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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An Interpretation of Salvation Army Doctrines: #1 Inspiration and Interpretation

We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.

It seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? What is there to question? What is there to debate? What needs to be interpreted? 

Well, Inspiration is a notoriously slippery idea. What does it mean? Literally we might read it as “God breathed” but, while this is a vibrant and vivid poetic image, it doesn’t actually pin it down. (And, perhaps that is the point…)

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 perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. 2 Timothy 3:16–3:17

For some, “inspired” and “God breathed” means perfect, inerrant, without flaw, without mistake, handed down from God himself. In the Salvation Army we try to be a little more nuanced than that. We don’t hold to the idea that God dictated the scriptures; neither do we hold the slightly more relaxed idea of Verbal Plenary Inspiration–which allows the human authors of the bible to have some control over the writing, while God preserved the integrity of their writing without error or mistakes.  Remember that Adam, too, was “inspired” by God but that didn’t prevent him from making mistakes…

But neither do we go so far the other way to deny any Divine influence over the scriptures. As stated in the doctrine, we hold that the scriptures are inspired and that they do hold a place of authority in our lives.

“The Salvation Army’s statement of faith does not include any reference to the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture.  What we do affirm is that we can rely upon the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments for instruction and guidance in matters of divine truth and the Christian life, because in Scripture we meet the inspired Word of God himself, Jesus Christ (Handbook of Doctrine, 13)”[i]

Suddenly it seems that there is very much to interpret. We need to read the scriptures carefully – with an awareness that they were written a long time ago, over a long period of time, by a variety of individuals from different backgrounds, in different languages, with different goals and expectations.  In fact, we should not think of the Bible as a book. We should realize that is a library in itself. And not all the voices represented in that library agree in every respect with every other voice in the library.

There are disagreements and arguments even within the scriptures about what these scriptures mean.

My friend Thom Stark has said in his book, “In the beginning was the Argument, and the Argument was with God and the Argument was: God. God was the subject of the Argument, and the Argument was a good one…the Bible is a collection of writings that is marked by a lively internal debate, and by a remarkable spirit of self-criticism. To put it bluntly: the Bible is an argument – with itself (Stark, 1).”[ii]

The earliest parts of the scriptures were debated and reinterpreted by later authors; some parts they changed. Some parts they reaffirmed. And these interpretations were again re-interpreted by still later authors.

It is not possible to simply cut the doctrines and dogmas described in the pages of scripture from their context and then paste them over our contemporary lives. The laws and codes of Bronze and Iron Age cultures are not applicable to modern people – not, at least, without interpretation.

We believe that these scriptures are ours from God, and that they are the guiding rules for our lives, but it is our responsibility to carefully examine them and to reverently interpret them; seeking to understand the holiness that underlies those ancient codes and stories and proverbs so that we might find ways to faithfully apply them in our world today – in situations that the biblical authors could never have imagined.

[i] Salvation Story: Salvationist Handbook of Doctrine, The Salvation Army International Headquarters, London England, 1998.
[ii] Stark, Thom The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It) Wipf & Stock, 2011

1 comment:

  1. I see the Bible as God's testimony written from the human angle.

    Pretty much, I believe that God inspired the writers of the Bible [we could refer to them as 'Ghost Writers'] that He knew He could trust His testimony to. He knew their hearts, their minds, and how they conveyed what they believed about Him to others.

    Then, as more people caught on to the idea of writing about God, they did so, not because He led them to, but because THEY wanted to. Over the course of time, those writings that God HAD in fact inspired showed themselves to be superior over those that were not. [Superior ones being recognized as 'canonical,' and those that were not were apocryphal or deuteo-noncanonical...]

    I also believe that God had a hand in translation. Translations haven't necessarily been 'divinely inspired,' but rather rose out of a need for the Bible to be in the language of the people. I believe that God recognized this, and, while giving guidance where asked, allowed the translators to be their human selves. So, in a sense, God blessed the work of the translators, gave guidance where asked, and in a sense allowed the translators to 'interpret' as they saw fit: right or wrong.

    Commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias have been wonderful tools in helping us understand scripture. But, they are all written from our human understanding, and while helpful, should be approached very carefully with an open heart and mind, asking God to guide us as we study.

    Being so intertwined with humanity, the process of writing down God's testimony, and passing it on to the generations that follow, has never been a perfect work, without error. While it IS God's testimony, it IS human produced and interpreted. And while the first doctrine recognizes this, many in the Army dont. They see it as inerrant or infallible. They WANT it that way. Its easier for them to point at things and say: 'see, I told you so!' than it would be if it were NOT inerrant or infallible.

    I believe that God is also STILL speaking to us today. And while our personal testimonies will never become sacred scripture, they are a testimony of how WE see God today. How we see His love, His compassion, His mercy and how we have experienced His forgiveness.

    It ALL works together: The Scriptures, their interpretations, and our experiences all work together to help people understand God, and point the way to His Son. Our experiences and our testimony show others that God is STILL here, still interacting with humanity, and STILL reaching out to a world lost in total despair.....


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