A Man or Amanuensis?

By Delvyn Case

We can learn a lot about biblical inspiration by considering it in light of artistic inspiration.

“Amanuensis” is an archaic word for a scribe: someone who takes dictation. Probably the most famous person to use an amanuensis was the blind English poet John Milton. Every day he would awaken and start dictating lines of his epic poem Paradise Lost, a massive retelling of the Adam and Eve story. His assistants’ job was to transcribe accurately every one of the poem’s 80,000 words. Their task was tedious but simple: to write down exactly what their master said. If any of them were tempted to do even the lightest editing or revising, they knew they would be discovered and banished from Milton’s studio. Luckily, unlike Adam and Eve, they were good and faithful servants. Milton rewarded them by dedicating his masterpiece to them.
Few of us think deeply about what it means when we say that the Bible was “inspired.” But when we do, I think we end up close to the example of Milton and his scribes: God “spoke” to the original authors—in some quasi-mystical way—who then faithfully wrote down what they heard. But I don’t think that’s how it happened. Imagining the biblical authors like this reduces them to mere amanuenses: employees at best, living dictation machines at worst. This belief requires us to imagine that, when the Scriptures were written, God would bypass the very aspects of our humanity that best reveal that we are made in God’s image: our free will and our ability to create.
But when we explore the other option, that the biblical authors were co-creators of the Scriptures with God, we tend to get uncomfortable. It’s almost like we think of inspiration as a zero-sum game: the more human there is in the text, the less God there is, and therefore the less “inspiration.”
That doesn’t have to be the conclusion. The word “inspired” means “breathed into.” According to Genesis, God formed humans by breathing life into clay. Today, we describe people as “inspired” when they seem to tap into something greater than themselves, a power that helps them achieve something beyond normal human capabilities. Those inspired humans end up inspiring the rest of us to “go and do likewise.”
For Christians, Jesus is the example par excellence. His personality, presence, and example give us the power, as well as the hope, to do something “inspiring”, and then to inspire others to do the same. This means that, for the Scriptures to continue to inspire others, to be the bearer of the Living Word, we need to do our part too. We need to breathe life into them through our actions and our words. If we don’t, they are as lifeless as Eden’s clay.
But what about the source of this inspiration? Didn’t the ideas of the Bible ultimately come from God? Wasn’t God “there,” in some special way, when Jeremiah or Paul were writing? In short, how can we think of “inspiration” in a way that recognizes the active presence of God without reducing humans to mere amanuenses?
I would suggest that we can do this by considering the notion of biblical inspiration in relation to artistic inspiration.
Professional artists understand inspiration in ways that are both more mystical and more prosaic than that of “civilians.” If you push us to tell you where our ideas come from, most of us won’t be able to tell you. Of course, we can tell you where we were when we got the idea, and we can point to the image, sound, or word that kickstarted our creative process. But neither of those really answer the question about the source of our ideas. Now, I’m not arrogant enough to say that my ideas came from God. But as a Christian who tries to live a life open to God’s living Word, I can’t categorically reject God as the source. The point is that, whether we are religious or not, all artists have to approach the world with an attitude of radical openness. Whether alone in our studio or in line at the post office, we never know when our next idea will appear. It might come about from the dirt on the floorboards in our studio window, or the lines on the face of the postal worker. But when it comes, we need to be ready. We need to keep our soil healthy so it can nourish the seed of an idea whenever we encounter it. In a word, we need to be ready for inspiration.
This constant practice of being receptive to inspiration, this honest belief—this hope—that an idea can appear at any time, can be described by a word we Christians know well: faith. It’s not “faith” understood as simply the belief in a specific doctrine or event. Instead, it’s something much more fundamental to the Christian life. It’s the notion that we might receive inspiration at any time, in any way—even (or especially) in the most basic, prosaic, or even ugly elements of the created world. It’s the radical belief that an idea, a gift from who-knows-where, may even appear in the way we least expect it.
Jesus’s life showed us what it meant to live a life fully open to God’s inspiration. He saw God’s hand in everything. He took inspiration for his sermons and stories from fish and fig trees. He showed us we best encounter God when we give bread to the poor and comfort to the outcasts. Most importantly, he embraced the radical idea that it was through a Jewish carpenter that God would fulfill the ancient prophecies about a redeeming king. Jesus didn’t need to hear God’s voice to guide him every step of the way. He was already living a life where he heard it everywhere.
This is how I think of biblical inspiration. Rather than a single person taking dictation from God, I think of a series of poets, historians, editors, redactors, and translators who collaborated across the centuries to bring us God’s holy word. They weren’t amanuenses experiencing moments of spiritual ecstasy, and they weren’t just employees or servants. Instead, they were people of faith, living with ears wide open to God’s word in the world. They were artists whose love for God and their tradition allowed them to receive inspiration wherever or whenever it struck. Then, upon receiving it, they used every ounce of their skill, education, and talent to fashion it into Scripture.
But biblical inspiration doesn’t end with the original Hebrew manuscript, the first codex, or the newest English translation. We play a role in it too, because without us, the Bible is just a collection of dead words, not a vessel of the Living Word. The Bible needs us not to be amanuenses, but co-creators. Reading the Bible faithfully requires us to partner with God. We are the most recent link in the chain of biblical inspiration.
Considered this way, biblical inspiration is just a way of describing the life of faith. It points to a life lived with an openness to God’s Word, manifested not just in what we read, but also in what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. God gave us our bodies and our minds so that we can be Christ’s Body in the world. This means living with ears and eyes wide open to the presence of God in our neighbors, no matter how poor, different, or ugly they may be. It also means approaching the Scriptures and other people’s words about our faith with keen sensitivity to God’s word within them. Sometimes that even means re-evaluating whether God’s voice really is in them. It means having the courage to test, refine, and even discard those words that ultimately lead to death, not life.
This isn’t a radical idea. We do it when we change how we interpret the Bible in different historical periods, such as passages about slavery. We would live in a darker world had our forebears in faith treated those words as dead, rather than alive. In other words, had they thought of themselves as mere amanuenses of God’s world; not partners in God’s story, but simply dictation machines.
The word “human” derives from the Latin word for “ground” or “earth.” Dust we are, and to dust we shall return. But in between we have received the inspiration of God. It’s up to us, as we partner with God, whether we shall be fertile soil—or just clay.

Question: What else do you think the arts—or artists—can teach us about faith, inspiration, or the Christian life?

Delvyn Case is a composer, conductor, scholar, and writer whose work explores the intersections of music and the Christian life. He is the founder of Deus Ex Musica, an ecumenical organization that promotes the use of sacred music as a resource for learning and spiritual growth. He teaches at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, a secular liberal arts school.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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