Monday, July 03, 2017

C. S. Lewis: Why the miracle of inspiration does not require the miracle of preservation

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In his little book on miracles, C. S. Lewis has a chapter explaining why miracles should not be thought of as breaking the laws of nature. Instead, he says, they should be thought of as God introducing something new to nature which nature then acts on in typical fashion. He illustrates with a series of examples, one of which touches on the question of divine preservation.
If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born. We see every day that physical nature is not in the least incommoded by the daily inrush of events from biological nature or from psychological nature. If events ever come from beyond Nature altogether, she will be no more incommoded by them. Be sure she will rush to the point where she is invaded, as the defensive forces rush to a cut in our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the newcomer. The moment it enters her realm it obeys all her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate [but don’t tell Baptists], miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy, inspired books will suffer all the ordinary processes of textual corruption, miraculous bread will be digested. The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.*
What constitutes the peculiarity of a miracle, Lewis goes on to say, is that it does not “interlock” with what comes before in the way that it does with what follows after. “And this,” he says, “is just what some people find intolerable.” They assume that nature is all there is and so they cannot tolerate anything invading it from beyond.

Related to textual criticism and inspiration, there is an unexpected agreement on this issue between Bart Ehrman and KJV-onlyists that Lewis is inadvertently touching on. The agreement lies in the belief that the miracle of inspiration must walk hand-in-hand with the miracle of preservation such that if you lose one, you end up losing both. For KJV-onlyists, this explains why they insist on the miracle of divine preservation; for Ehrman, if we are to believe what he says in Misquoting Jesus, it explains why he came to deny the miracle of divine inspiration.

But Lewis helps us see why neither view is right. There is no reason to assume that God’s miraculous inspiration of the Bible should require him (or lead us to expect him) to miraculously preserve it from the “ordinary processes of textual corruption.” Instead, we have God, in the miracle of inspiration, introducing something from outside nature and then, in the non-miracle of transmission, letting nature take its course. (Or, as I might prefer to say it, we have God returning to his natural way of overseeing the world.)

Lewis helpfully reminds us that the inspiration and transmission of Scripture fit with the pattern of many of God’s other miracles. Just as we can expect the baby Jesus to gestate normally, so we can also expect the Bible to be transmitted normally. The miracle of origin does not require a second miracle of subsequent development.

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*From the end of ch. 8 of Miracles: A Preliminary Study; emphasis mine


36 comments :

  1. "miraculous conception will lead to pregnancy."

    The analogy refutes the argument. The child born suffered no corruption, and was perfect, without sin or error. Similarly our inspired and preserved scriptures.

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  2. Why does textual change = sin? One might argue that it = death which Jesus suffered. The point being that all analogies have limits, not least analogies between Bibliology and Christology.

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  3. Fascinating post, Peter - thank you. For the sake of clarity, what do you take to be the "something from outside nature" when it comes to inspiration? Put differently, what is beyond natural concerning scripture?

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    1. Sorry, that was a bit vague, I guess. I should say God's truth, God's authority, God's love, etc.

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  4. Not sure I completely agree. Continuing his divine sperm example, doctors tell us that upwards of 75% of fertilized eggs naturally fail to implant in the uterine wall. And of those that do implant, not all of them survive to full term - as any woman who has suffered a miscarriage can tell you. In other words, contrary to Lewis, creating the sacred sperm would not be sufficient to ensure the miracle: more follow through would be required. (Unless, of course, we can imagine a God sitting there patiently saying "man! I've sent my Son 3 times now, but that divinely fertilized egg keeps failing to implant! Oh well, 4 times is a charm!" Bottom line, if you require a miracle in the end result, you are going to need more divine involvement in the ongoing process.

    In that sense, I think I agree with both ehrman and the kjv's, in that if we start with the premise of an absolutely inspired bible, logic does demand some divine follow-through to ensure humanity's access to that divinely inspired text: otherwise, what was the point?

