The Inspiration of Scripture
James W. Scott
The Bible is the church’s prize possession. In it we find the good news of salvation. In it we learn about God and his dealings with people down through the centuries. And in it we find instruction and encouragement for our lives.
The Word of God
But the Bible is more than a book of important spiritual information. It is the very Word of God (Heb. 4:12). This means that God has uttered the words written in the Bible. "God," we are told, "spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets" (Heb. 1:1).
What an awesome truth! The "sacred writings" (2 Tim. 3:15), or Scriptures, set forth the teaching of the all-knowing, all-wise God!
God is clearly the speaker in much of the Old Testament, where Moses and the prophets often quote him directly. Such passages are often cited in the New Testament with such introductory words as "God said" (2 Cor. 6:16), "the Holy Spirit says" (Heb. 3:7), and "the Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, saying" (Acts 28:25–26). When direct quotations of God are also introduced with words like "Moses says" and "Isaiah is very bold and says" (Rom. 10:19–20), it is evident that these men were speaking in the sense that they were conveying God’s words.
But what about the rest of the Bible, especially the narrative portions and the New Testament epistles, where God is not quoted directly? Isn’t Paul speaking for himself when he writes, "Paul, an apostle … to the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:1–2), or when he tells Timothy, "When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas" (2 Tim. 4:13)?
Interestingly, God is sometimes mentioned as the speaker of Old Testament passages in which he is not being quoted. For example, in Psalm 16:10, God is addressed by the psalmist, yet Acts 13:35 introduces that verse with the words, "He [God] also says in another Psalm." God is similarly said to be the speaker of passages in which he is not quoted in Matt. 19:4–5; Acts 4:25; Heb. 1:6, 7, 8, 10; 3:7; 4:7. These passages suggest that whenever the New Testament cites God as speaking in the Old Testament, the point is that he is the author of the written text, not merely the one quoted in it.
When Paul says that the Jews were entrusted with "the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2), he is referring not merely to those portions of the Old Testament where God is quoted directly (as the "oracles" mentioned in Acts 7:38), but to the entire Old Testament (as in Heb. 5:12; cf. 1 Pet. 4:11). An oracle is a message from God, especially one delivered through a human intermediary. Thus, the implication of Romans 3:2 is that the entire Old Testament is a message from God.
In every case, the human writers of Scripture are God’s spokesmen. In the Old Testament, God speaks through his prophets, in accordance with this promise given to Moses: " ‘I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him’ " (Deut. 18:18). Similarly in the New Testament, Jesus speaks through his apostles (and their agents, such as Mark and Luke) (Heb. 1:1–2; 2:3–4; 2 Pet. 3:2; 2 Cor. 13:3), in accordance with his commission of them (Matt. 28:16–20; Luke 24:44–49; John 14–17; Acts 1:8; 26:15–20).
So when Paul tells Timothy to bring him his cloak, how is he speaking the word of God? To understand that, we must understand what is called the inspiration of Scripture.
The essential point to be grasped is that when men wrote the Scriptures, their statements did not originate in their own thinking, but were put into their minds by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. They wrote the word of God in the sense that they wrote words that came directly from God. This is what the Westminster Confession means when it says that the original text of the Bible was "immediately inspired by God" (1.8).
Thus, when Paul wrote, for example, "I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart" (Rom. 9:2), he was certainly expressing his own feelings, yet his desire to express that sorrow, and the words with which he expressed it, and perhaps also the sorrow itself, were put into his heart by the Holy Spirit.
Consider another example, that of Jesus’ disciples who would be taken before rulers to give an account of their faith. Jesus told them not to think about what they would say, but rather to "say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit" (Mark 13:11). Here Jesus explains what inspiration involves. When an inspired speaker or writer says something, even if it is first-person testimony, it is not he who is speaking, but God. Now of course the person is speaking in the sense that he expresses thoughts that are in his mind, but he is not speaking in the more important sense that those thoughts were formulated by him. The inspired speaker or writer utters only words put directly into his mind by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4).
In 2 Peter 1:21, Peter explicitly denies that the Scriptures were written "by an act of human will." The motivation to write Scripture came rather from the Holy Spirit, as we have seen. Scripture originated when "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." That is, the Spirit impelled them to write, and they wrote only words that came from God. There is disagreement as to what verse 20 means, but in my judgment it refers to the writer’s interpretation of his subject matter: "No passage of Scripture expresses one’s own [i.e., the writer’s] interpretation," since the impulse to write comes from the Holy Spirit, not the writer’s will (vs. 21).
