[Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on the general subject, “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]
The Bible has always occupied the central place in the Christian faith. From the time of the writing of the first books of the Old Testament in the days of Moses until modern times the Holy Scriptures have been regarded by all Christian theologians as the unique and incomparable Word of God. According to Murray: “Christians of varied and diverse theological standpoints aver that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit and that it occupies a unique place as the norm of Christian faith and life.”1 More books have been written and more has been said about the Bible than any other book in all the world. Though sometimes neglected and the object of constant attack, the Scriptures today continue to be read and believed more than any other writing coming from the pens of men.
Contemporary Biblical interpretation, however, makes plain that there are many problems in receiving the Bible as the Word of God. In the twentieth century more than any previous period of the Christian era there is a rising tide of unbelief and rejection of the authority of Scripture. For sincere Christians who realize that their own faith in God and their joyous hope of the future is vitally related to Scripture there is the demand to re-examine the claims of the Scriptures and to determine, at least for their own satisfaction, whether God has spoken authoritatively in His Word. Rival claims of the Roman Catholic Church for final authority in matters of faith, the beliefs of non-Christian religions, and the conclusions of various national systems of thought tend to oppose the authority of Scripture. As Bernard Ramm states in beginning his study on authority: “The concept of authority has become one of the most controversial notions of modern times.”2 In this study a careful distinction must be observed between various aspects of Biblical investigation. One of the primary questions is, What is the Bible? or the question of canonicity. The unique place of the sixty-six books of the Bible is being challenged today and the Apocryphal books formerly rejected are being included in the new edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.3
Another vital question is whether the Bible is actually the inspired Word of God. In other words, when the Bible speaks can we accept the words of Scripture as having infallible, divine authority? A further question arises if it is determined that the Bible is inspired. If the Bible is indeed God’s Word, how shall it be interpreted and how shall its revelation be understood? Historically, all errors in the Christian faith and every departure from divine truth has originated in the answers to these three important questions. Obviously, the first two questions are the most vital. Is our Bible of sixty-six books the inspired Word of God? If so, what do we mean by this affirmation of faith? As Loraine Boettner writes: “The answer that we are to give to the question ‘What is Christianity?’ depends quite largely on the view we take of Scripture.”4
Much of the modern confusion about the inspiration of the Bible stems from misconceptions of the word inspiration itself. The English word inspiration, derived from the Latin word inspiratio, refers to the “act of breathing in,” specifically, “the drawing of air into the lungs.”5 As commonly used, however, it refers to the stimulus of the intellect or emotions from some experience from without and in this sense one might properly speak of an “inspiring” sunset. As used in reference to the Bible, however, inspiration has quite a different meaning. As defined by Webster, inspiration is a “supernatural divine influence on the prophets, apostles, or sacred writers, by which they were qualified to communicate truth without error; a supernatural influence which qualifies men to receive and communicate divine truth.”6 Even this definition contains only part of the full meaning of inspiration of the Scriptures.
The Bible itself seldom uses the word inspiration, the English word occurring only twice in the entire Authorized Version of the Bible (Job 32:8; 2 Tim 3:16), and it is questionable whether either of these references are correctly translated. A careful study of 2 Timothy 3:16, however, is most rewarding in introducing us to the precise teaching of the Bible on inspiration.
As translated in 2 Timothy 3:16 in the Authorized Version the statement is made: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Though there has been some debate on the meaning of the phrase “all scripture,” the preceding verse referring as it does to “the holy scriptures,” gives us an important lead. It makes plain that verse 16 is not referring to all writings, but rather to those regarded as the Word of God, such as the Old Testament Scriptures and those portions of the New Testament which had been written at that time. Such Scriptures are declared to be given by inspiration of God.
