Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture

By Paul J. Achtemeier
Hendrickson Publishers. 1999. 166 pp. Pb. $ 9.95 ISBN 1-56563-363-6

Reviewed by John O. Barksdale
Madison, Va.


This book is a revision of the helpful and well-received work first published in 1980 as The Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals. The author, a retired Union-PSCE professor of biblical interpretation and past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, wishes to affirm very strongly two things: the authority of Scripture and the legitimacy of careful critical scholarship in the church.

The author surveys two views which are to be rejected: the liberal view, because it gives final authority not to the Bible, but to “the sum total of human experience,” and the conservative view, that the Bible is inerrant.

Here his arguments are clear and convincing. He examines some conservative strategies, such as attempts to harmonize conflicting passages (but in doing this they go against the literal texts), or to posit an original inerrant manuscript (but this no longer exists), etc. In reply to conservatives’ fear of critical study, the author maintains that “critical studies were developed not from skepticism about the Bible’s message, but rather from a desire to take with utmost seriousness the nature of the biblical witness.”

An excellent chapter on how the Scriptures were formed focuses on how older traditions were reinterpreted — sometimes even contradicted — by later writers.

Rather than seeing inspiration as applying only to certain inspired writers (“the prophetic model”), the author proposes to view inspiration at work in the dynamic interrelationship of three components: tradition, new situation and respondent, resulting in the words of the Bible. The inward testimony of the Holy Spirit is necessary, but it cannot be based on some authority beyond Scripture. However, “Scripture is violated when it is assumed to be static and closed . . . .”

The writer admits in a footnote that he has given more space and respect to the conservative view than to the liberal one because the former holds to “the unique authority of the Bible.” His tilt to the conservative side becomes explicit when he deals with the only current issue alluded to in this volume — homosexuality. Any attempt to defend any kind of homosexual relationship is ruled out because of literal words of Scripture. It seems that the author fails to follow his own guidelines for interpretation on this issue.

The book’s explication of inspiration in general, and its arguments against the conservative positions, are well taken. However, the liberal position deserves to be taken more seriously.