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Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture Paperback – 1 Feb 1998

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Product details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic; Rev Exp edition (1 Feb. 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801045428
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801045424
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1 x 21 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 248,801 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Paul J. Achtemeier is the former Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. He has served as the past president of both the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association. He has authored a number of books, including 1 Peter (Hermeneia) and, with Elizabeth Achtemeier, The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith, and is the general editor for the Harper Bible Dictionary.

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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
sensible and impassioned erudition 24 July 2005
By David A. Baer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Nearly two decades after initial publication under a different title, this lightly revised and expanded second edition renews Paul Achtemeier's irenic arbitration of a discussion which tends in more acerbic directions. In seven accessible chapters, he seeks to understand how the Bible is different.

After a brief apologia for the study, chapter 1 ('Locus and Mode of Inspiration') tries to locate the phenomenon we call 'inspiration'. Seeking a point of departure on which all Christian readers can agree, Achtemeier treats claims for inspiration as a way of saying that the Bible continues to speak to readers today as it has spoken to readers in the past. From that modest agreement, however, the paths quickly lead us in divergent directions, for it is more problematic to state exactly how the voice of Scripture continues to be heard.

Without saying so at this early stage, Achtemeier is drawing us towards examination of the common assumption that an individual author is responsible for each biblical book, and therefore that the manner in which inspiration was experienced by that person is among the most pressing of questions. This view of inspiration depends upon the analogy of how a prophet receives revelation. Eventually, Achtemeier will argue that the results of modern biblical criticism oblige us to abandon so individualistic a conception.

Achtemeier sketches two historical lines of approach to inspiration: 'inspired authors' and 'inspired content', usefully pausing now and again to identify ancient and modern proponents of each Tendenz. Indeed, one of the main contributions of his approach is to help the modern reader to perceive that Christians have from the beginnings of the faith struggled with what sometimes appears to be a merely modern problem.

Achtemeier argues that the Greek notion of the 'possession' of poets and prophets-whether or not this means that the possessed individual cedes control of his faculties-was taken over in Jewish and early Christian circles to explain the phenomenon of sacred Scripture, persisting in its effects well into the Reformation, where it was argued that authorship by a prophet is the very sign and seal that a given book is inspired.

The other view-though not necessarily antagonistic to the former one-holds that inspiration has its locus in the words of scripture rather than the prophetic person who wrote them down. For Achtemeier, this inclination culminates in dictation theories found in Protestant Scholasticism, wherein the emphasis is on the entire inerrancy of the product, whether or not the prophet responsible for it fully understood its meaning.

Lying behind this historic debate are attitudes to certainty and how this is to be achieved by the believer. Does the work of faith depend upon a knowledge that is publicly verifiable and immune to doubt? And what must be said of the relationship between revelation and inspiration? Does revelation reside principally in the saving events (the Exodus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, etc.) to which the Bible is a witness? Or does revelation, rather, find its locus in the words of Scripture themselves?

By using the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' as short-hand for distinct approaches to biblical inspiration, Achtemeier assumes the inevitable risk of over-simplification in the pursuit of clarity (ch. 2, 'Two Contemporary Views Considered'). The liberal method emphasises the human origins and cultural contexts of Scripture, elements which at every term have left their stamp upon the literature. Turning to evaluation, Achtemeier concedes that the liberal view resolves the tension produced by contradictions and the appearance of degrees of 'quality' within the biblical text. However, he is critical of what he sees as the dilution of the concept of biblical authority which this view urges, placing the burden of discernment entirely on the undeserving shoulders of modern culture. The relative brevity of his treatment of the liberal view, combined with his forthright affirmation that it is finally 'not adequate for either public or private spiritual life', may well suggest that Achtemeier has written his little book to enlighten the conservative reader rather than to persuade the liberal one.

