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Theological Publications





The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible:

A Critique

Robert M. Price


I love the Bible. I have devoted my life to the study of it. I wrote one Ph.D. dissertation on the various evangelical theories of Biblical authority, and a second one focusing on themes in Luke and Acts. None of this means my views must be correct. But it does show I do not approach this sensitive topic as an opponent of the Bible. Just the reverse. I disagree sharply with many Bible devotees, but we both love it and want to know it better. I want to suggest that, first, the claim that the Bible is divinely inspired is spurious; second, that it is pernicious; and, third, that it is moot. The Bible and our study of it will be better off without that claim.

            First, the claim is spurious, false. Not in the sense that it claims something is true that is not true, but rather that the claim itself is bogus. We are only mistakenly told that “The Bible claims to be inspired.” There is less to this grand pronouncement than meets the eye. Granted, very often the Hebrew Prophets are quoted as claiming their spoken oracles are the very word of Yahweh, which indeed they may have been. But such claims refer strictly to the spoken words as originally delivered. They in no way contain a guarantee that these oracles may not have been inaccurately copied, altered or corrupted, or mixed with words from later prophets. There is no claim at all that the writing down and editing of their oracles was divinely inspired or supervised. In fact, John, in Revelation 22:18-19, expresses the fear that someone might tamper with his text and threatens such a one with damnation. He knew it was a real danger.

            To make the inspiration claim on the basis of the prophets is to confuse spoken delivery with scribal preservation. And, worse yet, it is to beg the whole question, for when we say “‘The’ ‘Bible’ claims its own inspiration,” we smuggle in the assumption that scripture is a single, canonical unit in which any claim made by one writer automatically applies equally to all, as if Jeremiah’s “Thus saith the Lord” applied equally to 2 Chronicles or the Song of Solomon. Not so fast, if you please!

            Some say the New Testament must be inspired because in John 16:12-14 Jesus predicts the coming of the Paraclete who will inspire the apostles with his teachings, new and remembered. But this promise says nothing of any writings they might commit to paper. And even if it did, Paul, Mark, and Luke were not in the room at the time. And it is hotly debated whether any New Testament document was actually written by any of the Twelve. The authorship of 1 and 2 Peter is very likely pseudonymous. The ascriptions of two gospels to Matthew and John are merely traditional, not even contained in the texts. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews, the gospel texts actually contain no author’s name.

            The author of 2 Timothy 3:16 certainly considered the contents of whatever the Jewish scripture canon was at the time to be divinely inspired, but he says nothing about any New Testament writings being inspired. That is no real surprise, but it leaves us without the claim to "plenary" biblical inspiration that some pretend to find in this verse. There is no biblical claim that the whole biblical canon as we know it is inspired. And to claim that there is, is circular, making the Bible into a univocal, canonical monolith. It is a spurious claim.

 The claim to inspiration is pernicious. First, it implicitly insults the very book it seeks to praise, as if one need not take the Bible seriously unless one could be persuaded that a superhuman entity wrote it. Much of the Bible is so profound, so wise, so beautiful, so edifying that any claim of miraculous inspiration adds absolutely nothing to the inherent force of its words. As Father Abraham said to Dives, those who already have Moses and the Prophets and remain deaf to them will not start listening if one rises from the dead (Luke 16:31). And claims to divine inspiration will make no more difference. Conversely, some of the Bible, such as its vengeful commands to genocide, its threats of eternal torture, its easy toleration of slavery and the oppression of women, are so defective that no claim to inspiration can make them better and only places a halo over bad texts. Such claims to plenary inspiration corrupt biblical morality itself by teaching us to call the bad good. Such claims debase the Bible by making us pretend that it is all on the same level when in fact any sensitive reader, until bullied by theologians, can see that it is not. If Isaiah’s ringing oracles and the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount do not command your conscience by their own merit, claims of divine inspiration are not going to help. Nor should they make the superstitious scare stories of Leviticus sound any better to us. The good parts of the Bible do not need your help, nor do you have the right to become a disingenuous spin-doctor for the bad ones.

            Second, the claim for biblical inspiration is pernicious because it straitjackets the open-ended, inductive reading of the Bible. Once one holds normative beliefs about what an inspired book may or may not be found saying, one has abandoned both the Protestant axioms of Sola Scriptura and the grammatico-historical method. Sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone!") means that the text of scripture shall have precedence over any theological claim. The grammatico-historical method means that scripture must be read in a public, secular manner, the same way we interpret any ancient literature. We cannot admit of secret meanings and special rules appropriate to Holy Scripture. That was the way Martin Luther ruled out Roman Catholics reading their own doctrines into a text which, plainly read, said nothing of purgatory or popes. But when fundamentalists forbid any reading of the text that would imply biblical error or contradiction because “Scripture cannot err” they themselves are trying to control the reading of the Bible according to prior doctrine. Again, claims to inspiration dishonor the Bible since they prevent us from reading it honestly and without prejudice.


