This post was first published in July, 2016. —ed.
Have you ever watched an athlete or musician give “an inspired performance”? Have you ever heard your pastor preach what might be called “an inspired sermon”?
Most of us have heard the word “inspired” used in those ways, but frankly I question that kind of terminology. If people give inspired performances or preach inspired sermons, what is the difference between all that and what we call inspired Scripture?
Perhaps it sounds as though I am pushing a point or being picky, and perhaps I am, but for a very good reason. With the authority of Scripture under attack from every side as never before, it is important for the Christian to understand the biblical definition of “inspired.” In the New Testament, the term “inspiration” is reserved solely for God’s Word. The Bible was written by specially chosen men under special conditions and the canon is closed. There are no songs, no books, no visions, no poems, no sermons that are inspired today.
But in order to understand the difference between biblical inspiration and the rather casual way we refer to something or someone as “inspired” today, we need to look closely at what Scripture has to say. Inspiration is tied very closely to another term—“revelation.” Revelation is God’s revealing of Himself and His will. Inspiration is the way in which He did it. To reveal Himself, God used human beings who wrote the Old and New Testaments in order to set down in exact and authoritative words the message that God wanted us to receive.
What Inspiration Is Not
In order to arrive at a correct definition of biblical inspiration, we need to look at some of the erroneous concepts some people have when they talk about the inspiration of Scripture.
First of all, inspiration is not a high level of human achievement. There are people—particularly certain theologians—who say the Bible is no more inspired than Homer’s Odyssey, Mohammed’s Koran, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words, whoever put the Bible together was simply working at a high level of genius. “Oh yes,” say these advocates of natural inspiration, “the Bible is full of errors and mistakes and it certainly is fallible at many points, but in regard to its ethics, its morals, and its insights into humanity it reveals genius at a very high level.”
This view then exalts the human authors of the Bible but denies that God really had anything to do with its authorship. God did not write the Bible, smart men did.
This is an interesting view, but it doesn’t hold up. For one thing, smart men wouldn’t write a book that condemned them all. Smart men wouldn’t write a book that provided salvation from the outside. Smart men want to provide their own salvation; they do not want to have to trust in a perfect sacrifice made by God’s Son. And one other thing: Even the smartest of men could never conceive of a personality like Jesus Christ. Even the most gifted fiction writer could not fabricate a character who would surpass any human being who ever lived in purity, love, righteousness, and perfection.
Second, inspiration is not a matter of God working only through the thoughts of the writers. There are some theologians, preachers, and other biblical scholars who teach thought or concept inspiration. In other words, they say that God never gave the writers of the Bible the exact words they would write. God gave them general ideas and they put these ideas down in their own words. For example, He planted the concept of love in Paul’s mind and one day Paul sat down and penned 1 Corinthians 13.
The thought or concept view of inspiration claims that God suggested a general trend of revelation, but men were left free to say what they wanted and that is why (in the opinion of those who take this position) there are so many mistakes in the Bible. This view denies verbal inspiration. It denies that God inspired the very words of Scripture. This view of inspiration has been popular with neo-orthodox theologians (who in general believe the Bible contains the Word of God but is not the Word of God).
But in 1 Corinthians 2:13, Paul made it clear that he spoke “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” (emphasis added). In John 17:8, Jesus said, “For the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them.”
God communicates in words. When He sent Moses back from his wilderness hiding place to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not tell Moses, “I will inspire your thoughts. I will be with your mind and tell you what to think.” No, God said, “I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say” (Exodus 4:12). In Matthew 24:35, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” God has authored the very words of the Bible. That is one reason why, in my preaching and teaching, I explain carefully the pronouns, prepositions, and even small conjunctions. All of these “minimal things” often contain profound implications and spiritual truths.
We cannot have geology without rocks, or anthropology without men. We cannot have a melody without musical notes, nor can we have a divine record of God without His words. Thoughts are carried by words and God revealed His thoughts in words. The very words of Scripture are inspired. Scripture is verbal revelation.
Theologians use the term “verbal plenary inspiration” to state clearly that all (plenary) the words (verbal) of Scripture are inspired, not just some of them. And that brings us to our next point.
