Inspiration of Holy Scripture: An Eastern Christian and Jewish Perspective
Much of modern Christianity gets periodically torn apart by two main attitudes toward the "Inspiration of Scripture"- that is, in what way, and in to what extent, the Sciptures have been preserved or prevented from error so that the Church may be guided rightly in faith and living. One attitude stesses that there are no mistakes in Scripture, if not in the copies we now have, then in the originals, and it is this fact which gives the Church the confidence that we may, indeed, be guided rightly in matters of faith and living. The other attitude stresses that there are indeed historical, scientific, or other mistakes in Scriptures and so being guided rightly through Scripture, is indeed questionable.
What both of these positions have in common is the assumption that whatever is meant by "inspiration of Scripture", what we are to understand by this is "uniformity" of inspiration, that is, all of what is in Scripture is inspired, or not inspired in the same way, to the same extent, for all time or in all times, and independent of any other "participating" factor, or of usage - that is, Scripture is an independant "literary given".
But is this so, and has it always been thought to be so? And do the Scriptures themselves show us "another way"?
These questions are important to deal with in the light of a startling realization so contrary to what we have grown to accept and be comfortable with throughout the hundreds of years. Far from being an independant book standing outside of the people of God, guiding, directing, commanding them as they strove or did not strive to know and serve the Lord, most of what is in the Bible came as Words of God, messages, oral or literary prophetic pieces, and "historical" accounts, from within the people and, in most cases, at times contemporary with the people of God as they walked their walk through hundreds of years with (or against) the Lord, who had covenanted with them. This fact does not imply unreliability or untrustworthiness. Not having a Bible as we have nowadays, It was always, therefore, in the contemporary time of the event, both possible and necessary, to determine - was that word or words or written message just received,"from the Lord"in part or in entirety, and is that prophet a true prophet, now obedient (himself close to God) to have really heard from God, for God to have really spoken to him, and is God speaking to me now through him, through this writing from him before me, requiring me to do thus and thus? Living the life rightly was thus much more a matter of a seeking heart right with God receiving His word and guidance than a pre-given road map and an independent plan of God's will for mankind mentally qrasped and contained in a single Book. But now, in God's determination, we have both!
Before getting into the matter, it's good to consider, and perhaps to find out for the first time, what we really believe about inspiration of Scripture, and their authority over our lives, What we really believe, and not what we think we believe. Let's think about the following four questions:
- Do we believe that when reading the prophets, perhaps the Prophet Isaiah, that there is a difference when he just writes his words whatever, than when he prefaces His words by "Thus saith the Lord"? Did we belieeve that Isaiah makes such a distinction in his own mind - that some words from him and some from the Lord?
- Do we believe that, when reading the letters of the Apostle Paul, there is a difference when he tells us to do something, or refrain from doing something, when he writes that it is from him and "not the Lord", than when he says, it is "from the Lord"?
- Do we believe, with the Apostle Paul, that a woman is commanded to keep silent in the church, that it is shameful for her not to do so, and it is not permitted her to speak? If we think otherwise than the Apostle and do permit it, what is the reason for our belief and practice?
- In reading the Old Testament, without intending to "pick and choose", do we, nevertheless, tend to not apply things that are commanded to be done to our lives, for instance, putting to death our children if rebellious, and stoning the adulterous, and do tend to apply other things, such as, "to loose the bonds of wickedness", "to undo the heavy burdons", "to let the oppressed go free", "to deal...bread to the hungry"? Do we feel that the Old Testament Scriptures generally and in particular places has less authority in our lives than the New Testament? In what places and for what reasons do we feel this?