His far lengthier and sharply critical treatment of the conservative position equates 'conservative' with 'inerrantist', a levelling that forcibly excludes more nuanced 'conservative' positions, of which there are many. Whilst Achtemeier appreciates the motives of the conservative reader, he is merciless in sketching the absurdities of harmonisation which he believes the consistent inerrantist is bound to practise. In the end, he claims, the conservative approach produces a 'dislocation of the true center of concern' by diverting attention 'from the Bible's witness about God's saving acts to questions about the precise accuracy of minor details'.

His point, however, is not to reduce both positions to a vapid moral equivalency, but to demonstrate that they share a common dependence upon the individualistic, prophetic model of inspiration, a presupposition which modern critical scholarship-here the adjectives 'liberal' and 'conservative' are withheld-renders untenable.

Nonetheless, Achtemeier is concerned to show that both conservatives and 'critical scholars' construct hypotheses to guide their reading of biblical texts. Both 'go behind the text', either to harmonise its details (conservatives) or to trace its historical development (critical scholars). The burden of his third chapter ('How the Scriptures Were Formed') is to demonstrate that 'critical assumptions are truer both to the nature and to the intention of Scripture' than those utilised by conservatives.

Critical investigation shows that biblical texts have historical depth. They dynamically use old materials in new ways, collecting and interpreting traditions in order to maintain their relevance for ever new situations. Indeed, Achtemeier undergirds his thesis with a theological point: God is the God of the future and is able to renew prior revelation in redemptive ways. Indeed, '(i)t is precisely those figures in biblical literature who find their certainty in the traditions from the past who with alarming regularity find themselves opposed to the will and word of God.' There is a payoff for Christian faith in all of this, for the communal dynamics that produced Scripture are in some way-Achtemeier does not yet define just how-exemplary for modern Christian life: 'In some way or other, our understanding of inspiration must reckon with the interrelation of community and Scripture, as well as with the continuing process of reinterpretation imposed on scriptural traditions by the theological reflections of the communities whose life is mirrored in those writings.'

Achtemeier makes much of the point that the biblical literature has theological rather than historical intentions. He might have paused to caution us that the Christian tradition has usually laboured to avoid any unnecessary cleavage between 'history' and 'theology', rarely having considered them to be mutually exclusive options. Having made clear his preference for critical assumptions over conservative ones, the sometimes pejorative term 'liberal' drops out of Achtemeier's discussion. It might appear that he has simply exercised a preference for the term 'critical' and that he is arguing for the superiority of a position that can be called either 'liberal' or 'critical' indifferently.

He soon makes clear that this is not the case ('Chapter 4: Problems Old and New') and therein lies the chief virtue of this book for readers of Themelios. For Achtemeier, the liberal understanding of Scripture begins with the phenomena of Scripture but 'is in the end also defeated by them.' If conservatives err by deifying Scripture over against its own claims for itself, liberals have no real alternative, for they have levelled Scripture and all other literature and so have 'abandoned any final sense of Scripture's authority'. More often than not, we are told, liberal scholars simply leave off speaking about the matter of inspiration altogether. For Achtemeier, neither approach will do.

Failure for both camps lies in their adherence to a prophetic model. Neither has correctly defined the 'locus of inspiration', a task which Achtemeier undertakes forthwith. He has signalled clearly enough that his approach is best called 'critical' and that it is meant to provide a third way that avoids the traps of traditional views, whether these be conservative or liberal.

Achtemeier is conscious that his critique of liberal and conservative views fairly obliges him to provide an alternative, a task to which he turns in 'The Inspiration of Scripture: A Proposal'. His 'three key elements' are Scripture's witness to its own nature, the close relationship between community and Scripture, and the importance of the formation of the canon. True to the 'bottom-up' instincts of critical scholarship, Achtemeier wants to allow the literature to define itself before it is subjected to a higher concept of what its intentions are. He finds that Scripture points away from itself and towards a reality of which it is a witness. Further, the community is a protagonist in Scripture's formation. This is the implication of the historical depth that can be glimpsed in the biblical texts, a feature which is the product of a long process of appropriating and reappropriating venerable traditions in changed circumstances. Finally, the process of canon formation occurred in circumstances analogous to those which governed the production of Scripture itself: under some perceived threat, the community of faith came to conclusions about the boundaries of their inspired literature.

