In his recent book, Is Scripture Still Holy: Coming of Age with the New Testament, A.E. Harvey explores whether the findings of modern critical scholarship are compatible with traditional views about the authority of the Bible. While the title might suggest the question is still an open one, the book is designed to argue against the doctrine of inspiration (at least in any historically recognizable form).
In a prior installment (see here), we responded to Harvey’s claim that the real revelation of God is only Jesus and not the Scripture. In this post, we shall respond to another of Harvey’s arguments against inspiration, namely that once humans are involved there can be no clear, certain revelation from God.
Harvey argues that humans were involved at three critical stages that taint the reliability of revelation. First, humans were the recipients of that revelation. Harvey says, “The most immediate recipients of the message were persons whose individual characteristics and emotions were not suspended” (12).
Second, humans were the transmitters of revelation. Harvey argues that this would lead to inevitable “scribal error and corruption in transmission” (13).
Third, humans were (and are) the interpreters of revelation. Harvey says that “here too is a point of entry for human fallibility” (13).
Harvey thus reaches this amazing conclusion: “The moment we admit, as we must, that human agency is involved at every stage of the transmission of the divine message, then it becomes impossible to appeal to Scripture for a final judgment” (15, emphasis mine.).
While Harvey is certainly correct that humans are involved at each of these stages, this does not mean his argument is valid. His argument is valid only if a particular assumption is true (one which he leaves largely unspoken), namely that God did not intervene to limit the effects of human involvement.
Put differently, Harvey’s argument against inspiration only works if God was not involved! But, that misses the whole point. Inspiration is, at its core, really a miraculous act. It is an instance of God intervening in the world in a special way to communicate and preserve his word.
Therefore, the humans-always-make-mistakes argument is not a cogent one. It already presupposes a purely naturalistic approach to the origins of the Bible–an approach which the Bible itself rejects.
But all of this raises an additional question. Since Harvey appears to believe in God, why is he so opposed to the idea that God could miraculously keep humans from error? I think the answer lies in his concept of God. Harvey indicates time and time again that God would never intervene to contradict or to override man’s free will (e.g., p.11-12).
If so, then I think we have the answer to our question. If Harvey rejects the complete sovereignty of God over human actions, as he appears to do, then this may explain why he rejects the doctrine of inspiration. God is not able (or at least not willing) to control people’s actions. Thus, on these terms, an error-free Bible is an impossibility.
This is a great reminder that topics like inspiration are not ones that can be addressed on merely historical terms. They are theological topics and they therefore require, and are founded upon, prior theological beliefs. Take away the complete sovereignty of God, and you take away the very possibility of a reliably inspired Bible.
Of course, I believe Harvey to be profoundly mistaken about the extent of God’s sovereignty. His view is not only out of sync with Scripture, but with the historical view of the church throughout the ages.
But, here is the point. While Harvey’s argument against inspiration appears to be a historical one on the surface, when the layers are pealed back it proves to be nothing of the sort. Is a theological argument based on a particular view of God. Of course, there is nothing wrong with theological arguments. But, they should not be presented as something they are not.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
” I think the answer lies in his concept of God. Harvey indicates time and time again that God would never intervene to contradict or to override man’s free will (e.g., p.11-12).”
If what you say in referencing Harvey’s view of God’s Sovereignty is true, then it would also “appear” that Harvey is also a “closet” Deist since he limits God’s role with Creation. This “naturalist” view of looking at the Bible is another form of the modern-liberal thinking that has been “evolving” from the 19th Century to the present.
Michael Kruger says
Great point, Bryant. I think you are exactly right. The Deist conception of God is inherently antithetical to biblical Christianity.
It reminds me of the popular view “There are no absolutes” are you sure about that? “Absolutely.”
It also reminds me of the earth, amongst the myriad of planets one alone holds the perfect combination for life, and many put this down to chance or luck. Scripture, in its holiness & truth, argues consistently otherwise.
I have, for some time now, been speculating about how the human authors of scripture could write “True Truth” being fallible humans. It has been pointed out in the past that God did not “dictate” the scriptures to the writers as we can see the different writing styles and nuances of the individual authors, yet God was in control.
Given that, without God’s intervention and calling, we are “blind” to the Truth, I can’t help but wonder whether or not the way God worked is not necessarily by overriding an individual’s free will with respect to what he should write, but rather that He removed the blindness of the authors with respect to the Truth that they would be writing about at the time. So, therefore, the human author is freely writing with his own voice on a matter, but God (instead of forcing them to write what is True) allows them to fully see and, even if only temporarily, more fully comprehend the Truth in order to write what would be infallible and inerrant.
As I said, this is just speculation, but I have not found anything yet to dissuade me of this line of thinking. Perhaps you could offer your thoughts on this idea? I would be open to any feedback.
Bill Smith says
Michael, you have definitely hit on an important point. There is a relationship between one’s view of God and scripture. It seems that Harvey is basing his argument on his view of man (must err) and a view of God (limited sovereignty). I am impressed that the early church Fathers did not have any problem with God producing a text without errors even though many of them held to a libertarian view of free will. They would jump to mystery before denying that God get us an accurate word (Scriptures).
Can you tell me why we have to state the phrase “the complete sovereignty of God” to secure an inerrant Bible? Could not God superintend the process of the human authors in such a way as to ensure its inerrancy without meticulous divine sovereignty? Is God not able to manage this process in such a way as to allow the greatest amount of human freedom (choice of words, syntax, language, style, lack of grammatical precision by some authors than others) while protecting the outcome of God’s divine intentions so that what they say is what he intended to say?