Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Book Review: Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture

This book can really change the manner one looks to the Bible. The issue of inspiration and authority of Scripture comes from long ago and it does not seem that the Church is moving towards a consensus. The topic approached in this book will be debated probably until the second coming of Jesus.
Achtemeier’s technique to move among conservatives and liberals is done really skillfully. He digs up concepts and views of both sides and brings to discussion the major questions regarding the debated topic. For instance, there are two sessions pointing out strengths and weaknesses of each position, although, he always looks for an intermediate position.
The real existence of God for conservatives, according to Achtemeier, will always depend on the inerrancy of Scripture. One of the main arguments of Achtemeier’s response to the conservative position is that faith can still exist, even if the Bible contains error. A vital observation made by the author is related to the definition of the word error. This is crucial for a better understanding of the contradictions of the Bible. For him, when an error occurs, what has to be taken into consideration is the nature of this error – whether practiced intentionally or as an assumption (even mistakenly) of what was believed by the person to be the truth.
The author mentions that the presupposition with which one may approach the Bible, will determine his/her position as either conservative or liberal. He says on page 66 that “the difference lies in the kind of constructs that are created to account for the present shape of Scripture”.
Then he moves toward Scripture formation. His approach is different than most books that talk about how Scripture was formed, especially in the omission of the historical context. Differently though, Achtemeier applies the concept of interpretation development within history. For him “All of our biblical texts are the product of interpretation of the will of God as that is illumined in a new time by earlier traditions” (page 76). A more historical approach will come into view later on in the book, especially with the argument about the problem of association of the inspiration model with the prophetic model and also in the topic that talks about the Canon formation.
Achtemeir’s longing to get as close as possible to the truth about inspiration, takes him to looking for some hints in Scripture. His search will be towards what the Bible talks about itself. His first notice is that the Bible does not talk too much about itself, although there are some passages that are clearly about inspiration. Unfortunately, these passages are pretty much misinterpreted by fundamentalists in order to support some distorted ideas. He picks 2 Timothy 3.6 and the interpretation shows that the passage relates to the Old Testament and that it has its focus only on religious matters, such as “teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness” (page 94). Not even salvation was part of the intention of the author of that specific pastoral letter. The second analyzed passage is 2 Peter 1.20, 21. Here again, its interpretation is quite different from what we are used to. Peter - or whoever is the author is – is talking about the origin of prophecy, instead of the way prophecies are to be interpreted, having “little to say directly about the inspiration of Scripture” (page 96). The last picked passage still in the New Testament is found in John 10.35. In this passage “Jesus simply recalls to his Jewish opponents something they all believed and it was that Scriptures could not be nullified if they intended to remain faithful to God” (page 97).
Perhaps, one of the most important thoughts of the book is found in the portion that talks about the Scripture and community of faith. Here, Achtemeier sort of transfers the progression of inspiration from the Bible to the community. He states that “if Scripture is to be understood as inspired, then that inspiration will have to be understood equally in terms of the community that produced those Scripture” (page 103). For Achtemeier, inspiration has more to do with community than with the individual. Certainly this idea is not very common and would probably be rejected among conservatives. For instance, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, does not even mention the word community in its nineteen articles on Biblical Inerrancy and its other twenty five articles on Biblical Hermeneutics.
Even though Achtemeier’s position of inspiration is an attempt to convey the discussion to a balance, some doubts and questions about it can also be raised. For example, if the community of faith can be “the cause” of inspiration of Scripture, my question though is who can correctly interpret the Bible, only the community or any person who seriously gets involved in the task of interpretation? The author gives some insights that sort of answer the questions raised above when he is talking about the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit within the person and community. On page 125, he says “if the Spirit that bears witness to the reader of Scripture is the same Spirit who was at work in the production of the Scripture, then the witness of the two will correspond and reinforce one another”. In other words, what he is saying is that the person who has the Holy Spirit, will have a better understanding and a better interpretation of Scripture than those who do not have the Holy Spirit. For him, “the interpreter cannot be isolated from the community of faith” (page 131).
After a deep analysis of the matter of inspiration of the Bible, the author moves toward the subject of authority. For him, the matter of authority lies in God Himself. Achtemeier argues that if authority of Scripture comes from its content, so it cannot be derived from the community, from the institution (church), from the hypothetical Q source, from the “real Jesus”, a “corrected” form from the false one pictured by the church, or even from any experience that comes from the reading of the content of Scripture. Rather the authority of Scripture “lies beyond the text itself, and inheres in the God to whom Scripture points” (page 147).
Again, the author mentions that only through divine power, characterized by the person of the Holy Spirit, can one experience how Scripture authority functions. He says, “Apart from the power of the Holy Spirit Scripture lies dumb at best, or is used in a misleading way at worst” (page 147).
He then comes to a point where anyone who reflects upon the truth of Scripture can escape faith. Faith is essential for the discussion and is an “action” that one needs to take whether he wants to believe in the Bible as the Word of God. Achtemeier closes his book explaining how authority of the Bible is “inextricably tied” to the hermeneutical function of the canon. According to him, the hermeneutical function of the canon could be understood as a boundary marker. It is something like a limit that you cannot go over, and if you go, you risk abandoning the legitimate understanding of the Christian faith. A good biblical illustration would be the passage where John warns the readers to test the spirits. Those who confess that Jesus truly came in flesh can be trusted, but those who do not confess, must be ignored. He says, “In this instance, the incarnation functions as the rule (the meaning of the Greek word kanon) for the faith of the church” (page 154).

Rodrigo Serrao

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