The Preservation of the Revelation: Inspiration  - Millard J Erickson
Chapter Objectives
At the conclusion of this chapter, you should be able to achieve the following:
     1.     To define inspiration of Scripture and the relation of the Holy Spirit to that process.
     2.     To review the ways in which Scripture supports itself concerning inspiration.
     3.     To identify the issues involved in formulating a theory of inspiration.
     4.     To compare and contrast previous theories of inspiration.
     5.     To examine the approaches that have been used to formulate a theory of inspiration.
     6.     To measure the extent of inspiration in the Scriptures.
     7.     To analyze the intensiveness of inspiration both within Scripture and without.
     8.     To construct a model of inspiration that integrates both the didactic material and the phenomena of Scripture.
Chapter Summary
One of the topics that is hotly debated today is the degree to which Scripture is inspired by God. Inspiration is necessary because it confirms the nature of God’s special revelation through Scripture. An important part of biblical theology is the formulation of a theory of the extent to which the Bible is inspired. A variety of theories have been propounded. These are scrutinized and evaluated. Over centuries the biblical writers support a high view of inspiration. While in the proper sense, inspiration is of the writers, in the derivative sense we may also say that the writings themselves are inspired.
Study Questions
     Why is inspiration so important to the authority of Scripture?
     In what ways does the Bible witness to its divine origins?
     Name the issues and responses in formulating a theory of inspiration.
     Compare and contrast the five theories of inspiration.
     What are the two basic methods of formulating a theory of inspiration, and who is associated with each method?
     What are Dewey Beegle’s problems with biblical phenomena?
     How would you summarize the characteristics that should be included in an appropriate model of inspiration?
Definition of Inspiration
The Fact of Inspiration
Issues in Formulating a Theory of Inspiration
Theories of Inspiration
The Method of Formulating a Theory of Inspiration
The Extent of Inspiration
The Intensiveness of Inspiration
A Model of Inspiration
Definition of Inspiration
By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers which rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or which resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God.
If, as we argued in the preceding chapter, revelation is God’s communication to humans of truth that they need to know in order to relate properly to God, then it should be apparent why inspiration also is necessary. While revelation benefits those who immediately receive it, that value might well be lost for those beyond the immediate circle of revelation. Since God does not repeat his revelation for each person, there has to be some way to preserve it. It could, of course, be preserved by oral retelling or by being fixed into a definite tradition, and as we argued in chapter 4, this certainly was operative in the period that sometimes intervened between the occurrence of the initial revelation and its inscripturation. Certain problems attach to this, for over centuries and even millennia oral tradition is subject to erosion and modification. Then it is apparent that something more than oral retelling is needed.
While revelation is the communication of truth from God to humans, inspiration relates more to the relaying of that truth from the first recipient(s) of it to other persons, whether then or later. Thus, revelation might be thought of as a vertical action, and inspiration as a horizontal matter. Note that while revelation and inspiration are usually thought of together, it is possible to have one without the other. There are cases of inspiration without revelation. The Holy Spirit in some instances moved Scripture writers to record the words of unbelievers, words that certainly were not divinely revealed. Some Scripture writers may well have written down matters that were not specially revealed to them, but were pieces of information readily available to anyone who would make the inquiry. The genealogies, in both the Old Testament and New Testament (the listing of Jesus’ lineage), may well be of this character. There also was revelation without inspiration: instances of revelation that went unrecorded because the Holy Spirit did not inspire anyone to write them down. John makes this very point in John 21:25, when he says that if everything that Jesus did were written down, “I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” If, as we asserted in the previous chapter, all of Jesus’ words and actions were the words and actions of God, the Spirit was apparently very selective in what he inspired the biblical authors to report.
The Fact of Inspiration
We begin by noting that throughout Scripture there is the claim or even the assumption of its divine origin, or of its equivalency with the actual speech of the Lord. This point is sometimes spurned on the grounds of its being circular. Any theology (or any other system of thought for that matter) faces a dilemma when dealing with its basic authority. Either it bases its starting point upon itself, in which case it is guilty of circularity, or it bases itself upon some foundation other than that upon which it bases all its other articles, in which case it is guilty of inconsistency. Note, however, that we are guilty of circularity only if the testimony of Scripture is taken as settling the matter. But surely the Scripture writer’s own claim should be taken into consideration as part of the process of formulating our hypothesis of the nature of Scripture. Other considerations will of course be consulted by way of evaluating the hypothesis. What we have here is somewhat like a court trial. The defendant is permitted to testify on his or her own behalf. This testimony is not taken as settling the matter, however: that is, after hearing the defendant’s plea of “not guilty,” the judge will not immediately rule, “I find the defendant not guilty.” Additional testimony is called for and evaluated, in order to determine the credibility of the defendant’s testimony. But his or her testimony is admitted.
One other item needs to be observed in answering the charge of circularity. In consulting the Bible to determine the authors’ view of Scripture, one is not necessarily presupposing its inspiration. One may consult it merely as a historical document which informs us that its authors considered it the inspired Word of God. In this case one is not viewing the Bible as its own starting point. This is circularity only if one begins with the assumption of the inspiration of the Bible, and then uses that assumption as a guarantee of the truth of the Bible’s claim to be inspired. A person who does not present the Scripture writers’ claim as final proof on this matter is not guilty of circularity. It is permissible to use the Bible as a historical document and to allow it to plead its own case.
