August 6, 2008

There was no one thing that finally brought my Christian faith to an end—it was a long and slow progression. But if there was one watershed issue, it was that of the inspiration of the Bible. Let me give you some background.

I was a leader at a large church that many people had identified as “emergent” (even though the theology was quite conservative). As a leader in this church, I had started and run many different ministries. I was working on a new ministry which was going to revolutionize the way our church (and hopefully many other churches) did evangelism. We called it being “missional,” a term ripped off from Mark Driscoll, the “cussing pastor” of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I never did like that word, “missional,” but it was better than “evangelism.” So in order to train Christians how to be “missional,” I opted for a distributed approach of retraining through small groups. I would train the leaders who would then train other leaders who would eventually help retrain everyone in the church and beyond.

The idea was that Christian practice tends to undermine the very thing it means to accomplish, especially with evangelism. I’ll explain: Christians call themselves “Christians” and everyone else they call “non-Christians.” Evangelism is meant to bring Jesus to non-Christians. So by definition and right from the start, there is a decidedly exclusive tone to the exercise. “We are Christians and they are not.” So it’s us against them. This would not do! We needed to reexamine our terminology if we ever wanted to reach these “non-Christians.”

Enter: Christianese.

There is a distinct language that Christian people speak. It is marked by terms like “in the spirit,” “sanctification,” “gospel,” “the word,” and hundreds of other terms which no one except Christians use or understand. These terms mark someone as being on the inside of Christianity. If you meet someone in a social setting and don’t have the guts the ask them flat out, a Christian will—consciously or unconsciously—listen for these and other terms to recognize their kin.

The problem with these terms is that Christians pick them up without learning clearly what they mean. Case in point, I remember hearing and teaching the doctrine of justification as being “just-if-i had never sinned” (a phrase that shares phonetic similarity with the theological term). This is a handy memory peg for teenagers, but very few Christians ever move from that (mildly) catchy phrase to a robust theological technical definition

What makes matters worse is that phrase has other meanings as well. According to my Oxford English Dictionary (and probably the man-on-the-street), “justification” means: an act of showing or proving to be right or reasonable. This is not at all what the theological term means. Christians tend to use what are sometimes normal words in unusual ways, often without distinguishing the difference. This is the crux of my present concern.

“Inspired” is another term that Christians use in a way different from everyone else, and I would argue, in a way they seldom understand themselves, if ever. This term is particularly important when speaking of the Bible. All Christian theology hangs or falls on one’s opinion of the Bible.

The Bible is taken to be important and different from all other books because it is inspired. But if you ask a Christian what they mean by “inspired,” the most common answer I get is always “God breathed” (from 2 Timothy 3:16). While more poetic, that is obviously no clearer. It does however provide a great example of how the structure of Christian terminology is circular so one term can only be understood in terms of others. When pressed for a yet clearer definition, the answers go in many directions.

One thing is clear however, Christians do not use “inspired” in a normal way. If I see a beautiful sunset and am moved to write a poem of the occasion, I can rightly say the sunset inspired my poem; but that is not the sense the Christian means of the Bible. God isn’t the enrapturing idea that motivated a creative work. (Is it?) Similarly, the Christian almost never means that God held the pen or physically forced the hand of the apostles to make certain words on parchment. So what do Christians mean by the term “inspired?”

I suggest that no one actually knows. It is technically a vacuous term. It’s a term that is associated with identification in that community, but has perhaps no semantic meaning of its own, even in that community. The desire that often coincides with the use of this term is wanting to indicate that the Bible has authority. But this is certainly not what the term “inspired” means.

So if we dispense with the term “inspired” when talking about the Bible in favor of terms of that more clearly indicate what we mean, we are left saying it has authority—this is a very different place! We no longer have a book handed to us by God in one way or another; we have a book that is important for very different reasons—among them: defining order in the social setting of Christian organizations. It is possible to have authority for this purpose without ever being from God in any sense. For example, if the group agrees that it should be the guiding document, it has authority. So in the absence of an intellectually honest and rigorous account of what Christians mean by “inspired” and concluding term and the doctrine are vacuous, I was forced (yes, against my will; I didn’t want to believe this) to reevaluate my long-held dogma about the Bible and concede the unprivileged status this book has among others… at least outside of Christian social circles.


7 Responses to “Inspiration”

  1. […] Conservative Christians take the Bible to be the inspired word of God (See the earlier post: Inspiration). It functions with a level of authority which no other document can and which no person can […]

  2. Russ said

    So what do Christians mean by the term “inspired?”

    I suggest that no one actually knows.

    …for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. [2 pet 1:21]

  3. exxn said

    Interesting verse that you highlight! I have a question and a few comments:

    1.) Do you mean to imply that “prophecy” is exactly the same thing as “scripture?” And that speaking prophecy is exactly the same thing as writing scripture?

    2.) I suggest that “moved by the Holy Spirit” is equally vague and just as vacuous as “inspired.” If you have a definition of this phrase that is more concrete, I would love to hear it!

    3.) What’s really at stake in this passage is nothing less than the compatibility of god’s sovereignty and human free will. Since passage specifically says that prophecy was something outside of human will, would you deny that human agency occurred when prophecy happened? (ie: that prophecy happens apart from the free will of men?)

  4. Some Guy said

    It’s interesting how the watershed issue appeared: in the context of applying a new marketing model to the Body of Christ (cf. Sounds like the breaking point came as someone tried to treat a unique, living Entity as though it were a semester project for a microeconomics class.

    I can’t stand it when a doctor/teacher/manager treats me like a number. Why? Um, because I’m not a number, hello.

    We’ve all suffered through those silly team-building games that the excruciatingly with-it higher-ups force you to play every quarter. Any intelligent person can see through them: warmed-over pop management, whatever is on the business bestseller shelf these days. I’m surprised they didn’t make you break up into groups and build miniature churches out of office supplies while blindfolded.

    For every dialect of Christianese – by the way, I am fluent in both Evangelican and Catholish – there is a dialect of Thomist, Marxesque, Educratic, Limbaugher, and even Starbuckois (“You mean a Venti?”). I just see intellectually immature thinkers falling in love with something that makes more sense to them that the confusion they are coming out of. The ideas are not yet truly their own, so you see verbal parallelism.

    When I was in college, I patiently listened to another kid who, in the process of trying to convert me, tried to tell me that “religion is defined as man’s best effort to try to reach God”. I replied, “I thought religion was the virtue that disposes you to render justice to God”. Silence. The concept fit his mentality like a screwdriver in the ignition.

    So cut the kids some slack; you gotta start somewhere. How do you think the term “Sophomore” was coined?

    Besides, you can’t really hold it against the students if their educational system never taught him how to think. You are right to point out the sloppy and circular thinking among your exconfreres; but in universalizing from the fluffy-haired perfect-toothed college-educated born-again professional white upper middle class suburbanites who don’t know their elbow from their elenchus, aren’t you on thin ice?

  5. Some Guy said

    Forgot to poofeard…

    makes more sense to them that] makes more sense to them than

    educational system never taught him] educational system never taught them

  6. wes said

    Your conclusion that Christians don’t understand the doctrine of inspiration is incorrect. You should read “thy word is truth” by EJ Young or Warfield’s writings on inspiration.

  7. exxn said

    @wes: Since I probably won’t read a book based on someone throwing a title in my direction, why don’t you summarize for me and make the argument Young or Warfield makes.

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