    Contrary to both ehrman and the kjv though, I don't think that all or nothing are the only two options. I think if we have a less absolute doctrine of inspiration - one that allows fully for the human side of the authors - then that human involvement in the inspiration sets the table perfectly for a solid theological understanding of the human element in the transmission process. Such and understanding would allow us to accept gaps or problems in the transmission not as failures of preservation, but as positive evidence of how God has chosen to work: through frail human vessels.

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    1. Ryan, I agree, but only if you start by assuming that one must have access to all God's words or else your access to some of those words is worth nothing. But I do not see the need to grant the premise while still affirming God's inspiration of all the original words. As for the need for "more divine involvement," note my parenthetical comment. God is never not involved in the world. The question is whether he is specially involved in the way he was in the Bible's original inspiration and the answer, I think, is no.

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    2. Peter,
      I'm certainly open to what you're saying, but I don't think I'd go there right now.

      I do like how you phrased the question, as a matter of whether God was involved in that way or not. Because I do agree with you that God is never not involved in the world, he is always involved in one way or another, but I'm sure you'll agree it is always a way of his choosing, and I think you'd probably also agree that his choices spring from and therefore reflect his character.

      I think, therefore, that part of the theological task is to look at those choices and deduce conclusions from them about God's character. Or in other words, we can learn more about who God is by observing how he has chosen to act.

      One of those acts we can look at is how is has chosen to act in regards to the revelation of the scriptures. I think I would see that revelation as one cohesive process that could be subdivided into several steps. But it's still one process by which God's truth is conveyed to the hearts of humans. And what are those steps? Inspiration would be the first. Transmission would have to be the second. We could argue about what comes next - either preaching, or interpretation. Or both - the preacher must first interpret before he could preach. Then once preached, the hearer must then interpret the preaching. And finally, that interpretation, if embraced, can affect the heart. That's a circuitous route, for sure. And has has already been well noted, God has manifestly seen fit not to impose any sorts of divine assurances on the final stages of preaching and interpretation. I mean, let's be clear: he could have done so, if he had chosen to. But for whatever reason he had, he chose not to. He chose to let humanity have preaching and interpretation as tasks to be laboured over. And he allows us to make mistakes in both those tasks.

      Going back a stage further, what about transmission? Again, he certainly could have imposed some sort of divine assurance - some sort of miraculous preservation - but the state of the extant manuscript base shows, I think, manifestly that God chose to let the transmission process inhabit the same uncertainty and human frailty as pervades the preaching and interpretation stages. That is, we know that God chose not to preserve the text because the text was in fact not preserved. It simply was not. 350,000+ variants necessitate us conceding that it was not.

      Sure, yes, we're textual critics after all, so most of us anyway believe that we have a fighting chance of restoring that text. But a text restored by humans is just not the same thing as a text preserved by God. And besides, even restored, it's still not a text that was preserved in any one copy (due apologies to Maurice), but rather one reassembled from thousands of pieces. To call that a text preserved would be like saying that china vase that you shattered into a thousand pieces was in fact preserved just because you managed to glue it all back together again! I mean, you could claim it was preserved and claimed it was the same as the original, but I don't think you'd fool many.

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    3. So now we get to the part that I think I disagree with you. You seem to be drawing a distinction between the first stage of the revelation process - inspiration - and the subsequent stages - transmission, preaching and interpretation. And then you seem to be arguing that God chose to act one way in the first stage, and another way in the remaining stages. That's where I don't think I can agree with you. God's choices in those subsequent stages demonstrate his character, and it's on the basis of that character that I would expect the same manner of choices in any previous stage. He acted that way because that's the kind of God he is, and so I'd expect consistency of character to result in consistency of action. Bottom line: I expect that God would allow the same degree of human uncertainty into the inspiration stage as he has clearly allowed into transmission, interpretation, and preaching.
      Or not. I could be wrong on that...

