How do we interpret the sacred texts of the Bible? For those interested in how theological and scientific claims can be reconciled, this is an especially pressing question when we are asked to interpret the opening chapters of the book of Genesis.
Did God create the universe in six 24-hour periods? Did the Garden of Eden really exist? Are Adam and Eve historical figures? These are just several of the many questions that come up as we wrestle with the sacred text.
Before we consider the question of how we are to interpret the sacred Scriptures, however, I think that it is important to address a more foundational question: How did God write the Bible? Or using more technical language, by what process did God inspire the human authors who wrote the Bible? Over the years, I have come to see that how one answers this question of biblical inspiration often shapes how one will answer the hermeneutical question of biblical interpretation.
In my experience as a Catholic priest, one of the most commonly held accounts of biblical inspiration among Christians is that God “dictated” the Bible. According to this view, sometimes called the verbal dictation theory, God dictated each word of the sacred text to a human author who simply wrote it down. Significantly, in this view, the human author is not a true author of the sacred text. He is simply a recorder of words in the same way that a medical scribe is a recorder of a physician’s dictated words. He is merely a tool used to communicate God’s precisely intended message.
In this view, the sacred text is a text of God’s words alone; they are not human words, because the human author had no real role in creating them. For those who hold to this account of verbal dictation, the biblical text is a text that has no historical or cultural context. It is beyond time and place. As such, we have to read the Bible “as it is.” We have to grasp the meaning of the words as they are.
Many Catholics hold to the verbal dictation theory, but it is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor of many other Christian ecclesial communities.
The Aquinas approach
How then should we think about biblical inspiration?
I am writing as a Catholic theologian who relies on the insights of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In a previous post, I explained how Aquinas conceived of God as that being who is existing itself. He is the act of being itself. This is the God who could tell Moses that his name is, “I am who am” (Ex 3:14).
This insight into the nature of God allows Aquinas to propose an account of divine inspiration that I not only find compelling, but also allows me to read the Bible in a way that better sees its sophistication, its beauty, and its wisdom. His account explains well how the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council could claim that “in composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which he wanted” (Vatican II, Dei verbum, §11).
A powerful way to speak about how God, who is existing itself, works in his created world is to compare his actions to the action of an author writing a thank-you note with a pen. Both the author and the pen wrote the note, where the former is the principal cause and the latter is the instrumental cause. Because of this dual causality, the note has characteristics of both the author (his handwriting) and the pen (the color of its ink).
With this analogy in mind, we can now propose an account of how God wrote the Bible: God is the primary cause of the Bible who inspired human authors as instrumental causes to write the sacred text. In doing so, he respected the freedom, the talents, and the limitations that he had given them.
Therefore, the sacred text has both divine and human origins. In the same way that the thank-you note has the handwriting of its author, the biblical text is God-breathed. However, in the same way that the thank you-note has the color of the pen’s ink, it is also permeated by the human author’s writing style, his language use, and those personal, historical, and cultural influences that have shaped him.
Divine and human dimensions
In this view, Scripture’s divine and human dimensions have to be uncovered and understood if we are to truly understand the meaning of the Bible. To do this, we need to understand both the divine author and the human authors that he used to communicate his revelation.
To understand the former, we need to pray and to grow in holiness in cooperation with God’s grace so that we may know the mind of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 2:16). To understand the latter, we need to study the cultural and historical context of the biblical text so that we may know the mind of the human author when he wrote what he wrote. We cannot simply read the biblical text “as it is,” because we need to read it as both its divine and human authors intended it. We have to grasp the meaning of the words as they were intended to be understood.
Finally, I think that it is important to acknowledge that this account of biblical inspiration that recognizes both the principal and the instrumental causes of the sacred text is profoundly incarnational.
In the same way that Jesus Christ is both divine and human, the revelation of the Son of God is both divine and human. In the same way that Jesus is the Word incarnated in human nature, the Bible is the words of God incarnated in human language.