Saturday, February 15, 2014

Luke 1: Scripture = Inspiration + Perspiration

Luke 1:1-17 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. 

The first few verses of Luke's Gospel describe the process involved in his compilation of the account of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From his preface, we understand that his Gospel account is based on:
  • Other Sources ("many have undertaken to compile"): Before Luke compiled his own narrative, there were already in existence other narratives of Jesus Christ. In fact, a close examination of Matthew, Luke and Mark's Gospels show that there are many similarities in the three Gospels--some passages were verbatim copies of each other. Most scholars believe Mark is the earliest Gospel in circulation before Matthew and Luke decided to compile their own Gospels for their own target audience, viz., the Jews (for Matthew) and Greeks (for Luke). Mark's Gospel was probably one of the sources Luke used in compiling his own narrative.
  • Eyewitnesses:("just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses"): When Luke started his compilation of the Gospel, many of the witnesses were still alive (AD 63). Luke was an early convert under Paul's ministry. Among these witnesses he had spoken to might include Mary, for Luke's version of the birth of John and Jesus was based on very personal memories of the key people in the narrative: Mary, her cousin Elizabeth & husband Zechariah. Also other witnesses might include those who saw and heard Jesus while he was alive, including witnesses of his resurrection (some 500 witnesses saw Jesus after his resurrection). So there were many rank-and-file witnesses Luke had probably consulted in order to write "an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus." 
  • Apostles ("ministers of the word"): The apostles were still alive when Luke started writing his Gospel. Peter was probably the main apostle he got to know as he and Paul interacted very closely, and Luke was one of Paul's companions. So, Luke had access to the apostles who spent 3 years living, listening and ministering under direct supervision of Christ. 
So, Luke wrote his Gospel after he had done his research, by reading earlier accounts and double-checking the details with key eyewitnesses  and the apostles. All this human research to write the Gospel raises the question of the meaning of inspiration of Scriptures. When I was a young believer, I used to think of Scriptures as something that drop out of heaven leather-bound in black and delivered in a single volume. But I realized soon that the Bible was compiled by over 40 authors over a period of 1,500 years. In particular, the New Testament was compiled over a period of less than 30 years (AD 60-90). Being written by human authors, we often see that the authors' personal prejudices, cultural and theological bias and even personality are embedded in their writings, so that we may discern very distinct personality differences in the "synoptic" Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, even though they share the same viewpoint.

So, biblical revelation is not 100% God but 100% inspiration + 100% perspiration: God moving human authors who did the writing: "knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation... produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:20-21). The men spoke and wrote as they were "carried along" by the Holy Spirit. As we can see from Luke's preface that he had to do all the hard-work before he could start writing his Gospel. The product is the Gospel "according to Luke." It was a personal product but it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

What then do we mean when we say Scripture is the "Word of God"? Firstly, what it doesn't mean is that every word is God speaking, for we see in Scriptures Satan's words too (Genesis 3; Job 1 & 2; Matthew 4; Luke 4). So, the devil's words are also in the Bible. If we don't mean that every word is God's own speech, what then do we mean when we say the Bible is the Word of God?

The best parallel is the human preacher. We go to church on Sunday to hear the "Word of God". But very often, we hear the pastor preaching a message that he researched and compiled during the week. Sometime we are inspired when we hear the "word of God" but sometime we get bored when all we hear is the pastor's own thoughts. So, there is a mixture between the pastor's own personal feelings and thoughts and what he said that is truly inspired and revealed by the Holy Spirit. So, the "word of God" is not everything the pastor says, but perhaps only 1% or if the pastor is preaching "under the anointing" maybe 75% is God's thoughts and 25% is the pastor's own thoughts. So, we have to listen with discernment because not everything that comes out of the preacher's mouth is "the Word of God". Some liberal preachers who don't believe the Bible is inspired may be sharing 100% of his own thoughts and 0% of God's thoughts.

So when we say that Scripture is the "Word of God" we mean that it's God's idea and thoughts that inspired the process of writing. But God didn't write the Scriptures--humans did. So Scripture is a joint-venture product of divine inspiration and human perspiration. The human author is limited by his own language and cultural/theological bias. But God has to use the human authors as they were and so some revelation is clothed in imperfect human communication process. The best metaphor to describe biblical inspiration is "treasure in jars of clay" (2 Cor. 4:7). So, we acknowledge the existence of "jars of clay" but we look for the "treasure" (the Word of God) contained in the human jars. And we will need the Holy Spirit to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Whether we are listening to a preacher on Sunday or reading Scriptures on our own, we need to acknowledge the human element while seeking the Holy Spirit's for the "Word of God". We have to discount imperfect human communication processes in order to hear what the Spirit is saying to us, for "Word" is the living message of the Spirit, not the words printed in the Bible. So when we spot "human errors" in Scritpures we should not be surprised for they are just a consequence of God using the imperfect human medium to communicate His thoughts. But the thoughts are perfect, but the communication process may not be.

Luke has done his research as thoroughly as he could: "carefully investigated everything from the beginning" (1:3), but his account cannot be "perfect" because he has imperfect knowledge and he is the product of his own theological and cultural presuppositions. So, he describes events through his own personal, cultural and theological spectacles.

This understanding of inspiration is not a "liberal" view but a scriptural one. Some traditional Christians may find this disturbing but that is how Luke's Gospel came about as he himself describes it. We can ignore scriptural data and hold on to our romantic idea of Scriptures as the Word of God or we can align our understanding of inspiration based on scriptural evidence. I don't think the fact that Scripture is written by human authors should undermine scriptural authority.

The "Word of God" is whatever the Holy Spirit reveals to us as we read Scriptures. It's dynamic and no two believers reading the same passage will receive the same "Word" because the Holy Spirit uses Scriptures as a medium of communication of His thoughts.

Father, thank You that You have given us the Scripture which is a product of human authors writing and speaking under inspiration of Your Holy Spirit. Grant us Your Spirit as we read the Scripture today, so we may discern Your word for us daily in the imperfect medium of the Scripture. Amen.

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