Israel and the Inspiration of Scripture (Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright)


This is part 3  of the series blogging through the book Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright. You might want to start with part 1. 

Having laid out a thesis (see part 1) and presenting the problems with how scripture is used as authoritative today (see part 2), Wright sets out to examine the use of scripture across different periods of time.

In chapter 2,Wright looks at Israel’s use of scripture and touches on the idea that these writings were inspired by God.

“Inspiration” is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have. This is not the subject of the present book, but we should note that some kind of divine inspiration of scripture was taken for granted in most of the ancient Israelite scriptures themselves, as well as in the beliefs of the early Christians.

While it would be difficult to fully understand Wright’s view of inspiration since he leaves that term packed in a suitcase, it would appear that Wright holds to God being actively involved in the writing and editing process of the scriptures. The result of this process was the creation of the books that God intended Israel (and by extension us) to have today. I am not sure why Wright felt that the topic of inspiration did not require a more in depth treatment in a book that deals with the authority of scripture since the two ideas are related.

A small opening in the suitcase packed with Wright’s ideas on inspiration can found in the lecture/essay, published in Vox Evangelica. In this essay God is shown to exercise His authority by delegating it to prophets who carried forth His message and through whom God was able to work and accomplish His purposes.

That is how God brought his authority to bear on Israel: not by revealing to them a set of timeless truths, but by delegating his authority to obedient men through whose words he brought judgment and salvation to Israel and the world.

The example given for this idea is Micaiah, a prophet who foretells Ahab’s doom (1 Kings 22). Wright goes on to explain that Jesus, to Whom all authority has been given, has delegated this authority to the prophets and their writings:

Thus it is that through the spoken and written authority of anointed human beings God brings his authority to bear on his people and his world. Thus far, we have looked at what the Bible says about how God exercises his judging and saving authority. And it includes (the point with which in fact we began) the delegation of his authority, in some sense, to certain writings.

Moving back to the book, since scripture is comprised of the books God intended for us to have and in some way have been delegated authority, Wright explains the purpose of these books.

When full allowance is made for the striking differences of genre and emphasis within scripture, we may propose that Israels sacred writings were the place where, and the mean by which, Israel discovered again and again who the true God was, and how his Kingdom-purposes were being taken forward.

The two key points here are that Israel was able to discover who the true God is apart from the false gods and idols that surrounded them and could learn how to live in expectation of the Kingdom purposes that were unfolding. For Wright these purposes are God’s dealing with the problem of evil and the renewal of creation.

Wright then explains that the “Word of God” is not just a synonym for the written words but also refers to an “elusive, but powerful idea” that God is present and working through the scriptures. This idea is called speech-acts, a term left undeveloped in the book. We get a glimpse of what this might mean looking back to chapter 1:

God does indeed speak through scripture. But we cannot either reduce God’s speech to scripture alone, or for that matter ignore the fact … that “speech” must itself be thought of in terms of “speech-acts“, the deeds are performed by the fact of speaking at all, in particular saying certain types of things

The study of speech-acts focuses on what is said, what was meant, and the actions that are the result of the words that were spoken or written. An example from About.com:

“We use the term speech act to describe actions such as ‘requesting,’ ‘commanding,’ ‘questioning,’ or ‘informing.’ We can define a speech act as the action performed by a speaker with an utterance. If you say, I’ll be there at six, you are not just speaking, you seem to be performing the speech act of ‘promising.’

The point that Wright is making, at least the point I think he is trying to make, is that scripture is more than the written words or timeless truths that they contain but the intent and implications of the one who utters them. Thus at the heart of scripture is, not only words on a page, but the fact that God is acting and transforming and renewing us (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 5:17).

For someone noted as being a clear and articulate writer and theologian, I have found Wright elusive and difficult to understand regarding exactly how he views authority and inspiration.What does Wright mean when he says that God’s Spirit guided and produced the books that God intended? How does this view differ with the evangelical understanding of this idea (or does it)? And how could this happen without implying some amount of infallibility to the books (which is not dealt with in the book)? However, while Wright’s views regarding inspiration may not fully align with the Chicago statement on inerrancy, we can conclude that Wright holds to the view that scripture was written with the aid of the Holy Spirit and has been delegated authority from God.

While I may go further than Wright in my views on inspiration I agree with much of what he has outlined so far.

  • God guided men in the writing and editing process of creating the written scriptures that He intended.
  • God delegates His authority to these writings.
  • God works through these writings to make Himself known, to transform His people, and to equip His people to accomplish His purposes.

What do you make of Wright’s view of inspiration? Does it imply some degree of infallibility?

If you reject Wright’s view of inspiration, in what way do you see scripture having authority and how do you think we are to discover who the true God is?

Do you know of anything Wright has written that expands and explains his views on these topics?

Rachel Held Evans is also blogging through this book. In her post this week, the entry centered on inspiration and the term the “Word of God”. I encourage you to check out the post and following discussion.

ASIDE: If you have not seen this yet, you should check out the satire, Tom Wright reads Humpty Dumpty.

[Continue reading through the series: part 4]

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