Inspiration and Inebriation

A picture of Augustine.
St. Augustine,

Have you ever thought about why there are six stone pots in the story of Christ turning water into wine? Or have you ever wondered about why two or three “measures” of water could fit into them? Me neither.

Thank God Augustine did. His interpretation of the story of Christ at the wedding in Cana is playful, imaginative exegesis. As he preaches on this story, he observes the six stone jars. He reads them as echoing the six dispensations of prophecy. Once we understand Christ in those prophecies, he says, “what you read [in the prophecies] not only has a taste, but even inebriates you, transporting the mind from the body, so that forgetting the things that are past, you reach forward to the things that are before you.” His interaction with the two to three measures of water that can fit in the pots leads to a deeply relational presentation of the Trinity. Sometimes we name the Trinity as Father, Son, and Spirit, he says. Thus, three measures. In other instances, like later in John’s gospel, we hear that the Father and the Son are one. When this is the case, the Spirit is assumed  to be present and is, perhaps, the charity or love which makes the two one. And, so, two measures by appearance are three in reality. There is nothing—no detail, no word—without meaning, without life in this story.

As I read Augustine in preparation for a class on the history of biblical interpretation, I thought, “I wonder what my students will think of this.” As a pastor, this is not how I customarily read, let alone preach, the Scriptures. From my experience, I don’t think many of my colleagues in pastoral ministry—at least in evangelical or mainline Protestantism—preach this way either. So, I wondered, will my students get excited or feel skeptical? Will they have heard such interpretations before? Will they take this seriously or find it comical?

Then I began to concern myself with a different set of questions. Does my approach to reading and preaching the Scriptures take my belief that these are God’s word for the people of God seriously enough? If I confess the Scriptures as inspired by God, why don’t I give more attention to each word? Then it began to dawn on me. I’d only understood the doctrine of inspiration as a foundation for why the Scriptures are authoritative. Never, as far as I can remember, had I considered how the doctrine of inspiration might challenge me to read methodologically or how it might prepare me to write a sermon.

Following the biblical evidence gives us some direction. The word “inspired” in Second Timothy 3:16 is θεόπνευστος, which is more literally translated “God-breathed.” This is regularly cited to make the point that Scripture is authoritative—it comes from God. Yet, this word is unique. It occurs only once in the New Testament. In the Septuagint, however, a variant of the root πνέω occurs in a quite significant place, and with God as its subject. In Genesis 2, God breathes “life” into the first human. ὁ θεὸς…πνοὴν. A fascinating place to turn for thinking about what “inspired” means. When we imagine God breathing a human to life, we cannot help but envision a human in its fulness—every part of it—coming to life. We would not look at the eyes and say, “Yes, these were made alive by God,” only to look at the fingers as if they somehow came to life by some other source. More so, we see the implications of God-breathedness as the human begins cultivating and nurturing the garden. God breathes life into something so that every part of it may glorify God, and in ways that produce fruit. How does our approach to Scripture, practically, take such an insight seriously? 

This same variant occurs at Pentecost, when God’s Spirit comes down like fire and wind upon the disciples. (This time, God is not explicitly named as the subject, but a wind “from heaven” has few possible senders.) Some thought the disciples were drunk. But they were few compared to the thousands this God-breathed preaching fest led into faith. Explaining what Jesus’s actions at the wedding were meant to do, Augustine says the story is meant to arouse and edify our hearts. And, in a line that I imagine will disturb some, he accepts that there are multiple possible meanings of the passage, saying “Let every man choose what he likes best. We keep not back what is suggested to us.” In other words, Augustine acknowledges that one of the interpretations may very well arouse and edify the heart of one hearer in a way different than another hearer. The hearer is free to choose, at that time, which one leads to greater love of God and neighbor. This is not far from how the Spirit chose to work at Pentecost, giving the disciples the tongues needed to cut thousands of people to their hearts. How does our exegesis and proclamation take this implication of inspiration seriously?

Many preachers are under the impression that each passage, story, or saying has only one true meaning, an original meaning that we can somehow piece together with enough history or research. I’m not sure that approach takes the doctrine of inspiration seriously enough. May we learn to preach like every word of Scripture is alive with meaning—just like every part of our bodies are alive by the breath of God—and may we learn to preach like God’s words are creative and dynamic enough to create conversion in our congregations. May God’s inspiration inebriate us as it did the preachers of Pentecost.

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