Film and Book Reviews

Book highlights the Holy Spirit's work of inspiring the Holy Scriptures

BookInspiration: Towards a Christian Interpretation of Biblical Inspiration, by Gerald O'Collins (Oxford University Press, 2018).

By Peter Adam

September 9 2019Gerald O’Collins is the distinguished Roman Catholic scholar and author, currently with the Australian Catholic University and the University of Divinity. His book is a theology of the divine inspiration of the Bible. He begins with the interesting observation that it had been a neglected topic in recent theological discourse, and lists five recent notable dictionaries of Biblical Studies from Oxford and Cambridge which do not list the word “inspiration” in the index!

How remarkable when our Nicene Creed includes our faith in the Holy Spirit, “who spoke through the prophets”, a confidence which the church extended to the doctrine of the inspiration of the whole Bible. In 1970 James Smart published The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. O’Collins points to the strange neglect of Biblical inspiration in contemporary theology.

He begins with two recent accounts of biblical inspiration by Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics, and Raymond Collins in The New Jerome Bible Commentary. Throughout the book he interacts with a wide variety of sources, including the Ecumenical Councils, Trent, Vatican 11, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical theologians, and notes the effects of the inspired Scriptures in the lives of the saints, in liturgy, preaching, prayer, drama, and in the hymns of Wesley and John Newton.

I particularly valued the following elements of the book.

He reminds us that the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration includes inspiring the people and inspiring the words.

His theology of the inspiration of the Bible includes the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the original text and also the work of the Holy Spirit in speaking those same words today.

He shows that the inspiration of the Bible is prior to and fundamental to its truth, and so to its authority. So if we lose the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible, it loses its truth and its authority.

He recognises that God’s revelation includes both God’s words and works, divine words and divine actions.

He reminds us of the power of the inspired Scriptures. We see their inspiration from their effects.

He notes that inspiration was in many cases the inspiration of a community as well as of the final (sometimes anonymous) author/editor, and that we should recognise the Spirit’s work in that process.

The inspired Scriptures include writings from other sources, such as the letters of Artaxerxes quoted in Ezra, and Paul’s quotations from pagan poets. Inspiration here means adoption.

He has a carefully nuanced analysis of the relationship between revelation, tradition and inspiration in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Post-New Testament church.

He helpfully combines the ideas that Scriptures are both an effect and cause of divine revelation. They are the result of God’s revelation, and they result in God’s revelation to those who receive them.

He shows that the Latin word dictare, often translated “dictate”, can have a wider meaning in theological documents, such as command or oversee; and that auctor, often translated “author”, can also have a wider meaning.

He provides useful comments on the relationship between the intention of the author of a text, the intention of the text once it is written, and the intention of the hearers or readers, and recognises the work of the Holy Spirit in each of these processes. At the same time he retains the authority of the Scriptures themselves: “the canonical Bible in and of itself constitutes the primary norm for determining the Church’s faith and practice” (p. 149).

He points out that fidelity to the Bible is fidelity to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

He includes 10 thoughtful “Principles for Theologians Interpreting the Scriptures” (chapter 10). They are: faithful hearing; active hearing; paying attention to community and creed; noting Biblical convergence; respect for contemporary consensus; recognising metathemes and metanarratives in the Bible; recognising discontinuity as well as continuity in the Bible; remembering eschatological provisionality; the discerning use of philosophical assistance; and cultural awareness. These of course are applicable whatever topic is under consideration.

I particularly appreciated his reminder that theologians should be faithful and active hearers of the Scriptures. One of the difficulties of specialisation in theological study and education is that the Bible is a different academic discipline than theology. I have always tried to get the Bible included in the set books for theology courses! Theologians need to be faithful and active hearers of the Scriptures as theologians, as well as believers.

The book reminded me of Archbishop Cranmer’s words:

These books, therefore, ought to be much in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all in our hearts. The words of Holy Scripture be called words of everlasting life (John 6): for they be God’s instrument, ordained for the same purpose.

While I did not agree with every conclusion, the book was a fresh and broadly- based and generous study of an important theme, and a joy to read.

Some observations.

The book would have been enriched by a study of the theology of the translatability of the Scriptures. Does the Holy Spirit work in a translated Bible? The answer is yes, and the assumption of the book is yes. But it is worth pondering the fact that most Jews and Muslims read their sacred texts in the original languages, as do people in many other religions. So what is it about our Christian theology of inspiration which recognises the possibility of translation into any language, and the power of the Scriptures to speak to people in any language? St Augustine wrote that God seems especially close to us when he speaks to us in our own language. The work of translating the Bible has been a conspicuous ingredient in Christian mission. Even though the Roman Catholic church opposed the translation of the Bible into indigenous languages at the time of the Reformation, its own Bible at the time was a translated Latin Bible, the Vulgate! Now, of course, it is committed to Biblical translatability. While there are many studies of how the Bible should be translated, we have not yet seen a comprehensive theological defence of its translatability.

In this book O’Collins writes of the work of the Spirit in the Bible, in the church, and in the reader. Presumably we could extend this to include the Spirit’s work in the ministry of the word to others, for example in biblical preaching and teaching.

I wonder if his trust in the Spirit’s work in Bible, church and reader alike is a little optimistic. He claims that “The Biblical text shapes the reader more than the reader shapes the text” (p. 162). What if the church misreads the Bible? What if we misread it?

The book would have been made more useful with an index of topics, as common themes are developed throughout.

Let me conclude with this encouragement from O’Collins:

Letting [our]selves be encountered by the Bible and expecting that the Bible will speak to them with authority …[we] allow the scriptural texts in all their ‘otherness’ to convey meaning, disclose truth, and authoritatively transform ideas, interest, and practices. In the words of St Ambrose of Milan, ‘when we pray we address God; when we read the divine words we listen to him’ [p. 165].

Oh, for more preachers to pay careful attention to the Scriptures before they preach: Oh, for more Christians to pay regular attention to the Scriptures in church and in their daily lives!

Let us fully welcome this gracious ministry and work of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of the holy Scriptures in our church and in our lives. 

The Revd Dr Peter Adam OAM is Vicar Emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton and Canon Emeritus of St Paul’s Cathedral.