In the previous articles of this series it became clear that God took the initiative in revealing Himself to man. Further, He went to the limits of what is possible in that effort when He sent His Son Jesus to earth in the form of man. However, what He made known of Himself in Scripture is also of the utmost importance. Without that man could not know or would never be certain what the truth is concerning Jesus’ coming into the world. To assure a totally trustworthy record of that event and to make clear its full meaning, the Lord employed the miracle of inspiration in producing the Bible.
The question of what it was like for the writers to experience the miracle of inspiration as they participated in the production of Scripture has stirred authors to write books that fill libraries. Their discussions of the subject reach back many centuries in history. Thus Young observes, “To understand the present demand for a new doctrine of inspiration and a new attitude toward the Bible one must know something about the background and soil from which much of our modern religious life and thought has sprung.”
In their search for an answer concerning the nature of inspiration scholars have drawn both correct and incorrect conclusions. A study of both will keep one from being discouraged from reading Scripture and to embrace the true views on the subject. Accepting them provides great assurance that reading the Bible is a most worthwhile endeavor. Concerning the critical issue of one’s view of the Bible Young writes, “Despite all that is being said to the contrary, the doctrine of inspiration is of the utmost significance and importance. If the Bible is not infallible, then we can be sure of nothing. The other doctrines of Christianity will then one by one go by the board. The fortunes of Christianity stand or fall with an infallible Bible.”
This article examines, first, some erroneous views concerning the nature of inspiration. It will include those regarding the mode or how of inspiration, those focusing on the extent of inspiration, and the dictation theory. Then these lines shift their attention to more correct conclusions concerning the subject. Summing up the position of the church from the beginning in its doctrine of Scripture, Warfield declares, “The church has always believed her Scriptures to be the book of God, of which God was in such a sense the author that every one of its affirmations of whatever kind is to be esteemed as the utterance of God of infallible truth and authority.”
Erroneous Views of the Nature of Inspiration
Erroneous views as to the nature of inspiration include those regarding the mode or the how of inspiration, those regarding the extent or degree of inspiration, those regarding its effect or what it produced, and those regarding the nature of the material that resulted from it.
Those Regarding Mode or the How of Inspiration
False views of the mode or how of inspiration include the intuition or genius theory and conceptual inspiration.
The Intuition or Genius Theory:
Some refer to the intuition theory of inspiration as natural inspiration. Those espousing the view say that God used the natural mental capabilities of the writers of Scripture and no more. They had nothing more than the kind of insight into spiritual things that all may have. The theory holds the Koran and other sacred books are also in¬spired. Achtemeier remarks concerning the view saying, “Moved by a remarkable religious experience, the biblical writers set down the record of what they understood about the ways of God with humanity, a record that shares the grandeur and the shortcomings of any other piece of literature.” Marshall explains that according to this theory of inspiration “. . . the Scriptures are nothing more than the work of men of remarkable religious insight with the ability to express themselves in eloquent language.”
Clearly, then, this theory of inspiration reduces the Bible to the same level as other literature. If the Koran came from the same source of inspiration, why do its contents not agree with those of the Bible? The fact is, the view does not speak of inspiration at all, in the miraculous sense. As Achtemeier asks, “. . . what of the concept ‘revelation’ if the one who writes Scripture is inherently a genius? Revelation would then lie in the genes of the author rather than in some divine communication.” The theory stands opposed to Paul’s declaration when he wrote, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
As the title suggests, according to this theory in the production of the Bible God inspired only the thoughts of men. He gave them concepts which they wrote in words of their own choice. Apparently espousing this theory of inspiration of Scripture, among the possible sources of biblical material Achtemeier lists that of the author, that of the specific words he used to communicate, and that of merely the concepts he conveyed. Of the third he explains, “. . . the content of Scripture, the thoughts that the authors sought to convey in the words they chose, is the locus of inspiration.”
Yet, it is impossible to formulate concepts apart from words; one simply cannot separate thought from words. Besides, various biblical writers focused on the importance of single words in Scripture. Jesus did so as He defended Himself against the charge of blasphemy in declaring Himself to be God. Quoting Psalm 82:6 He declares, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’”? (John 10:34-36).
Further, the Lord even focused on the tense of a verb as He discussed the reality of the coming resurrection of the physical bodies of men. He declared, “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:26, 27). When Jehovah made the statement about Himself, all three of the patriarchs were dead. It is significant, then, that He did not say, “I was their God,” using the past tense. Nor did He use the future tense in declaring, “I will be their God.” Instead he used the present tense, “I am their God.” That describes Him as the God of the living, though He names three dead men. Such established the fact of their immortality and thereby points to their coming resurrection.
Paul even noted the significance of a single letter of a word. He refers to Genesis 12:7 and draws attention to the fact that the word “seed” is singular rather than plural. He writes, “The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
Those Regarding the Extent of Inspiration
The following paragraphs contain an explanation of theories regarding the extent of inspiration. After that comes an analysis of the validity of their views.