Inspired texts take shape in the repeated convergence of a tradition, a new situation, and a respondent, whether a prophetic figure (e.g. Amos) or his editor(s). The anonymity of most biblical texts is not a problem, but a piece of evidence that the prophetic model which pursues an individual's voice as the main fact of a biblical book is inadequate to the task of defining inspiration, a phenomenon that is communal to its core.

Achtemeier has not reached his objective when he has defined the book we call the Bible. In two concluding chapters, he insists that the ongoing witness of the Spirit among readers is an essential part of inspiration, else the biblical text remains mute. Importantly, the Spirit 'retains the function of inspiration and does not delegate it to the words of Scripture.' It is this fact, which empowers interpretation and proclamation. Perhaps a challenge to the apparatus of biblical studies in the academy, Achtemeier insists that the interpreter 'cannot be isolated from the community of faith', where the witnessing Spirit is most present. Concerned to the end with how Scripture functions, Achtemeier believes that 'the fundamental concept of truth in the Bible is not conformity between a statement and "objective reality", but rather a reliability, dependability.' Some sympathisers with this line of argument will still want to ask just how factually mistaken a document can be without losing its fundamental reliability.

Critical inquiry orients the on-going interpretation of the Scripture by attempting to define moments when biblical traditions where generated and reappropriated, since the intentions that drove those occurrences are essential to 'responsible' biblical interpretation at a later day. Though Achtemeier does not explicitly say so, he is here defining himself not only over against traditional conservatism and traditional liberalism, but also against more recent hermeneutical approaches in which it is assumed that authorial and editorial intention is too slippery a concept to be useful. He insists that the biblical canon establishes boundary markers which allow the believing community to evaluate which facts of belief and practice are congruent with biblical faith and which ones are not and are therefore to be rejected. As Scripture assumes this dynamic function, its authority is demonstrated 'not in the literary form in which it has been cast ... but rather in its power to create and shape reality.'

In the judgement of this reviewer, Achtemeier's book-now improved-is one of the clearest and most productive statements on the issue that can come into the hands of inquiring readers and interested students. He has respected readers who hold alternatives to his own position, while requiring of them a fresh look at the liberal or conservative assumptions which bedevil an argument that is nearly as old as the canon itself.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A must read for all who study the Bible 2 Feb. 2006
By David Baer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
All those who treasure and study the Bible should read this book. Paul Achtemeier loves the Bible and treats it as the inspired Word of God. He is also a leading Bible scholar who takes modern Biblical scholarship seriously.

One of the struggles faced by students of the Bible on a college or seminary level is how to respect the inspired content of Scripture and at the same time what to do with modern critical study of the Bible. For some, modern scholarship can feel threatening to the Bible and to their faith.

In a very readable way, Achtemeier walks the reader through the struggles and the inadequate answers offered by both conservatives and liberals to the question of inspiration. He offers a way for Christians to continue to treasure Scripture and to respect its inspiration and authority while being willing to take Scripture seriously and study it with all of the resources available to us in modern scholarship.

I wish I would have read this book when I was in seminary. It should be required reading for all those in advanced Biblical study, but it is written in a way that is accessible to all readers.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Interesting, but lengthy. 19 Nov. 2010
By Rick Watts - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback

It is often thought in modern Christian theology that Scripture is either totally inspired by God, and thus inerrant in all respects, or that Scripture is a human work, written by and for its contemporary authors, and thus is nothing more than wonderful literature. Dr. Paul J. Achtemeier finds neither of these answers sufficient in explaining how Scripture is inspired, and therefore proposes a different approach. He first sets the stage for this proposal by explaining the two predominate views of inspiration, explaining why each is inadequate explanations. He then continues with his proposed understanding of inspiration.