Translators have had considerable difficulty in expressing precisely the thought of the Greek text, due partly to omission of the verb, and this is illustrated in the various ways in which this phrase is translated. The American Standard Version translates the first phrase, “every scripture inspired of God.” The Revised Standard Version and the Berkeley Version return essentially to the authorized translation and render this phrase, “All scripture is inspired by God.” Actually none of these translations capture the precise thought of the Greek New Testament and follow the Latin Vulgate instead of the Greek New Testament. What the Greek states, if the verb be supplied, is, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (Greek, theopneustos). Though this is not recognized in any popular translation, it is essentially what is suggested in Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, “Every Writing is God-breathed,” and is according to the suggestion of B. B. Warfield, “Every Scripture seeing that it is God-breathed.”7 This Scripture does not teach, then, that God breathed into the authors, but rather that the product, the Holy Scriptures, is that which God has breathed out.
As Warfield explains in supporting his translation: “The Greek term has, however, nothing to say of inspiring or of inspiration: it speaks only of a ‘spiring’ or ‘spiration.’ What it says of Scripture is, not that it is ‘breathed into by God’ or is the product of the Divine “inbreathing’ into its human authors, but that it is breathed out by God, ‘God-breathed,’ the product of the creative breath of God. In a word, what is declared by this fundamental passage is simply that the Scriptures are a Divine product, without any indication of how God has operated in producing them.”8
Second Timothy 3:16 is therefore a flat affirmation that the Bible in distinction to all other literary works is a product of divine power and intelligent will. The Bible is the “breath of God,” an Old Testament expression translated usually as equivalent to “the Word of God” (cf. Ps 33:6). It is fair to conclude that the Scriptures claim inspiration, that is, that the writings of the Bible are the product of divine power and therefore carry divine authority.
The mode of divine inspiration like many other operations of God is not precisely defined in the Bible. Though in some instances dictation is the rule, as in the Ten Commandments, in other cases Scripture is produced without direct dictation. accomplished. A brief survey of the various theories of inspiration will illustrate the extent of this problem.9
Natural inspiration. Among extreme liberal interpreters of Scripture the Bible is regarded as a purely natural book written by human authors endowed with no special gifts or supernatural ability who wrote using their normal and natural intelligence. From this point of view the Bible is regarded as no different than any other book, and is unusual but only a human product. In effect, this view denies completely any inspiration of the Scripture and of course removes any supernatural element such as would be required in direct revelation of God of any facts of the past, present, and future which are not normally open to the discovery of man. If this theory is correct, the Bible has no more authority than any other book. This view is held by non-Christians.
Mystical or dynamic inspiration. This view is one step removed from a purely natural origination of the Bible and views the author of Scripture as being especially empowered for his task by God much as any work or service for God is accomplished by divine enablement. The human authors were under this theory enabled to do their very best and possessed some measure of divine power in achieving their task. Adherents of this view are not all agreed as to the extent of this divine enablement, whether it is supernatural or whether it determined the actual text of Scripture. The Scriptures produced according to this view, however, are no more authoritative than a well-delivered sermon, and the resultant text of Scripture falls short of bearing the imprint of divine authority or infallibility.
Concept theory. In an effort to avoid the difficulties of claiming actual inspiration of the very words of Scripture, some have resorted to the concept theory, namely, that God gave to the writers of Scripture the ideas, some of them of supernatural origin which would otherwise have been unknown to human intelligence. The authors incorporated these ideas in their own words. The resulting Scripture, however, is no more than a record of their experience of this divine revelation. It may be postulated under this point of view that the revelation as received by the writer had the authority and accuracy which one would expect of divine revelation, but its embodiment in the words of the author inevitably carried with it a lack of complete comprehension and contains inevitable coloring by the author’s perspective and environment. Though the ideas are inspired, therefore, the words are not. Under this interpretation the Scriptures fall short of verbal infallibility, and the appeal to particular words and expressions as being the precise revelation of God is therefore unjustified. In the end, the Bible according to this theory is still a fallible book.
