Inspired ≠ Authoritative

During my years spent in seminary and working in various churches, conversations concerning the Bible tended to involve two words that were tossed around as if they were synonyms: inspired and authoritative. Even in the field of biblical scholarship, these words continue to be employed as if they express the same idea. I am inclined to think that they are not synonymous, although I would not go so far as to say that they’re completely unrelated. What follows is an attempt to outline what is meant by these terms when they’re applied to the biblical texts, as well as the reasoning behind asserting that each makes different claims.

Inspired — At a basic level, many Christians want to claim the Bible as “inspired.” What is meant by this claim varies depending on who is making it. For some, to claim the Bible as inspired is simply to remove the human hand (or mind, context, etc.) from its authorship. Namely, the Holy Spirit or an angel dictated the words to the writer, and the writer faithfully recorded them. This is a fairly popular view in many circles, although it is one with which I’ve never had much sympathy.

For others, to claim the Bible as inspired is to claim that those who penned the biblical texts were inspired by their experience of God, and that their writings reflect this experience. One could perhaps add to this second view that an inspired work engenders inspiration in those who read it, prompting them to reflect on their own experience of the divine at work in their own lives and the world around them. If one were to subscribe to this second view, as I am apt to do, then “inspired” could in fact refer to books that are outside the Canon. For example, one could argue that Augustine’s Confessions is inspired, not only because it is inspired by and expressive of Augustine’s own experience of God working in his life, but because it has for centuries inspired others to look for the hand of God in their own lives. To cite another, perhaps more controversial example, one might also say that the Gospel of Thomas is inspired, and for similar reasons.

This definition of “inspired” is certainly not without its problems, but it’s at least somewhat helpful in reframing what it means to refer to the Bible as a collection of inspired texts.

Authoritative — The notion of a text being “authoritative” seems to flow naturally from that of the text being “inspired,” as these two terms are often equated with one another. That is, the Bible is authoritative because it is inspired. Such a claim, however, isn’t tremendously helpful.

To talk about a text or texts as being authoritative (in the sense that Christians consider the Bible to be authoritative), one needs to talk first about the Canon of Scripture as well as how that Canon came to be. Traditionally, scholars have spoken of four criteria for canonicity:

  1. Apostolic authorship –  a text or texts can be traced to first-generation apostles
  2. Wide acceptance – the text is acknowledged by many as reliable (I use this term loosely)
  3. Employed in the Liturgy – used by many in communal worship
  4. Consistency – the text is in harmony with that which is taught by the received tradition

Some may argue with the finer points of these criteria, but I’m fairly certain that these basic four items are more or less accepted by the majority of scholars. Note that there is no criterion that states, “a text must be inspired,” although I suppose one could read such a notion into the first criterion. Historically speaking, the “authority” of the biblical texts comes from their proclamation as a canon. That is, at a point in time the Church deemed a collection of texts to be the regula by which to measure matters of faith.

Keeping in mind the definition of inspiration as outlined above, it is safe to say that the authority of the Bible comes from its existence as a proclaimed canon, not from the fact that its words are somehow more “inspired” than others that find themselves outside of the canon. Put another way, the Bible is not authoritative for Christians because it is inspired, the Bible is authoritative for Christians because it is the collection of documents that were recognized by the Church as authoritative. Following this logic, one could assert that all authoritative texts are inspired, but not all inspired texts are authoritative (in the sense that the Bible is authoritative).

These definitions are works in progress, and I realize that neither is without its faults. My intention in outlining them here is not to pick a fight or ruffle feathers, but rather to arrive at a better, more robust account of these notoriously loaded terms. If you’re reading this and you disagree fundamentally with what has been said (or you agree with what has been said, albeit with qualification and caution), I would like to hear your thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “Inspired ≠ Authoritative

  1. Hi Eric,

    I think that the position presented here is essentially correct. We need to keep in mind that most canonical texts did not become authoritative only when they had become part of the exclusive list, many of them already formed a regular part of worship and instruction and were already seen as “authoritative” for the faith. I do not doubt your awareness of this, only it is worth mentioning being absent from the post.

    Because of this I would have to say that the authority of the Bible does not come from its existence as a proclaimed canon, the canon simply determines which of the writings that were being treated as authoritative should be. And if I was to say along with you that the canon “is the collection of documents that were recognized by the Church as authoritative”, I would have to say that this recognition was of an intrinsic authority that the texts possessed (apart from the church’s canonical seal of approval) grounded in the Apostolic origins, coherence with received tradition, etc. (the criteria), which was why they were being widely used in the first place.

    Another thing to think about is whether the term “authoritative” is too general a term to be useful when describing early Christian use of the NT. I think we need to be more specific, noting what each writing was actually being used for, and what use was granted for writings that did not make the final cut.

    On another note, I find that what I know of the process of canonization gives me enough confidence in the canon of the NT that I do not feel the need to make recourse to a doctrine of “inspiration”, however configured.

  2. Eddie,

    Thanks very much for your helpful comments and clarifications! I would absolutely agree that the authority bestowed upon canonical texts was more or less an “official” recognition of an authority already given to the texts in the life of the earliest communities. I would also agree heavily with your final statement regarding a doctrine of “inspiriation”…more times than not, I find it less than helpful.

    Eric

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