the most important thing of all: to use our spiritual ears. If we do not believe that the same God who moved St Paul can move us to understand what he moved St Paul to say, then (once again) it isn't much use our bothering about St. Paul's writings. 'God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.'

'God is his own interpreter.' Does this mean that each of us is to take any given text to signify just what we happen to feel about it at the moment of reading? Certainly not. God is his own interpreter, but he does not interpret himself only by speaking in the single reader's mind, he interprets himself by speaking in the Church, in the whole organized body of Christian minds; we are not alone, we have the mind of Christendom, the Catholic Faith, to guide us. God is his own interpreter in another way, too: he gives us one text by which to interpret another. The God who spoke in St Paul spoke also in St John, he who inspired one page of St John also inspired the next page, and the one will cast light upon the other. And above all lights, most clear and most brilliant, is the light of Christ.

People used to talk about the verbal inspiration of Scripture, that is, the inspiration of the actual words. In one sense that is absolutely right, but in another sense it is misleading. Verbal inspiration is a misleading expression, if it means that every word is guaranteed to be free from human error or bias, so that (for example) St Luke's dates, St John's history, and St Paul's astronomy are absolutely beyond criticism. That is not so: St Paul's astronomy is (as astronomy) no good to us at all. St Luke appears to have made one or two slips in dating, and St John was often content with a very broad or general historical effect, and concentrated more on what things meant than just the way they happened. It does not matter. God can and does teach us the things necessary to our salvation in spite of these human imperfections in the texts.

But in another sense verbal inspiration is a proper expression; indeed it stands for the very thing we need to think about most. It is not true that every word is guaranteed, but it is true that the inspiration is to be found in the very words and nowhere else. What God inspired St Paul to do was to use the very words he used; just as, when God inspires you to do a good action, the action itself is what God inspires. He doesn't put some sort of vague blue-print for action into the back of your head, and leave you to carry it out according to your own ability. He inspires the action, and if we want to see Gods' spirit expressed in the lives of his rue servants, we don't look for it in any general ideas, policies, or attitudes they may have, but int he particular things they do. Every detail counts; the tone of the voice, the gesture of the hand can make the difference between social hypocrisy and Christian kindness. So too it is in the detail of expression, in the living words of divine Scripture that we hear the voice of the divine Spirit, not in any general (and therefore dead) ideas. We are listening to the voice of God, not reading a text book of theology; we must attend, therefore, to the homely phrases, the soaring poetry, the figures of speech, the changes of mood; for these are the alphabet of the divine utterance.

I take up the Bible and I read. Here are a million or so printed words, in which divine gold and human clay are mixed, and I have to take the gold and leave the clay. Is there clay everywhere mixed with the gold, does no part of the text speak with a simple and absolute authority? Indeed it does in some part, for some part of it is the voice and recorded action of Christ, and in Christ the divine does not need to be sorted from the human, the two are run into one, for here is God in human nature by personal presence. Christ is the golden heart of Scripture. Indeed, if he were not there, the rest would not concern me. Why do I read St Paul? Because he sets Christ forth. Why do I read the Old Testament? Because it is the spiritual inheritance Christ received, it is what he filled his mind with, it is the soil in which his thought grew, it is the alphabet in which he spelled, it is the body of doctrine which he took over and transformed. So whenever I am reading the Old Testament I am asking, 'What does this mean when it is transformed in Christ?' and whenever I am reading the New Testament I am asking, 'How does this set Christ forth to us?'

There is no part of the Bible which is not inspired, because there is no part that does not either illuminate, or receive light from, the figure of Christ. But obviously not all parts are equally important, and some of them are more the concern of theologians than of laymen. Begin from the most important parts; read the Gospels and Epistles, read Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah, and when you are full of those spread you net wider.

People will always ask why God gives us his truth in such a mixed form; just as they will always ask why God made the world such a mixed affair. And those who are looking for excuses to live without God will say that, until God speaks more clear, they cannot be bothered to listen; but people who care about God will listen to him here, because this is where he can be heard and because it's a matter of life and death.

What is the Bible like? Like a letter which a soldier wrote to his wife about the disposition of his affairs and the care of his children in case he should chance to be killed. And the next day he was shot, and died, and the letter was torn and stained with his blood. Her friends said to the woman: The letter is of no binding force; it is not a legal will, and it is so injured by the accidents of the writer's death you cannot even prove what it means. But she said: I know the man, and I am satisfied I can see what he means. And I shall do it because it is what he wanted me to do, and because he died next day.

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