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    4. Ryan, he certainly could do that and I have no problem with God using fallible authorities in our lives. He does so regularly. However, God does not have the option, given his character, of speaking untruthfully. So the issue of inspiration must be settled with the prior question of whether God has spoken verbally, that is, in particular words. If so, those words are limited by his own character. I do not see how God is limited by what happens with his words subsequently any more than he is responsible for what Adam and Eve did after their initial creation. If you can accept the latter, then the former is quite easy too. (Other examples could be given.)

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    5. Thanks Peter. I think you are right to say that the issue depends at this point on the nature of inspiration. That's a theological topic, of course. I'm not much of a theologian, but at the risk of sounding pompous, I've always believed we should build an evidence based theology. That is, if I wanted to know whether God created me to be tall or short, the question should be settled by a measuring tape.

      Looking at scripture, we see a few significant pieces of evidence. The very fact that we do word-frequency analysis and talk about Paul's diction or Peter's characteristic word usage should tell us right away that the authors chose and used their own words. If some other Spirit was giving them the words to say, then we would expect the same diction across the NT. Instead, it is very easy to observe each author's individual diction and style.

      We also see them guided by their own intentions or agenda. When Paul writes to Philemon, it was because he wanted to intervene for Onesemus, not because he was given some supernatural direction to address the issue of slavery. Most of Paul's writings, in fact, are personal letters written to churches to address issues Paul felt needed addressing. By all appearances, Paul (or more often, the problems within the church he was addressing!) decided his own agenda. And we don't have to accept a full "community" hypothesis to also see that the experiences and needs of the local church had some influence on the gospel writers - influencing which Jesus sayings and stories they chose to include. John's selection clearly shows that he was driven, in part, by the issue of the relations between church and synagogue. Luke's choices often reflect a concern for what we call social justice. Bottom line, the agendas of the NT authors appear to be just as native to the individual author's as their diction and writing style.

      So too do the different authors reflect their own cultural frameworks - we've all sat through classes about how Paul's argument reflects greco-roman rhetoric models, or how Revelation utilizes common apocalyptic themes of the day. The gospels can be compared somewhat to the bioi genre, and so on.

      Roll all such observations together, and what do you have? You have what appears to be a collection of very normal human writings, that bear all the same characteristics of any other writing written by any other human. The humanity of the authors appears to be fully reflected in the texts they wrote.

      That notwithstanding, the church has always believed that these writings somehow convey to us a message from God. Millions of Christians for thousands of years have felt led to recognise spiritual truth within these otherwise very normal writings. And I'm one of them. So are you I'm sure.

      So how could that work?

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    6. You ask if "God has spoken verbally". I'm not 100% sure how you're using the term. But when I look at the evidence - that these written communications we have preserved appear no different than any other normal human communication - and try to square that with the truth that they do speak a message from God, I immediately recognise an experience that I myself and I'm sure many other Christians have had in their own lives. We've all had those times, I'm sure, when someone has come up to you and said they felt compelled to offer you some word of advice, encouragement, or admonishment, and you discover that word was exactly what you needed at that point. We've all had those experiences when someone felt the need to come help you at exactly the time you needed help. And if we're lucky, we've all had the experience of being compelled to give such a word or such a help to someone else, and maybe we've been lucky enough to have that person report back to us that in doing what we did we showed God's love to them. Evangelicals often describe such experiences as "the Spirit's leading", or they might say they "felt led by the Holy Spirit", and for all the unproveable subjectivity involved, I'm prepared to accept that as true.

      I also think it looks an awful lot like the experience the NT authors had when they wrote their texts.

      That is, I think, one of the problems with doctrines like inerrancy: they necessarily suppress the full humanity of the scriptures in order to artificially elevate the miraculous, and in doing so give, I think, God a fair amount more credit than he himself chose to take.

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    7. Ryan,
      Your view of inspiration is so humanly focused that it comes down to an individual determining for themselves whether something in the scriptures or from another person is inspired. I would argue that the scriptures themselves present a higher view than you propose. As to inerrancy, I think we have been shown previously that our positions are far apart.
      Tim

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    8. By "verbally" I mean that God has spoken specific words. The issue of whether the Bible is God's words can't be avoided. If they're his, they come with all his authority and reliability. If they're not, they may not.