Degrees of inspiration. Some have attempted to explain the inspiration of the Bible as being subject to degrees; that is, certain portions of the Bible, particularly moral areas, have supreme revelation, whereas others dealing with history, creation, and prophecy have only relative inspiration. Under this theory, portions of Scripture which have to do with our relationship to God are authoritative, but other portions may not be. The weakness of this point of view, of course, is its subjective character, namely, that no two will be of one mind on the degree of the inspiration of any particular passage. The ultimate judgment is transferred from the statement of Scripture to the decision of the reader. A variation of this point of view is the moral or partial-inspiration theory which holds that parts of the Bible are inspired, but others are not. Scripture from this point of view is considered authoritative in matters of morals, but not in scientific matters. Here again, the interpreter is faced with the impossible task of distinguishing what portions of Scripture are inspired and what are not, and the ultimate authority rests in the opinion of the reader and not in the Scripture itself.
The mechanical or dictation theory. The most extreme of conservative views of inspiration is the theory that all parts of the Bible were dictated by God and that the human authors were no more than stenographers. This view was held by some in the early church, is said to be the view of some of the Protestant Reformers, and is commonly represented by liberal opponents of inspiration as the view held today by orthodox and conservative Biblical interpreters. Floyd Filson for instance in analyzing the conservative point of view contends that only two possible views of inspiration can be held, that the Bible is either the subject of absolute divine dictation or is a human product.10 He further holds that the human origin makes inevitable that the Bible contains many errors. Filson states in regard to “the human factor” that “the canon so plainly exhibits this factor that any theory of inerrancy is a strained and misleading way of expressing the rich and continual effectiveness of the Bible.”11
Some of the confusion on the proper theory of inspiration stems from the strong language used by the Reformers in claiming inspiration. John Calvin, for instance, flatly affirmed the dictation of the Scripture. Kenneth Kantzer in his discussion on Calvin cites Calvin’s statement that “the Holy Spirit dictated to the prophets and apostles” and Calvin’s description of writers of Scripture as “clerks” and “penmen” as supporting this idea.12 In his other writings, however, Calvin freely admits the human element.13 What Calvin was actually affirming was infallibility rather than dictation in the absolute sense.
It is obvious from Scripture that certain portions of the Bible claim to be dictated (cf. Exod 20:1-17). On the other hand, most of the Bible could not have been dictated according to the record itself for it embodies the prayers, feelings, fears, and hopes of the individual who wrote that portion of Scripture. Such passages as Paul’s expression of his sorrow for Israel (Rom 9:1-3) or David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51 would lose all meaning if they were dictated by another. Many of the psalms are obviously the heartcry of a psalmist in distress, in joy, or sorrow, in fear or hope.
Because of these obvious human factors in the Bible, even among orthodox Christians there is little support for the mechanical or dictation theory today. Liberals who accuse conservatives of holding this position today are either ignorant of what contemporary conservatives actually believe or are willfully misrepresenting the situation. Among evangelical Christians who believe the Bible to be the Word of God, the most accurate description of their theory of inspiration is contained in the words verbal and plenary inspiration.
The verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture. Those who uphold the infallible inspiration of the entire Scriptures as they were originally written by the human authors contend that nothing other than verbal inspiration—that is, divine guidance in the very choice of the words used—is essential to a complete and Biblical view. In terms of formal definition: “God so supernaturally directed the writers of Scripture that without excluding their human intelligence, their individuality, their literary style, their personal feelings, or any other human factor, His own complete and coherent message to man was recorded in perfect accuracy, the very words of Scripture bearing the authority of divine authorship.”14
Though human authors are recognized in the Scripture itself and their human characteristics, vocabulary, and modes of thought are often traced, the supernatural process of the inspiration of the Bible is deemed sufficiently operative so that the human author in every case uses the precise words that God intended him to choose, and the resulting product therefore contains the accuracy and infallibility of Scripture just as if God wrote it Himself. Usually added to the description of this theory of inspiration is the word plenary, meaning full, that is, that the inspiration extends equally to every portion of Scripture and that all parts therefore are equally infallible and equally auhoritative within the limitations of the context. This point of view does not regard the human element in Scripture as introducing human fallibility. Any tendency to error was overruled and the human mind influenced so that even in its human experiences there was divine preparation and sovereign arrangement to produce the desired Scripture.
