The Inspiration of Scripture
Our introductory video on the topic of the inspiration of Scripture is now available for viewing. Please note that you can select a “High Definition” setting on YouTube’s “Change quality” button for better viewing, which is especially recommended for full-screen viewing.
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In various ways and in many places the Bible declares itself to be a message from God. The authors of Scripture have used several expressions to get this point across. For example, one of the most frequent phrases used by biblical prophets is “Thus says the Lord.” It occurs more than 400 times in the Old Testament. Both the message of the prophets and the teachings of the apostles are referred to as both “the word of the Lord,” and “the word of God.”
But there is a word that occurs only once in all of Scripture that is vital for our understanding of what the Bible teaches about itself. This word is used by the Apostle Paul in his Second Epistle to Timothy, chapter three, and verse sixteen, and is usually translated as, “inspired by God.”
While this is not a very literal translation of Paul’s word, it is based on a translation tradition that goes back centuries in the history of English Bibles.
This tradition bears testimony to the lasting influence of the standard Latin translation of the Bible—the Vulgate—completed by the theologian Jerome near the beginning of the 5th century. The Vulgate renders Paul’s word with the phrase divinitus inspirata, and most English translators have chosen to simply borrow an English form of the word inspirata rather than provide a literal English translation.
The actual Greek word that Paul used is θεόπνευστος (theopneustos). It’s a compound of two other Greek words: θεός (theos), meaning “God,” and πνέω (pneō), meaning “I breathe.” So Paul’s statement is most literally translated, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
Paul is clearly using a figure of speech. He knows that God is not a creature who needs to breathe. Paul’s point comes into sharper focus when we realize that the Greek word for “breathe” is closely related to the word for “spirit,” πνεῦμα (pneuma). So to say that all Scripture is “God-breathed” is not only the same as saying that the source of the Bible is God, but it also implies that it was produced by the work of God’s Spirit.
Now, the words “inspired” and “inspiration” have left a permanent mark on Christian vocabulary, and are probably here to stay. Given their historic and widespread use, it will no doubt always be most convenient to use such phrases as “the inspiration of Scripture” and “the inspired word of God” when speaking of the Bible as divine revelation. And these words at least have the advantage of being derived from the Latin word meaning, “to breathe.”
But they also have the disadvantage of being somewhat vague in common usage. Even at best, these words can potentially mislead readers into thinking that Paul is saying that God somehow “breathed into” the Scriptures after they were already written. At worst, many people may read the statement that “All Scripture is inspired by God” as saying little more than that the Bible’s human writers were highly motivated by their love for God.
A more literal translation makes it clear that Paul was saying much more than any of these things by preserving his basic point that God is the cause of the Bible’s existence. And, thankfully, some recent Bible versions have broken with tradition to make this point clear.
But what about the Bible’s human authors? If all we had were this one statement, we still might be left to wonder whether the prophets and apostles are to be thought of as having played any active role at all in the writing of Scripture, or whether they were somehow purely passive.
Down through time people have thought of divine inspiration as something that bypassed the writers’ personalities. Various artists have even portrayed them as taking down dictation from angels.
And Paul did, after all insist that, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit,” (1 Corinthians 2:13, NIV)—which could give the impression that he thought of himself as a kind of secretary or stenographer.
From these words we can see that Paul obviously has no time for the idea that Scripture is somehow only partially inspired, or that only the Bible’s ideas are inspired while its actual words are not, as some have tried to argue.
But when we compare their different literary styles and content, it also becomes obvious that the Bible’s writers were personally engaged in composing their texts. A clear example of this comes from the biblical writer Luke, who introduces his gospel by telling us that it was the product of careful research and investigation. The authors of Scripture certainly do not appear to have been in any kind of trance-like state while writing, and only on specific, isolated occasions did they claim to be writing down what they were told.
To dig deeper into the mystery of divine inspiration, we have to read beyond the writings of the Apostle Paul. In his second epistle, the Apostle Peter wrote, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, ESV).
So Peter and Paul both teach that humans did not originate the Scriptures, and that the Bible is the product of God’s Holy Spirit. But the actual process of supernatural inspiration is never explained.
Peter’s wording seems to evoke the image of a sailboat being driven by the wind, and yet those who spoke for God were not merely made of wood and canvas anymore than God’s Spirit is merely made of wind. The Bible teaches that somehow, in a miraculous way, God used human writing, and all the thought processes that are involved in its composition, to perfectly convey the things He chose to reveal to us.
When people subject the nature of inspiration to human reason, it often diverts them from the primary reasons why the apostles insisted on the reality of inspiration in the first place. First and foremost, they wanted us to know that the Bible does not claim to be a message about God in the words of men. Nor does it even claim to be a message from God in the words of men. Rather, the Bible claims to be a message from God in the very words of God Himself.
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