Q — I’m uneasy when an author says, “God wrote this book through me” or an artist claims to be doing God’s work in a painting. It seems pretentious or even blasphemous. What does the church say about divine inspiration?
A — “Inspiration” comes from the Latin inspirare = breathe upon/into. In a very basic and fundamental sense, we may say that all human beings are “inspired,” that is in-breathed by the Spirit of God when they act in accordance with “right reason,” or, we may say, when they create artistic works in accordance with “right imagination.” The Holy Spirit in that way is withheld from no one. The Holy Spirit in that way may be said to inspire everyone.
Now let us come to the question more specifically of artistic inspiration, in a book or in a painting. There is a marvelous passage from Jesuit Father Karl Rahner that speaks to this mode of inspiration. It is a difficult passage, but very rewarding if you stick with it: “If and insofar as theology is man’s reflexive self-expression about himself in the light of divine revelation, we could propose the thesis that theology cannot be complete until it appropriates (the) arts as an integral moment of theology itself. One could take the position that what comes to expression in a Rembrandt painting or a Brückner symphony is so inspired and borne by divine revelation, by grace and by God’s self-communication, that they communicate something about what the human really is in the eyes of God, which cannot be completely translated into verbal theology.”[Karl Rahner, SJ, Theology and the Arts, Thought 57 (1982), 24-25]. I think he is telling us that there are occasions when painting and music have the capacity to raise up our minds and hearts to God, perhaps even more than the theology usually written in prose, and insofar as painting and music have that capacity, we may speak of them as works of inspiration. However, this does not apply equally to all musical and artistic expressions. It applies to those that are in my terms “rightly imagined.” To spell out what that means would take us far beyond the space allotted here.
What does the church say about biblical inspiration? Vatican II in the Constitution on Divine Revelation puts it very clearly: “in composing the sacred books, God chose men who while employed by him made use of their powers and abilities so that with him acting in them and through them, they as true authors consigned to writing everything and only those things which he wanted. Therefore, because everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (Constitution on Divine Revelation, paragraph 11). The most important words in this important passage are those in the final clause, “for the sake of our salvation.” Divine inspiration obtains not in respect of every single word that is found in the Holy Scriptures, but with those elements that are taken up with salvation.