The Bible witnesses to its divine origin in several ways. One of these is the view of New Testament authors regarding the Scriptures of their day, which we would today term the Old Testament. Second Peter 1:20–21 is a cardinal instance: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Here Peter is affirming that the prophecies of the Old Testament were not of human origin. They were not produced by human will or decision. Rather they were moved or borne along (φερόμενοιpheromenoi) by the Spirit of God. The impetus that led to the writing was from the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Peter’s readers are to pay heed to the prophetic word, for it is not simply humans’ word, but God’s word.
A second reference is that of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In this passage Paul is exhorting Timothy to continue in the teachings that he has received. Paul assumes Timothy is familiar with the “holy Scriptures” (v. 15) and urges him to continue in them since they are divinely inspired (or more correctly, “God-spired” or “God-breathed”). The impression here is that they are divinely produced, just as God breathed the breath of life into the human (Gen. 2:7). They therefore carry value for building up the believer into maturity in order to be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Nothing is said about the authority or lack of authority of the Scriptures for matters other than these practical spiritual concerns, such as their dependability with respect to historical and scientific issues, but this omission is not significant given the context.
When we turn to the early church’s preaching, we find a similar understanding of the Old Testament. In Acts 1:16 Peter says, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David… ,” and then proceeds to quote from Psalms 69:25 and 109:8 regarding the fate of Judas. It is notable here that Peter not only regards David’s words as authoritative, but that he actually affirms that God spoke by the mouth of David. David was God’s “mouthpiece,” so to speak. The same thought, that God spoke by the mouth of the prophets, is found in Acts 3:18, 21, and 4:25. The kerygma, then, identifies “it is written in the scripture” with “God has said it.”
This fits well with the prophets’ own testimony. Again and again they declared, “Thus says the Lord.” Micah wrote: “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken” (4:4). Jeremiah said: “These are the words the Lord spoke concerning Israel and Judah” (30:4). Isaiah affirmed: “The Lord spoke to me.… He said …” (8:11). Amos declared: “Hear this word the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel” (3:1). And David said: “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). Statements like these, which appear over and over again in the prophets, indicate that they were aware of being “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
Finally, we note the position our Lord himself held regarding the Old Testament writings. In part, we may infer this from the way he related to the view of the Bible held by his dialogical opponents, the Pharisees. He never hesitated to correct their misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the Bible, but he never challenged or corrected their view of the nature of the Scripture. He merely disagreed with their interpretations of the Bible, or the traditions they had added to the content of the Scriptures themselves. In his discussions and disputes with his opponents, he repeatedly quoted from the Scriptures. In his threefold temptation, he responded to Satan each time with a quotation from the Old Testament. He spoke of the authority and permanence of the Scripture: “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35); “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). Two objects were regarded as sacred in the Israel of Jesus’ day, the temple and the Scriptures. He did not hesitate to point out the transiency of the former, for not one stone would be left upon another (Matt. 24:2). There is, therefore, a striking contrast between his attitude toward the Scriptures and his attitude toward the temple.1
We may conclude from the foregoing that the Scripture writers’ uniform testimony is that the Bible has originated from God and is his message to the human race. This is the fact of the Bible’s inspiration; we must now ask what it means. Here differences of understanding begin to occur.
Issues in Formulating a Theory of Inspiration
Several questions should be on the agenda of anyone attempting to formulate a theory of inspiration. These are questions that need to be addressed if there is to be a full understanding of the nature of inspiration.
1. Can we really formulate a theory of inspiration? It should be apparent that such a question is necessary before even beginning the procedure. Some would say that such a procedure is neither necessary nor helpful. We should instead simply use the Bible rather than theorize regarding its nature. We should be content with the fact that the Bible is inspired rather than ask how it was inspired. This argument, however, is faulty. The fact is that our utilization of the Bible will be influenced by what we think about its nature. We will, whether consciously or unconsciously, be dealing with it on the basis of an implicit theory of its nature. It would therefore be desirable to think out our view of inspiration.
Another objection is that the Bible does not present a full-fledged doctrine of Scripture. We should simply limit ourselves to the use of biblical terminology and concepts. If this advice were followed consistently, however, our biblical and theological understanding would be considerably impoverished. The Bible does not use the term Trinity, but this concept is called for if we are to understand the material. Similarly, the biblical writers do not discuss “Q” or the Logia, nor does the term salvation history (Heilsgeschichte) appear in the canon. These, however, are part of the analytical mechanism we employ to understand biblical truth better. In similar fashion, a more complete understanding of the nature of inspiration (even though not fleshed out in Scripture) is both desirable and necessary for a more complete understanding of the Bible.
Our aim here is not primarily a statement of how the Bible was inspired; that is, we are not inquiring into the process or method by which God brought it into being. There is room for such an inquiry, but we are primarily asking about the extent to which the Bible is inspired. Our question lies between the questions whether and how the Bible is inspired; namely, what precisely in the Bible is inspired.
2. Does the Bible supply us with a basis for formulating an understanding of its inspiration? If there is not a full theory stated in the Bible, is there at least a sufficient basis from which we can develop such a theory? And if so, are we bound to accept and follow the Scripture writers’ views on this subject, or are we at liberty to criticize, modify, or even reject the understanding they present?
