“No revelation can be other than partial. If for true revelation a man must be told all the truth, then farewell to revelation; yea, farewell to the sonship. For what revelation, other than a partial, can the highest spiritual condition receive of the infinite God? But it is not therefore untrue because it is partial. Relatively to a lower condition of the receiver, a more partial revelation might be truer than that would be which constituted a fuller revelation to one in a higher condition; for the former might reveal much to him, the latter might reveal nothing.” George MacDonald The Consuming Fire
From what I can tell, the writers of the New Testament did not believe in a theory of Biblical inspiration equivalent to the modern, fundamentalist, encyclopedic, literal word-for-word theory of inspiration that is around today. Turn to the book of Hebrews for instance. If you follow the footnotes which reference what portion of the Old Testament the writer is quoting from, you will see that what the writer quotes as the OT is not exactly what the OT says (at least as it is recorded in our Bibles, which settles my point for all practical purposes.) Once you’ve become aware of this you notice this practice of “paraphrasing” going on quite frequently. Throughout the gospels and sprinkled throughout several of the letters you have a sort of fast-and-loose, creatively liberal use of the Old Testament in such a way where the passage reproduced does not say exactly what it is recorded as saying. It can look as if the Old Testament was used as a sort of recipe book in which the New Testament writers mixed together various portions and added a spice of their own.
Here’s another interesting observation. People often talk about Jesus’ belief in the inspiration of the canon and that this belief itself is an argument from authority that Christians should likewise view Hebrew Bible the same way. The argument runs – “We have good historical reasons to believe Christ was raised from the dead and that he therefore is the Son of God. Further, Jesus believed in the inspiration of the Old Testament. Therefore so should we. How can we question the theology of the one we believe was God incarnate?”
To this argument I will simply say that, although Jesus certainly did seem to hold to a certain belief in divine inspiration, no where is his particular theory spelled out. In fact, as much as he quotes the Old Testament, each time he does so he sheds new light on it, even to the point of appearing to correct it in the eyes of its most adherent interpreters. Who could forget the paradigm shifting juxtaposition: “YOU have heard it said an eye for an eye, BUT I SAY TO YOU…”
And notice, too, Jesus’ explanation for the discrepancy between his words and those of the Old Testament when they are pointed out to him: such things God commanded in the past because of the hardness of the people’s hearts he was speaking to. Thus there is latent in the words of the OT some sense of divine adaptation – or accommodation – in light of who the revelation was being given to.
Maybe God, in dealing with the fallen nature of humanity as it is in its various forms, meets humanity where they are and accommodates his message. To a race of rebellious, stubborn, and power-impressed people, perhaps the only message they would hear is one full of force and impending wrath? We – who are supposedly so much less primitive than they – can barely believe in a God so good that he would sacrifice himself out of sheer freedom and for no other reason than that he loves us. Is it so hard to imagine a group of people to whom that truth would have fallen on empty ears, and therefore been useless to reveal?
A child cannot understand that when you tell them not to touch the stove you are doing so, not because you don’t want them to enjoy the food on top of it but because you don’t want them to burn their hand. Try to reason with the child – give them your strongest arguments with the greatest show of emotional love – and they will likely still reach up and burn their hand when you are not looking. Yet if you threaten the child with punishment, very often their fear will save them.
Perhaps our theory of the “inspiration” of Scripture should consider this parental principle – this method of accommodation – as it pertains to the revelation of God to humanity?