The Bible and its Inspiration:
A United Methodist Perspective
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
United Methodists have a very rich doctrinal heritage, going all the way back to the early Church and the creeds of the second, third, and fourth centuries. Indeed, from the earliest days Methodist faith and practice were intentionally grounded within the broadest and most ancient streams of Christian theological thought. Drawing from early Catholic and Orthodox Church authors, John Wesley developed a rich supply of “practical divinity,” or teachings, regarding the “methods” and “disciplines” which he believed would be helpful for any Christian’s religious life. Being a priest of the Church of England, Wesley especially loved and preferred the formal doctrines of that national church, and so we have within the heart of our “Doctrinal Standards” today an adapted version of the Anglican Articles of Religion: a collection of theological statements on a wide variety of topics dealing with Christina faith, practice, and interpretation. Whenever there is a question regarding the “official position” of the United Methodist Church on any theological issue, it’s always a good idea to see if it has been addressed within the Articles of Religion. This is particularly true when it comes to fundamental questions like the nature of the Bible.
The fifth Article of Religion states the "official" position of The United Methodist Church on "The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation":
The Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
This statement puts the Bible at the center of our theological task: we are called to read and interpret the Scriptures so that we might know what is “necessary to salvation.” The Scriptures tell us about God's love for us in Jesus Christ; they tell us about how God became incarnate in human flesh, about how Jesus came to live among us, teach us the Will of God, and then die on the cross for us as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. The scriptures outline for us what we must do and believe, and they limit what can be required for salvation. Put simply, they contain the Word of God.
While the Bible contains the Word of God, it does so through, within, and amongst the words of human beings. God inspired the Bible, true, but God did so through the instrumentality of human authors, with human words and human thoughts and human experiences playing a large role in the writing process. The human authors were still human beings as they wrote: they had human failings, human opinions, human agenda, human dreams and desires. They didn’t stop being human, nor did they give up their personal identities, their ingenuity, or their cultural and individual characteristics when they wrote. Some Christians still want to view the process of Biblical Inspiration as if it involved some kind of suspension of the human will and identity, with the Biblical authors relegated to the limited role of taking some kind of “Divine Dictation.” However, any reasonable approach to the Biblical record will reveal that such a complete take-over of identity among the authors simply didn’t happen. Each of the canonical books shows clear and unmistakable signs of its human author: the author’s character, humor, political and historical opinions, biases and bigotries all come through in each and every book of the Bible. While Methodists certainly affirm that God had an essential role in the writing of the Bible, we do the Scriptures an injustice when we fail to recognize that they are a collection of Divinely inspired, and yet still utterly human, reflections upon the human encounter with God, as well as human reflections and opinions upon what we, as a people of faith, should be doing in response to God’s offer of a relationship of grace and peace in Jesus Christ.
So, what do we understand regarding the “inspiration” of the Bible? If Methodists don’t view inspiraiton as a suspension of the human will and identity of the authors in its writing, then what do we mean? We often say that a sunset, sunrise, or other sight of great beauty “inspires” us to write a wonderful poem or paint a remarkable painting or compose a powerful song. The sight so “moves” us, so “compels us,” so “empowers” us, so “inspires” us that we put our emotional and intellectual response into creative action and we produce a work of art that contains within it a degree of the beauty and emotion that originally “inspired” us. That is certainly a kind of inspiration, and it is one of the ways that we may view the inspiration of the Bible. God so moved in the lives of the Biblical authors that their response was to write down their reflections upon these events and upon what they believed God was trying to say to and through them.
Do we normally reproduce that which inspires us with precision and un-nuanced, stark reality? No, we present our interpretation of that which inspires us. With any artistic production the idea is to present that which inspires us with our interpretation serving as an important component in the communication. This is, I believe, far more similar to what we mean by “the Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures,” than is any concept of dictation. Yes, I do believe that we have communications from God in the Holy Scriptures I believe in Divine Revelation. However, I also believe that much of that communication comes to us through human interpretations, with human words and human grammar and human biases and human agenda, all sometimes sharing equal billing with what God is saying. The challenge here is for people of faith is to read through these experiences and, in and through that process, hear and recieve the ringing truth of the Word of God.
How does this kind of Divine inspiration actually function in the context of the writing of the Holy Scriptures? Let’s take our example from the Gospels, specifically Luke. The author of this Gospel nowhere asserts that he was present at the events which he describes. Quite the contrary, he tells us from the outset that what he is writing is the product of his own research, his scholarship, his pain-staking interviews of those who were present at the events and of those who heard the stories of those who were present at the events. Luke wrote not as an eye-witness but, rather, as a theologian, a man of faith, and a historian. He took the written works of those who came before him, particularly the Gospel of Mark and a collection of Jesus’ saying which was also available to the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and he wrote his own work in such a way as to present his understanding of the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This presentation contains Luke’s own theological interpretations of the events related in the account, along with the theological interpretations of the community of faith in which he lived and of the Disciples and Apostles who went before him. All of this is fairly certain, based upon what we see both in Luke’s Gospel and in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.
So, where does the inspiration of the Holy Spirit come into play in the writing of Luke’s Gospel? I submit that it takes center stage as the clear, compelling, life transforming motivation which drove the author to actually write his Gospel, as well as in all of the writings that he used and in the memories and experiences of those whom he interviewed. Indeed, I also believe that inspiration is present even in the theological interpretation of the early Christian Church.
© 2010 Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
Dr. Gregory S. Neal, Ph.D., is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Podcast Format