In his recent book, Is Scripture Still Holy: Coming of Age with the New Testament, A.E. Harvey explores whether the findings of modern critical scholarship are compatible with traditional views about the authority of the Bible. While the title might suggest the question is still an open one, the book is designed to argue against the doctrine of inspiration (at least in any historically recognizable form).
In a prior installment (see here), we responded to Harvey’s claim that the real revelation of God is only Jesus and not the Scripture. In this post, we shall respond to another of Harvey’s arguments against inspiration, namely that once humans are involved there can be no clear, certain revelation from God.
Harvey argues that humans were involved at three critical stages that taint the reliability of revelation. First, humans were the recipients of that revelation. Harvey says, “The most immediate recipients of the message were persons whose individual characteristics and emotions were not suspended” (12).
Second, humans were the transmitters of revelation. Harvey argues that this would lead to inevitable “scribal error and corruption in transmission” (13).
Third, humans were (and are) the interpreters of revelation. Harvey says that “here too is a point of entry for human fallibility” (13).
Harvey thus reaches this amazing conclusion: “The moment we admit, as we must, that human agency is involved at every stage of the transmission of the divine message, then it becomes impossible to appeal to Scripture for a final judgment” (15, emphasis mine.).
While Harvey is certainly correct that humans are involved at each of these stages, this does not mean his argument is valid. His argument is valid only if a particular assumption is true (one which he leaves largely unspoken), namely that God did not intervene to limit the effects of human involvement.
Put differently, Harvey’s argument against inspiration only works if God was not involved! But, that misses the whole point. Inspiration is, at its core, really a miraculous act. It is an instance of God intervening in the world in a special way to communicate and preserve his word.
Therefore, the humans-always-make-mistakes argument is not a cogent one. It already presupposes a purely naturalistic approach to the origins of the Bible–an approach which the Bible itself rejects.
But all of this raises an additional question. Since Harvey appears to believe in God, why is he so opposed to the idea that God could miraculously keep humans from error? I think the answer lies in his concept of God. Harvey indicates time and time again that God would never intervene to contradict or to override man’s free will (e.g., p.11-12).
If so, then I think we have the answer to our question. If Harvey rejects the complete sovereignty of God over human actions, as he appears to do, then this may explain why he rejects the doctrine of inspiration. God is not able (or at least not willing) to control people’s actions. Thus, on these terms, an error-free Bible is an impossibility.
This is a great reminder that topics like inspiration are not ones that can be addressed on merely historical terms. They are theological topics and they therefore require, and are founded upon, prior theological beliefs. Take away the complete sovereignty of God, and you take away the very possibility of a reliably inspired Bible.
Of course, I believe Harvey to be profoundly mistaken about the extent of God’s sovereignty. His view is not only out of sync with Scripture, but with the historical view of the church throughout the ages.
But, here is the point. While Harvey’s argument against inspiration appears to be a historical one on the surface, when the layers are pealed back it proves to be nothing of the sort. Is a theological argument based on a particular view of God. Of course, there is nothing wrong with theological arguments. But, they should not be presented as something they are not.