Accordingly, when Paul declared "the word of God’s message" to the Thessalonians, they received it "not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13; see also 1 Cor. 2:12–13). The letters of Paul went out over his signature, and truly expressed the thoughts in his mind, but those thoughts were put there by God (2 Pet. 3:15–16) and were expressed in sentences provided by the Holy Spirit.
Consider the Psalms, which were written mostly by the prophet David and which contain many prophecies of Christ. David’s own testimony about the origin of the Psalms could not be clearer: "David the son of Jesse declares, … the sweet psalmist of Israel, ‘The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue’ " (2 Sam. 23:1–2). Similarly, Peter explains that "the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David" (Acts 1:16). When David and the other prophets prophesied of Christ and his coming kingdom, they were puzzled by the statements being formed in their minds, and so they were "seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow" (1 Pet. 1:11).
Another interesting glimpse into the mental processes of an inspired writer is provided in Acts 2:25–31. There Peter (speaking "as the Spirit was giving [him] utterance," vs. 4) explains that David, although writing first-person pronouns in Psalm 16, as in "Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades," was not writing about himself (since he would remain in the grave), but about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since David was a prophet (vs. 30a), God was giving him the words of Psalm 16 (see Deut. 18:18), but as he wrote them, his mind was fully engaged to understand as much as he could of what he was writing. He recalled (presumably with the Spirit’s nudging) God’s promise that the Christ would come from his descendants (vs. 30b), and, with insight provided by the Spirit, he "looked ahead" to that day and (in words provided by the Spirit) "spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay" (vs. 31). The inspired writers evidently understood most of what they were writing, although some understanding of it was not granted to them (1 Pet. 1:11–12; cf. Dan. 12:8–9).
The divine action by which the words of Scripture were put into the minds of human writers has been called inspiration by theologians. Since God originated not simply the thoughts, but the very words of Scripture, the terms verbal or plenary ("full") inspiration have been used.
The Latin roots of the English word inspiration suggest that God "breathed (his words) into" the biblical writers. This is not untrue, but it would be more in accord with biblical imagery to think of the expiration of Scripture. For example, Peter declared that "God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ should suffer" (Acts 3:18; see also 1:16; 3:21; 4:25; cf. Num. 23:12; Deut. 18:18). Using this metaphor of oral speech (in which words are "exhaled" through the mouth), 2 Timothy 3:16 states that Scripture is "breathed out by God" (through the mouth of his spokesmen). This is the meaning of the Greek word theopneustos in that passage, which the NIV translates as "God-breathed" (KJV, NKJV: "given by inspiration of God"; NASB: "inspired by God").
The Biblical Writers
Were the men who wrote the Bible spiritual giants and learned scholars? Not necessarily. We find ordinary shepherds and fishermen among them. The inspired speech of the apostles expressed wisdom and power that these relatively unlearned men did not ordinarily possess. Even unbelievers marveled at their speech (Acts 4:13). It was a special gift from the Holy Spirit, received at Pentecost, and for that reason Jesus instructed the apostles not to embark on their ministries until they received it (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–8).
Similarly, the apostle Paul, when uninspired, was apparently not much like what we find in his mighty epistles. It was said, "His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive, and his [ordinary] speech contemptible" (2 Cor. 10:10). His inspired preaching and his inspired writing were powerful, but only because they expressed "the surpassing greatness of the revelations" that he had received (2 Cor. 12:7; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23).
The profundity of Paul’s epistles is often attributed to his personal abilities and academic training, but he himself dismissed all that as "rubbish" (Phil. 3:8). He brought his message "not in persuasive words of [human] wisdom," but in the powerful demonstration of the Spirit, "that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:1–5). Yes, he did have wisdom to impart to believers, even the deep wisdom of God, but it was wisdom that had been revealed to him by the Spirit of God and which he expressed in words provided by the Spirit (vss. 6–16).
On one memorable occasion, God "inspired" a donkey to speak (Num. 22:28–30). He could have inspired that donkey to utter books of Scripture. More appropriately, of course, God spoke his word through his prophets and apostles. But they contributed no more to their inspired utterance than did Balaam’s donkey. As John Calvin once wrote, "The Holy Spirit … furnished them with the occasions for writing. He gave them the desire, the power to do it. The matter, the form, the order, the economy, the expressions, are of his immediate inspiration, and of his direction."
One might have expected Bible scholars to uphold the biblical doctrine of inspiration. But under the sweeping influence of unbelieving scholarship during the last two centuries, more and more evangelical (and Reformed) scholars have retreated from that doctrine.
