verbal inspiration

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The theory that God so inspired the authors of the biblical texts that they had to be written precisely in those words and no others. It has been held in most eras of Jewish and Christian interpretation of the scriptures. It is therefore to be distinguished from modern theories of inspiration which place the intervention of God in the events of history (Heilsgeschichte) rather than in the narratives. Verbal inspiration is also different from theories which locate the work of the Spirit in the creative imaginations of the individual authors. Verbal inspiration emphasizes the uniqueness of scripture (‘the oracles of God’, Rom. 3: 2), divinely given (2 Pet. 1: 21) and accepted as such by Jesus (John 10: 35) and by the rabbis. Traditional Jewish interpretation regards the text as dictated by God and therefore without error, inconsistency, or obsolescence.

Christian interpretation in the Fathers and the Middle Ages held that beyond the literal meaning of the text there were others, especially the allegorical, but the literal sense was fundamental, and was interpreted in a conservative way. The Reformers rejected allegorical interpretation but put great stress on the authority of the Bible in their controversies with Rome. But the doctrinal clash with Rome, and serious discrepancies amongst the Reformers themselves, led to rival interpretations of the biblical text, and to a new freedom in exploring its meaning.

In 17th-cent. England Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch was being questioned. In Germany there were soon systematic examinations of language, history, and authorship of the biblical books. Biblical criticism had arrived. Against it, those who upheld a doctrine of verbal inspiration conceded that individual writers had their own styles, and the books of the Bible represented different genres. But conservative Evangelicals maintain that, essentially, inspiration must entail the total accuracy of the historical records and the truth of its doctrines. The First Vatican Council (1870) took a similar view that inspiration ‘is incompatible with error…It is impossible that God himself can err’, a view reinforced when the authorities crushed Roman Catholic Modernism in 1907. However, the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu of September 1943 allowed a new and more open approach into Roman Catholic biblical scholarship, strongly encouraged by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in a document called The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1995).

Most modern scholars accept that the biblical documents must be rigorously examined with all the available resources of linguistics, archaeology, and historical enquiry. For them, any theory of verbal inspiration, however eroded or redefined, is incompatible with scholarly freedom. It is on such a basis that allegiance to Jesus must be either offered or withdrawn.

Subjects: Biblical Studies.

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