How should we understand the Scriptures to be the divinely inspired word of God?
Christian art could lead us astray by implying that the writers of the Scriptures were mere copyists. That is how a beautiful terra cotta work by Luca della Robbia in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence represents the Gospel writers.
An eagle has arrived from heaven to hold the text for St. John to copy down. A lion performs the same service for St. Mark.
Numerous works of art depict the Holy Spirit whispering into the ears of the biblical authors. They obediently reproduce the text that is being dictated to them. This drastically reduces any human role in the production of the Scriptures. The sacred writers become mere secretaries who faithfully take down the divine dictation. A set of tape recorders could have served God’s purposes just as well.
This interpretation of inspiration maximizes the divine role in producing the sacred texts, but does so at the expense of the human activity involved.
Beyond question, the inspiration of the biblical texts involves a special impulse and guidance from the Holy Spirit. But such divine activity does not rule out a genuine input from all those who wrote the popular history, prophetic texts, prayers, proverbs, letters, Gospels and other books that make up the Bible.
As happens elsewhere, divine grace and human freedom functioned in a "both/and" situation for the making of the Bible. Both the Holy Spirit and human beings worked together to create the inspired Scriptures. God and the biblical writers were in the closest collaboration and not in a mutually exclusive competition.We can sum up this vision of the inspired Scriptures by speaking of the word of God being communicated in and through the words of human beings. When we hear at worship or prayerfully read for ourselves the sacred Scriptures, we can experience God speaking to us in a very special way through texts that also have an authentically human origin.
Long ago these texts were written down through the gift of inspiration; today they have their impact on us by enlightening and empowering our lives. The Scriptures were inspired then and inspiring now.
The inspired Scriptures speak to us with the power and authority of God. But being the word of God expressed in the words of human beings, the Scriptures need to be carefully understood and interpreted.
In particular, we should attend to the kind of literature the particular biblical authors wrote, the setting in which they composed their texts and the message they intended to convey to the particular audience for whom they were writing.
The psalms come from centuries of worship in the Temple of Jerusalem or from particular episodes in the lives of kings and others.
St. Paul wrote his letters with specific issues in mind: namely, the challenges to Christian life, faith and worship facing the community he was addressing.
In composing his Gospel, St. Mark wrote a new kind of biography, drew on the eyewitness testimony of St. Peter and aimed to encourage Christians threatened with brutal persecution.
Serious attention to the original human authors and the meaning they expressed in their inspired texts should not, however, lead us to forget the way the whole church and individual Christian preachers, writers and artists have taken up and applied the words and images of the Bible.
Almost every word in the creed that we recite together on Sundays is a quotation or at least an echo of what we read in the Scriptures.
Carvings, statues and stained glass windows in our churches present us constantly with such biblical images as the true vine, the living water, the bread of life, the lamb of God, the Good Shepherd and the crucified Son of God.
The ongoing life of the church and the existence of individual Christians would be unthinkable without the light and power that come from the biblical texts. The Scriptures illuminate constantly the mystery of God and the mystery of human beings. They feed Christian life in a unique way.
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation ("Dei Verbum"), promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, ends with a chapter that embodies a powerful vision of the Scriptures releasing a new spirit that would sweep through Christendom.
The bishops hoped that in the aftermath of the council, the life of all the baptized would be nourished and guided by the sacred texts. They dreamed of the Catholic Church experiencing everywhere a profound conversion by becoming a truly biblical church.
That vision of the Scriptures puts the question to each of us: Are you willing to live in constant contact with the inspired word of God and let your life become a truly biblical existence? -By Father Gerald O’Collins, SJ
(Jesuit Father Gerald O’Collins has taught theology at Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. His 48 published books include "Jesus Our Redeemer", Oxford University Press, and "Pope John Paul II: A Reader", Paulist Press).