Much of the difficulty expressed in the opposition of unbelieving liberals to the inspiration of the words of Scripture is caused by the fact that inspiration as a supernatural work of God is not subject to rational analysis. The Bible does not attempt to explain inspiration, but merely states the fact that, on the one hand, God or the Holy Spirit is said to be the author and, on the other hand, frequently refers to the human author in such expressions as “Isaiah said” or “Moses said.”
Lewis Sperry Chafer cites a number of instances where dual authorship, that is, both human and divine, is recognized in Scripture. Chafer writes: “The command, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’ bears the authority of ‘God commanded’ in Matthew 15:4; but in Mark 7:10 Christ introduces the words ‘Moses said.’ In like manner Psalm 110:1 may be compared with Mark 12:36, 37; Exodus 3:6, 15 with Matthew 22:31; Luke 20:37 with Mark 12:26; Isaiah 6:9, 10 with Acts 28:25; John 12:39-41; Acts 1:16 with Acts 4:25. Certain passages, and there are many, combine a reference to both authorships in the one passage: Acts 1:16; 4:25 ; Matthew 1:22; 2:15 (R.V.). The Holy Spirit is declared to be the voice speaking through the Psalms as quoted in Hebrews 3:7-11; through the Law—Hebrews 9:8; and in the Prophets—Hebrews 10:15.”15
It is clear from many Scriptures that the Bible itself claims the words of Scripture to be inspired. Frequent quotation of Scripture as authoritative when the argument hangs upon a word (John 10:34-35) or even the singular or plural (Gal 3:16) demonstrates this claim. Though men may disbelieve if they wish, this is the theory of inspiration taught by the Bible itself. Unbelief in inspiration springs from unbelief in the Bible. Word of God, it has no more authority than an opinion of the one who claims that he has heard the voice of God.
According to the orthodox conservative opinion, the inspiration of the Scripture must extend to every word. As Lewis Sperry Chafer has stated it emphatically: “The Bible claims for itself that on the original parchments every sentence, word, line, mark, point, penstroke, jot, or tittle was placed there in complete agreement with the divine purpose and will. Thus the omnipotent and omniscient God caused the message to be formed as the precise reproduction of His Word.”19 This for centuries has been the orthodox faith. Though many particular problems remain which can be discussed only in works devoted to their detailed study, for most Christians there is transparent evidence that the Bible vindicates its claim to inspiration and that all problems have been adequately met by the voluminous writing of the great orthodox scholars of the past and the present. Apart from, textual problems, which do not vitally affect the teachings of Scripture, the reader of Scripture can be assured that he is studying the infallible Word of God, the treasure house of divine truth.
(Series to be continued in the Apr-Jun Number, 1959)
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 John Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” The Infallible Word, a Symposium, p. 1.
2 Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Authority, p. 9.
3 Cf. Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible?, pp. 12-13.
4 Loraine Boettner, The Inspiration of the Scriptures, p. 9.
5 S.v., “Inspiration,” Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, p. 1286.
7 B. B. Warfield, “Inspiration,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, III, 1474. Cf. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, pp. 131ff.
9 Cf. Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, I, 68ff.
10 Filson, op. cit., pp. 30-37.
11 Ibid. This author, who is Dean and Professor of New Testament Literature and History in McCormick Theological Seminary, nevertheless continues to affirm that the Bible is the “infallible rule of faith and practice” as required of teachers in this Presbyterian seminary.
12 Kenneth S. Kantzer, Inspiration and Interpretation, John F. Walvoord, editor, pp. 137-38. Cf. Calvin, Jeremiah, IV, 229; Harmony, I, 127; Psalms, III, 205.
13 Cf. ibid., pp. 139ff.
14 John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, pp. 59-60.
15 Chafer, op. cit., I, 71.
19 Lewis S. Chafer, op. cit., I, 22.