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    9. Not to be obtuse, but I still think that could use some more parsing.

      All the same, as I noted above, all of our exegetical studies show unique and identifiable styles, agendas and tendencies for all of the different NT authors. Romans, for example, has all the appearances of being Paul's words. If they are in fact God's words, and not Paul's, then we would need to account for why God took the time to make himself sound just like Paul. And not just that, but why God would then change his style so completely that he would sound like Peter in 1 Peter, like John in John, or like Luke in Acts.

      I guess we could postulate that God performed an additional miracle for some reason to take on for himself completely the style and personage of Paul, Peter, Luke, etc., but I would think that the rule of parsimony would suggest that the most likely explanation for why Romans sounds like Paul's words is because they are Paul's words.

      God speaks through people, not in place of people. grace works through nature, Aquinas said. God works through earthen vessels.

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    10. tim - you missed the part I wrote about millions of Christians over thousands of years recognizing the truth in those scriptures. that community of faith is important. It's how we can control for personal preference in our reception of the spirit's guidance. It's also why we have Acts in the new testament instead of the didache, even though the latter is a far more entertaining book.

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    11. Ryan, of course the words of scripture are not only God’s. God speaks through human authors. Along with a great many Christians, including the NT authors, I don’t pit these two truths against each other. I assume you’re well aware of this.

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    12. Ryan,
      I didn't miss it. Transferring your personal belief to a group who never held that belief does not make it any more than still an individual decision. Indeed the canonical scriptures were used and recognized by 'millions of Christians over thousands of years', but that is because they recognized the inspiration of the scriptures. A community-response inspiration is always open to additional scriptures depending on who (which individual) is interpreting the historical community data.

      Tim

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  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Same thing I was wondering?

      Tim

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    2. Not sure what happened to my comment about this. Anyway, Lee, you're welcome to comment here, but spare us the all-caps.

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  6. Thanks for this post, Peter. I think that some evangelicals have assumed that perfect copies and editions are promised based on a misinterpretation of Matthew 5:17-18. After a fairly detailed discussion in my Sermon on the Mount commentary, I argued that Jesus's statement is about the authority and reliability of the original text, rather than the transmission of the text:



    The verb translated "pass" or "pass away" (παρέλθη) means "to lose force" or "become
    invalid."257  It is not a reference to an accidental omission of a letter or stroke in the process of copying a Hebrew manuscript, but to the loss of authority of the OT text. The verb "pass away" functions as a synonym in this context to the verb "destroy" (καταλῦσαι) in verse 17 which means "abolish, annul, or repeal" when used in reference to the Scriptures.258  This terminology clearly demonstrates that inspiration, reliability, and especially enduring authority are the issue, not the transmission of the text.259

    I think that Article X. of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy strikes the proper balance:

    "Inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy."

    C. L. Quarles

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    1. I agree with your assessment of Jesus' words here. At first glance, Article X appears to be an adequate nuanced description of inerrancy that excludes presevation. However, the framers used a poor selection of words that has caused no end of confusion, particularly with the word "autograph." Strictly speak an autograph copy of a writing could be at any point from first draft to "finak" form. So which is it? It would seem that the only way Article X would not require such nuance is if one held to some form of dictation theory of inspiration. This, at least with regard to Luke, is impossible because he tells us that he consulted eyewitnesses and built an historical account. This would require out of necessity draft copies and note taking, all of which would technically be the "autographic text" of Luke. (I attempt to address some of these issues in a JETS article "What are the NT Auotographs?"
      Another protective problem with Article X is that it seems to place inspiration on a physical document (the autograph) rather than to the words of that document.

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    2. Thanks for that, Charles. I agree with you on Matt 5. I think 5.17 makes it clear that Jesus has authority in mind not the particulars of textual criticism. And I would add that the question of inspiration does, finally, have to rest on exegesis and theology not merely on analogy. But I find Lewis's analogies helpful for illustration.

