What Is Divine Inspiration (and Why Does It Matter)?
Inspiration and Its Fruit
A great deal has been written about the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Holy Scripture, though only the first of these terms is found in the Bible itself. Infallibility and inerrancy are best viewed as logical deductions from the principle of divine inspiration. The former term became current in the nineteenth century, when Protestants applied it to the Bible and Roman Catholics to the papacy, but “inerrancy” is of more recent origin.
The general line of argument is that if the Bible is divinely inspired, it must also be infallible because God would not lead his people astray. To be truly infallible, however, it must not contain any errors, because even the smallest mistake might mislead people and cause them to err or (if they discovered the mistake) to doubt the truth of God’s Word. Arguments of this kind make logical sense, but they come up against the obvious objections that we do not possess the original manuscripts and that all the copies we have contain errors of various kinds. This means that no truly “inerrant” text exists, but that does not necessarily imply that the copies we have are misleading and says nothing at all about whether they are inspired by God.
A great deal of controversy surrounds these terms, and it is fair to say that in the modern church, belief in what they represent is the hallmark of conservative, and usually evangelical, believers. But it is also fair to say that traditionally orthodox Christians have always believed that the Bible is divinely inspired, and the unique place occupied by its text in Christian worship bears witness to that fact.
In ancient times it was commonly believed that poets were inspired by a muse or other genius, who gave them the superhuman talent they possessed. Inspiration applied primarily to the people who composed literary works, and not to the works themselves. In the New Testament, we find both—holy men were moved by the Spirit of God, but the texts they produced were also breathed out by him. This quality was the mark of their holiness and the guarantee of their supreme authority in the life of the church.
“Infallibility” emerged as a way of saying that the Scriptures do not teach error, and “inerrancy” makes it more precise by insisting that they do not contain it either. Both terms have suffered from the excessive zeal of some of their proponents, who have made extravagant claims that go beyond what can be proved from the texts themselves. For example, some have said that Job must have been a historical person, since he is described in that way in the book that bears his name, but it is just as likely that he is a fictional character whom the anonymous author created in order to make a series of important theological points. To use “inerrancy” as an excuse for insisting on the historicity of Job is going too far, and the term loses its credibility when such claims are made on the basis of it.
To use “inerrancy” as an excuse for insisting on the historicity of Job is going too far, and the term loses its credibility when such claims are made on the basis of it.
The best way to look at these words is to see them as essentially juridical terms. The Bible is the written constitution of the church and must be interpreted as such. Its authority is absolute, and therefore it is both infallible and inerrant as far as the life of the church is concerned. No Christian preacher or teacher has any right to distort or minimize its teaching, and every word in it must be carefully weighed and its meaning considered. We do not have to worry if some parts of it (such as the Old Testament food laws) are no longer immediately applicable today, because that is often true of human laws as well. A state constitution almost certainly contains provisions that are now obsolete, but they retain the authority of the document as a whole, and if the circumstances for which they were designed should recur, they would come back into force.
The Bible is very much like that, except that it also contains a spiritual message that can be applied in spiritual ways long after the material circumstances in which it was originally revealed have disappeared. If we view matters in that way, then the Bible will not lead us astray, nor will it teach us anything that is false to the Spirit who inspired it.
What About Mistakes?
We do not need to worry too much about the mistakes scribes made in copying, since many of these can be corrected and few have any real significance as far as the meaning of the original is concerned. Some areas of doubt remain, but as long as we do not put too much weight on words or passages that are unclear, this should not affect our understanding of the overall message of the text.
More serious are the allegations that the Bible contains errors of fact or of judgment that are not accidental. For example, archaeologists have raised questions about the Israelite invasion of Palestine under Joshua because evidence for the collapse of the walls at Jericho or the destruction of Ai is either missing or does not support the claims made in Scripture. Historians have found no evidence for the existence of Esther or Daniel, and many scholars believe that they were made up in later times for what were essentially political reasons.
The New Testament is less open to this kind of objection because the time period it covers is much shorter and better known, but there are still many details about the life of Jesus and the career of the apostle Paul which are hard to piece together from the texts. Did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry or at the end, or did he do it twice, as some scholars have tried to argue? More radical scholars might ask whether the event ever happened at all, and suggest that it was concocted by the disciples to make a theological point.
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These are hard and perhaps impossible questions to answer, partly because the evidence is insufficient for us to decide either way and partly because the intention of the original author(s) is unclear. Scholars do their best to resolve these difficulties, on the reasonable assumption that the problems were not apparent to those who first wrote or read the texts and so there must be some explanation for them. The explanation may not always be what we would expect, and certain questions remain unanswerable in our present state of knowledge, but it would be most unwise to accuse the text of lying or misrepresenting the facts simply because we do not know what they are. The true researcher, like a good detective, will persevere until he has found a solution and refuse to comment on facile theories which discount the witness of the texts. They, after all, are a major part of the evidence we have, and must be treated with due caution and respect.
Inspiration the Key
From the standpoint of the ordinary believer, arguments about the “historicity” of the biblical text are important because our faith is based on truth, but such arguments are not the heart of the matter. The Bible is not the source of our doctrine and spiritual life merely because it contains no errors, since the same might be said of a dictionary or computer manual. Infallibility and inerrancy have their place, but divine inspiration remains the key to interpreting the text because that is what makes it the Word of God. The apostle Paul spoke to us all when he wrote to Timothy,
The sacred writings . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17)
In other words, the Bible is our textbook for learning and growing in our faith, so that we may be able to live as we should and bear witness to the truth of the gospel we have received in Christ Jesus.