Just How Was the Bible Written? Views on Inspiration

Introduction

Determining one’s belief on how the Bible was written is a foundational step in doing theology. With that in mind, the following will attempt to explain and evaluate all of the most prominent views and theories about how the Bible was written, and then construct a logical argument for why verbal plenary inspiration is the correct view of inspiration. Each view of inspiration will be defined and explained and then evaluated.

Natural Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

Natural Inspiration: the belief that the Holy scriptures were written by extraordinary men, and God’s only “role” in the writing of the scriptures was the fact that he created those men. Natural inspiration is the view that emphasizes the human authorship more than any other view of inspiration. By supposing that God’s only interaction with the scriptures in this view of inspiration is creation, the proponents of it devalue the perfection of the scripture and thus make it easy to explain away. “It was just written by men,” they say. “Why should I listen to what they have to say or accept it as truth? They were fallen just like me.” Those who subscribe to this view commonly use the definition of natural inspiration as an excuse not to do what it says.

Evaluation

Of all the views on inspiration, this has to be the poorest. The idea of looking at a holy book and taking the only wholly holy being completely out of the equation of the writing of that book is absolutely ludicrous to me. To subscribe to this view of inspiration is to negate the purpose of subscribing to a view of inspiration at all. The purpose of determining the inspiration of the Bible is to help you determine how to interpret it, and how to better understand the context in which it was written, so that you might better understand how to do what it says. The vast majority of those claiming the Bible was written by man and man alone use that claim as a means of refuting the authority of the Bible. As Chafer put it, “the main objective in all Bible inspiration—to secure divine accuracy for every portion of it—is wholly wanting according to this opinion.”[1]

Divine or Mystical Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

Mystical inspiration: the belief that the Holy Scriptures were written by Godly men, under the usual guidance of the Holy Spirit. By the definition of Mystical inspiration, it can be taken to mean that scripture can be written by any man whenever he gets the “burst of spiritual inspiration” he needs to write them. Within this view, no particular emphasis is placed on the specific words, or the context in which the writer was writing. In reality it diminishes both the God aspect of the scriptures and the man aspect of the scriptures at the exact same time. It places responsibility of initiating the writing of Scripture on God, while placing the rest of the responsibility on man to “write what he feels should be written.”

 

Evaluation

This view of inspiration is insufficient for a number of reasons. First of all, as stated above, it diminishes both the human and divine aspects of the writing of scriptures in one fell swoop. By subscribing to this view of inspiration, you are also agreeing that the Bible can be added to at any time. This creates all sorts of practical problems for believers. How can we possibly learn from a book that is constantly changing? As way of example, if you were playing soccer and just as you were about to score a goal, the referee blew the whistle and told you that the sides were switched and you suddenly are about to shoot into your own goal, how would you ever succeed in playing the game?

To subscribe to this view of inspiration also means that if you somehow managed to establish a certain set of texts as the “real ones” you would never be able to properly interpret them, because God’s hand in writing them has been devalued. He simply pressed the play button on a man’s spirit, and whatever the author values spiritually is what is conveyed as opposed to what God values.

Degree Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

Degree Inspiration: the belief that the Holy scriptures were written by God and man together, but at certain times, God had a bigger part in determining what was written than at other times. In this view of inspiration there are various manmade classifications to describe the degree with which a certain text was inspired. They are, “suggestion, direction, elevation, superintendency, guidance, and direct revelation.”[2] These classifications are not actually found in the Bible, they are simply imposed upon it from a human viewpoint. Those who subscribe to this theory often use the same sorts of phrases as those of natural inspiration. They attribute the passages they don’t like or disagree with to the “suggestion” inspired passages, making the claim that the writer really wasn’t in tune with God when he wrote that particular phrase.

Evaluation

This view of inspiration begs the question, why would God half-ass inspiration? If a holy and perfect God were going to inspire a holy and inerrant book, why on His green earth would he only inspire some parts of it a little bit, and other parts of it a lot? To it’s credit, this does take into account the fact that the Bible has two authors, however it diminishes one author’s role prominence, and thus makes the Bible fallible, and susceptible to being picked apart, dissected and eventually allows critics to write their own version. In an attempt to determine the inspiration of the Bible, an infallible method needs to be established in order to put forth the idea that an infallible book is the result.

