The Bible is the Word of God

rabbulapentecost Title page from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, published by Oxford University Press, 1772.

The Inspiration of Holy Scripture

Anglican Catholics believe in the plenary or full inspiration of Scripture. That is, every syllable in Scripture is inspired by God and is meant to teach the Church something. However, how any particular book or text teaches and what it teaches are matters of debate. Interpretation of Scripture rests first and decisively with the whole Church through the ages, so that tradition is the best guide to its meaning.

Furthermore, the whole Church guarantees the inspired character of all of the canonical Bible equally, so that personal judge­ments concerning human authorship or value are not very important. A canonical text is a canonical text, guaranteed by the Church as such, whoever produced it and however he or they did so. Beyond such gen­eral assertions Anglican Catholics are relatively free in their Biblical studies and interpretations. The Anglican Churches historically, and the Anglican Catholic Church today, do not bind their members or scholars to any single theory of Biblical inspiration or interpretation. But with freedom goes responsibility. The Anglican Biblical scholar is responsible to the whole Church, and ultimately his work is judged by its fidelity to the faith and doctrine of the Church.

There are many theories concerning the way in which God inspired Holy Scripture. These theories range from the idea that God immedi­ately and directly caused the biblical writers to produce the biblical texts, so that those writers really were nothing more than secretaries for the Holy Spirit, to the idea that God worked in an entirely natural manner within the history of his people and thereby permitted the nat­ural abilities and interests and needs of the Church and her writers to produce what is now recognized as Scripture.  Between the idea of inspiration as an almost wholly supernatural process and that of inspiration as almost wholly natural lies a variety of intermediate theories involving more or less direct divine control over the process of writing.

Probably no single theory of inspiration is adequate for explaining the whole of Scripture with all its great variety. In some cases God may have inspired the biblical writers by providing a direct and supernatu­ral vision or infused knowledge. In other cases God may have inspired by exciting or encouraging extraordinary, but entirely natural, interests and abilities. Sometimes God may have inspired by guiding the selec­tion or editing of preexisting texts, some of which may even have come from totally uninspired sources. At other times God may have inspired by his general providential governance of human history or indirectly by shaping a second writer by a more directly inspired primary writer. So long as one accepts that God is quite capable of inspiring in any and all of these ways, and that God did fully inspire the authors of Scripture in ways sufficient to work his will, more detailed explana­tions may be left to private opinion.

Interpretation and Inerrancy

As for the interpretation of these inspired texts, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that "all the senses of Holy Scripture are built on the literal sense..." (Summa Theologiae, I.i.10). So, for instance, if Scripture says, 'God stretched out his mighty arm to save his people', one must begin with the literal sense of ‘arm’ and literal examples of a mighty arm res­cuing someone. Without understanding the plain and literal meaning of such terms, the text will mean nothing or anything. However, the primacy of the literal meaning does not require one to believe that God is a physical being with a bodily arm or that he always saves his people by a physical intervention. One must begin with the literal sense, or else any text can mean anything one wants it to; but some­times that literal sense is not the best final interpretation. In the case of God’s mighty arm, for instance, the ‘literal figurative’ sense is better than the ‘literal literal’ sense.

From the time of the Fathers onward orthodox students of the Bible have known that texts in Scripture sometimes have both literal and fig­urative senses. One traditional division of meanings is four-fold: liter­al and historical; allegorical; tropological or moral; and anagogical or eschatological. So, for instance, ‘Jerusalem’ in Scripture can refer to the city in Palestine (literal); the Church (allegorical); Christians as God’s pure and holy people (moral); and heaven (anagogical). In any given case all four of these levels of meaning may be in play, or one or two of them might be and the others not. Many students of the Bible, however, caution against excessively figurative or allegorical interpre­tation. Aquinas again, for instance, says that a figurative interpretation should not be used to establish doctrine by itself and that what is con­veyed in one text figuratively always is found elsewhere in Scripture literally.