Eastern Churches, like Judaism, do not have, and have no inner need for, a uniform level of "Inspiration" of Scriptures, as Scriptures themselves did not create or define the Churches or cause them to be distinct from other peoples or bodies. The sense of inspiration, and belief in the nature of inspiration, is directly dependent on the actual use of Scriptures in the formation by God in Christ Himself and in the stages of the Church being led by God. God is the real One and His deeds are indisputable, and the Scriptures testify to those deeds and His words spoken alongside the deeds. That is why, without much reflection because of having knowledge intuitively from living experience, that is, "from the inside", for Jews, the Law (Torah) is the most authoritative, rather than the Prophets and the Writings, athough all are "Tenakh" (Old Testament).There are three divisions with subtle differing authorities. The Jews were formed, in their own understanding, by the Law given to Moses, so that the Law by its more total application to living is the most authoritive practically. In worship, the Psalms are the most vital - as they are prayers, so their inspiration, that is, the sense that they are, and as they are, from God, is indisputable- but largly unconsciously so. In like manner, inspiration of Scripture for Easterners is directly related to the usage we make of it in all its modulations - and how those Scriptures are related to the primary formation - which is certainly not, as it is in Judaism, The Law, but rather, the Gospel. In this sense, it is entirely consistant, if one would wish to conceptualize it, to say that the Gospels, and especially at the time of the Gospel Reading in Church, is more inspired, and has more authority in our lives, than the Book of Leviticus. God is "more there" for those now who have had faith in the Son of God who has freed us precisely from the failures of the Law's ability save us, than He is when we turn to the Book of Leviticus which deals mainly with that Law which we have failed. This does not imply that the Leviticus has more errors than the Gospels but rather that the Gospels bear more of the message of God for those in Christ, more applicability, and more of the persuasion that God is speaking to us from the Holy Gospels. (If we did hold to "uniform inspiration", we would be counted as degraders of God's Word as, in comparison to the time we devote in various forms to the Gospels and Epistles, Christians devote hardly anything to various priestly and and sacrificial prescriptions of Leviticus.) But He is certainly more there with those in Christ, and with the words on the page, when we turn to the book of Leviticus than when we turn to "some of the phantastical portions of the Apocrypha". But the Protestant Church, generally, knows little of this "levels of inspiration" understanding. By going to the Jewish Masoretic Text, Protestantism follows the "Council" of Jamnia/Yavneh 90AD which jettisoned "levels of inspiration" by setting a canon for the purposes of both warding off Christian use of Greek Septuaginta to prove the truth of Christianity, and warding off Roman persecution because of the End of Days defiance to Rome understood to be in the "Greek apocrypha".
This is not only an issue of the Old Testament. it also occurs for the New Testament. But the early Church never saw this issue as an intractable problem. That is why the various Scripture usages from different locals, some even from the same era - read: insipient "canons" - (containing the "disputable" books - 2 Peter, 2nd 3rd John, Jude, the Apocalpse, Letter of Hermes, Didache, etc. *) never became a cause for schism. Only under Marcion, who excised Scripture to fit his faith, a faith seen as so at variance with the Apostolic teaching and testimony, were varying canons aligned with schism . But this proves the point. Marcion went against the deposit of faith and so he and his canon as a way of propagating this his heresy, were found wanting. Similarly, Martin Luther tried to get rid of the Epistle of James, that "epistle of straw", because it went against his distinctive from the Catholicism he knew all around him. But prior to that, who ever got concerned, let alone went on Schism, because the Epistle of James was considered antithetical to, or, in some sense, conflicting with the emphasis of the epistles of Paul?
It is important to see how criteria of "levels of inspiration" were understood by the Jewish sages at the time of Jamnia in the first centruy and shortly after. Some of the books that almost didn't make it into the canon of Scriptures: Esther - no name of God, Ecclesiastes - too philosphically pessimistic, Song of Songs- too erotic (needed to be spiritualized). One of them that almost did make it - the popular among the Rabbis Ecclesiasticus (ben Sirach)- probably would have been included if they had had it in its original Hebrew as did the "Dead Sea scrolls community" from the desert around Qumran. It is also instructive to note how canon defining in Judaism actually did take place. The Council of Jamnia Canon (which the Protestant Reformers went to, thus excluding the Apocrypha} considered those books only which they had before them in the Hebrew language as worthy for consideration (As it turned out, some of the non Hebrew books before their consideration, were originally Hebrew, as attested by the Dead Sea compilations. But they didn't know that.) The Christian order of the the books of the Bible follow the Chronology of the events and the personages being related, while in the Jewish order, though there is a chronological framework, the order follows more the importance, influence, "weight of usage" within Judaism. Thus, for orthodox Judaism, The Torah of Moses (the 5 books of Moses) come first, and are the most authoritative of all Scripture. Under the Pharasaic theory that the Moses was given the Oral law explicating how the written law was to be applied, at the same time as he was given the written law contained in the Bible, and that that oral law passed on through the generations, the Mishna and the Gemara composing the Talmud is equally authoritative with the Torah of Moses. Then the Prophets come next in authority. But the Prophets are broader than considered by the Christian ordering. The Prophets do include what Christians call the Former and the Latter, or the Major and the Minor prophets, but it also includes what Christians consider History - such as the books of Samuel and those of the Kings. The last in authority for every day life of the Jew in terms of "regulation", actually form a great influence in the Synagogue worship - the Writings, with a heavy emphasis on the Psalms. These three, then, the Law = Torah (the "Te" of the Tenakh), the Prophets = Neviim (the "Na" of the teNAkh) , and the Writings = ketuvim (the "K" of the tenaKH), compose the three parts bearing various weights of the Old Testaments of Jesus' day. This is the tripartite division evidenced in the New Testament Gospels, with the Writings, at that time, still "open".
