Once a brilliant friend of mine who works for Compassion International told me about a theory of biblical inspiration he had heard about in graduate school. He had never been able to find any information on it, and neither have I, but both of us were intrigued by the potential movement forward that could possibly be in, near, or around this idea. He had heard it called The Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration.
“It’s like a Hallmark card,” he said. “You pick one up and read it and say ‘that’s a good card! That’s exactly how I feel about my wife.’ And you buy it.” In a similar manner, this theory says, God did not inspire human authors proactively while they were writing, but He looked at what some people who loved him/ were sensitive to His Spirit, were saying about Him and started picking things. “That’s a good letter, I’ll take that. That’s a great story, it describes exactly what I’m like, I’ll take that too. I’ll take these four gospels about Jesus – they got it right…” etc. etc. In this view, God is picking the best, the truest things that have been written about Him and pulling it together into what we have today – the Bible.
A theologian friend of ours, Dr. Eric Flett of Eastern University, commented, “Ah, like the adoption theory of the atonement, except for Scripture.” Well, yes.
This reverses the order in which we typically imagine Inspiration occurring in. We tend to think top-down. This is bottom-up. One thing for sure, bottom up is how the books of the Bible were collected. The people of God agreed that this letter, this gospel, these psalms, etc. are life-giving and spark and nurture our relationship with God when illumined by His Spirit. Even in cases where a portion of Scripture is given (the Mosiac Law Code), the people of God still decided, generation after generation, to keep it.
I suppose that the assumption of the Hallmark idea is that it isn’t that every word of the Scripture is the absolute truth about God, but that the book/letter/collection of psalms/etc. as a whole reveals important things about God, the best available at that time. This Hallmark idea, though it certainly doesn’t solve all our questions about Inspiration, (and in fact raises plenty of its own), brings several things to my mind.
1) Brevard Childs’ thought on canonical exegesis.
2) C S Lewis once commented on what he figured was the relative nature of inspiration, or inspiration by degrees. He said something along the lines that he assumed that the prophet Isaiah felt a much stronger thrust of inspiration from the Spirit than, say, the writer of 1 Chronicles. Upon hearing it, this seems common-sensical to me. Did the court historian of 1 & 2 Chronicles even have any idea he was writing Scripture? I’m going to go with “probably not.” Did Isaiah know he had a message from the Lord? Absolutely.
3) I have also heard something similar described as an “incarnational” model of Scripture, in which God accommodates inspiration to the limitations of the world-view, such as the historical and scientific knowledge, of the writers.
So, if there is anything helpful in the Hallmark Card Theory of Inspiration, where do we go from there?
Next time: Why talk about this at all?