The Bible includes a variety of kinds of literature and genres. It is not always clear what kind of literature one is dealing with in any given text. Obviously parables, poetry, historical narratives, apocalyptic visions, and didactic letters, to give a few examples, require different interpretive approaches. Since different genres must be interpreted differently, and since many biblical texts must have a ‘literal figurative’ or metaphorical sense (again, consider ‘God’s mighty arm’), it is not clear that the Fundamentalist approach to Scripture is helpful or even meaningful. (‘Fundamentalism’ is the belief that every verse of the Bible is inerrant, not only in its original doctrinal purport but also in matters of science and historical fact.) What, for instance, might it mean to say in a Fundamentalist sense that the Song of Solomon, with all its exotic images, is verbally inerrant in every way?

The Bible is inerrant in that as God’s inspired word it conveys saving truth and the meaning intended by God when he inspired its authors. God’s purpose quite probably differs in different parts of Scripture. Nevertheless, whatever the divine purpose is for a given text, that pur­pose most assuredly is inerrantly fulfilled by the text. To discover this purpose and the saving truth intended by God, the interpreter of Scripture must always read with the eyes of the Church. If one reads without the guidance of the Church and her tradition, then God’s pur­pose in inspiring a given text will not necessarily be fulfilled.  The ACC holds that there is a conservative, non-fundamentalist, mean between the poles of extreme literalism and free-floating allegorization.  We should neither divorce Scripture from facts, nor push the facts beyond the need to ground necessary doctrine.  We should not push the stories too far; nor should we presume to judge the stories as primitive.

The Church's Book

Anglicans have traditionally insisted on a Biblical foundation for all dogmas or essential doctrines.  In that respect the Anglican tradition could be said to maintain sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, a cry of the Reformation.  But the Protestant church-bodies almost always understand sola scriptura in a sense that cannot be sustained.  Scripture does not exist apart from the tradition of the universal Church.  The Bible is the Church’s book, and the Church is its authoritative interpreter.  The Church existed before the Bible in point of time.  The Church determined which of many contending books were in fact authentic Scripture.  The Church decided which of many contending interpretations of the contents of Scripture were correct.  And the Church still shows us the proper interpretation of Scripture.  Scripture holds the roots of the tradition, for the developing books began to form with and in the earliest Church, but Scripture never exists apart from that tradition.  There is no sola Scriptura in that sense. 

These ideas are evident in the Elizabethan divine, Richard Hooker.  Hooker warns against the idea that Scripture can be read without consulting the tradition, as extreme Puritans and Anabaptists proposed:  "when they and their Bibles were alone together, what strange fantastical opinion soever at any time entered into their heads, their use was to think the Spirit taught it them."  (Laws, Preface VIII.7)   The result of isolation from the tradition is "phrensies concerning our Saviour’s incarnation, the state of souls departed," and the Trinity, as well as civil revolution, moral enormities, and in fact anything the human mind can think up.  Apart from the tradition as an anchor, Scripture can be made to support almost anything.

One central problem in the Christian world today is the exaltation of private opinion above the tradition.  This exaltation fits well with modern individualism and the common suspicion of all authority, not to mention the postmodernists’ radical perspectivism, skepticism, and relativism.  While the abuse of authority often may explain suspicion of authority, Christianity cannot long survive where the tradition is rejected wholesale.

So far as Biblical interpretation goes, the Church guides interpretation through tradition and living consensus.  Creeds and doctrine clarify and focus the meaning of Scripture, and especially of Scriptural narrative.  The narrative, with its stories, histories, parables, and allegories, in turn both grounds the creeds and also has a dynamic openness that creeds and theology alone would never have.  The story of the Good Samaritan, for instance, illustrates and teaches propositions about universal obligations and charity; but it is also is dynamic, inexhaustible, and never fully reducible to mere propositions--in short, the inspired Word of God.