Theories of Inspiration of Scripture
The Bible is the most unique literary work in all of human history, containing the very revelation of God. Questions, however, are raised as to how the Bible was inspired and to what degree inspiration permeates its pages. Studying the theories of inspiration is part of Bibliology, which is a must for any serious student of the Bible, especially those entering the ministry. It is a study that any bible college or seminary student must take in equipping themselves. Let’s look at a few definitions of inspiration before considering the various theories of inspiration. Compare the definitions to the theories to see how they align themselves.
Definition of inspiration:
- “God’s superintending of human authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they composed and recorded without error in the words of the original autographs His revelation to man” (Dr. Charles Ryrie).
- “The inexplicable power which the Divine Spirit exercised over the authors of scriptures, to guide them even in the employment of the words they were to use, and to preserve them from error as well as from every omission” (Dr. Gaussen, Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible, by Myer Pearlman, page 20).
- “The supernatural influence of the Spirit of God on the human mind, by which prophets and apostles and sacred writers were qualified to set forth Divine truth without any mixture of error” (Webster, Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible, by Myer Pearlman, page 20).
Differentiating between inspiration and illumination. Many confuse inspiration with illumination. There is a vast difference between the two. Inspiration is the impartation of divine truth by the Holy Spirit and the recording of that truth (2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21). Illumination is the influence of the Holy Spirit enabling man (Christians) to grasp with the natural mind divine truths (John 16:13-14 and 1 Corinthians 2:14).
Prophets were often given divine truth (inspiration) but denied illumination or understanding of the truth given them. Caiaphas was a vehicle of an inspired message but with no understanding of the meaning (John 11:50 and 18:14). So illumination is the Spirit of God giving man understanding of divine truths already given, namely the Word of God.
Theories of inspiration. What are the different views regarding the Inspiration of the scripture? Below are a list of the differing views or theories of inspiration. I will give a brief explanation of each view culminating with what I believe to be the proper view which should be held by Bible believing, evangelical Christians, and which would be consistent with the New Testament church, apostles and early church fathers.
- Intuition or illumination theory of inspiration. It is not the writings that are inspired, but the writers themselves. Inspiration is merely superior insight on behalf of natural man into moral and religious truth. God inspired individuals, and while inspired, they wrote Scripture. If this were true, this type of inspiration could be claimed by Plato, Socrates and many others. Even today, anybody who is similarly inspired could potentially write Scripture.
- Dynamic or partial inspiration.This view believes God provided the enabling needed for the trustworthy transmission of truth which the writers of scripture were commissioned to deliver. This made them infallible in matters of faith and practice but not in areas of nonreligious character. Parts of the Bible are inspired, primarily those related to faith and practice. The Bible merely contains the Word of God, only certain portions of Scripture are inspired, such as prophetic passages, or that certain portions of the Bible are more, or less, inspired than others.This doesn’t explain how the writers of scripture were inspired with perfect supernatural knowledge in one sentence and not another. This form of inspiration leaves man to be the final judge of what is and is not inspired. This view of inspiration depends on the discernment of fallible man to decide what is and what is not inspired by God and therefore must be rejected.
- Neo-orthodox inspiration. This view is very similar to that of dynamic or partial inspiration. This view maintains that, while there are supernatural elements present, the Bible contain errors and cannot be taken literally. Neo-orthodoxy maintains God speaks through scripture as a means of communicating truth to the individual. However, this truth is realized only to the degree the individual recognizes or comprehends it. Therefore, the Bible is not divinely inspired, but rather, a channel through which divine inspiration flows. It elevates the subjective experience of the individual over Scripture. As with dynamic or partial inspiration, this view makes truth dependent solely on the discretion of the individual. There are, therefore, no absolutes with this view.
- Natural inspiration. There is nothing supernatural about the Bible. The writers were just men who wrote books or letters the same way anybody would. Over time, the Bible came to hold special significance for Christians. This view holds the Bible to be of an entirely human origin and no different than any other piece of literature. The Bible was written by men who were subject to error in what they wrote. Therefore, it is no different than any other work.
- Conceptual inspiration. The thoughts of scripture are inspired but the actual words used are not. Only the concepts or thoughts in the Bible were inspired. God gave ideas to the writers of scripture who did their best to convey those ideas in writing. This view weakens the concept of biblical inspiration, maintaining that God only inspired the concepts, and not the individual words written. This view completely contradicts the Bible’s concept of divine inspiration (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Corinthians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:19-21; Isaiah 59:21).
- Dictation theory.The writers recorded God’s words without any participation of their own styles or personalities. The authors were mere penmen. They mechanically recorded the words of scripture, much as a secretary might write down the words they were told to write. This view asserts that God dictated the Bible in its entirety. The writers were merely God’s tool for recording what God desired. Some even argue that the grammar must be perfect in every place because it’s the Holy Spirit’s grammar.This view excludes the individual personalities as being present in the writing of scripture. A dictated Bible would present a consistent level of style and vocabulary, rather than the diversity of human characteristics that are displayed in Scripture. This view ignores the fact that there are apparent differences in the styles of the different writers. Some have tried to explain this saying the Holy Spirit adopted the style of the writer in each case.
- Verbal, plenary inspiration.This view of biblical inspiration holds that the Holy Spirit provided both verbal and plenary inspiration to the original writers. Both the words and ideas (concepts) of Scripture are inspired of/by God. Plenary means all the words used by the writers in their original manuscripts were equally inspired. Verbal means God directed the choice of the individual words used by the writers in their original manuscripts. God partnered with them to record His Word in the Bible in its entirety.This view accepts that the writer’s individual personalities were used of God based upon their unique backgrounds, including their individual styles and vocabularies. Their personal characteristics were often expressed through their unique thoughts, opinions, prayers and emotions. This is in essence divine guidance in all that they wrote. The Holy Spirit so directed the writers of scripture in such a way that the original manuscripts were both verbally and fully inspired, infallible and without error.
This view is in harmony with the declaration of scripture which says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16 KJV). Peter wrote, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:20-21 KJV).