3. Should we, in formulating our understanding, give primary weight to the Bible’s teaching about itself, or should we primarily emphasize the nature of Scripture, the characteristics it displays? We might term these, respectively, the didactic material and the phenomena of Scripture. The two approaches are sometimes referred to, respectively, as the deductive and inductive approaches, but this terminology is somewhat misleading. Most theories of inspiration utilize both types of material. The crucial question is, Which type will be interpreted in the light of the other? Perhaps the most significant differences among evangelical theories of inspiration occur at this point.
4. Is inspiration uniform throughout the Bible, or are there different degrees or differing levels of inspiration? We are not asking here about the nature of the material, but rather about the nature and degree of inspiration. Can it be that at some points in the Bible the words that were written were actually dictated, while at other points there was merely a directing of the writer’s thoughts, and at still others perhaps only an impulse to write?
5. Is inspiration a detectable quality? Is there something about inspired material so unique that we can perceive or recognize it as inspired? In answering this question affirmatively, some liberals have gone to the extreme of saying in effect that “inspired” equals “inspiring.” One can measure the degree of inspiration by the degree to which a portion of written material inspires the reader. On this basis, the Sermon on the Mount was deemed more inspired than the genealogies. Can canonicity be determined by this method; can one, for example, detect qualitative differences between the Book of Hebrews and the Shepherd of Hermas? If one holds that there are also degrees of inspiration within the canon, it should be possible to sort out those differences as well.
6. How does inspiration relate to the use of sources? Does it mean that everything written was somehow given in an immediate fashion by the Holy Spirit? Or does it allow for drawing upon historical documents, perhaps even engaging in extensive research?
7. If inspiration includes the use of sources, does inspiration guarantee their accuracy? If the Scripture writer used a historical source that contained an error, did the Holy Spirit guide and direct to correct the error? Or does inspiration merely mean that the author reported precisely what was found in the document used, even if that involved reporting an error?
8. Does inspiration relate to the shaping and preparing of the material prior to its actual utilization by the author of Scripture? In some cases long periods of time elapsed from the occurrence of the event until its recording in Scripture. During this period, the community of faith was transmitting, selecting, amplifying, and condensing the received tradition as well. Did inspiration extend to this process or was all of this merely governed by normal laws of group psychology and the formation of tradition?
9. Is inspiration broadly or narrowly related to the Scripture writer? That is, is inspiration something that characterizes only the actual moment of writing, or does it involve earlier experiences that prepare the author for that moment? Does inspiration also involve formation of the author’s personality, background, vocabulary, and whole way of viewing things?
10. Is inspiration a quality permanently attached to the Scripture writer, or to the office of prophet or apostle as it were; or is it a special influence at a particular time? If it is the former, then by virtue of the office, whatever a prophet or apostle wrote on a matter of spiritual or religious concern would be inspired and hence authoritative. Thus, anything Paul wrote, any letter dealing with the Christian life, would be inspired and ought to be included in the canon simply because of its author. In the latter case, only what Paul wrote under the special influence of the Holy Spirit would be considered Scripture.
11. Is inspiration properly to be attributed to the Scripture writer or to the Scripture written? In the former case, inspiration would apply especially to the relationship between God and the author, something done to the apostle or prophet. In the latter case, the emphasis is placed more on the resulting product. Another possibility is to combine these two options: it is primarily the author that is inspired, and secondarily the writing.
12. Finally, to how much of the material dealt with by the author does inspiration apply? Does it pertain only to salvific matters, so that when dealing with supporting matters, such as science and history, the author is largely unaided? Or does inspiration operate with respect to the other matters as well?
Theories of Inspiration
A number of views have arisen regarding the nature of inspiration. A brief survey will help us see the various ways in which the issues we have just raised have been worked out.
1. The intuition theory makes inspiration largely a high degree of insight. Some within left-wing liberalism hold such a view. Inspiration is the functioning of a high gift, perhaps almost like an artistic ability but nonetheless a natural endowment, a permanent possession. The Scripture writers were religious geniuses. The Hebrew people had a particular gift for the religious, just as some groups seem to have special aptitude for mathematics or languages. On this basis, inspiration of the Scripture writers was essentially no different from that of other great religious and philosophical thinkers, such as Plato and Buddha. The Bible then is great religious literature reflecting the Hebrew people’s spiritual experiences.2
2. The illumination theory maintains that there is an influence of the Holy Spirit upon the authors of Scripture, but involving only a heightening of their normal powers. There is no special communication of truth, nor guidance in what is written, but merely an increased sensitivity and perceptivity with regard to spiritual matters. The Spirit’s effect is to heighten or elevate the author’s consciousness. It is not unlike the effect of stimulants students sometimes take to heighten their awareness or amplify the mental processes. Thus, the work of inspiration is different only in degree, not in kind, from the Spirit’s work with all believers. The result of this type of inspiration is increased ability to discover truth.3
3. The dynamic theory emphasizes the combination of divine and human elements in the process of inspiration and the writing of the Bible. The Spirit of God works by directing the writer to the thoughts or concepts, and allowing the writer’s own distinctive personality to come into play in the choice of words and expressions. Thus, the writer will give expression to the divinely directed thoughts in a way uniquely characteristic of that person.4
4. The verbal theory insists that the Holy Spirit’s influence extends beyond the direction of thoughts to the selection of words used to convey the message. The work of the Holy Spirit is so intense that each word is the exact word God wants used at that point to express the message. Ordinarily, great care is taken to insist that this is not dictation, however.5
