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Inspiration: Towards a Christian Interpretation of biblical inspiration, by Gerald O’Collins SJ 

07 December 2018

Peter Forster reads a Roman Catholic scholar on biblical inspiration

THERE being 70 books to Gerard O’Collins’s name, this masterly treatment of a subject that has been rather neglected of late brings together a lifetime of learning in biblical and systematic theology. The style is elegant and economic, but enormously wide-ranging. This is inter-disciplinary scholarship at its best.

His aim is to offer a plausible alternative to the simplistic, and somewhat literalistic, understandings of biblical inspiration which have marred the Christian tradition from its earliest centuries, and not just in post-Reformation Protestantism.

The starting-point is entirely traditional, in that O’Collins accepts that the inspiration of the Bible is a reflection of, and response to, the revelation of God in ancient Judaism and in Jesus Christ. Yet he maintains a careful distinction between revelation and inspiration, and regards the scriptures as providing an admittedly complex witness to the revelation that inspired them.

There is an acceptance that over the 1000 years or more when the scriptures were compiled there is a progressive and developing character. Taken alone, earlier parts of the Old Testament, in particular, might be regarded as quite erroneous in their portrayal of God. Similarly, passages in the New — for example, those concerning the place of women — need to be read in the light of later developing tradition, because they were framed in the light of earlier cultural norms, and particular issues facing the Church.

A distinctive emphasis in this book is on the inspiring impact of the Bible in the life of the Church, in terms of its liturgy and hymnody, as well as on wider human culture, in film and drama. Bob Dylan, Bono, and Leonard Cohen are included in a remarkable pantheon of the inspiring history of the Bible.

The latter chapters provide a more systematic account of biblical inspiration, in terms of ten characteristics that mark out the Bible. These tie the Bible to the tradition of the Church, as exemplified by the classical creeds. O’Collins sees an inspired imagination at work both in the use of the Old Testament in the New, and in the sustained history of the interpretation of the Bible.

Although not cited directly, the spirit of the approach here is that of Article XX of the Thirty-Nine Articles: the Church may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”.

Nevertheless, O’Collins — a mainstream Roman Catholic — bypasses the central challenge of the Reformation, that sometimes the errors of the Church itself need to be exposed by the witness of the scriptures, and that God can call forth such witness from a range of quarters.

The final section is a warning to biblical scholars and systematic theologians not to occupy separated silos. For O’Collins, modern systematic theology is often insufficiently rooted in the Bible, and biblical scholars are too easily drawn into fanciful reconstructions of ancient texts. He sums up tradition as “the Church’s collective experience of the Bible”.

This book is a real gem, which deserves to have a significant impact in the Church, and especially in the scholarly community.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

Inspiration: Towards a Christian Interpretation of biblical inspiration
Gerald O’Collins SJ
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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