Achtemeier begins his discussion by focusing on the "Locus and Mode of Inspiration" (chapter one). There are two historical approaches to the locus of inspiration - inspired authors and inspired content. He explains how the idea of inspired authors was taken from the Greek notion that poets and prophets were actually possessed by some sort of spirit. Jews and early Christians embraced this idea and applied it to God's inspiration of Scripture.

The second historical approach to the inspiration of Scripture holds that the locus of inspiration is not in the author, but in the text itself. "In sum, the words in Scripture are the words that God, not a human being, has chosen" (page 19-20).

Achtemeier continues by discussing some implications of these approaches. Most notably, he discusses the problem of the certainty of faith in Scripture. When we question the inspiration of Scripture, we are consequently questioning its reliability.

In the second chapter, ("Two Contemporary Views Considered") Achtemeier makes the risky use of the labels "liberal" and "conservative." For each of these views he summarizes, then discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each view. The liberal view, according to Achtemeier, argues that Scripture is a product of humans conditioned by their contemporary culture. "Rather than being in its totality the revelation of God, it is instead the human record of the revelation, carrying with it, as such a record, all the ills to which human accounts are heir" (page 30). Achtemeier sees the strength of this view in its ability to embrace the contradictions and human nature of Scripture. However, he struggles significantly with the overarching implications of this view. The liberal view "leads one to wonder how this view can assign more spiritual authority to biblical books than to any other books written under the power of some great religious experience" (page 35).

When discussing the conservative view, Achtemeier simplifies this to simply the inerrant view. As he explains this view, "God is truth, God is the source of Scripture, and therefore Scripture must also be truth" (page 37). While admitting that the conservative view's "unwillingness to acknowledge any lordship, moral or intellectual, other than that of Scripture" (page 45-6) is its greatest strength, Achtemeier spends the vast majority of this section exploring the view's extensive weaknesses. For our purpose, its weaknesses can be summarized as this: "Diversion of attention from the Bible's witness about God's saving acts to questions about the precise accuracy of minor details is, in the end, perhaps the most serious defect in the conservative" view (page 62).

Achtemeier concludes this second chapter with the explanation that both the liberal and conservative views rely on the same understanding that Scripture is the work of individual authors. Modern scholarly discoveries, however, have brought this assumption into question. It is, therefore, the task of the third chapter to survey the way modern critical scholars view Scripture.

Having provided extensive background information, in chapter three, ("How the Scriptures Were Formed") Achtemeier begins laying the groundwork for his proposed view. In this chapter he discusses that Scripture was formed from different sources, including oral accounts. Discrepancies in Scripture, therefore, are explained because they are using different sources. At this point Achtemeier clarifies that the primary role of Scripture is not historical, but theological.

Chapter four ("Problems Old and New") continues the argument by explaining that the root of the failure of both the liberal and conservative views is their reliance on the prophetic model of inspiration, that is, the view that a single author was in some way divinely inspired. As discussed earlier, "modern critical study of the Bible has questioned whether individual authors can be appealed to when speaking of the books of the Bible" (page 87).
If not in a single author, then where is the locus of inspiration in Scripture? This is the question Achtemeier answers in chapter five ("The Inspiration of Scripture: A Proposal"). He begins this proposal by examining three key elements: "the witness of Scripture itself to its own nature, the close relationship between community and Scripture, and the importance of the formation of the canon for understanding the formation of inspired Scripture" (page 91-2).