5. The dictation theory is the teaching that God actually dictated the Bible to the writers. Passages where the Spirit is depicted as telling the author precisely what to write are regarded as applying to the entire Bible. Different authors did not write in distinctive styles. The number of people who actually hold this view is considerably smaller than the number to whom it is attributed, since most adherents of the verbal view do take great pains to dissociate themselves from the dictation theorists. There are, however, some who would accept this designation of themselves.6 Although John Calvin and other Reformers used the expression dictation when describing inspiration, it seems unlikely that they meant what is actually denoted by this term.7
The Method of Formulating a Theory of Inspiration
Before continuing, we must examine the two basic methods of formulating a theory of inspiration. The first, represented by the “Princeton School” of B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, and A. A. Hodge, places its primary emphasis on the biblical writers’ actually statements about the Bible and the view of it revealed in the way they use it.8 The second approach, represented by Dewey Beegle, examines what the Bible is like, analyzing the various ways in which the writers report events, to compare parallel accounts.9
The method used in constructing the doctrine of inspiration should parallel the method used to formulate other doctrines. With respect to the question of the sanctification of the believer, the first method would emphasize the didactic biblical passages that describe and define sanctification. The second approach would look at actual cases of Christians and try to determine what sanctification actually produced in their lives. This approach would use biblical instances (narrative and description) as well as historical and contemporary biographies of Christians. Regarding the question of perfection, the first method would look at the teachings of Paul and other Scripture writers on the subject; the second would examine whether Christians actually display a life of perfection. If the issue is whether Jesus was sinless in his life on earth, the former method would consult didactic doctrinal passages such as Hebrews 4:15. The latter approach would instead examine the narrative accounts of Jesus’ life, asking whether his cursing of the fig tree, his casting the moneychangers out of the temple, his denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees, his behavior in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal, and other similar actions were really the actions of a sinless person, or should rather be interpreted as instances of petulance, anger, and fear, which in an ordinary human would be termed sin.
With respect to the doctrines just enumerated, the approach in this volume (and of most theologians who emphasize the supreme authority of the Bible) is to place the major emphasis on the didactic material and make the phenomena secondary. Thus, the latter will be interpreted in the light of the former. Any good systematic theologian will be consistent with regard to the method used. Thus, our major basis for the doctrine of inspiration will be the didactic material. The actual phenomena of Scripture will be used to help determine the meaning of the didactic material. A parallel example is the doctrine that Jesus was without sin. Passages like Hebrews 4:15 establish the doctrine; the narratives of Jesus’ life help us understand just what it means. Both aspects are needed, but one must carry greater emphasis, and consistency of theological methodology dictates beginning with the teachings rather than the phenomena. The teachings will give us the formal nature of the doctrine, while the phenomena help fill out the content.
A few words need to be said about the difference between the biblical teaching about Scripture and the phenomena that illumine the nature of Scripture, for there is considerable confusion about these two matters. By the former we mean the doctrine held by Jesus and the apostles (and other biblical authors) about the nature of the Bible. Their view of the degree of inspiration or the intensiveness of inspiration is usually not stated explicitly, but can often be inferred from what they said about the Scriptures or how they regarded what the Scriptures taught. Jesus and the apostles regarded Scripture as authoritative because they believed that God had directed the biblical writer—what he wrote was what God said. That they regarded even minute details as binding indicates that they felt that inspiration by God extended even to the smallest particulars. From this we can infer the doctrine that Christ and the apostles held regarding the degree and intensiveness of God’s inspiration of the Scriptures.
The phenomena, on the other hand, concern what the Scriptures are actually like rather than what the authors thought about their own or other biblical writers’ writing. Here we become engaged in comparing parallel passages, evaluating the degree of accuracy of the writings, and similar activities. Note carefully the distinction between didactic material and phenomena in the following example, which pertains to the doctrines of sanctification and perseverance. That John Mark deserted Paul and Barnabas, and later returned to usefulness is a phenomenon (i.e., what Mark did) which may shed light on these doctrines. Paul’s official position on this is part of the didactic material; that Paul was reconciled with Mark and received him back, although it makes no explicit comment on sanctification and perseverance, enables us to infer something about them. In this particular case, we derive our knowledge of both the phenomenon (Mark’s return to usefulness) and Paul’s teaching (inferred from the fact that Paul once again found Mark useful) from Paul’s writing (2 Tim. 4:11). Nevertheless, there is a logical distinction between the phenomenon and the didactic material. This distinction should be carefully kept in mind—especially when we are investigating the nature of Scripture. For in that case the topic of investigation is also the source of the didactic material.
The Extent of Inspiration
We must now pose the question of the extent of inspiration, or to put it somewhat differently, of what is inspired. Is the whole of the Bible to be thus regarded, or only certain portions?
One easy solution would be to cite 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.…” There is a problem, however, because of an ambiguity in the first part of this verse. The text reads simply πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος (pasa graphē theopneustos kai ōphelimos). It lacks the copula ἐστί (esti). Should the verb be inserted between γραφὴ and θεόπνευστος? In that case the sentence would literally say, “All scripture is God-breathed and profitable.” Or should the copula be placed after θεόπνευστος? In that event, the sentence would read, “All God-breathed scripture is also profitable.” If the former rendering is adopted, the inspiration of all Scripture would be affirmed. If the latter is followed, the sentence would emphasize the profitability of all God-breathed Scripture. From the context, however, one cannot really determine what Paul intended to convey. (What does appear from the context is that Paul had in mind a definite body of writings known to Timothy from his childhood. It is unlikely that Paul was attempting to make a distinction between inspired and uninspired Scripture within this body of writings.)