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    3. Sorry, I meant the question of miraculous preservation.

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    4. I apologize for all the typos. A symptom of tapping away a response on my phone!

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    5. Thanks for the reply, Timothy. I have some pause about the final statement: "Another protective problem with Article X is that it seems to place inspiration on a physical document (the autograph) rather than to the words of that document." Since the article continues by saying "We affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original," I think that the intention is to ascribe inspiration to the words of the original rather than the physical document alone.
      I will look forward to reading your JETS article again.

      C. L. Quarles

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    6. I agree that the intention of the CSBI was to place inspiration and inerrancy on the wordsof scripture. It is just that using the term "autographic texts" implies a physicality. And, again, I apologize for my typos above. The phrase you quoted should have read;
      "Another potential problem with Article X is that it seems to place inspiration on a physical document (the autograph) rather than to the words of that document."

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    7. Tim,
      I believe this is an important point. Manuscripts are indeed the vehicle that the text was preserved in and valuable in their own right, but ultimately we are concerned about the preserved inspired words, the text. This is why, in spite of some arguing otherwise, the quantity of NT manuscripts is advantageous. Not so that we can compare the number with other ancient texts, but because it gives us a better opportunity to establish the Ausgangstext. Certainly, if you add the theological premise that God wants us to know what He has said, the text within the manuscripts are the key and TC is the God ordained answer. As in many other areas of our faith, God has chosen to use fallible humans to accomplish His plans. Indeed, in spite of our frailty and disagreements, I believe we can with confidence say that God has preserved His word and we have it.

      Tim

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  7. Peter G,
    I'm not sure that Lewis is really any sort of go-to- guy regarding textual matters. Erasmus chimed in with something a bit more helpful -- off the top of my head, something to the effect of, if we are to ask why God did not compel scribes to copy perfectly, surely the next question is why He does not compel interpreters to interpret perfectly, for far more deviancy from the gospel of Christ has come from bad interpretation than ever came from bad copying.

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    1. Yes, I think that is a very good point. The quest for certainty, once demanded, extends far beyond textual criticism. John Frame makes Erasmus's point, I believe, in his systematic theology.

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  8. Many more analogies could be brought forward, but not sure how helpful they are. Lazarus was called out of the tomb, but he went on to die later. That doesn't fit because we still have the Scriptures albeit in slightly defective form due to corruption of transmission. Analogies are often imperfect, but sometimes helpful when the concept is obscure. Here we have a concept that should be clear: The originals were inspired, and subsequent copies all have differences. No analogy is really needed.

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  9. An analogy (which I have actually heard abused and misused):

    Jesus' human body was perfect and sinless due to his miraculous incarnation. He thereby was qualified to shed his blood on the cross for the remission of sins. But could he as a young child have skinned his knee or pricked his finger? Would any blood thus shed be efficacious? Or would God the Father have "preserved" him from such ever occurring ("lest you dash your foot upon a stone")?

    In other words, what are the limits of "preservation", whether in relation to either the incarnation or the inspired scripture?

    Perhaps the comments by Scrivener, Plain Introduction, 4th ed, pp.1-3 (too lengthy to reproduce here) regarding the parsimony of miracles in general and in relation to scripture in particular should be carefully read by all when considering these points.

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    1. Dr. R.,
      Yep! In fact, I should have just said see your comment above!

      Tim

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  10. Stephen McCormick7/04/2017 2:54 pm

    I agree with Lewis, and with you. What we fail to take into account is that ALL OF WHAT WE CALL NATURE started off with miraculous events. Nothing is that we see falls outside that border. Why should it surprise us when God does something again that he did before?

    But to be honest, as much as I appreciate the efforts of textual criticism to fully restore the original texts to us, so much of the exegetical and homiletical abuse of what we already have in our Bibles, renders the issue of textual preservation moot.

    I once listened in frustration as the pastor who led me to Christ preached a 45 minute message on a word that was not even in the English version he was preaching from. He had mistaken the English word for another totally unrelated word.

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