The Inspiration of Scripture
God has revealed himself to humans in many different ways. This should be no surprise, for a God who loved us enough to create us and put us in a world where we could flourish, would most certainly want to communicate with us. Sometimes Scripture seems to show God giving dreams and visions or speaking directly to many people. But relatively few people who have ever lived have actually received revelation in those ways.
So, how are the rest of us, who never had a revelatory dream or vision and to whom God never spoke directly, supposed to know what God wants us to know? Thankfully, God spoke to many people at various times and in different ways, and they left accounts of what he said. For example, many saw and heard what Christ said and did, and the apostles wrote about it so that people in their day and thereafter would know about Jesus, the early church, the apostles, etc. And in the OT era, God spoke to prophets in Israel, and moved many of them to write down what he said and did.
Scripture is God’s inspired word, but what exactly does that mean? Does Scripture define inspiration and teach its own inspiration? If so, which passages do that?
The biblical word for inspiration is the Greek word theopneustos, but it appears only once in Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16). There is no OT word for “inspiration”; one will search the Septuagint in vain for theopneustos or any word like it. Even so, I argue that Scripture teaches its own verbal plenary inspiration. What that means is best explained and defended after analyzing Scripture’s teaching about its own nature.
A Question of Method
Evangelical theologians use Scripture as their primary source book. That is true for what Scripture teaches about its own nature. Undoubtedly, some skeptics will question why we should believe what Scripture teaches about anything, including itself. Theologians should want to know that Scripture is true and reliable before trusting what it says about itself. Defending its reliability, however, is a task for apologists and philosophers of religion.
Theologians should want to know that Scripture is true and reliable before trusting what it says about itself.
Theologians must assume that apologists have done well their job of defending Scripture’s right to be trusted on any topic. Given that assumption, theologians must articulate what Scripture teaches on any given subject.
Granted that it is acceptable to hear Scripture’s testimony about itself, which passages are relevant to the doctrine of inspiration? Many will reply that we should use the same strategy we use in formulating any other doctrine: use the passages that teach something about the doctrine! But which passages teach, for example, the doctrine of reconciliation, or the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin, or the doctrine of Scripture? Let me illustrate.
Consider the doctrine of reconciliation. What biblical passages are relevant to it? Should the governing passages be ones, for example, in Pauline epistles, where Paul talks about God in Christ reconciling us to himself (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Eph. 2:12–18; Rom. 5:10). Or are the crucial passages ones like Genesis 45, which describes the scene as Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, weeps over them, and blesses them? In other words, are the crucial passages for understanding the concept of reconciliation ones which Millard Erickson refers to as the didactic passages (passages which address and explain the concept of reconciliation), or are the key Scriptures ones that describe various people settling their differences and fostering good relationships with their enemies/opponents? Hopefully, readers understand that if you want to learn what Scripture teaches about a concept, you find and analyze the passages that address that concept. Hence, passages like 2 Corinthians 5:18–20, etc., are the governing passages for understanding reconciliation, not passages like Genesis 45 which describe people reconciling with one another.
How does all of this apply to Scripture? What passages teach Scripture’s concept of its own inspiration, inerrancy, etc.? Are they didactic passages like 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21; John 10:35; 17:17? Or are they ones containing what are often called the phenomena of Scripture? As Erickson explains, “the phenomena . . . concern what the Scriptures are actually like rather than what the authors thought about their own or other biblical writers’ writing.”1
Those who cite the phenomena to determine Scripture’s character refuse to grant passages like 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21; John 10:35, etc., the definitive say on what we should think about the nature of Scripture. They claim that in Scripture there are apparent factual inaccuracies (e.g., the mustard seed is not the smallest known seed to botanists, contrary to what Jesus says in the parable of the mustard seed), apparent contradictions (e.g., the Gospel writers seem to disagree on the number of times the cock crowed after Peter denied Christ), and the like.
Those who appeal to the phenomena of Scripture for their understanding of inspiration and inerrancy claim that their method is inductive, while the method that makes the so-called “didactic” passages central is deductive. Of course, their assumption is that only an inductive method can be objective and fair with the data, whereas a deductive method assumes without proof a view as true and then interprets phenomena to square with one’s presuppositions about Scripture.
A deductive method is said to be unfair with the data and unwilling to see Scripture as anything other than what evangelicals have allegedly always taken it to be. Those who make this complaint typically add that a deductive method focuses too much on the divine aspect of Scripture to the exclusion of its true human element. Only an inductive method, which emphasizes Scripture’s phenomena, can see Scripture’s true humanity.2
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000 printing), 234.
- One who presents this complaint against those who hold a more traditional evangelical view of inspiration and inerrancy is Peter Enns. See his Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), and also his remarks, e.g., to Bruce Waltke in, “Interaction with Bruce Waltke,” WTJ 71 (2009): 98–100. See also Don Carson’s discussion of this issue in “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. Donald Carson and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 23–25. See also Fernando Canale, “The Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture in Adventist Theology, Part 1,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 45 (2007): 201.
This articles is adapted from Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture* by John S. Feinberg.
- What Is Divine Inspiration (and Why Does It Matter)? (Gerald Bray)
- The Doctrine of Scripture in the Bible
- Why the Local Church Needs Good Biblical Theology (Nick Roark)