Can we find additional help on this issue in two other texts previously cited—2 Peter 1:19–21 and John 10:34–35? At first glance this seems not to succeed, since the former refers specifically to prophecy and the latter to the law. It appears from Luke 24:25–27, however, that “Moses and all the Prophets” equals “all the Scriptures,” and from Luke 24:44–45 that “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” equals “the Scriptures.” In John 10:34, when Jesus refers to the law, he actually quotes from Psalm 82:6. In John 15:25, he refers to a clause found in Psalm 35:19 as “what is written in their Law.” In Matthew 13:35, he refers to “what was spoken through the prophet” and then quotes from Psalm 78:2. Moreover, Paul refers to a number of different types of passages as “law”: Isaiah 28:11–12 (1 Cor. 14:21); Psalms and Isaiah (Rom. 3:19); and even Genesis 16:15 and 21:9, which are narrative passages (Gal. 4:21–22). And Peter refers to the “word of the prophets” (2 Peter 1:19) and every “prophecy of Scripture” (v. 20) in such a way as to lead us to believe that the whole of the collection of writings commonly accepted in that day is in view. It appears that “law” and “prophecy” were often used to designate the whole Hebrew Scriptures.
Can this understanding of inspiration be extended to cover the books of the New Testament as well? This problem is not so easily solved. We do have some indications of belief that what these writers were doing was of the same nature as what the writers of the Old Testament had done. One explicit reference of one New Testament author to the writings of another is 2 Peter 3:16. Here Peter refers to Paul’s writings and alludes to the difficulty of understanding some things in them, which, he says, “ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures.” Thus Peter groups Paul’s writings with other books, presumably familiar to the readers, which were regarded as Scripture. Moreover, John identified what he was writing with God’s word: “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 John 4:6). He makes his words the standard of measurement. In addition, throughout the Book of Revelation there are indications of John’s consciousness of being commanded to write. In Revelation 22:18–19, he speaks of the punishment upon anyone who adds to or subtracts from what has been written in that book of prophecy. The expression used here is similar to the warning that appears three times in Old Testament canonical writings (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6). Paul wrote that the gospel received by the Thessalonians had come by the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5), and had been accepted by them as what it really was, the word of God (2:13). While the question of what books should be included in the New Testament canon is another matter, it should be clear that these New Testament writers regarded the Scripture as being extended from the prophetic period to their own time.
Another important question that must be addressed is whether this inspiration was a specific action of the Holy Spirit at particular times, or the writers’ permanent possession by virtue of who they were. To put it differently, was this an intermittent or a continuous activity of the Holy Spirit? As noted earlier, one position attaches inspiration to the prophetic or apostolic office per se.10 According to this view when Jesus commissioned the apostles to be his representatives, he gave them the authority to define and teach truth. Those who hold this view ordinarily cite Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles in Matthew 16:17–20, in which he gave to Peter the keys of the kingdom, noting that what Peter had just said had been revealed to him by the heavenly Father, not by flesh and blood. The commission in Matthew 28:19–20 and the promises of the Holy Spirit’s guiding, teaching, and illumining ministry (John 14–16) are also regarded as substantiating this view. Inspiration by the Holy Spirit is, according to this position, virtually equivalent to being filled with the Holy Spirit. Whenever proclaiming a Christian message, a prophet or apostle will, by virtue of office and through the Holy Spirit, be speaking the truth.
But can this view of inspiration be squared with the data of Scripture? It appears, rather, that the power to prophesy was not constant. In Ezekiel 29:1, for instance, there is a very precise dating (in this case down to the exact day) as to when the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel. The same is true of the word of God coming to John the Baptist (Luke 3:1–2). There is also precise dating in the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:41–42, 59–79). Further, some who were not prophets prophesied. This was true of Balaam (Num. 22:28–30) and of Saul (1 Sam. 19:23–24).
This intermittent character was true of other supernatural gifts. The ability to speak in languages not previously learned came suddenly upon the disciples (Acts 2:4), and there is no indication that they continued to practice this gift. In Acts 19:11–12 we read that God performed extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, but there is no indication that this was a regular occurrence. It is logical to suppose that the inspiration for writing Scripture was intermittent as well.
Finally, we note that at times apostles seemed to stray from what presumably was God’s will for them, and from the practice of spiritual truth. Peter, for example, compromised by withdrawing from eating with Gentiles when certain Jews came (Gal. 2:11–12). Paul found it necessary to correct Peter publicly (2:14–21). Paul himself was hardly blameless, however. Acts 15:38–41 describes contention between Paul and Barnabas so severe that they found it necessary to separate. Although we cannot determine the nature and extent of fault in this situation, it does appear that Paul was at least partially in error. The objection that these men strayed in their actions, not their teaching, does not really carry much cogency since teaching is done as much by modeling as by proclamation. We conclude that inspiration was not a permanent and continuous matter tied inseparably to the office of prophet and apostle. While it may have operated at other times than the precise moment of writing Scripture, it certainly did not extend to all of the author’s utterances and writings.
The Intensiveness of Inspiration
How intensive was the inspiration? Was it only a general influence, perhaps involving the suggesting of concepts, or was it so thoroughgoing that even the choice of words reflects God’s intention?