Increasingly, evangelicals have been interpreting the Bible within a basically naturalistic framework. They now analyze the biblical writers’ supposed background, knowledge, experiences, and ways of thinking and expressing themselves, much like their unbelieving colleagues do. They assume that the personal characteristics and writing techniques of the biblical writers, and the cultural and literary influences on them, can explain why they wrote what they did. Yes, they will acknowledge that God was somehow involved in the whole process by which Scripture arose, especially to keep out errors (or at least theological errors), but they still assume that the Bible originated basically like other literature.
"Inspiration" has been commonly reduced to the idea that God providentially worked through ordinary historical and literary processes so that the texts that finally emerged would state divine truth. But this notion is nowhere taught in the Bible itself. And since God providentially controls all things, it is hard to see how the Bible, on this view, is any more "the Word of God" than other books, let alone a book of "oracles."
This mistaken view of inspiration arose in order to accommodate the supposed discoveries of modern scholars regarding biblical origins, much as the idea of theistic evolution arose to accommodate the supposed discoveries of modern scientists.
Proponents of this view ask, If God immediately inspired the biblical writers, why do they write in different styles, not in a uniform "Holy Ghost style"? Do we not see the personalities of the writers coming through in what they write? The answer is clearly indicated in Mark 13:11: God put into the minds of his spokesmen words that were appropriate (and stylistically appropriate) for them to utter on the particular occasion of their inspiration, including words that expressed their own personal thoughts.
The fundamental presupposition of unbelieving scholarship is that the Bible is the product of natural historical processes, just like any other literature. And since natural historical processes involve men with limited knowledge and sometimes mistaken ideas, it follows that the Bible should contain limited knowledge and sometimes mistaken ideas. But evangelical scholars try to argue—inconsistently—that fallible historical processes produced an infallible Bible full of divine truth! Evangelicals should be challenging unbelieving scholarship at its presuppositional level, but are unable to do so since they have largely abandoned the biblical doctrine of inspiration.
Here is an example. The literary style of the Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy, Titus) is quite different from that of Romans, Galatians, etc. Judging by the variation in style that one could reasonably expect from one writer, unbelieving scholars have concluded that Paul did not write the Pastorals. But evangelicals, desiring to defend the Pastorals’ claim to be Pauline, insist that such variation in literary style was not impossible for one writer. Since this argument is really quite weak, some evangelicals are now conceding that someone pretending to be Paul actually wrote the Pastorals—explaining (incorrectly) that such pretense was widely accepted in antiquity (as if worldly standards determine what is appropriate for Christian writers!). But the correct explanation is so simple: the Holy Spirit gave Paul words in different styles at different times.
Bible scholars need to rediscover the Bible for what it really is, the immediately inspired Word of God, not the words of men that mysteriously turn out to be God’s truth, too. Biblical scholarship will never be truly biblical until it reestablishes its foundation on the biblical doctrine of inspiration and abandons its unholy alliance with naturalistic thinking.
Infallibility and Inerrancy
The Bible, then, contains not the wisdom and lore of ancient men, subject to all the limitations and errors of human knowledge, but rather the very words of God himself, whose knowledge is unlimited and perfect.
Now if God knows everything (Ps. 147:5; Heb. 4:13), and if he cannot lie (Num. 23:19; Tit. 1:2), then it follows that the inspired Word of God cannot err; that is, it is infallible. As Jesus said, "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35).
And if Scripture cannot err, then it follows that it does not err; that is, it is inerrant. Because God is the author of Scripture, everything written in it is completely true. Jesus expressed this truth when he prayed, "Thy word is truth" (John 17:17; see also Ps. 119:160; Matt. 5:17–18; 2 Tim. 2:15).
Inspiration is sometimes confused with infallibility or inerrancy. But inspiration is not simply a divine influence on the biblical writers that kept them from making mistakes. True enough, inspiration did keep the biblical writers from writing error. But inspiration itself is God’s work of causing men to write his words.
The Bible is the very Word of God—inspired, infallible, and inerrant. But this is not merely an abstract doctrine for theologians to fine-tune. This truth is the basis for our use of the Bible. When Paul reminded Timothy that the Bible is inspired by God, he immediately went on to say that it is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
So let us reverently, sincerely, and joyfully receive the Bible as God’s inspired message for us today. Let us read it, study it, believe it, and obey it. The deeper we delve into the Bible with open hearts and minds, the more it will transform our thinking and our lives in conformity to Christ.
The author is the managing editor of New Horizons. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 1998.