Thursday, October 06, 2005

What's the Matter with Dictation?

During the past three days I've been reading in bite-sized pieces through the famous self-proclaimed theological liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick's "sermon" titled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"

[Warning: Paleoevangelical rabbit trail to follow! I call Fosdick's oratory a "sermon" because its content is only tangentially related in any remote way to the text, and the connection between the authorial intent and the content is even more tenuous. Kind of like a Jack Hyles sermon. Quote a brief text, then proceed to the personal opinion portion. Hyles was more entertaining than Fosdick though. But this has little to do with the point of my post.]

Fosdick, like many modernists and today's "moderates," scorns inerrant divine inspiration of the Bible, calling it dictation or mechanical inspiration. I've often heard theological conservatives distance themselves from the dictation theory by using the term "verbal plenary inspiration," defined as divine inspiration that fully extends to all the words of Scripture. Is this a distinction without a difference? If God breathed the writings, is that different from Him giving the writers the words?

Two points are well-taken. First, Scripture does not explicitly teach mechanical dictation. Verbal plenary inspiration defines only what the Bible defines. Second, Scripture offers us indications that the distinct personalities and vocabularies of the human authors are present in Scripture and that these people used existing written sources to compile their writings.

Still, for those of us who believe in the supernatural, would it have been impossible for God to have dictated words that were consistent with distinct personalities and vocabularies? Is it inconceivable that God could have dictated Moses' epilogue to him before his death? I think not. It may be unlikely, but unlikely is not impossible. I'm wondering if defending verbal plenary inspiration requires nuances that sound suspiciously like well-intended obfuscation (i.e. Augustinian dispensationalism). Perhaps the benefits of these nuances might be outweighed by the drawbacks, one of which is that few laymen know what "verbal plenary inspiration" means, let alone how to defend it.

1 comment:

Scott Aniol said...

I'm teaching through this with my teens right now, and I think it is important that we distinguish between dictation theory and verbal plenary inspiration for the sake of hermeneutics. Two reasons:

1) If God simply dictated the words of Scripture, then the authors could have potentially had no idea what they were writing, destroying authorial intent (good article on this subject here). An author certainly may have not understood every implication of what he was writing, but we must affirm that he understood what he was writing. This is muddled with the dictation theory.

2) Verbal plenary inspiration without dictation necessitates a historical grammatical study of the text when doing hermeneutics. While this may also be the case with the dictation theory (the way you described it, although I've never heard it discussed in such terms), it is certainly not as clear.

Just some thoughts.