What Is Inspiration?

Five Theories of Inspiration

by Bibles.net
Time: 15 Minutes

People are often struck by how important the Bible is to Christians. Why is one book so essential to our faith?

The Bible is central to our faith because we believe that God gave it to us. That is why you will often see Bibles.net use the terms “Bible,” and “Scripture,” and “God’s Word,” interchangeably. These synonymous terms imply that the Bible has intrinsic authority that comes from God himself, because it’s the Word of God.

You may wonder, “but doesn’t Bibles.net often talk about human authors like Moses, Peter, and Paul? Then how can we say that the words of the Bible are God’s words? Which are they: God’s words or man’s words?

Both! We call this reality “the inspiration of Scripture.”

What Is Inspiration?

In 2 Timothy 3:16, the apostle Paul writes that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (NIV). This is why we call the Bible “God’s Word,” because the Bible itself says that God breathed it out, or spoke, every word of the Bible.

The King James Version of the Bible, the translation that dominated the English-speaking world for nearly 400 years, puts the same verse this way: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” This is where we get the theological term “inspiration,” which we use to mean that the Bible was composed both by human authors and God’s Holy Spirit.

Does the Bible Teach Inspiration?

To be clear, this view on inspiration is not something that Christians concocted out of thin air. In fact, there are several ways that the Bible asserts God’s inspiration of its text:

  • The Old Testament consistently affirms that it is the very Word of God (e.g., Exodus 17:14; Jeremiah 30:2). Nearly 4000 times, the Old Testament authors claim to be recording God’s words.
  • Jesus confirms that God is speaking through the Old Testament (e.g., Mark 12:36; John 10:35).
  • The New Testament authors confirm this testimony about the Old Testament (e.g., Matthew 15:4; Acts 28:25-26; Romans 11:4).
  • The New Testament authors were fully aware that they were recording the Word of God (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:11-12).
  • Parts of the New Testament assert that other parts of the New Testament are “Scripture” (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:18; 2 Peter 3:16).

We hope you can see from these passages that the doctrine of biblical inspiration arises directly from the Bible’s declarations about itself.

Five Theories of Inspiration

Very clearly, then, the Bible asserts God’s activity in its composition. That being said, though, we don’t know precisely how God’s Spirit influenced the biblical authors to write his Word. Over the centuries, Christian scholars have suggested five theories of how inspiration happened. Let’s explore each one.

1

Natural Inspiration

People who hold to natural inspiration believe that the Bible was written by “inspired” men, much like a poet may be inspired to pen a great poem. In this view, men of great genius and creativity created the Bible as they recorded, as best as they could, their personal perceptions about God.

This view creates a problem: nothing in the Bible can be said to be “God’s words.” The only authority undergirding Scripture is the best guess that fallible humans have about weighty spiritual topics like salvation, the purpose of creation, and the afterlife.

So this view cannot uphold the authority of God’s Word, because God was in no way involved in the production of Scripture.

2

Dictation

People who hold to dictation as the means of inspiration believe that God dictated the entire Bible word-by-word to the authors. The authors were given no liberty to use their own style of writing, personalities, and personal experiences to produce the text.

This view of inspiration emphasizes the divine aspect of the Bible but excludes any human contribution. Considering how much of the Bible relies on the personal circumstances of its authors, this view assumes that the writers were somehow “out of their mind” or had no legitimate agency in their own writing.

3

Mystical Inspiration

People who hold to a mystic view of inspiration believe that the writers of Scripture were filled with the Holy Spirit, just as Christians are today. According to this view, there is nothing particularly special about the biblical authors.

The problem with this view is that it does not elevate the Bible to the level of authority that it claims for itself as being uniquely God’s Word.

4

Partial Inspiration

Several theories of inspiration can be categorized together because they all propose that God only inspired certain parts of the Bible. Here are three different beliefs rooted in partial inspiration.

  • Conceptual: Inspiration only had to do with the general thoughts, not the actual words, of the text. God gave an author a general idea (e.g., humans are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross), and the authors wrote what they thought was best about the topic.
  • Moral: God communicated moral or spiritual truths to men who recorded them in their own fallible way. This leaves the possibility open that the other parts of the Bible (e.g., historical facts, scientific observations) could report errors.
  • Mystery: God only inspired parts of the Bible that the author could not have known (e.g., what happened at creation, what heaven is like). The parts that are clear, the author wrote naturally.

The problem with these partial inspiration theories is we cannot know for certain which parts of the Bible come from God and which parts come from fallible human authors, thus undermining our trust in the integrity of the Bible.

5

Verbal, Plenary Inspiration

The previous four theories all fail to properly balance the human and divine contributions to the Bible. This last approach to inspiration strikes a healthy balance between the two.

Verbal plenary inspiration means that the Bible’s very words (verbal) and all of them (plenary) were inspired by God, while maintaining the human characteristics of each biblical author.

In this sense, then, the Bible is unique. It alone is God’s Word, 100% the product of human authors yet also 100% the very words of God. As a twentieth-century Christian scholar has put it, “God completely adapted his inspiring activity to the cast of mind, outlook, temperament, interests, literary habits, and stylistic idiosyncrasies of each writer” (Packer 79).

What Are the Implications of Verbal Plenary Inspiration?

Let’s explore verbal plenary inspiration a bit further. Several things should be noted concerning verbal, plenary inspiration.

1. Inspiration is limited to the production of the original writings.

All subsequent copies and translations of the Bible are not inspired in the same way that God inspired the original writings.

To be sure, Christians believe that God superintended the handing-down of his Word from generation to generation, but we do not believe that this process was inspired or kept free from error in the same way the original autographs were kept pure.

2. Verbal, plenary inspiration protects us from giving too much or too little credit to the human authors of the Bible.

Verbal, plenary inspiration affirms that all the words of the Bible have uniquely come from God, while still maintaining the distinct personality of each author. No other theory asserts this.

3. Verbal, plenary inspiration includes the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture.

Inerrancy means that the Bible doesn’t affirm anything that is contrary to truth; it does not err in anything that it reports. What we have in the Bible is exactly what God wanted us to have, with no errors or omissions.

This idea of inerrancy is rooted in our trust in the character of God. Because God is perfect, his Word is perfect. That’s why one Christian theologian wrote, “What is overcome or overridden by inspiration is not human personality, style or literary structure, but human tendencies to distortion, falsehood and error” (Sproul 20).

Thus, we believe the Bible can be completely trusted in all that it proclaims.

Why Do We Care About Inspiration?

Though there are various theories about how exactly God’s Spirit inspired the biblical authors, we know for sure that God spoke through human authors in such a way that, using their individual personalities they composed and recorded in their original documents God’s revelation to humanity without error.

This is why Peter can write, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV).

In some mysterious way, what we find in the Bible penned by men comes from the mind of God.

This is why the Bible is so important to Christians—in it are the very words of our Creator, given to us out of his love. When we read his whole story, we realize that he gave them to us so that we might discover Jesus Christ and be reconciled to God through him.

The best way to discover whether the Bible is truly inspired is to read it. Why not open it up today and hear what God has to say?

Bibliography:

1. Packer, J. I.. “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958.
2. Sproul, R.C.. Explaining Inerrancy: A Commentary. United States: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1980.

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