Third, inspiration is not the act of God on the reader of Scripture. Some theologians today teach what I call “existential inspiration.” In other words, the only part of the Bible that is inspired is the part that zaps you. You read a passage and all of a sudden you get sort of an “ethical goose bump.” When you get your ethical goose bump, that particular passage is inspired—to you. But, say these theologians, the entire Bible is not inspired. The writers of the Bible didn’t write down God’s revelation. They wrote down a witness to God’s revelation in their own lives.
All that means the Bible is not really authoritative. It is not the Word of God; it simply “contains the word of God.” If you ask one of these theologians, “How did the Bible become inspired to you?” He will say, “Ah yes . . .” and then launch his explanation of his “first order experience” of his “leap of faith.” When you press him for exactly what he means by first order experience or leap of faith, he will say that it can’t be defined; it is simply an existential happening.
There are still other theologians who talk about demythologizing the Bible. In other words, they want to get rid of the myths that they believe are in Scripture. So, they take out things like the preexistence of Christ, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His miracles, His substitutionary death, His resurrection, His ascension, and His return and final judgment. They take all of that out and claim that, historically, none of that information is true. But they maintain that spiritually and existentially, the Bible is true if and when it sends cold shivers up and down your spine.
Now perhaps none of this makes much sense to you. It doesn’t make much sense to me either. If the Bible is full of lies from beginning to end, why would I ever go to it for spiritual truth? It seems to me that if God wanted me to trust the spiritual character of the bible, He would make sure that the historical and factual character of the Bible would substantiate its spiritual truths.
Some people refuse to believe that God performed the miracle of giving to us, through inspiration, an infallible Bible; but yet these same doubters are ready to believe that God daily performs the greater miracle of enabling them to find and see in a fallible word of man the infallible Word of God. Soren Kierkegaard—who some say was the father of the existentialist movement—wrote, “Only the truth which edifies thee is truth.” I disagree completely. How can you possibly have a divinely right experience through a wrong book? If the Bible is full of lies in other areas, why am I going to believe its spiritual claims and statements? Jesus said in John 17:17, “Your word is truth.” Truth is truth and something false does not become true simply because someone decides he is feeling inspired.
Fourth, the Bible is not a product of mechanical dictation. Liberal and neo-orthodox theologians like to poke fun at the conservative fundamentalist scholar and claim that he actually teaches that the Bible was dictated with some kind of mechanical method. The writers of the Bible were not writers; they were stenographers, spiritual automatons who simply cranked out what God literally dictated into their ears.
But it is obvious that’s not what happened at all. The key argument against mechanical dictation is that in every book of the Bible you find the writer’s personality. Every book has a different character and way of expressing itself. Every author has a different style. Yes, I suppose God could have used dictation and given us the truth that way. In fact, He really didn’t have to use men. He could have simply dropped it all down on Earth in the form of golden plates (as the Mormons like to claim for the Book of Mormon).
I don’t know why God used men, but He did. There are variations in style of biblical writing. There are variations in language and vocabulary. From author to author there are distinct personalities, and you can even sense their emotions as they pour out God’s Word on paper.
Still, we have the question, How could the Bible be the words of men like Peter and Paul and at the same time be God’s words as well? Part of the answer to this complex question is simply because God has made Paul and Peter and the other writers of Scripture into the men that He wanted them to be.
God made the writers of Scripture the men He wanted them to be by forming their very personalities. He controlled their heredity and their environments. He controlled their lives, all the while giving them freedom of choice and will, and made them into the men He wanted them to be. And when these men were exactly what He wanted them to be, he directed and controlled their free and willing choice of words so that they wrote down the very words of God.
God made them into the kind of men who He could use to express His truth and then God literally selected the words out of their lives and their personalities, vocabularies, and emotions. The words were their words, but in reality their lives had been so framed by God that they were God’s words. So, it is possible to say that Paul wrote the book of Romans and to also say that God wrote it and to be right on both counts.
We’ve considered four incorrect views of inspiration; what is the right view? Scripture itself offers plenty of information on this question. Next time, we’ll see what God’s Word has to say about its own inspiration.
Used with permission from John MacArthur.