Regarding the witness of Scripture to its own nature, Achtemeier analyzes in great depth the few passages in Scripture that seem to discuss its inspiration. He focuses primarily on two passages: 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21. In both instances, he shows that these passages are not meant to teach anything about Scripture's inspiration, but are emphasizing different theological problems. Therefore, at best the inspiration of Scripture was not of concern to the authors of these passages. He concludes by emphasizing that in the Old Testament "the value of Scripture lay in its witness to the coming and the meaning of Jesus Christ, not in anything told about history or geology or any other such subjects" (page 99). The New Testament authors intended their writings to function "as witness to God's act of redemption in his Son" (page 99).

Achtemeier then focuses on the second key element: Scripture and the community of faith. He writes, "It is precisely the context of the community and its traditions that give meaning to the personal experiences of those in the Bible who speak for God" (page 99). Those that God calls are not "outsiders" of the community, but rather members of the community, drawing on their traditions to communicate God's message. Therefore, "Scripture can only be misunderstood if it is read in isolation from the community of faith" (page 103).

The third and final key element is the importance of canon formation. The canon was formed largely in response to heretics such as Marcion. Therefore, we must understand that the "canon emerged as the result of community reflections on the common traditions in the light of the changing historical situation" (page 108).

Achtemeier then concludes that the locus of inspiration is in the interrelationship of the tradition, situation, and respondent of Scripture. "Inspiration thus describes more the process out of which our Scriptures grew than simply the final result in canonical form" (page 118).

As Achtemeier concludes this book, he emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is essential among readers today, thus inspiration is ongoing. In addition, the interpreter cannot be isolated from the community of faith. "To assume the power of the inspired Scripture is available in isolation from participation in that community is to deny the very nature of that Scripture, as we have seen it to be" (page 131).


Achtemeier's delivery of this innovative and thus controversial proposition is lacking in several respects. First, it is far too lengthy in background information. The extensive introduction is largely unnecessary and cumbersome for the reader. By the time we finally get to Achtemeier's true proposition, the reading is disengaged and exhausted. It would have been far better to provide one or two pages defining the contemporary views (rather than thirty-four pages), and point to sources for additional reading if the reader is not familiar with these views. I would guess that most people that choose to read this book already know the vast majority of the information provided in the first sixty pages.

Once the reader finally gets through this daunting introduction, the real work begins. Achtemeier's arguments seem to be more rambling than concise, succinct arguments. Helpful section headings are provided which prepare the reader for what to expect; however, there is never a clear introduction of exactly what his argument will be, nor a clear conclusion summarizing his arguments. This leaves the reader confused at the end of each section, requiring us to go back and reread parts to understand his arguments.

After reading and rereading his arguments, they are quite difficult for me to accept. The primary reason for this is that it has very little support from the Great Tradition. That is, few church fathers embraced Achtemeier's proposed view of inspiration. I am extremely hesitant to accept a doctrine that opposes the vast majority of the church fathers through the centuries. I cannot accept, without significant evidence, that nearly all Christians have been wrong for 2,000 years. I find it far more likely that our contemporary theologians are erroneous.

Perhaps I would have been more willing to accept Achtemeier's proposition had he more fairly represented the views with which he was opposing. It seemed he was arguing against the few extreme liberals and extreme conservatives, while ignoring the majority of Christians that fall in between the two. That is, Achtemeier's proposal was conceived as a solution to a problem with which most Christian do not struggle since they are neither extreme liberals nor extreme conservatives.

For those readers that are extreme conservatives (i.e. Inerrantists) they are likely to be greatly offended to the point of ignoring any truth found in Achtemeier's arguments. It would have been more effective for Achtemeier to be more respectful of opposing views.

