Thoughts on Inspiration, via Schleirmacher & Barth
“For the word of God is living and active…”
Whenever I feel the need to ground myself spiritually, I often find help the writings of Christians of previous times: John Wesley, Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, Teresa of Avila. In particular, Wesley’s journals have always been a source of encouragement and inspiration to me, as Wesley’s single-hearted zeal pours out in abundance from his reflections on his adventurous life. Wesley’s sermons are good, but his journals are great. They are not expositions on specific theological questions, but are essentially stories about his relationships and encounters with those around him as he preached the Gospel.
Perhaps naively, and always feeling slightly guilty, I have often wondered why Christians could not view Wesley’s writings, as well as those of others, as being a little weightier, maybe more authoritative, perhaps a bit more…canonical. I do not question the wisdom of the leaders of the Church who “closed the book,” so to speak. But it seems that in some respects the writings and reflections of extra-biblical authors stand on par with biblical writings. No one, no matter how great, can compete with a book that has been designated “God-breathed”; and yet, why do we recognize the Holy Spirit in the authorship of some works and not in others? The answer has to be more than that we are sure that what is contained within Scripture is “right,” for many stories—particularly those of the Old Testament—are factually inaccurate or are clearly not suitable for emulation. And in reading the New Testament, one might ask, “What is the essential difference between Wesley’s journals and the Book of Acts?” Paul and Wesley are doing similar things. God calls both to preach the Gospel, and both obey. Though Paul’s call is undoubtedly more dramatic and convincing than Wesley’s, presuming that Wesley is telling the truth, evidence of mighty acts of God are seen in his account as well as in Luke’s.
If I turn to the writings of Friedrich Schleirmacher for an answer, I am encouraged in my inclination to stretch the bounds of the canon and of the category of scripture in general. Contrary to the metaphysically based dogma of institutionalized religions, Schleirmacher finds genuine religious experience in one’s perception of the infinite and the feelings attending that perception (“Second Speech,” On Religion 29). The true purpose of religion is to connect our finite selves with the infinite. In this vein, any writing which facilitates this experience, which opens up a window to the infinite, could be called scriptural. After asking “What is inspiration?” Schleirmacher answers that “It is merely the religious name for freedom. Every free action that becomes a religious act, every restoration of a religious intuition, every expression of a religious feeling that really communicates itself so that the intuition of the universe is transferred to others, took place upon inspiration” (“Second Speech,” On Religion 49). So, in Schleirmacher’s thought, if a person is able to communicate the mystic vision to another, he is a priest, and his words are inspired.
This understanding of inspiration satisfies at least one desire: the desire to see the writings of those who surely have vision to be given more weight. It acknowledges that there is a special quality to some writings that goes beyond artistic skill. At the same time, with respect to Christian experience, this understanding of inspiration is lacking. In one respect, Wesley’s journals do testify of his own religious experience. He speaks of movements of the Spirit and of the presence of God. Still, his writings are not about that experience as Schleirmacher understands it—a perception of the infinite coupled with feeling. Wesley no doubt believes in an infinite God, but his narrative is just that—a narrative. It is about events, not intuitions and feelings, though they may be present. It would be more accurate to say that Wesley’s journals speak more of encounters than of experiences. As he preached on hilltops, thunder crashing and lightening flashing about him, those listening to his voice were convicted and cried out to God. Others suffered, but were made well, by his stern rebuke; and still others had demons cast out of them. One is reminded of the passage in the Gospels in which John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Messiah, or do we seek another?” Jesus answers them, “Tell John that the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life.” Could their question be rephrased to ask, “How do we know that God has visited us, and that you are He?” Jesus points to the sign of His miracles to answer them, “Yes, God is with you.” John’s disciples were not seeking a religious experience, they were seeking a Savior—God Himself.
One might argue that Schleirmacher would accord traditional biblical narratives “inspired” status if they successfully communicated the religious intuition. But then one must ask whether those narratives actually point to Schleirmacher’s intuition and feeling. Barth, in “The Strange New World of the Bible” asks, “Is that all?” Is that all of God and his new world, of the meaning of the Bible, of the content of the contents?” (47). Barth does not pose the question to Schleirmacher, though the same question could be asked. In comparison with the dogmatic religious faith from which Schleirmacher distinguishes himself, his mysticism and call to every person to seek after transcendent experiences comes as a relief. And yet, after reading through the testimonies of others who have “sought the face of God,” one might find that compelling experiences are not limited to the Schleirmachean variety. In fact, after following a John Wesley for a day, or walking through the world of the Bible, one might well see Schleirmacher’s religious experience as too small. As Barth writes:
The powerful forces which come to expression in the Bible, the movements of peoples, the battles, and the convulsions which take place before us there, the miracles and revelations which constantly occur there, the immeasurable promises for the future which are unceasingly repeated to us there—do not all these things stand in a rather strange relation to so small a result—if that is really the only result they have? Is not God—greater than that? (“The Strange New World within the Bible” 47)
Again, Barth’s questions are not posed to Schleirmacher. But the commonality that Schleirmacher shares with Barth’s intended audience is a type of religious life and expression which makes the active presence of God in history nearly irrelevant. This a historical characteristic can also be read back into the Bible itself, and which can be seen in the uneasiness with which we approach biblical texts which, if we are honest, show no immediate relevance to the Christian faith. If we take the emphasis away from religious experience, and also away from doctrinal questions, and simply read the stories, we have a witness to God’s acts and to man’s encounters with Him. Wesley’s journals share that trait with many biblical narratives. Both narratives are a witness to the acts of God, and Wesley’s finds its “inspiration” by the presence of the Lord in the events seen there. If I believe Wesley, then his journals carry the message of the Gospel to me in the same way that the book of Acts does. I do not believe that everything that Wesley did or said was infallible; but neither does the Church believe that everything done and said by biblical characters is infallible either. The canon is closed, but the Church ought to be continually pouring out pages and pages of epistles and stories which bear witness to the fact that Christ is alive and well amongst us, and is still encountering the world through the Church, just as He did millennia ago.