Concept Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

Concept inspiration: the belief that the Holy scriptures were written by men after God had imparted the ideas he wanted to convey in the text, but allowed the writer to chose his own wording to convey that idea. Much like its concept, this theory conveys the idea that God was not present throughout the entire scripture writing process. However it is difficult to tell because I was allowed to write that definition however I wanted.

Evaluation

The concept view allows for messages from God to get lost in translation between him and the book. As I often say while teaching, I don’t always say what I mean to say, and you don’t always hear what I actually say, so how on earth are you supposed to hear what I mean to say? It’s a similar situation. If the Biblical authors were allowed to write what God meant to say, how are we supposed to know they actually wrote what he meant to say? Also, how are we supposed to interpret a text with imprecise language? In concept inspiration the words themselves don’t really matter as long as you get the gist of the concept. This is dangerous by any standards, because specific words and how they are used, and the context in which they are used, always change the meaning of a thought. By disregarding the estimation of precise language you effectively disregard the authority that the language carries.

Partial Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

Partial inspiration, sometimes dynamic inspiration[3]: the belief that the Holy scriptures were written by man, inspired by God, only when the material being presented is a matter of faith and practice, if the material presented is historical, scientific, or in any way a sort of kept record of events, then those passages may be in error. Partial inspiration rejects verbal inspiration and plenary inspiration, saying that the exact words don’t matter and that some parts of the Bible are more reliable than others, but it still holds to the idea that with an imperfect book we can still have a perfectly preserved method of salvation.

Evaluation

The real problem with partial inspiration is the conclusions drawn from it. It simply isn’t logical to say that the Bible is fraught with errors, but the really important stuff is correct. Basically it’s displaying a lack of trust in the Bible’s authority and sufficiency for salvation. Taken to its core, partial inspiration states that we can’t trust the Biblical authors with counting to 5, but we can trust them with our souls. It’s illogical to mistrust the inspiration of the Bible in certain areas but not in others. Other problems arise because the sections of the Bible that are “unreliable” are not clearly delineated by partial inspiration theorists. It’s left up to the interpreter to determine which parts are in error and which aren’t, particularly when discussing the areas of the bible that contain both history and doctrine, such as every single gospel.[4]

Mechanical Dictation Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

Mechanical Dictation inspiration: the belief that the Holy scriptures were written by men who were hearing a literal verbal voice, and writing down exactly what it said word for word. Mechanical dictation inspiration can be compared to a secretary writing down a memo that her boss is dictating to her. She takes it down precisely and transcribes it repeatedly, and perfectly.[5]

Evaluation:

This view of inspiration is insufficient because it diminishes the human aspect of the authorship of the Bible to nil. It means that the human authors didn’t create the Bible; they merely recorded it. When determining a method of inspiration for the Bible two parameters must be met. Firstly, it has to yield a product that is infallibly created by both man and God together, and secondly, whatever means used must account for different personalities, styles, and the freedoms of the authors manifested therein.[6] So far none of these views of inspiration adequately fulfills these two parameters.

However, as a student of theology, I do have to admit that of all the flawed views of inspiration, this is the least flawed. If an error in the determination of inspiration has to be made, I would prefer to err on the side of putting too much emphasis on God, than putting too much emphasis on man. That’s not to say I agree with this view of inspiration, or even that I find it acceptable. I view it as incorrect, and yes, incorrect is still incorrect whether a lot or a little, but I do have to say that this view would produce a book with a higher percentage of “truth per page” than natural inspiration would.

Barthian Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

Barthian Inspiration: the belief, put forth by Karl Barth, that the Holy scriptures were written by men and revolve principally around Jesus Christ. Barth defined inspiration as, “the act of revelation in which the prophets and apostles in their humanity became what they were, and in which alone they in their humanity can also become for us, what they are.”[7] In essence it states that some parts of the Bible have more authority than others, and the dividing factor is the question of whether or not Christ can be found in the passage. The more prominent and apparent Jesus is in a passage, the more authoritative that passage becomes, however, all of the Bible contains errors. Ryrie puts it this way, “To sum up, Barthianism teaches that the Bible points to Christ, but in reality we don’t know anything about Christ apart from the Bible.”[8] Barthianism stipulates that Jesus Christ is the source we should look at and the Bible, full of errors as it is, points to Jesus.

