Towards a Christian Interpretation of Biblical Inspiration

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Gerald O'Collins
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Inspiration: Towards a Christian Interpretation of Biblical Inspiration, Gerald O’Collins offers a penetrating and stimulating account of the Christian doctrine that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Inspiration reflects the research and traditioned yet creative reflection of O’Collins’ previous works on divine revelation, fundamental theology, and Christology, but breaks new ground with its focus on the nature or constitution of Scripture itself. The challenge of understanding inspiration is, O’Collins recognizes, especially complex in our contemporary setting. Historical-critical scholarship manifests the diversity of perspectives present in the texts that constitute the Bible, and relatively recent discoveries of ancient manuscripts have increased our awareness of the historical vicissitudes of the transmission of the texts of the Christian Bible. Beyond that challenge, different Christian communities have effectively utilized, and continue to utilize, differing canons. Therefore, it is not surprising, as O’Collins notes, that few have even taken up the challenge of seeking to understand inspiration in the 20th and 21st centuries.

O’Collins begins with interesting, brief surveys of the theologies of biblical inspiration of Karl Barth and Raymond Collins. While they do not break significant new ground, these surveys provide O’Collins the opportunity to identify five key principles that have fundamental importance in his creative work in subsequent chapters. The first—that divine revelation precedes and extends beyond the inspiration of Scripture—provides a means of locating inspiration within its broader context, the communicative intentions of the Triune God. The second is that the words of scripture bear witness to words and events of revelation, but also bear witness to words and events which are not directly revelatory. The third is that inspiration is unique and unrepeatable, having come to a close at the end of the apostolic age. Fourth, the texts of Scripture authentically reflect the humanity of their human authors, and are simultaneously the work of their primary ‘author,’ the Holy Spirit (the single quotation marks are the author’s). Finally, the activity of that divine author, the Holy Spirit, ensures that the Scriptures remain inspiring for subsequent readers and hearers of these particular texts. 

The next three chapters, taken together, represent O’Collins’ most significant achievement in Inspiration. Instead of offering an omni et soli abstract definition of inspiration in these chapters, O’Collins inductively considers the intrascriptural dynamics of inspiration in Genesis, the Psalter, Isaiah, and Ben Sira (chap 2); in Matthew, Paul, and John the Revealer (chap 3); and then offers an overview of the creative reception of those inspired texts in the post-apostolic Church (chap 4). In the chapters on the Old and New Testaments, O’Collins examines specific ways that later biblical authors repurpose antecedent, textually-mediated traditions to show how such repurposing both assumes the divine fecundity (and so inspiration) of such earlier texts, and manifests that fruitfulness in creative, equally inspired new uses. Chapter 4 examines the impacts of the texts of both Testaments upon the imaginations—and so creative constructions—of post-apostolic Christian hearers and readers in liturgy, hymnography, preaching, drama, prayer/spirituality, literature, and the plastic arts. By considering the transmutations of the traditions of scripture within both Testaments, as well as in subsequent Christian interpretation and use, in these three chapters, O’Collins provides a helpful overview of the inspired and inspiring dimensions of the Christian Bible. 

The fifth chapter offers further reflection on the relationships between revelation, tradition, and inspiration. For O’Collins, the personal revelation of the God attested to by Christian scripture begins with God’s foundational revelation to his first covenant people, and that founding revelation is completed in God’s self-revelation through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. O’Collins understands the texts of both Testaments to be written responses to that foundational revelation which continuously mediated that foundational revelation. Through their inspiration, these texts founded subsequent advances in understanding of foundational revelation. O’Collins limns a nuanced understanding of tradition that differentiates between those processes, (actus tradendi) and their products (traditum). 

In chapters 6 and 7, O’Collins outlines ten characteristics of inspiration. A few highlights include his emphasis on the need to abandon the dictation views of premodern authors, his judgment that the charism of inspiration did not necessarily produce literary or aesthetic proficiency in the biblical authors, and his judgment that the authors of the texts were not necessarily conscious of their experience of inspiration. The most striking and important characteristics have to do with the concrete conditions of the biblical authors. Readers should not imagine the biblical authors as modern, autonomous individuals. The texts themselves, in their witness to processes communal redaction and transmission, suggest that most of the biblical authors did not receive singular, generalizable spiritual experiences of inspiration. The remaining chapters spell out further implications of O’Collins’ work, and offer further constructive reflection for understanding the truthfulness of scripture (chap 8), respecting the intentions of its human authors, of the text itself, and of its readers (chap 9), and for interpreting it well theologically (chap 10). 

In Inspiration, O’Collins begins from within a posture of fides quaerens intellectum—taking the Christian doctrine of inspiration as truthful—and proceeds to develop intellectual resources for advancing his reader’s understanding of this doctrinal judgment. Christian theologians working in the areas of fundamental, doctrinal, and systematic theology as well as biblical scholars committed to considering the relationship between their historical work and Christian faith will benefit from O’Collins’ erudition and nuance. His careful consideration of the inspired and inspiring processes evident within the Old and New Testaments, his work on the effective, inspiring history of scripture in Christian communities from antiquity to the present, and his parsing of the various characteristics of inspiration, provide extremely helpful resources for moving “towards a Christian Interpretation of Biblical Inspiration.” Nevertheless, the precious pieces of this work feel rather scattered. While especially rich at points, Inspiration reads as a mélange. Given that inspiration is the work of the Holy Spirit, who “blows where it wills” (John 3.8), perhaps a piecemeal approach is not only unavoidable, but is most fitting. Yet it is also possible that readers who have moved “towards” a Christian understanding of inspiration will want to move further yet, building on O’Collins work in systematic ways.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph K. Gordon is Associate Professor of Theology at Johnson University.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald O'Collins, SJ, is Professor Emeritus at Gregorian University, Rome; Adjunct Professor at the Australian Catholic University; and Research Fellow at the University of Divinity, Melbourne.

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