IV. The Dynamics of the Usual Conflict
During the higher critical vs. the evangelical polemical controversies, there usually is a devolving to something like this . The Higher Critic will point out "mistakes", inacurracies, in the various recensions of Scripture come down to us. They will point out that these faults can be found in all the early translations and texts and not only in the modern translations. The Evangelical will counter that all these are only apparent and seek to point out ways to reconcile them. Perhaps the Evangelical will admit to these errata but then counter that what is infallible are the "autographs" the original writings, conceding that what follows as far as translations, texts, etc. can indeed be faulty. This is an attempt to maintain the position that Scriptures must be without error otherwise we are all adrift without any surety in faith and about to be shipwrecked. The Higher Critic will then point out "What!... you maintain that there must be infallible 'autographs', that God will surely not leave the believers with a faulty road map to eternal life, and yet He allows errors to come in afterwards to plunge us all into uncerainty and doubt?!!"
There is no good answer to that. But, then, there need not be. The Higher Critical and the usual Evangelical position, in Eastern thought, are mistaken about the understanding of inspiration and that the mistake lies in unbiblical and unsupportable assumptions of "uniformity in inspiration" and the fallacy that our faith must find its shipwreck if there be but an error in the Scripture. It also goes against the very varied usages in Scripture of Scripture and it obviates the biblical understanding of Authority and the perpetuation of truth in the Church, healthy historical development, and a great deal of common sense.
V. How Inspiration of Scripture and levels of Inspiration really work : The Eastern Perspective
The Eastern approach to Scripture is very different from the Western. At best, the Western seeks to locate the Inspired documents of the Faith by going back to the originals, and considers any thing later as not being inspired. Those later translations and version, however beautiful and apt, like the King James Version, are not considered bearers of inspiration, nor borne by Inspiration - no matter how used of God for his purposes. But the Eastern view of things seem to suggest that the Inspiration of the originals, has somehow abundantly overflowed on and permeatingly into the traditional versions and translations used by the various Eastern Churches - Greek, Armenian, Amharic, Aramaic (Syriac), etc. Inspiration carries on! Similarly, in the East, there seems to be "no stopping Christ". He, too, overflows. There are no distinct lines where Christ is and where He is not. For clarification and by example, the West has Christ coming in the Sacrament of the Eucharist in much clearer deliniation than the East. It is at the time of the Consecration (emphasizing the "Words of Institution") of the Bread and Wine and then the communicants partake of Him. All of this irrespective of His presence elswhere or in other form. In the East, Christ, more biblically, appears and is present at the gathering of the communicants (where two or three are gathered together there am I) at the "church service", and also at the Consecration of bread and wine (emphasizing the "Epiclesis"). He pervades all, invades all as He did into the upper room, and, of course, the bread and the wine, and His presence transmutes, permeates, without destroying the elements, that is, without there being the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine as understood by the Latin West. The how of transmutation might well be called "assumption". He assumes the bread and wine, takes them up into Himself, and they are no longer merely what they were before. So we have here something analogous to the Incarnation. The Son of God assumes, or takes up into Himself humanity and we have, thanks be to God, Jesus Christ, the perfect union of God and Man, But note that Jesus Christ has, after the Incarnation, a fully human form with all it's weaknesses unobliterated , even those that were produced through His forebearers, though, of course, He had no personal sin, and, as is also true, an "immaculate" cut off by the Holy Spirit of the stain of inherited Adamic sin with which we are all infected.
In the Eastern view, all this is analagous to the mode of inspiration of Scriptures. As God was able to incarnate and, in all the weaknesses of the humanity He assumed, fulfill all His purposes which He intended, so God is able to assume the writings He has chosen, with all its weaknesses and imperfections of humanity, to fullfill all his purposes that He intends for that. As, at the time of the Eucharist, in the Eastern view, He makes bread and wine into what it is not naturally, but not by destroying what it is naturally, so God at the time, place, circumstances of our "usage" - writing, translating, reading of the Holy Gospel, prayerful or scholarly study for godliness, etc. descends, safeguarding what is needed for His and our purposes - whether it takes straitening out, clarifying, causing us to pay attention, causing us to overlook - He even uses "lense and prism" to make the "crookeds" straight for our sakes. It is understood that he is capable and able for that and ones faith is sourced in another mode, that of the message handed down, first by his apostles, and then by those after, and all this in coordinate with His gift oft he Scriptures. This understanding of how things really were for the Church removes us from the superfluous war of words between the Higher Critics with much of their denial of the verities of Faith and the Guardians of Orthodoxy. The surety of our faith has nothing to do with which of the competing views of the Scriptures is true, and we are quite open to evaluate and accept. At the same time, we are immune from the vagaries and whims and scholarly defects of these Higher Critics because our criteria and sourcing of Truth and Authority in the Church is "wholly other",rather than the "latest and assured results of the most recent scholarship".