An Explanation of Theories Regarding the Extent of Inspiration:
The views regarding the extent of inspiration are referred to as partial or occasional theories of inspiration. They argue that only parts of the Bible were inspired. Its portions on salvation and morals were inspired, but its historical sections and scientific inferences are not. Concerning those who hold this view Young writes, “We do not believe, say these objectors, that the Bible is infallible in anything but faith and practice. It is not infallible in philosophy; it is not infallible in astronomy; it is not infallible in other sciences; it is infallible only when it tells us what we are to believe.” Lee speaks of this as “limited inerrancy” or “inerrancy of purpose.”
Or, the claim is that only those passages of the Bible which “become real” to the reader as he pours over the pages of Scripture are inspired. Thus the Bible contains the Word as its various parts are quickened to the one who searches its message. According to this view, then, the Bible becomes the Word of God only when there is a personal response to it. To receive the truth of God, one must be inspired by Scripture. He must have an individual encounter, experience a “crisis” with his Creator through its pages. The theory holds that to view the words of the Bible as containing Truth is to make its contents like the volcano whose living streams cease to flow and hardens. To explain further, a certain passage of Scripture does not inspire an individual as he reads it. He turns to another and suddenly his soul is inspired. Another person turns to the first passage, is inspired, and it becomes meaningful to him. The Word of God found him through it.
Theologians holding this theory of inspiration declare that the Bible does not contain a permanent revelation of Truth. It must not be thought of as a message which God wrote several centuries ago and which remains unalterably the same for all time, finished, perfect, static. It is not the record of a dead revelation, but the living medium of a present revelation.
The partial theory of inspiration also speaks of the human writers of Bible as experiencing degrees of the miracle. They view some Scripture, such as special revelation, as having received the highest degree of inspiration. Other passages, such as the recording of facts, received the second highest. Still other portions, such as simply copying records, received the third highest. Achtemeier writes, “If some writings show a maximum ‘divine element,’ others show it at a minimum. If the level of truth in some writings is high, in others it is low.” According to Ahtemeier, then, “The reader faces the task, therefore, of separating the kernel of divine wisdom from the husk of the human ideas in which it has been conveyed, once he or she has decided which portions of Scripture do in fact contain such divine wisdom.”
An Analysis of the Validity of the Views Concerning Partial Inspiration:
The fact is, though, that the Bible is authoritative whether one has a divine encounter with God through it or not. Its words are true even if one does not believe them. Its message will rise up on Judgment Day to condemn him for failing to trust its account of the coming of Jesus into the world. Wholly apart from any particular individual’s reaction to the Bible, it is the Word of God. It does not become the Word through human experience; it is the Word of God. Edwards declares, “The Bible is never dependent upon our response to it for its authority. The laws of a nation do not depend for their authority upon the obedience of every single citizen; on the contrary, law carries the authority of the government regardless of our obedience.”
Further, if one accepts the claim that only parts of the Bible are inspired, he is faced with the dilemma of determining what portions are inspired and which ones are not. Concerning scholars who propagate this view, Gerstner observes, “They cannot tell precisely what parts of the Bible are inspired. They say ‘salvation parts,’ but they do not tell us where to find these or how to separate them from the uninspired, errant, non-salvation parts.”
Then, where does the Bible’s focus on faith begin and end? Who determines what portions contain erroneous information? If we accept this theory of inspiration we are at the mercy of scholars to show us what part of the Bible we may trust and what we must discard. They, then, become the source of the believer’s authority rather than Scripture. However, the real source of the Christian’s authority is that which resides in the Bible. Without such even a church soon loses its audience. As Edwards says, “A church without authority is like a crocodile without teeth; it can open its mouth as wide and as often as it likes, but who cares?”
A further weakness of the theory of partial inspiration appears in the fact that time has proved it wrong on more than one occasion. For example, higher critics used to declare that Abraham was not an actual historical character but a mere legendary figure of biblical pages. However, following years of archaeological research Morris declares, “Only those who are ignorant of modern archaeology hold such views today.” Warfield declares, “And every critical student knows, as already pointed out, that the progress of investigation has been a continuous process of removing difficulties, until scarcely a shred of the old list of ‘Biblical Errors’ remains to hide the nakedness of this moribund contention.”
Again, for a time scholars chided Isaiah for including references to Sargon in 20:1. Since they found no mention of him elsewhere, they concluded he was a figment of the prophet’s imagination. Then in 1843 archaeologists uncovered the ruins of the king’s palace. Edwards reports, “Of the many documents left behind by Sargon, one contains a reference to his defeat of Samaria in 7:22 BC,” an event recorded in sacred Scripture. Edwards reports further, “It was long assumed by critics that no Roman emperor would have given a command for a census of the kind referred to in Luke 2:1-4 enforcing men to return to the place of their birth for registration. But then a papyrus came to light from Roman Egypt which was a census order by the Prefect Gaius Vibius Maximus for all those under his jurisdiction to return to their birthplace for registration.”