Finally, claims about biblical inspiration are moot. Even if we had reason to believe the whole canon was equally inspired, this should not make any real difference to our understanding of the text. Would an inspired book necessarily be historically and scientifically inerrant? There is no particular reason to think so. One could not be sure, as fundamentalists would like to think, that an inspired book would not contain inspired myths and legends, even fiction. There are other non-factual genres in the Bible, after all, like the Psalms. Who is the theologian to tell God that he cannot have included certain genres in his book? If we know God’s literary tastes in such detail, then I suggest the Bible is altogether superfluous. We already know the very mind of God before we even open the Bible! Aren't we clever?

            Similarly, how can we be so sure that, if, as B.B. Warfield said, God chose real human beings, with real biographies, educations and opinions, to write his book, he would have not allowed their opinions to conflict, as godly people piously differ today? Just because it would make it less convenient for us that way?   

            In fact, as is well known, fundamentalists readily admit that it appears that the Bible writers do contradict one another, for instance James and Paul on the question of whether faith alone or faith plus works justifies. But this, they say, is only an apparent contradiction. They then proceed to spin. They say that if we took James’ words in some less than obvious way we might be able to make it sound like he is saying the same thing as Paul, only in different words. But wait a second! I thought the Bible was authoritative as taken literally! That is, on the face of it, the surface sense. Not some subtle, less than literal meaning that would be convenient for our theology. Again, if we can do that, we have rejected the grammatico-historical method. We can make the Bible say anything we want.

            And why do they always make James agree with Paul? Why not twist Paul to make him sound like James? Because Reformation theology controls their interpretation, and their theology prefers Paul. In any case, in practice, fundamentalists wind up saying implicitly what I am saying explicitly: that the whole Bible cannot be taken as equally authoritative.

            Anyone knows that a claim for the inspiration of the Bible does nothing to mitigate the frequent ambiguity of the Bible. Can you get a divorce or not? Is warfare allowed or not? Can women be ordained? Do charismatic gifts linger to our own day? Is there predestination or free will? Does John 1:1 mean Jesus is God himself, or a god? At Dallas Theological Seminary they debate whether it is sufficient to accept Jesus as savior only, or whether one must accept him as Lord also! None of these debates has ever been resolved, but both sides in all these debates are defended by believers in the inspiration of the Bible. I ask you, if it leaves even such questions as these uncertain, what is the doctrine worth? What difference does it actually make? None that I can see.


Why will this conclusion dismay many people? So much so, in fact, that they cannot even bring themselves to consider the possible merits of my argument? Why do they feel at once the urgent need to find some refutation, if not to dismiss it out of hand? I think it is because they are impatient and afraid.

            Some wish to use the Bible as a weapon to silence others and their viewpoints. They know that if they ever took seriously even the fact of the Bible’s frequent ambiguity, they would never be able to say with Billy Graham’s ringing certitude, “The Bible says...” Careful study shows that it is not so simple a matter what the Bible says. Sometimes it says more than one thing per topic! They want to be able to teach like Jesus, “with authority, and not as the scribes.” But they are not the Son of God. Like me, they are at best scribes, and the better a scribe knows his text, the more hesitatant he will be to pontificate from it.

            Some are afraid. They are afraid of having to use their own wits to decide what is the right thing to do, or to believe. They would like to think they have a supernatural answer book. Why not admit with the rest of us that we are all in the same boat of using our best wits to decide those tough ethical and theological questions? Everyone knows we are left to our own resources when it comes to questions not mentioned in the Bible, like abortion, cloning, genetic engineering, the fate of those who never hear the gospel. Why would it be so terrible if we had to approach all the big questions the same way?

            Some people seem to imagine, whether consciously or not, that God is a cranky theology professor, and that he has assigned us the task of answering all the questions of existence by a deadline: the day we die. And some are afraid that if they show up at the pearly gates and hand in the exam book, and if there are enough wrong answers, especially on some big ticket questions (like the deity of Christ and the atonement), they will get a big rosy “F” and go down the shoot to Hell. Where did this crazy idea of God come from? I know: from church. But it is a bad idea. It maligns God in more ways than I have the space to explain. But what on earth does this have to do with grace? It is a form of Gnosticism, salvation by knowledge.

            This is the root of the urgency of biblicism. As I have tried to show, there is not much logic to it, just psycho-logic. The psychology of superstitious fear. The claim to biblical inspiration is a rationalization whereby we allow ourselves not to hear the things we fear to hear from the Bible. But I am not afraid. I love the Bible, and perfect love casts out fear. 


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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