Theories of Inspiration of Scripture
The Bible is the most unique literary work in all of history, containing the very revelation of God. Questions have been 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. Let’s look at a few definitions of inspiration before considering the various theories of inspiration.
Definitions 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.
- “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.
Differentiating Between Inspiration and Illumination
Many confuse inspiration with illumination, but they are very different things. Inspiration is the impartation and recording of divine truth by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21). Illumination is the Holy Spirit enabling Christians to grasp divine truths (John 16:13-14, 1 Corinthians 2:14). Prophets were often given divine truth or inspiration, but denied illumination or understanding of the truth. Caiaphas was a vehicle of an inspired message, but he had no understanding of its meaning (John 11:50, John 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
- Intuition or illumination theory. It’s 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 who 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 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 in another. This view of inspiration depends on the discernment of fallible man to decide what is and what is not inspired by God.
- Neo-orthodox inspiration. This view is similar to dynamic or partial inspiration. It maintains 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 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 is 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. This view should be rejected as erroneous.
- 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 in 2 Timothy 3:16, 1 Corinthians 2:13, 2 Peter 1:19-21, and Isaiah 59:21.
- Dictation theory. The writers recorded God’s words without any participation of their own styles or personalities. 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. Some even argue that the grammar must be perfect in every place because it’s the Holy Spirit’s grammar. This view excludes individual personalities 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 ignores the fact 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 of scripture are inspired 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 personalities were used of God based upon their unique backgrounds, including their styles and vocabularies. The Holy Spirit directed the writers of scripture in such a way that the original manuscripts were both verbally and fully inspired, infallible and without error.
This is in harmony with the declaration of 2 Timothy 3:16 which says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” 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).