Because of this understanding, and practice, of what is entailed by "the Church", in the understanding of the Eastern church, the biblical teaching concerning the responsibilities of bishops, priests/pastors, and deacons**, and the hows of the safeguarding and perpetuating the teachings concerning the Person and Work of Christ the Savior and concerning the Holy Trinity, Higher Critical theories have less power to shake up the churches than where there is little understanding of the Biblical thrust concerning Authority. This Authority is not "Papal", but, rather, the understanding that Christ has commissioned the Apostles and then they, those after them, to say it like it is, to speak (and write) the truth to be believed in, and to defend it.
The reality behind the presentation
The Eastern view suggests that the presentation of reality overwhelms the perversions made of reality, the obscuring of reality and that reality cannot be knocked out by a "technicality". It suggests that Truth, by its very surfacing and exposure, has power to dissipate the hazes and shimmerings set up knowingly or unwittingly erected, and that the Prior Event, the historical event, must be reckoned with. It links up "inspiration" with what really is and the only God standing behind what really is. Because of this, the scale is always tipped on the side of the Christian Apologist, whose main function is not that of rear guard but rather exposure of what is, which, in actuality, is truth. He knows that because Jesus, in fact, did rise from the dead, that fact, the present life and power of the risen Christ, makes its mark not only throughout our four original Gospels, but also all translations and renderings of them, and that that Life of His, continues, just by its unveiling, to unnerve and disarm all attempts at obfuscations as well as unintended failures to apprehend, interprete, and reproduce correctly. The strength of inspiration as a corelate to Reality and Him who stands behind reality is a force to be reckoned with and no mere game for the armchair enthusiast. As well as the literary end, the historical end is also verified, and confirmed. Because He was actually born of a virgin, and not the "Virgin Birth" being a self justifying construct of the pious, men who know this, and that means Jews of the Bible and believers in Him, would certainly have sought Him out in their Scriptures, any sign of Him, any word about Him, and would have found it - for there was such word, and such words - "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son..!(see sect. 2.6 of Messianic Prophecies). But it was the Historical reality of His unique and miraculous coming, which made this all come about, and which made its way onto our Gospels and forced its way, and still does, onto all translations of the Gospels, because Truth overcomes, And it was because He really was, as He made known to His Apostolic men who testified of that to others, the Divine Son of God, explicated in many terms, there really could be the believability of what has come to be known as "prophetic double fulfillment", and no construct of deception by Christians attempting to jusffy their faith. That is, though, of course, the son of God, was historic Israel, whom He had taken out of Egypt - It is the Torah who tells us of that, and of course, it was Israel who was the son whom He called out of Egypt - it is the Prophet Hosea who tells us that, but, also of course, it was Jesus soon to be of Nazareth, who was spirited out of Egypt - told to us by the Gospel "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt have I called My Son.'", because, in fact, He is the True and Only Son of God, who gives strenth to all other sons of God (whose strongest reality could only be that they pointed to Him!) who had been before Him and who would come after, and He is the true Israel, the One who had not failed (Thus the 40 day trial in the desert of the Son of God, Jesus, recapitulates the 40 years failed trial in the desert by God's son, Israel). That fact, and those facts, have the power, and the exposure of them exerts that power, that somehow undermines the falsities and misapprehensions into which they are inserted. Inspiration, then, is the past and present force of God as He presents to us what He is and what He has done. So the Eastern view.
Ramification of Inspiration's force on practical application
It is well known that preaching is necessary for the Word of Salvation to be heard and received and believed in. This presents Jesus as Savior and Lord, and faith is granted as one turns to the risen and living Savior and confession is made of Him before men, angels, and the Church. It is also well known that various media can assist preaching in this presentation. What needs and can be better known is that all of these means can be utilzed for maximum presentation of Him who is the Truth and the truth in all truths and that the exposure of Him in the disclosure of Him, as He is through out all the Gospels, and the amplification of the various aspects of Him through all the New Testament, and the hints and anticipations of Him present in all the Old Testament, provides us with a basis for the ground up rectification for the whole of our life, as it is Jesus and Him in His fulness who is promoted and furthered by the Holy Spirit in the the bringing down of the Kingdom of Heaven and the shunting aside of the Kingdom of the world - and no quick fix.
- the Peshitta originally did not include the following books: the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second Epistle of John, the Third Epistle of John, the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation.
- In the Eastern understanding, there is a "levels" of responsibility as well as a levels of inspiration understanding. All Christians are to believe in accordance with their ability and condition. Deacons are required to hold the faith "in good conscience". In addition, priests are to teach the faith. In addition, bishops are to defend the faith.
- Aramaic Church
- New Testament understanding through the Jewish perspective
- Gospel reading in the Church: the Turgama
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