The inspiration of Scripture


Gerald O’Collins SJ

OUP , hb, £25.00

A good deal of debate has surrounded the inspiration of scripture, especially among evangelicals. Harold Lindsell stirred things up with the Battle for the Bible, in which he advocated a high doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. His book played a key role in energising conservatives to take control of the South Baptist convention away from moderates.

Gerald O’Collins does not refer to evangelical debates about plenary inspiration or inerrancy in any detail but he makes it clear that the does not like the term ‘inerrancy’ to be applied to the scriptures.

Quite rightly he attacks theories of verbal dictation, pointing out that those who espouse this view seem to think God and the human authors competed rather than collaborated.

God worked through the human writers and not just those who wrote the actual books of the Bible. James Barr is quoted arguing that ‘if there is inspiration at all then it must extend over the entire process of production that has led to the final text’.

Barr went on to claim that ‘inspiration therefore must attach not to a small number of exceptional persons’ but ‘it must be considered to belong more to a community as a whole’.

Anyone who holds a theory of verbal dictation has to account for the fact that the there is such a difference in literary style between different works. Some books incorporate writings from non-Jewish sources like letters from the Persian king incorporated into Ezra or a Canaanite hymn of praise that was probably the source for Psalm 29.

Egyptian wisdom writing influenced Proverbs and a Greek poet seems to have contributed to the text of Ben Sira. O’Collins is careful to distinguish between inspiration and revelation.

The scriptures certainly witness to and interpret events in which God disclosed himself but they also contain a good deal of material that does not witness to God’s revelation but describes the human condition.

This is the case with the wisdom literature. The definition of inspiration given by O’Collins is worth describing in full. “Inspiration,” he writes, “understood broadly, describes a double agency, a spiritual influence from God that empowers human beings to think, speak or act in ways that go beyond their natural capacity… “Biblical inspiration can be called a special impulse from the Holy Spirit given during the long history of the chosen people and the much shorter apostolic age, to set down in writing both experiences of the divine revelation and other things which are not necessarily closely tied to revelation.”

O’Collins accepts that the Bible witnesses to a growth in human understanding of God. Only if we take that position can we make sense of some of the ‘texts of terror’ to be found in the Hebrew scriptures.

He also argues that some books of the Bible are more inspiring than others. One of the interesting features of this book is that O’Collins speaks of scripture as inspiring as well as inspired and he devotes space to discussing the way the Bible has inspired works of art, music, literature and drama as well as preaching and prayer.

One of the most valuable sections of this book is devoted to principles for interpreting the scriptures. Another chapter examines the thorny question of the status of the author’s intention.

It is important to use historical and critical methods to discover the author’s intention and this can never be ignored but some texts are going to speak to readers in a way that the original human authors probably never envisaged.

At the same time the readers of the scriptures have to be ready to let their own prejudices and attitudes be challenged by the text.

In his preface O’Collins claims that scholars have neglected biblical inspiration and he opens his book with a chapter devoted to two theologians who have not fallen into this trap, Karl Barth and the Catholic biblical scholar, Raymond F Collins.

Although there is truth in what O’Collins says, at least as far as the non-evangelical theological world is concerned, it is possible to think of contemporary scholars like Sister Sandra Schneiders (referred to in the text) and to scholars of a previous generation like JKS Reid or Austin Farrer who have deepened our understanding inspiration.

At the same time, I have to admit that I know of no other book that treats the subject as clearly, convincingly and comprehensively as this. I predict a long shelf life.

Paul Richardson