When we examine the New Testament writers’ use of the Old Testament, an interesting feature appears. We sometimes find indication that they regarded every word, syllable, and punctuation mark as significant. At times their whole argument rests on a fine point in the text that they are consulting. For example, Jesus’ argument in John 10:35 rests on the use of the plural number in Psalm 82:6: “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’?” In Matthew 22:32, his quotation of Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” the point depends on the tense of the verb, which leads him to draw the conclusion, “He is not God of the dead but of the living.” In verse 44, the point of the argument hangs on a possessive suffix, “The Lord said to my Lord.” In this last case Jesus expressly says that when David spoke these words, he was “speaking by the Spirit.” Apparently David was led by the Spirit to use the particular forms he did, even to the point of a detail as minute as the possessive in “my Lord.” (The same quotation occurs in Acts 2:35.) And in Galatians 3:16, Paul makes his argument rest on the singular in Genesis 12:7: “The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” Since the New Testament writers considered these Old Testament minutiae authoritative (i.e., as what God himself said), they obviously regarded the choice of words and even the form of the words as having been directed by the Holy Spirit.
One other argument regarding the intensiveness of inspiration is the fact that New Testament writers attribute to God statements in the Old Testament which in the original form are not specifically ascribed to him. A notable example is Matthew 19:4–5, where Jesus asks, “Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said … ?” He then proceeds to quote from Genesis 2:24. In the original, however, the statement is not attributed to God. It is just a comment on the event of the creation of woman from man. But the words of Genesis are cited by Jesus as being what God said; Jesus even puts these words in the form of a direct quotation. Evidently, in Jesus’ mind anything that the Old Testament said was what God said. Other instances of attributing to God words not originally ascribed to him are Acts 4:25, quoting Psalm 2:1–2; Acts 13:34, quoting Psalm 16:10; and Hebrews 1:6–7, quoting Deuteronomy 32:43 (Septuagint; cf. Ps. 97:7) and Psalm 104:4.
In addition to these specific references, we should note that Jesus often introduced his quotations of the Old Testament with the formula, “It is written.” Whatever the Bible said he identified as having the force of God’s own speech. It was authoritative. This, of course, does not speak specifically to the question of whether the inspiring work of the Holy Spirit extended to the choice of words, but does indicate a thoroughgoing identification of the Old Testament writings with the word of God.
On the basis of this type of didactic material, one would conclude that the inspiration of the Scripture was so intense that it extended even to the choice of particular words. If, however, we are also to take into account the phenomena of Scripture, the characteristics of the book, then we find something a bit different. Dewey Beegle has developed a theory of inspiration based primarily on the phenomena.11 He notes, for example, that some chronological problems in the Bible are very difficult to harmonize. The reign of Pekah is a most prominent one. The chronology of Abraham is another. Beegle notes that in Acts 7:4 Stephen refers to Abraham’s leaving Haran after his father died. We know from Genesis that Terah was 70 at the birth of Abraham (11:26) and died in Haran at age 205 (11:32); Abraham, therefore, was 135 at the death of his father. However, Abraham left Haran at the age of 75 (Gen. 12:4), which would be some sixty years before the death of his father. On the basis of such apparent discrepancies, Beegle concludes that specific words certainly are not authoritative. That would involve dictation.
Beegle also observes that quotations from nonbiblical books are found in the New Testament. For example, Jude 14 quotes 1 Enoch 1:9 and Jude 9 quotes the Assumption of Moses. These two cases present a problem for the argument that quotation in the New Testament indicates the New Testament writer’s belief in the inspiration and consequent authority of the material being quoted. For if authoritativeness is attributed to Old Testament material by virtue of quotation in the New Testament, should it not be attributed to these two apocryphal books as well? Beegle concludes that quotation in the New Testament is not a sufficient proof of inspiration and authoritativeness.
A Model of Inspiration
If we are to maintain both types of consideration, it will be necessary to find some way of integrating them. In keeping with the methodology stated earlier we will give primary consideration to the didactic material. This means concluding that inspiration extends even to the choice of words (i.e., inspiration is verbal). We will determine the exact meaning of that choice of words, however, by examining the phenomena.
Note that in concluding that inspiration is verbal we have not employed the abstract argument based on the nature of God. That is the contention that since God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and precise, and has inspired the Bible, it must be fully his word, even down to the choice of particular terminology. Rather, our case for verbal inspiration is based on the didactic material, the view of Scripture held and taught by Jesus and the biblical writers, not on an abstract inference from God’s nature.
An important point to notice is that the words-versus-thoughts issue is an artificial one. The two cannot really be separated. A particular thought or concept cannot be represented by every single word available in the given language. Only a limited number of words will function effectively. The more precise the thought becomes, the more limited is the number of words that will serve the purpose. Finally, at some point only one word will do, if the match of word to thought is to be precise. Notice that we are not referring to how specific (that is, how detailed) the concept is; rather, we are talking about the degree of clarity or sharpness of the thought. We will refer to the former as the degree of specificity or detail, and to the latter as the degree of precision or the focus. As the degree of precision (or clarity and sharpness in the mind) increases, there is a corresponding decrease in the number of words that will serve to convey the meaning.
