This past weekend, in the booklet we used to study through 1 Peter, I included a note on why we spoke about the letter as something that was both written by Peter, and–at the same time–God’s word. How do Christians conceive of this being possible?
The answer to that question is found in one of the most interesting and fascinating parts of Christian doctrine, the doctrine of inspiration. Seriously, after the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, this has to be top on your list. Anyway, for any of you who’ve never thought through this before, here’s the section from the booklet, which is taken from the Truth on Campus booklet you can download here.
HOW DOES THE BIBLE WORK?
OR, HOW CAN IT BE THE WORDS OF A HUMAN AND GOD AT THE SAME TIME?
You are a totally unique kind of being in the universe. You are a human, and a human is that kind of creature who—by definition—can be in relationship to God. Of all the universe, we are the one part God talks to. (This idea was suggested to me in Robert Letham’s book The Holy Trinity. He quotes an author named Alar Laats, who says this: “A human person is one who is in principle open to the Holy Spirit and who is able to respond to him. Or to put it in other words: a human person is the one who can in principle be in communion with God.” How can we know this is true? Because of who Jesus is. Letham explains, “If it were not so and could not be so, then Jesus Christ—God and man—could not be one person, for the difference between Creator and creature would be so great that incarnation would not be possible.”)
What does this have to do with the Bible? Well, we can take it one step further: a human is that kind of creature who can be indwelt with the Spirit of God. As Christians so often say: “We have a God-shaped void in our hearts.” To put it another way, God created us to be so close to him that he could actually live in us, permeating our Spirits and uniting us to him. It’s an elevation beyond our wildest dreams—to be in union with the One who made us. And the writers of the Bible say that it is exactly this reality that allowed them to be humans who wrote God’s words.
In a special way through history, some people (first known as the Prophets and later Jesus’ followers known as Apostles) were so in union with God that, at times, what they spoke or wrote were God’s words, even while they were simultaneously their words. In the scriptures we learn that it is God’s Holy Spirit who is the key link between God and man. “We have received…the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God,” wrote the Apostle Paul in a letter to a church in Corinth. This Spirit, Paul says, knows “the deep things of God.” (That’s in 1 Corinthians 2.) “Holy men of God spoke,” the Apostle Peter wrote, “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)
Here’s where we may run into, and should solve, an old assumption about the way God and humans relate. Many people seem to have a way of seeing the God-Human connection as a kind of pie graph. The bigger God’s slice gets, the smaller ours gets. When some people talk about the Bible, they seem to assume that the fact that humans were involved means that God wasn’t involved. Or at least, if God was involved, the human part messed up his part. In other words, since people wrote the books of the Bible, it’s not God’s word. But how do we know that humans are, by nature, the kind of beings who cancel out God wherever they are?
It might sound powerful to say “The Bible is man’s word, not God’s,” but do you see the “either/or” thinking here? Why must it be either God or people? Why couldn’t it be both? Maybe there are better ways for us to think about these things. When we truly encounter the Bible, we have that kind of thinking challenged. God is not the kind of God who has to cancel out our humanity when he wants to do or say something. He doesn’t push us aside to get his work done. The whole universe is a theater for God to work in, through, and with us. We are, by nature, the kind of beings who find our highest expression when we are united to, becoming like, and working with our God. And that’s exactly what happened—in a totally unique and never-repeated way—when the Spirit of God indwelt and guided the writers of the Bible. What they wrote was completely their words, and completely God’s words. That’s why, in the Bible, different books and letters and poems by different authors sound different. Each author has a unique touch that shows individuality, exactly as we’d expect from a collection of books written by different people. And yet, all this humanity is no problem at all for God, who seems to like to speak his word in this way. He doesn’t erase the individuality of the authors as they write—he actually seems to use their particular personalities. As Bible scholar Vern Poythress puts it: “We can see that God manifests the infinity of his wisdom and his harmony with himself exactly when his speech resonates with the particularities of the personality of a particular human being. For example, we can see in Paul’s writings the person of Paul…What do we think about this presence of Paul as a person in his writings? Do we think that it harmonizes with inspiration? Is it strange? Some people may be tempted to conclude that such personal expressions, by showing a human side, contradict the divine side. But that sort of reasoning misunderstands human nature, inspiration, and the way in which God’s presence can affirm and take account of human contexts. In fact, once we have come to understand in some measure who Paul is and how he speaks, these personal touches are in full harmony with who God is and how he expresses himself. He speaks in harmony with the person of Paul when Paul is the person through whom he speaks.”
This is what Christians mean when they say the Bible is inspired. Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy: “Every word of scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
In seeking to explain how this works when it comes to writing, theologian John Frame explains that inspiration is “a divine act that creates an identity [that is, an exact match] between a divine word and a human word.” If you’ve moved in Christian circles for a while, you might be seeing that this way of thinking about what the Bible is can help address some issues Christians sometimes disagree on—like the extent to which the Bible does or does not contain mistakes. Even in the Christian camp, some people may assume things about God and humanity that make it hard for them to see how God could have given us a clear, error-free book that is at once totally human and completely, perfectly, divine in origin. And yet, once we allow ourselves to be open to a biblical way of thinking about both God and humanity, we see that we don’t have to play the human and divine off against each other. They exist together in perfect harmony.
In other words, the Bible shows us a supreme example of these horizon-opening truths: God exists. He speaks. We can hear and understand. We can know him. He can live inside us. And, even though we won’t be writing scripture (those days are over), when we allow him to rule in our lives, it won’t mean the end of our individuality or personality, but rather the fullest, truest expression of who we are.
If you’d like to download and read the entire booklet entitled “What is the Bible?”, you can find it here.