While I did not find the delivery or articulation of Achtemeier proposal very useful, we can benefit by considering his arguments. Once I got past the shortcomings discussed above, I found that some of his points are helpful for all of us to contemplate. Achtemeier's arguments can inform other views; however, his proposed view I find insufficient because of its overwhelming humanistic, contemporary emphasis.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A Rare, Short and Potent Book on the "Inspiration" of the Biblical Text. 15 Oct. 2008
By C. Lambeth - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a rare book on inspiration in the sense that it is short (only 176 pages). It is also rare in the regard it has for presenting multiple sides clearly and fairly. I cannot fully explain my understanding of what "divine inspiration" means in a book review. I am still trying to figure out a tenable expression of it in the first place. But suffice it to say that "inspiration" doesn't mean what I used to think that it did. This book is likely to help its readers navigate that territory with greater care, even if it does not leave them with nice and tidy definition. A sampling of questions that Achtemeier's book explores is: Does "inspiration" refer to the authors of the Bible's books or to their words? Does it have to do with the meaning behind the message, the Spirit behind the message, or the God who stood behind the Spirit who stood behind all of the authors, scribes and editors of the words? The issues are far more complex than I was ever taught in church.

Because it is so succinct, the author doesn't spend much time discussing the multiple authors, redactors, editors and versions (especially in the Old Testament) of the text that have filtered their way in to the scriptures as we have them now. But, if you have studied that lurching process and been dismayed at its haphazard and seemingly underhanded way of compiling what we have as "the Bible," this book can calm some nerves and maybe even rekindle some confidence in the text. However, IF a reader thinks that the Bible as we have it today is the same as that which all of our faithful forbears (and the original audiences) possessed, then a lot of this book may be lost on him or her.
This is well worth the read, but if you are new to the subject, buckle up.

Thanks for reading,
-C. Lambeth
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Misses the Bible on the Bible 9 Nov. 2011
By Daniel J. Doleys - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This review was first posted at[...]

I would like to thank Hendrickson for sending along this review copy.

Paul J. Achtemeier is the former Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. His other publications include the excellent commentary on 1 Peter in the Hermeneia series, Romans in the Interpretation series and Introducing the New Testament: It's Literature and Theology.

Inspiration and Authority (IA) is an update of Achtemeir's The Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals. Both texts are written to provide a coherent understanding of the inspiration and authority of Bible to mainline protestant traditions that do not find fall into the bibliological traditions of mainstream evangelicalism.

In the first chapter, Achtemeier provides an historical overview of the Church's understanding of the locus of the Bible's inspiration, detailing views such as inspiration of the author or inspiration of the content within the text and the extent of revelation and the Bible.

The second chapter seeks to survey the current models of inspiration and Biblical authority held to be the different "conservative" and "liberal" traditions. I found this chapter to be the most disappointing the book. Each view is given in its most extreme form and only from works that actually make such a description their main goal. No attention is given to the actual practice amongst the two sides in order to describe and evaluate their veiws.

In the third and forth chapter, Achtemeier reviews the process of the production of the Biblical documents and what the text claims for itself. Here he finds no specific mention of innerrancy and therefore rejects it outright. Achtemeier seems to make distinction between the different meanings of the word in evangelicalism and does not respond to any of the theological arguments for the doctrine. As someone who holds to a certain definition of inerrancy, I can affirm that I have never heard or read someone within mainstream evangelical scholarship with a robust understanding of revelation argue for a nuanced inerrancy by claiming that the text itself claims inerrancy. Following this, he does have more positive things to say about the role of the faith community and the formation of the canon in understanding revelation.

Achtemeier then lays out his own proposal, that inspiration and authority lay within the entire process of the creation of the text, from the writing to the collecting and compiling of the canon. In addition, he argues that inspiration does not stop at with the canonization of the text, but continues as the interpreter is helped by the Holy Spirit. While I do not accept the standard bifurcation of inspiration and illumination taught in most evangelical systematic theology, Achtemeier's argument here seems to combine these two unsuccessfully.

In all, IA presents very historical understanding of the inspiration and authority of the Bible with much less theological reflection upon the nature of the text as revelation from God, and especially how its ontology is effected by its purpose. In addition, his lack of description of the text itself as inspired seems to remove the ultimate authority from the words themselves to the possible traditions and interpretations they may spawn.
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