We are suggesting that what the Spirit may do is to direct the thoughts of the Scripture writer. The direction effected by the Spirit, however, is quite precise. God being omniscient, it is not gratuitous to assume that his thoughts are precise, more so than ours. Consequently, within the vocabulary of the writer, one word will most aptly communicate the thought God is conveying (although that word in itself may be inadequate). By creating the thought and stimulating the understanding of the Scripture writer, the Spirit will lead him in effect to use one particular word rather than any other.
While God directs the writer to use particular words (precision) to express the idea, the idea itself may be quite general or quite specific. This is what linguist Kenneth Pike has called the dimension of magnification.12 One cannot expect that the Bible will always display maximum magnification or a great deal of detail. It will, rather, express just that degree of detail or specificity that God intends, and, on that level of magnification, just that concept he intends. This accounts for the fact that sometimes Scripture is not so detailed as we might expect or desire. Indeed, there have been occasions when the Holy Spirit, to serve the purpose of a new situation, moved a Scripture writer to reexpress a concept on a more specific level than its original form.
Figure 4 will help illustrate what we have in mind. This figure depicts various levels of specificity or detail or magnification. The dimension of specificity involves vertical movement on the chart. Suppose the concept under consideration is the color red. This idea has a particular degree of specificity, no more and no less. It is neither more specific (e.g., scarlet) nor less specific (color). It occurs in a particular location on the chart—both vertically on the generality–specificity axis, and horizontally on its given level of specificity (i.e., red, versus yellow or green). In another instance one may have either more or less detail in a picture (a higher or lower degree of magnification, in Pike’s terminology), and a sharper or fuzzier focus. At a less precise focus, of course, the detail will become blurry or even get lost. These two dimensions (detail and focus) should not be confused, however. If the idea is sufficiently precise, then only one word in a given language, or in the vocabulary of a given writer, will adequately communicate and express the meaning. Some languages are richer in distinctions, allowing more precision. Arabic, for example, has many more words for camel than does English. English, on the other hand, has many more words for automobile than does Arabic. In both cases, many of these words are used because of their connotation rather than denotation.
It is our contention here that inspiration involved God’s directing the thoughts of the writers, so that they were precisely the thoughts that he wished expressed. At times these thoughts were very specific; at other times they were more general. When they were more general, God wanted that particular degree of specificity recorded, and no more. At times greater specificity might have been distracting. At other times specificity was important. The concept of propitiation, for example, is a very specific concept.
To determine the degree of specificity, it is helpful to be able to do careful exegesis in the original biblical languages. Knowing the degree of specificity is important because in many cases it bears on the type of authoritativeness that should be ascribed to a particular passage. At times the New Testament writers applied a biblical truth in a new way. They interpreted and elaborated it; that is, they made it more specific. At other times they retained and applied it in exactly the same way. In the former case, the form of the Old Testament teaching was not normatively authoritative for the New Testament believer; in the latter case, it was. In each case, however, the account was historically authoritative; that is, one could determine from it what was said and done and what was normative in the original situation.
We have concluded that inspiration was verbal, extending even to the choice of words. It was not merely verbal, however, for at times thoughts may be more precise than the words available. Such, for example, was probably the case with John’s vision on Patmos, which produced the Book of Revelation.
At this point the objection is generally raised that inspiration extending to the choice of words necessarily becomes dictation. Answering this charge will force us to theorize regarding the process of inspiration. Here we must note that the Scripture writers, at least in every case where we know their identity, were not novices in the faith. They had known God, learned from him, and practiced the spiritual life for some time. God therefore had been at work in their lives for some time, preparing them through a wide variety of family, social, educational, and religious experiences, for the task they were to perform. In fact, Paul suggests that he was chosen even before his birth (“God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace,” Gal. 1:15). Through all of life God was at work shaping and developing the individual author. So, for example, the experiences of the fisherman Peter and of the physician Luke were creating the kind of personality and worldview that would later be employed in the writing of Scripture.
It is sometimes assumed that the vocabulary that is distinctive to a given writer is the human element in Scripture, a limitation within which God must necessarily work in giving the Bible. From what we have just seen, however, we know that the vocabulary of the Scripture writers was not exclusively a human factor. Luke’s vocabulary resulted from his education and his whole broad sweep of experience; in all of this God had been at work preparing him for his task. Equipped with this pool of God-intended words the author then wrote. Thus, although inspiration in the strict sense applies to the influence of the Holy Spirit at the actual point of writing, it presupposes a long process of God’s providential working with the author. Then, at the actual point of writing, God directs the author’s thinking. Since God has access to the very thought processes of the human, and, in the case of the believer, indwells the individual in the person of the Holy Spirit, this is not difficult, particularly when the individual prays for enlightenment and displays receptivity. The process is not greatly unlike mental telepathy, although more internalized and personalized.
But is such thought control possible short of dictation? Remember that the Scripture writer has known God for a long time, has immersed himself in the truth already revealed, and has cultivated the life of devotion. It is possible for someone in this situation, given only a suggestion of a new direction, to “think the thoughts of God.” Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist, had a devoted disciple and assistant, Eugen Fink. Fink wrote an interpretation of Husserl’s philosophy upon which the master placed his approval.13 It is reported that when Husserl read Fink’s article he exclaimed, “It is as if I had written it myself!” To give a personal example: a secretary had been with a church for many years. At the beginning of my pastorate there, I dictated letters to her. After a year or so, I could tell her the general tenor of my thinking and she could write my letters, using my style. By the end of the third year, I could have simply handed her a letter I had received and told her to reply, since we had discussed so many issues connected with the church that she actually knew my thinking on most of them. The cases of Eugen Fink and my secretary prove that it is possible without dictation to know just what another person wants to say. Note, however, that this assumes a close relationship and a long period of acquaintance. So a Scripture writer, given the circumstances we have described, could without dictation write God’s message just as God wanted it recorded.
