It's worth pausing at the beginning of Luke to examine what an old professor of mine used to call "the glasses through which we view the Bible." What do we mean if we use a word like "inspiration" to talk about the Bible? Does that mean it's a magic book, full of secret messages and powerful spiritual forces? Does it mean one must be careful never to put another book (let alone the TV remote) on top of the Bible? Does it mean that just opening the book and letting the pages fall at random and plucking a verse out of context is a legitimate way to hear God speak?
The Bible is without doubt a powerful book and I firmly believe God can use it in all these ways. The question we're asking right now, however, is how best to view the Bible. How can we most responsibly regard this book?
Luke gives us significant hints here. He starts out by telling us, unlike most biblical authors, about his own writing process. He says a few critically important things in these first verses:
- Many people in Luke's time had "undertaken to compile a narrative" about the events of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection. There were multiple people trying to get the events recorded.
- Luke himself, along with others who are working toward a similar task, is of the second generation of Jesus-followers -- not an eyewitness himself, he has received the narrative from those who were in fact eyewitnesses.
- Luke is concerned for a third generation of Jesus-followers to be instructed accurately. In Luke's case, he is writing for Theophilus who, given the way Luke addresses him, is probably a mid-level Roman official of some kind.
- Luke has been engaged in his research for some time. He describes himself as "having followed all things closely for some time past" and he is concerned to write "an orderly account." While Luke doesn't describe his research directly, we know from his second volume (Acts) that initially he was a companion of Paul on some of his journeys. From Luke's writing we can see that he apparently dug into sources other gospel writers had not tapped. Perhaps most intriguing, Luke writes a great deal that had to come from Mary herself, and he is not bashful about letting her perspective shine through his narrative.
A word about our own context as we start to read. We are, of course, victims of our own perspectives. So we have inherited a movement that became popular about 150 years ago and lasted in some ways up to the present day where scholars had to disparage the biblical accounts as legitimate historical sources. It became popular to scoff at the "historicity" of the biblical accounts, including the gospels, and to say it was impossible that they could be trustworthy narratives. Luke obviously fabricated details. That attitude is still to be found in some "scholarly" circles to this day.
Trouble is, Luke at least has stood the test of academic scrutiny (as has the rest of the Bible if it is treated responsibly, but that's beyond the scope of this blog post). Modern archaeology has repeatedly verified Luke's veracity, from the scrupulous listing of political powers in Luke 3:1-2, to Luke's use of the Greek word "politarchs" (city rulers) in Thessalonica in Acts 17, to detailed descriptions of first century nautical practices and techniques -- all these and many more have been independently proved after having been dismissed for decades as fable. These days the cutting edge of scholarly research says that Luke is an incredibly trustworthy narrator, having carefully researched and responsibly recorded to the best of his human ability.
And that brings us to the nature of the Bible. Looking at Luke 1:1-4, we have to say that this gospel account is a human book in the deepest, richest sense -- it is written by an individual man, a Greek, a physician, who accompanied Paul and hobnobbed with the apostles and with Jesus' own blood relatives, who used careful research techniques and wrote in his well-educated but accessible Greek vocabulary, who had an eye for detail and a concern for the underdog. What's more, Luke has an agenda, and in the face of postmodern critics who are always suspicious of authority because it comes with Agendas, Luke is clear about his. He writes to help a sympathetic Roman official understand Christianity not as a subversive cult in the normal sense, but as a legitimate movement growing out of historical events that require a response from Theophilus, and from us.
Given all that humanity, what does it mean to say that the Gospel according to Luke is "inspired," much less "infallible" or "inerrant" (a difficult and contentious word at best)? Just as the Council of Chalcedon four hundred years later would declare theologically that we must view Jesus as 100% human and 100% divine, Luke's careful artistry compels us to say that the Bible is a human book. And yet it is also a divine book, a book that (as Luke's friend Paul wrote) is in some sense "God-breathed." That does not make it a magical book, but rather it says something about divine inspiration itself. God tends not to inspire in a magical sense (though occasionally the miraculous does indeed happen) but rather inspiration is a flowing of the Holy Spirit in and through the best efforts of fallible human beings. Luke's careful research and animated narrative bear the undeniable marks of God's fingerprints -- in, with and under Luke's own fingerprints all about the text.
I'm going to intrude my own 2018 reality into this thought process here, because if the Bible is an inspired book -- which I firmly believe it is -- that inspiration lies not only in how Luke researched and wrote, but also in how the text has been transmitted and in how I read. (This is the problem with doctrines of "inerrancy" -- they don't acknowledge the Holy Spirit tending and interpreting the text beyond the original manuscripts, and so they give away the game before it begins.) So when you and I pick up Luke's narrative, it is entirely appropriate to pray for God to speak, to open our eyes, ears, minds, all our faculties, so that we might gain "certainty concerning the things [we] have been taught." Inspiration creates a divine connection between the reader and the writer and the subjects of the story. Thank God for a writer like Luke who not only diligently pursued his own writer's craft, but who also tells us about his agenda, priorities, and process so that we might understand what's going on for him behind the narrative.