The Nature of Bible Inspiration
By: Dave Miller, Ph.D.
What does it mean to say: “The Bible is inspired”? Answers to this question are legion (cf. “Theories…,” 1864, 6:312-349). Some regard the Bible as “inspired” in the same way that great authors in history have risen above the average person in their literary pursuits, e.g., Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, or Eliot. Others would say that the writers of the Bible were influenced by supernatural connections, but that their written records of those connections suffer from the same flaws that mere humans are prone to make. Many people fail to assess the Bible’s own claims regarding its inspiration. Before the Bible can be determined to be “inspired,” it is necessary to conceptualize the meaning and nature of that inspiration. The Bible literally is filled with descriptions of the essence of its own inspiration.
Paul boldly claimed, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Greek term underlying the word “inspiration” means “God-breathed” (Vincent, 1900, 4:317). Paul was affirming that Scripture, referring primarily to the Old Testament, is the product of the breath of God. God actually breathed out the Scriptures. The Bible is God’s Word—not man’s—though He used man to produce them. Three verses later (4:2), Paul declared, “Therefore…preach the word…” Why? Because it is God’s Word. Just as surely as God’s breath brought the Universe into existence (Psalm 33:6), so the Bible is the result of God’s out-breathing.
Peter alluded to the momentous occasion of Christ’s transfiguration when God literally spoke from heaven directly to Peter, James, and John (2 Peter 1:19-21). God orally boomed forth His insistence that Jesus is His beloved Son, and human beings are commanded to listen to Him (Matthew 17:5). Peter then declared, “We also have the prophetic word made more sure,…knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” Peter was saying that the Scriptures provided to us by the prophets are just as certain, and just as authoritative, as the voice of God that spoke on the mount of transfiguration.
Peter further explained that the prophetic word, meaning the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures, did not originate on its own, or in the minds of those who wrote them (the meaning of “private interpretation”). Scripture did not come from “the will of man.” Scripture was not the result of human research or human investigation into the nature of things. Scripture was not the product of its writers’ own thinking (Warfield, 1974, 3:1474). Where, then, did Scripture come from? Peter claimed, “but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” The word “moved” in the original language is the usual word for being “carried” or “brought” (Arndt and Gingrich, 1957, pp. 862-863), hence, to be moved or under a moving influence (Perschbacher, 1990, p. 427). Peter was stating that the Holy Spirit, in essence, picked up the writers, the prophets, and brought them to the goal of His choosing (Warfield, 3:1475). That means that the Scriptures, though written by means of human instrumentality, were so superintended by God that the resulting writings are truly God’s.
This same Peter, while awaiting the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 on Pentecost, stood up among fellow disciples and declared, “Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas,” and then he quoted from the Psalms (Acts 1:16ff.). Peter affirmed that the Holy Spirit governed what David wrote, and the results of David’s writing therefore are designated as “Scripture.”
This same Peter, in 1 Peter 1:10-12, explained: (1) that the inspired spokesmen of the Old Testament did not always understand all the information given by God through them; (2) it was the Spirit of Christ that was operating upon them; (3) this same inspired information was being presented in Peter’s day by the apostles; and (4) the same Holy Spirit was directing their utterances. It is very important to note that Peter was claiming that inspired men had their own minds engaged as they produced inspired material, but the product was God’s, since they did not always grasp all of the significance of their own productions.
This same Peter, in 2 Peter 3:15-16, referred to “our beloved brother Paul” as having “written to you.” He then noted: “as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” Peter made clear three salient points: (1) Paul wrote epistles; (2) those epistles are classified with “the other Scriptures,” which means that Paul’s letters are Scripture every bit as much as the Old Testament and other New Testament writings; and (3) these writings are divinely authoritative, since to twist them is to invite “destruction”—an obvious reference to God’s disfavor and the spiritual/eternal harm that results from disobeying God’s words, not man’s words. Cornelius well-understood this principle, for when Peter came to his house, he stated: “Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God” (Acts 10:33, emp. added).
While on Earth, Jesus demonstrated a high regard for Scripture, i.e., the Old Testament. On one occasion, He involved Himself in an interchange with some Jews who accused Him of blasphemy (John 10:33). He repelled the charge by quoting Psalm 82:6, referring to the passage as “law” (vs. 34). But how could Jesus refer to a psalm as “law,” since the Psalms were poetic wisdom literature and not a part of the Torah (the Pentateuch)? He referred to a psalm as “law” in the sense that the Psalms are part of Scripture. Jesus was thus ascribing legal authority to the entire corpus of Scripture (Warfield, 3:1475). He did the same thing in John 15:25. Likewise, Paul quoted from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Genesis and referred to each as “the Law” (1 Corinthians 14:21; Romans 3:19; Galatians 4:21).
After Jesus quoted from a psalm and called it “law,” He added, “and the Scripture cannot be broken” (vs. 35). Notice that He was equating “law” with “Scripture”—using the terms as synonyms. When He declared that “law,” or “Scripture,” “cannot be broken,” He was making the point that it is impossible for Scripture to be annulled, for its authority to be denied, or its truth to be withstood (Warfield, 3:1475). Jesus considered every part of Scripture, even its most casual phrases, to be the authoritative Word of God (p. 1476).
