Since all religions consider their sacred books inspired, how is the Bible unique?

A manuscript of the Rig Veda, one of the sacred books that Hindus consider inspired. Christians believe that the Bible is inspired, but is it uniquely so?

Q.  Thank you for your efforts in answering innumerable questions that come across from the believers.  Praise be to God.  Now here is my question. We Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired, revealed word of God. But other religions also say that their scriptures are God-revealed.  For example, Hindus believe that the Vedas/Upanishads are shruti, which means “heard.” They claim they are God-given.  Then which religion’s scriptures really are God-breathed?

It is true that all the major religions claim that their sacred books are divinely inspired.  But there is a significant difference in the way they describe and depict the inspiration process.  This at least allows a person to make a clear choice between varying accounts of the nature of divine action to produce sacred books.

I have not studied Hinduism in great detail, and I don’t feel qualified to discuss it in depth, but at least as I understand it, Hindus believe that the books they consider to be shruti are translations into humanly comprehensible form of the “cosmic sound of truth” as it was “heard” long ago by inspired poets.  In other words, there was first a distinct and discrete divine revelation, and this has now been captured and recorded in these sacred books.

Similarly Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad received divine revelations in Arabic via the angel Gabriel through visions, voices, dreams, etc., and that he then “recited” to others what he heard.  These revelations were later written down in the Qu’ran (which means “recitation”).  Once again the divine revelation is something objectively separate from the sacred book, which essentially records it.  That is, the divine action and the human agency are discrete.

To give one more example, Mormons hold that the Book of Mormon was originally inscribed on golden tablets in a language unattested anywhere else on earth, and that the angel Moroni showed Joseph Smith where the book was buried and taught him how to translate its contents into English.  In this case as well the human role is essentially to transmit the prior, discrete divine revelation; the human agent had no real creative role in shaping the form or content of the sacred book.

By contrast, Christians believe that God inspired the Bible while human authors were in the process of writing to address concerns that had arisen within the believing community.  (This is true even in cases where the written work records a discrete divine revelation, such as the words God spoke to ancient Israel at Mount Sinai:  that theophany is worked into an extended historical narrative whose real aim is to trace the unfolding covenant relationship that readers are being invited to become part of.)  The process of literary composition, in the case of the biblical authors, is really no different from this process as it ordinarily occurs.  This means that the human authors used their God-given abilities to a significant degree to shape not just the form but arguably even the content of the sacred books.  One might say, in fact, that a certain part of the divine revelation we have now in the Judeo-Christian scriptures would be missing if one of these authors had not set out to address a given concern.

Nevertheless (Christians believe), it can be recognized in retrospect that the impulse for them to do this actually came from God, so that there is a synergy between the human enterprise of literary composition and the divine enterprise of inspiration.  Still, the way Christians see their sacred books requires a much more significant and creative human participation in their creation than is the case in other religions.  Perhaps among them Hinduism allows for the greatest creative contribution, on the part of the ancient poets who composed hymns, chants, ritual formulas, etc., based on what they “heard.” But at least as I see it, there is still a contrast between the Hindu belief in a pre-existing “cosmic sound” that was captured in these compositions and the Christian understanding that the Bible was created “along the way,” in a divine-human synergistic process, as the community that was in covenant relationship with God worked out its life, beliefs, and practices.

In other words, I see a distinction between a belief in a divine revelation that exists prior to and independently of a religion’s sacred books, and which is effectively transmitted through them, and a divine revelation that comes into being only as the sacred books themselves take shape within the historical life of the believing community.

This distinction corresponds to and reflects, I believe, an essential distinction between Christianity and other religions.  Christianity is foundationally a creation-affirming, history-affirming faith that leaves a large place for human agency in the outworking of the divine-human relationship.  So while it remains true that all major religions claim that their sacred books are divinely inspired, I would say that Christianity makes this claim in a way that stakes out a unique place for it among world religions.

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.

2 thoughts on “Since all religions consider their sacred books inspired, how is the Bible unique?”

  1. Great post!

    I think this touches on one of the big things that causes so much disagreement between Christians. Differences in terms of what “inspiration” really means as well as whose hermeneutics are the most warranted in understanding the Bible seem to spawn most of the disagreements downstream. In terms of inspiration, I feel like most churchgoers think of the Bible in similar ways to the followers of other religions as simply something that “God said” and which human more or less jotted down verbatim.

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