There are, of course, portions of the Bible where it appears that the Lord did in effect say, “Write: ‘.… ’ ” This is particularly true in prophetic and apocalyptic material, but the process described above was not the usual and normative pattern, nor is prophetic and apocalyptic material more inspired than the rest of the Bible. Furthermore, while we have already noted that there is, in direct contrast to passages that show evidence of dictation, some material in Scripture that is not specially revealed (e.g., readily available historical data), such biblical material is not without God’s inspiration. There is no special correlation, then, between literary genre and inspiration; that is, one genre is not more inspired than another. While we sometimes discriminate among portions of the Scripture on the basis of their differing potentials for edifying us in various types of situations, that does not mean that they reflect differing degrees or types of inspiration. While the Psalms may be more personally satisfying and inspiring than 1 Chronicles, that does not mean they are more inspired.
While inspiration conveys a special quality to the writing, that quality is not always easily recognized and assessed. On the one hand, the devotional materials and the Sermon on the Mount have a quality that tends to stand out and can be fairly easily identified. In part, this is due to the subject matter. In other cases, however, such as the historical narratives, the special quality conveyed by inspiration may instead be a matter of the accuracy of the record, and this is not as easily or as directly assessed. Nevertheless, the sensitive reader will probably detect within the whole of the Bible a quality that unmistakably points to inspiration.
The fact that we might be unable to identify the quality of inspiration within a particular passage should not alter our interpretation of that passage. We must not regard it as less authoritative. Verbal inspiration does not require a literal interpretation of passages that are obviously symbolic in nature, such as “those who hope in the Lord … will soar on wings like eagles” (Isa. 40:31). It does require taking very seriously the task of interpretation, and making an intelligent, sensible effort to discover the precise message God wanted conveyed.
Inspiration is herein conceived of as applying to both the writer and the writing. In the primary sense, it is the writer who is the object of the inspiration. As the writer pens Scripture, however, the quality of inspiredness is communicated to the writing as well. It is inspired in a derived sense.14 This is much like the definition of revelation as both the revealing and the revealed (see pp. 221f.). We have observed that inspiration presupposes an extended period of God’s working with the writer. This not only involves the preparation of the writer, but also the preparation of the material for this use. While inspiration in the strict sense probably does not apply to the preservation and transmission of this material, the providence that guides this process should not be overlooked.
In this chapter we have considered the question of method and have chosen to construct our view of inspiration of the Bible by emphasizing the teachings of the Bible regarding its own inspiration, while giving an important but secondary place to the phenomena of Scripture. We have attempted to construct a model that would give due place to both of these considerations.
Certain other issues raised in the early part of this chapter will be dealt with in the chapter on inerrancy. These issues are (1) whether inspiration involves the correction of errors that might have been present in the sources consulted and employed, and (2) whether inspiration involves God’s directing the thought and writing of the author on all the subjects with which he deals, or only the more “religious” subjects.
Because the Bible has been inspired, we can be confident of having divine instruction. The fact that we did not live when the revelatory events and teachings first came does not leave us spiritually or theologically deprived. We have a sure guide. And we are motivated to study it intensively, since its message is truly God’s word to us.


1 Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), p. 44.
2 James Martineau, A Study of Religion: Its Sources and Contents (Oxford: Clarendon, 1889), pp. 168–71.
3 Auguste Sabatier, Outlines of a Philosophy of Religion (New York: James Pott, 1916), p. 90.
4 Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1907), pp. 211ff.
5 J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), p. 79.
6 John R. Rice, Our God-Breathed Book—The Bible (Murphreesboro, Tenn.: Sword of the Lord, 1969), pp. 192, 261ff., 277ff. Rice accepts the term dictation but disavows the expression mechanical dictation.
7 E.g., Calvin, commenting on 2 Tim. 3:16, says that “the Law and the Prophets are not a doctrine delivered according to the will and pleasures of men, but dictated by the Holy Spirit”—Commentaries on the Epistles of Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 137–42; cf. J. I. Packer, “Calvin’s View of Scripture,” in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. John W. Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), pp. 102–3; Marvin W. Anderson, The Battle for the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), pp. 76–78.
8 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Biblical Idea of Inspiration,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel G. Craig (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1951), pp. 131–65.
9 Dewey Beegle, Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973).
10 Paul Schantz, A Christian Apology (New York: Pustet, 1891–96); cf. Honore Copieters, “Apostles,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al. (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1907), vol. 1, p. 628.
11 Beegle, Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility, pp. 175–97.
12 Kenneth L. Pike, “Language and Meaning: Strange Dimensions of Truth,” Christianity Today 5, no. 16 (May 8, 1961): 28.
13 Eugen Fink, “Die phänomenologische Philosophie Edmund Husserls in der gegenwärtigen Kritik,” Kantstudien 38 (1993): 319–83.
14 It should be observed that 2 Peter 1:20–21 refers to the authors, while 2 Timothy 3:16 refers to what they wrote. Thus the dilemma of whether inspiration pertains to the writer or the writing is seen to be a false issue.