This attitude toward Scripture as an authoritative document is intimated by the customary formula: “It is written.” For example, when facing Satan, Jesus repelled his attacks all three times with a simple, “It is written,” which was sufficient to establish authoritative credibility (Matthew 4:4,7,10)—so much so that Satan attempted to copy Jesus in this respect (Matthew 4:6). After His resurrection, Jesus equated the entire Old Testament (i.e., the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms) with “Scripture,” and again noted “it is written” (Luke 24:44-46). He insisted very emphatically that “all things” in the Scriptures concerning Himself “must be fulfilled.” Earlier in the chapter, He equated “Moses and all the prophets” with “the Scriptures” (vss. 25-27).
No wonder Jesus would rebuke His religious challengers with such phrases as, “Have you not read even this Scripture?” (Mark 12:10; cf. Matthew 21:42); or, “You do err, not knowing the Scriptures” (Matthew 22:29); or, “if you had known what this means…” (Matthew 12:7); or, “Go and learn what this means…” (Mark 9:13). The underlying thought in such pronouncements is that God’s truth is found in Scripture, and if you are ignorant of the Scriptures, you are susceptible to error. Jesus therefore was affirming that God is the Author of Scripture.
Even the words of Scripture that do not constitute direct quotes of deity are, in fact, the words of God. For example, Jesus assigned the words of Genesis 2:24 to God as the author (Matthew 19:4-6). Yet, in the original setting of Genesis 2:24, no indication is given that God was the speaker. Rather, the words are simply narratorial comment written down by the human author—Moses. By Jesus attributing the words to God, He was making clear that the whole of Scripture was authored by God. That means that even the words of Satan, or the words of evil people, are the words of God—in the sense that God has given us an accurate report of what those people said. Paul treated the matter in the same way (1 Corinthians 6:16).
Over and over again, the apostles and writers of the New Testament did the same thing that Jesus did, i.e., they referred to Scripture in such a way that it was clear they considered it to be the authoritative, inspired words of God (e.g., Acts 8:35; 17:2; 18:28; 26:22; Romans 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 1 Peter 1:16; James 2:8). Perhaps Luke well summarized the prevailing mindset of the Bible writers: “[T]hey received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In other words, what Scripture says, God says.
Additional evidence of the Bible’s own view of itself is manifested in statements like, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh” (Romans 9:17), or “And the Scripture…preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand” (Galatians 3:8). But Scripture did not speak to Pharaoh, and Scripture did not preach the Gospel to Abraham. Rather, God did! So the word of Scripture is the word of God! The inspired writers of the New Testament considered “God” and “Scripture” to be so closely linked that they could naturally speak of “Scripture” doing what Scripture records God as doing (Warfield, 3:1477).
It works the other way as well. God is said to say certain things that are, in their original setting, merely words of Scripture. For example, Hebrews 3:7 reads, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says…,” and Psalm 95:7 is then quoted. In Acts 4:25, God is said to have spoken, by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David, the words of Psalm 2:1. In Acts 13:34-35, God is represented as having stated the words of Isaiah 55:3 and Psalm 16:10. Yet, in both of these cases, the words attributed to God are not, in their original setting, specifically His words, but merely the words of Scripture itself. So the writers of the New Testament sometimes referred to the Scriptures as if they were God, and they sometimes referred to God as if He were Scripture. The Bible thus presents itself as the very words of God.
In Hebrews 1:5-13, the writer quoted seven Old Testament passages: Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 104:4; Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 102:25-27; and Psalm 110:1. The Hebrews writer attributed each of these passages to God as the speaker. Yet in their original setting in the Old Testament, sometimes God is the speaker, while sometimes He is not the speaker, and is, in fact, being spoken to or spoken about. Why would the writer of Hebrews indiscriminately assign all of these passages to God? Because they all have in common the fact that they are the words of Scripture, and, as such, are the words of God.
The same is true with Romans 15:9-12 where Paul quoted from Psalm 18:49, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10. The first one he introduced with the formula “as it is written”; the second one is introduced by “again he says”; the third with simply “again”; and the fourth is prefaced with “Isaiah says.” Yet, in the Old Testament setting, only in the Isaiah passage is specifically God talking—and Paul assigns those words to Isaiah. So “it is written,” “he says,” and “Isaiah says,” are all different ways of saying the same thing, i.e., “God says”! Sometimes the New Testament writers assigned Scripture to its human authors. Yet it is clear that when the writers said, “Moses said,” or “David said,” such was simply another way to say, “Scripture says,” which, again, was the same thing as saying “God says.”
Notice that the inspiration that the Bible claims for itself is “verbal” inspiration, i.e., God’s superintendence extends even to the words of the writer. Paul based his argument on a plural noun, and insisted that God intended the word to be understood in its singular sense (Galatians 3:16). As noted previously, Jesus based an argument on the precise verbal form of Scripture (John 10:34). He based His point on a particular word in Matthew 22:43, on a particular tense in Matthew 22:32, and even on the letters and their minute strokes in Matthew 5:17-18. In the latter passage, Jesus said that Exodus 3:6 was spoken to the Sadducees with whom He was conversing—even though the original context of Exodus 3:6 has God speaking to Moses. That proves that Jesus expects all people on Earth to understand that the Bible is written to every single accountable human being, and that Scripture is intended to be authoritative for human living.
