“I do know [the people who wrote the Old Testament] were inspired by God to write,” so says a questioner. And it’s true, but this is a potentially misleading way of expressing the truth of Biblical inspiration. Let’s explore the question in some detail.
Some Christian denominations, in their understanding of inspiration, insist that every single word of the Bible is intended to be taken absolutely literally. So we have people who are convinced that the universe was created in six days, that Noah’s ark saved people from a flood of 40 days and 40 nights, that Joshua stopped the sun from moving in the sky so that he could finish a battle, that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, and so on. Let me say that this view is problematic.
My hero, Cardinal Newman, was very clear on this (especially in the context of the then raging discussions about Darwin and evolution, advances in science, and so on that dominated the 19th century). He understood that there was no great conflict between science and religion ‘because so little is determined about the inspiration of Scripture, except in matters of faith and morals.’ He saw that ‘there have always been two minds in the process of inspiration, a divine Auctor, and a human Scriptor.’ ‘The books [of the Bible] are inspired, because the writers were inspired to write them.’ But we cannot understand the text of the Biblical writers until we understand the context. This is why “Bible sharing” is so much easier than real “Bible study.”
Vatican II comes very, very close to this notion: ‘…since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.’ The scientific mode of the creation of the cosmos is not presented to us in Genesis for this reason; the fact that God is the Creator is.
Can sacred authors have memory lapses? Of course they can! If they recall and record a parable or a teaching or a miracle of Jesus in wording differing from another evangelist, is this a critical difficulty? No—the point of the teaching or the parable or the miracle is the same, regardless of the number of blind men cured or how many thousands were fed or the changes in wording of a parable or teaching. The bottom line is this: what did God put into these writings for the sake of our salvation?
In The Pilgrim’s Regress, CS Lewis put it poignantly and properly, reflecting on the question of Biblical ‘truth’ instead of ‘facts’—‘Child, if you will, it [the Biblical story] is mythology. It is but truth, not fact: an image, not the very real. But then it is My mythology. The words of Wisdom are also truth and metaphor… But this is My inventing, this is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see My face and live.’ The point is that even if there are factual mistakes/memory lapses, the Scriptures still present us the truth of what we need for our salvation. It is this inspiration that matters.
Read with the heart—open yourself to the possibilities. Know the majesty, the goodness, and the love the Creator and Redeemer and Sanctifier has for us!