Evaluation

The problem with stipulating that the Bible has errors but points to Christ, and that Christ is the only source of inerrant truth, is that everything we know about the divinity of Jesus Christ comes from the Bible. If the source of the information is corrupt, then the information itself cannot be trusted as a new source of information. If the bible has holes then its portrayal of Christ has holes, but if the Bible is inerrant, then we can trust its portrayal of Christ, and what Christ said and taught. Barthianism, unfortunately, doesn’t teach this basic truth.[9]

Verbal Plenary Inspiration

Definition and Explanation

As this is the correct view of inspiration, I will supply multiple definitions before constructing my own.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration: “God carried men along so that they wrote His message in the Bible.”[10]

Verbal Plenary Inspiration: “the Holy Spirit’s superintending over the writers so that while writing according to their own styles and personalities, the result was God’s Word written—authoritative, trustworthy, and free from error in the original autographs.”[11]

Verbal Plenary Inspiration: “a supernatural influence exerted on the sacred writers by the Spirit of God, by virtue of which their writings are given Divine trustworthiness.”[12]

Verbal Plenary Inspiration: “in the original writings, the Spirit guided in the choice of the words used. However the Human authorship was respected to the extent that the writers’ characteristics are preserved and their style and vocabulary are employed, but without the intrusion of error.”[13]

Verbal Plenary Inspiration: “the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit, who through the different personalities and literary styles of the chosen human authors invested the very words of the original books of the Holy Scripture, alone and in their entirety, as the very Word of God without error in all that they teach or imply (including history and science), and the Bible is thereby the infallible rule and final authority for faith and practice of all believers.”[14]

Ok, now that I’ve copied down all of those definitions, I think I’m ready to give it a shot.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration: The belief that the Holy Scriptures were written by God in His might and through the powerful Holy Spirit, using imperfect humans, their different styles, personalities, and vocabularies to write the perfect and exact text He intended to be written, so that it infallibly stands with the authority of God’s own words.

Evaluation

This is the view I subscribe to. It seems to me to explain and uphold the most facts, and necessary parameters to make basing one’s entire life on a book, a wise decision.

For a person to base their entire life, and way of thinking on a book that book should be infallible, and somehow written by God. With those two qualifications the inspiration views of natural, degree, concept, mystical, partial, and Barthian are no longer options. All of these views either admit to a lack of infallibility, or take God too much out of the equation of authorship. This leaves Mechanical Dictation or Verbal Plenary as the only viable views of Inspiration. From this point, you have to consider the text, and an undeniable truth about the Bible is that different books read differently. You can tell that there were multiple personalities involved in writing the different books of the Bible. The Greek that Luke wrote was more precise than the Greek that Paul wrote. The style and purpose of the four Gospels are different, indicating that the writer’s own perspective and intended audience necessitated showing the story from different angles. Because of this undeniable fact, verbal plenary inspiration has to be the correct view. It is the only one that correctly balances both divine and human authorship, while adhering to guidelines that would yield an infallible book.

Another argument is equally as valid. This is the view of scriptural inspiration that Jesus agreed with.[15] He quoted text word for word from the Old Testament, meaning that the precise words of the text do matter, while always attributing the authorship of that text to both God and Isaiah, or God and Moses, or God and the psalmist. The two stipulations in verbal plenary inspiration—verbal: the specific words matter, and plenary: the whole bible is infallible—are covered in Jesus’ use of scripture, and if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.

Conclusion

In reality, there is only one true method of inspiration and it is the one that God actually used. The question we are asking is: which one did God actually use? While we can’t determine this with one hundred percent certainty, because we aren’t God and we weren’t there, all of the evidence points to verbal plenary inspiration as the most likely. It is the only view of inspiration that accounts for the style differences apparent between different human authors, while still preserving the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible as a whole.

Bibliography

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. I, 2, 563.

Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology (Eight Volumes in Four) Volunes 1 and 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008.

Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology in One Volume. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2011.

Ryrie, Charles C. Basic Theology. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999.

Warfield, B. B. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948.

[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Eight Volumes in Four) Volunes 1 and 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 70.

[2] Chafer, 69.

[3] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology: Revised and Expanded (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008),162.

[4] Ibid., 163.

[5] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume  (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2011), 178.

[6] Ibid., 178.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I, 2, 563.

[8] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999), 86.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Enns, 161.

[12] B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), 131.

[13] Chafer, 71.

[14] Geisler, 178.

[15] Enns, 164.

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