All of this evidence, then, leads to the conclusion that inspiration, as a miracle, has no degree; nor does truth. Using the ordinary definition of words, a thing may be either true or false, but not partially one or the other.
The Dictation Theory, Mechanical Inspiration, or the Typewriter Theory
As the title suggests, the dictation theory of inspiration views God as speaking the words of the Bible while its human author reduced them to writing much as a secretary would do with a letter her superior desired mailed. Writers of Scripture, then, served as the instruments of the Almighty much like robots. Concerning such a theory, Fretheim and Froehlich declare, “For Philo of Alexanderia, all the writers of biblical books were ‘prophets’ who received their messages directly from God in an ecstatic experience, a divine frenzy, in which, deprived of mental activity of their own, they became ‘the vocal instrument of God, plucked and played by his invisible hand’”
Indeed, Jehovah did even more that dictate the Ten Commandments. He wrote them with His own hand! However, the mechanical theory of inspiration fails to account for the human element in Scripture. It does not explain the different wordings in similar passages in the Synoptic Gospels. It gives us inspired writings, but not inspired man.
More Correct Thinking Concerning the Nature of Inspiration
The Reformation rested on the premise that the Bible as the authoritative and infallible Word of God must remain the sole and sufficient guide for man’s faith and practice. Scholars speak of the Word as inspired in its entirety as plenary inspiration. Edwards says, “By definition, the term ‘plenary and verbal inspiration’ means that the Bible is God-given (and therefore without error) in every part (doctrine, history, geography, dates, names) and in every single word.” Young writes, “The view of inspiration which the Bible teaches is strongly opposed to the idea that only in parts the Scriptures are infallible and trustworthy.” Gerstner adds, “The names of Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, the Westminster divines, Edwards, and the Princetonians, along with the general tradition of the church from the beginning, must be enrolled under the banner of inerrancy”
God is the active participant in the process of bringing the Bible into being yet the human agents through whom He communicated were not passive. The Lord took full advantage of their earthly backgrounds, experiences, vocabulary, emotions, and talents. The miracle of inspiration was certainly not a mechanical thing where the Almighty used them simply as robots. It was “holy men of God” who spoke though they were borne along by the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).
By recognizing the human element in the production of Scripture, believers escape the sin of bibliolatry or the worship of a book. Dockery writes, “As Jesus took on human form through a human mother, so the Bible has come to us in human language through human authors. The result is that Jesus is the living Word of God, the God-man, and the Bible is the written Word of God, the divine-human Scripture.”
Concerning the nature of inspiration, Hodge and Warfield surmise.” And He furnished each of the Sacred writers, in addition to that which came to him through natural channels, all the knowledge needed for his appointed task, either by vision, suggestion, dictation or elevation of faculty, or otherwise according to His will. The natural knowledge came from all sources as traditions, documents, testimonies, personal observation and recollection; by means also of intuition, logical processes of thought, feeling, experience, etc., and yet all were alike under the general direction of God’s providence. The supernatural knowledge became confluent with the natural in a manner which violated no law of reason or of freedom.”
The miraculous nature of inspiration makes it impossible for one to fully understand it or clearly explain it. God has not chosen to explain fully the "how" of inspiration. It is hard to describe, as with any miracle. The “how” of inspiration certainly included receiving a divine message through a vision, a dream, or an inner voice. It also involved the use of existing written sources. Luke implies that he consulted such in preparing his gospel. He writes, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1, 2).
Wyckoff says, “A level of mystery regarding the exactness of this process will always remain. Like any miracle, it can never be fully explained from the human perspective, no matter how much one elaborates upon it.” Marshall writes, “The doctrine of inspiration is a declaration that the Scriptures have their origin in God; it is not and cannot be an explanation of how God brought them into being.” It is like the Trinity which the Bible teaches, but it can never be clearly understood. Still, if God could be explained, would He still be God? However, one can believe in the miracle of inspiration without being able to reduce it to his level of understanding.
This article has focused on some historic views concerning the nature of inspiration. It examined, first, some erroneous views concerning the miracle. These included those regarding the mode or how of inspiration, such as the intuition theory and conceptual inspiration. The discussion focused further on theories that center on the extent of inspiration, offering a look at the partial theory. The lines presented an explanation of the position and then an analysis of it. The last consideration of erroneous views examined the dictation theory of inspiration. Then these lines shifted their attention to more correct conclusions concerning the subject. That brought a recognition of the fact that, as a miracle, it is impossible to fully explain the nature of biblical inspiration. Yet, scholars speak of what is clear in Scripture as being verbal and plenary in nature. That is, the Bible is fully inspired in its every part, including its very words.
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Dockery, David S. Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.
Edwards, Brian H. Nothing But the Truth. New York: Evangelical Press, 2006.
Fretheim, Terrence E., and Karlfried Froehlich. The Bible as Word of God in a Postmodern Age. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998.
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Young, Edward J. Thy Word is Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965.