Paul also affirmed verbal inspiration in 1 Corinthians 2. He claimed that his speech and his preaching were not “words of human wisdom” (vs. 4). Rather, his words were “in demonstration of the Spirit.” He claimed that he and his fellow apostles were speaking the wisdom of God (vs. 7). He claimed that the things which they had been speaking were revealed to them by God through the Holy Spirit (vs. 10). Then he affirmed very clearly: “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches” (vs. 13). So inspiration involves the very words, and that makes it verbal inspiration.
NEW TESTAMENT INSPIRATION
Most of the passages examined thus far are New Testament references to the inspiration of the Old Testament. Liberal scholars have claimed that the New Testament does not make the claim of inspiration for itself. That claim is not true. As already noted, in 2 Peter 3:16, Peter classified Paul’s epistles as “Scripture,” and he affirmed that Paul’s writings carry such divine authority that those who twist them will be destroyed. It also was noted that Peter linked the apostles with the Old Testament prophets (1 Peter 1:10-12). And, as just seen, Paul made a comparable claim in 1 Corinthians 2.
As one reads the New Testament, it is clear that the writers made the extension of Old Testament inspiration to their own writings. They did not for a moment consider themselves—the ministers of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6)—to be less in possession of the Spirit of God than the ministers of the old covenant (Warfield, 3:1482). Jesus, without question, declared the impending inspiration of the authors of the New Testament. In Matthew 10:17-20, and the parallels in Mark 13:11 and Luke 12:12, Jesus explained to the apostles that the Holy Spirit would direct their verbal activities in terms of both how and what they spoke. He reiterated the same thing in Luke 21:12-15, urging them not to worry how to defend themselves when hauled before the authorities, since He would provide them with “a mouth and wisdom” that their adversaries would not be able to withstand. So Jesus pre-authenticated the teaching of the apostles, and insured respect for their authority.
Jesus directed several promises to the apostles in John chapters 14, 15, and 16. Allusion to just one of these will suffice. Jesus promised the apostles: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come” (John 16:12-13). Just prior to His ascension, Jesus promised to the apostles the impending baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would enable them to be Christ’s witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:5,8). This promise commenced its fulfillment in Acts 2 when the apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit and empowered to preach the message God wanted preached.
Numerous passages indicate the fulfillment of these promises to the apostles to the extent that the words which they spoke were God’s words (Acts 4:8,31; 5:32; 15:8,27-28; 16:6-8). As already noted, Paul claimed direct guidance of the Holy Spirit for the words that he spoke (1 Corinthians 2). He did the same thing in Galatians 1:12. In Ephesians 3:1-5, he claimed that his message was made known to him “by revelation” (vs. 3), along with the other apostles and prophets (vs. 5). Other passages reflect the same point (1 Timothy 4:1; Galatians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:13). A good summary of Paul’s claims to inspiration is seen in his firm declaration: “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). His inspiration extended to both his oral utterances as well as his writings (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6,14; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:2,15; Galatians 1:7-8). In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quoted Luke 10:7 and referred to it as “Scripture.” So Luke’s Gospel record was already available and classified with the inspired canon of Scripture.
The unbiased individual can easily see that the Bible claims for itself the status of “inspiration,” having been breathed out by God Himself. That inspiration entailed such superintendence by God that even the wordscame under His influence. Thus the Bible is “verbally inspired.” This conclusion does not imply that the writers merely took “dictation.” Rather, the Bible indicates that God adapted His inspiring activity to the individual temperament, vocabulary, educational level, and stylistic idiosyncrasies of each writer. The Bible is “infallible” in that it is incapable of deceiving or misleading, and is therefore completely trustworthy and reliable. “Plenary” inspiration means that inspiration extends to all of its parts. Thus the Bible is fully inspired.
The Bible is also “inerrant,” that is, it is free of error. God used human beings to write the Bible, and in so doing, allowed them to leave their mark upon it, but without making any of the mistakes that human writings are prone to make. God made certain that the words produced by the human writers were free from the errors and mistakes characteristic of uninspired writers. This influence even extended to matters of science, geography, and history. Proof for the inspiration of the Bible is a separate and necessary inquiry. However, it is important that a person understand what the Bible means when it claims for itself “inspiration.”
Arndt, William and F.W. Gingrich (1957), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
McGarvey, J. W. (1883), “Remarks on the Preceding Lectures,” The Missouri Christian Lectures (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1955 reprint).
Perschbacher, Wesley J., ed. (1990), The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
“Theories of the Inspiration of the Scriptures” (1864), American Presbyterian and Theological Review, 6:312-349, April.
Vincent, Marvin (1900), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946 reprint).
Warfield, Benjamin (1974 reprint), “Inspiration,” ISBE, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).