How could a divinely inspired book be written from a limited human perspective?

Valentin de Boulogne, "St. Paul Writing His Epistles"
Valentin de Boulogne, “St. Paul Writing His Epistles”

In my last post I discussed the question of how there could have been light on the first day in the Genesis creation account when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day.  I suggested that the Genesis author was writing from an observational perspective—that he was describing on the first day the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which is still seen on days when the sun doesn’t become visible, believing this light to be independent of the sun.  As I noted, this explanation may answer the original question, but it raises another one:  How can the inspired word of God be expressed through such a limited human perspective?  In the Bible, wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything the human authors wrote was fully accurate, scientifically and historically?

My response to this would be that we only have one divinely inspired book, the Bible, so that whatever expectations we might have of such a book, if we want to know what one is really like, we have to look at the only one we have.  And when we do, it  appears that the Bible is indeed written from an observational perspective:  The Genesis creation account as a whole, for example, describes a flat earth under a solid sky, lit by a diffused light independent of the sun. That’s exactly how it appears.

But it’s actually very gracious of God to allow the biblical authors to tell his story from our perspective like this.  Imagine if the Bible had said instead that while the sun might appear to be moving through the sky, it’s actually stationary relative to the earth, and while the ground beneath our feet might not appear to be moving, it’s actually spinning at a thousand miles an hour, creating the impression of the sun’s motion.  People throughout the centuries would have rejected a book that made claims so outlandishly contrary to plain experience!  People would still do the same in many parts of the world today.  So by having the biblical authors express divine truths in observational language, God ensured that the Bible could travel into all different times and places, speaking to all human cultures.  It can still speak to our own scientific culture today if we simply recognize and accept the perspective from which it is written, without being scandalized that this is contrary to the expectations we might have of it.

Indeed, the Bible itself says that it was delivered through human authors.  The implication of this is that while the authors were given divine wisdom and insight, the human limitations on their knowledge were not supernaturally lifted. Peter, for example, describes the inspiration of Scripture in this way:  “Men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21).  He does not say, “God took over the minds of people and used their hands to record His omniscient thoughts.”  Later in that same epistle Peter describes Paul’s letters as “scripture,” but listen to how he describes their composition process: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him”—not “through the substitution of the divine mind for his own” (2 Peter 3:15).

Indeed, when we look at Paul’s letters themselves, we find that, even as inspired scripture, they show that there were limitations on Paul’s knowledge, which he himself recognized.  For example, when pleading with the Corinthians to be unified, Paul said he was glad he only baptized Crispus and Gaius, so that no one could say they had been baptized in his name.  “Oh yes,” he adds, “I also baptized the household of Stephanus, but beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.”  This is a place where Paul admits the limitations on his own knowledge of a specific point.

Later in that same epistle, he shows that he was aware of the limitations on his knowledge generally, compared with God’s knowledge:  “For we know only in part, we prophecy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  . . .  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Here we see a biblical author, in the very act of writing scripture, contrasting his partial knowledge with the divine omniscience.  We should therefore not conclude that if the Bible is the word of God, it will demonstrate omniscience—among other ways, by transcending phenomenological description of the natural world—and that if it does not behave this way, it cannot be the word of God. Rather, we should marvel at God’s creativity and gracious condescension in allowing his story to be told from our perspective, so that people everywhere and at all times could hear it without impediment from within the framework of their own earthly existence.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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