Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Range of Inspiration

One aspect of Evangelical and Protestant theology that is in desperate need of rethinking is inspiration.  This is, arguably, happening already through the work of Pete Enns and others.  The payout of this is yet to be seen: the work is in its very earliest days.

One of the questions that must be asked is: when did the work of the Spirit in inspiration stop?  The obvious answer is: when the last Apostle finished writing their last book/died.  However, it is not so easy.  Does the Spirit only inspire writing?  We might get this idea from 2 Timothy 3:16, but to do so would be to misread the text.

"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."

Where in this text does it say that only the Scriptures are inspired?  It doesn't.  Such is an assumption brought to the text.  Now, a rejoinder might be that nothing else in Scripture is explicitly called "inspired."  As is well known, an argument from silence is not ultimately convincing, to say the least.  (It is also worth noting that St Timothy is an apostolic legate, so this verse is not saying the Scriptures can do all these thing outside or without the Church:  Timothy, as the de facto bishop, is being given instructions on how to utilize the Old Testament in the context of his ecclesial work.). What can be learned from this is that while the Scriptures are inspired, that doesn't mean that nothing else is.  When  Paul tells Timothy or St Titus to "guard the deposit/that which has been entrusted to you," it is a safe, and historically accurate, assumption to believe that this Apostolic tradition was itself inspired.  What that Deposit consisted of, of course, is a matter of long debate.  At the very least we learn from early apologists such as Tertullian and St Irenaeus that it entails the Trinitarian regula fidei (which is the basis of my contention that the Trinity is the necessary assumption behind understanding the Bible: God Himself is the interpretive key, what Irenaeus calls the hypothesis and St Athanasius calls the skopos).

Back to the initial contention: inspiration ceased with the last writing of the last Apostle/their death.  It would seem that I've taken care, at least provisionally, of the first part. However, as the Deposit would have been completed by the death of the last Apostle (and, according to St Jude, much earlier: "the Faith once for all delivered to the saints"), then the initial definition still stands, even if slightly modified.  However, it seems that this understanding of inspiration was not held by Christians at all from their earliest days.  In the Counciliar Definitions, there is an appeal to the work of the Spirit in the deliberations: "Seven holy and ecumenical Synods which were directed by the inspiration of the one and the same Holy Spirit" (text from the so-called Eight Ecumenical Council of 879/880).  In some way, the Spirit continued to move and speak in the Church: not in the sense of adding to or augmenting or contradicting the ancient Deposit, but clarifying through the Fathers the language and the means used to teach it and apply it to the life of the Church.  Many, I know, would object to this line of reasoning, especially if they are traditionally Protestant (i.e., icons had been exonerated in the 7th Ecumenical Council).  There are disturbing questions that must be addressed if this is not the case, though.  Did the Spirit cease His work with the death of the Apostles?  The Lord Christ promised that the Spirit "would lead in all the Truth" in John 16:14 -- is this promise only for the Apostles?  If so, what guarantees do we have that we (or the Reformation, for that matter) have access to the unadulterated truth?  (Answer: none.).

And so, again, it comes down to which ecclesial tradition bears the Spirit?  As should be plain by now, I cannot confidently answer that question.

Some of the corollaries of all this (being the actual reason I started writing tonight) concern what might be called "later" practices of the Church.  To return to the Facebook discussion referenced in the last post, what about "prayer beads"?  Can this practice, which seems to have arisen in the Egyptian monastic movement, be legitimate even though it isn't Scriptural?  One Reformed who answered the question said a very interesting thing (paraphrased): we don't find prayer beads in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, therefore they are a later pagan influence.  This sort of thing is certainly heard often, especially in some Reformed circles (those influenced by Theonomy, for example).  The assumption behind it is that the inspiration of the Spirit in praxis ceased with the Apostles.  To truly discern appropriate practice becomes, then, somewhat conjectural and certainly a form of archaeology.  It certainly runs the risk of Judaizing.  It also vaunts an unrecoverable past over the historical practice of the Church (interesting to note that this same critique can be applied to the textual theory that centers inspiration in the non-extant autographa).  However, there is no biblical reason to favor a reconstructed Jewish tradition over what actually happened historically: St Paul became a Greek for the Greeks, and so did the Church herself.  It has, and I think this is probably most true in Orthodoxy, retained many aspects of her Jewish heritage, but the Tree has not been stunted at the roots.  Rather, through the ingrafting that Paul mentions in Romans 12, the Tree is truly cosmopolitan: the standard by which praxis is judged is not by its Jewishness, nor even necessarily if it appears in Scripture (let us remember that Jesus did not condemn phylacteries, jus the enlargement of such), but by whether it accomplishes the goal of theosis, or becoming like Christ, or acquiring the Spirit (three ways of saying the same thing): inspiration, in other words.

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