The wording of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 forces the reader to certain conclusions about biblical inspiration. First, the writings and not the writers are inspired. Second, the words and not merely the ideas of Scripture are inspired. Third, inspiration is about a result and not about the process by means of which the Scriptures were produced.
Scripture does, however, speak to that process, if only briefly. The key text is 2 Peter 1:20-21. While Peter did not supply all the details in this text, he did give enough information to imply that the production of Scripture involved both divine and human agency.
In these two verses, Peter was discussing “every prophecy of Scripture.” Technically, the verses only apply to those portions of the Bible that were originally received from God through direct revelation (that is the definition of prophecy). The verses, however, are not about prophecy in general, but specifically about written prophecy—prophecy of Scripture. Consequently, this passage provides a template that probably fits all Scriptures, whether they are the result of direct revelation or whether they were originally produced in some other way.
One common misunderstanding of the passage should be intercepted immediately. Many readers—indeed, most translations—assume that verse 20 is talking about how the text of Scripture should be interpreted (e.g., “no private interpretation,” KJV). Peter’s words do not support this assumption. The leading verb is a form of ginomai, the Greek verb for coming into existence. Peter was not discussing how to interpret the Bible, but how the Bible came to be. On this subject, Peter was quite clear: no prophecy of Scripture came to be “of its own unloosing.” In other words, the production of Scripture did not just happen. It was deliberate, planned, and actuated by someone.
Who was ultimately responsible for the production of Scripture? Verse 21 provides both negative and positive answers to this question. Negatively, no prophecy was ever produced by an act of the human will. When Peter offered this observation, he was thinking of true, genuine prophecies. Humans have come up with plenty of spurious prophecies all on their own. Genuine prophecy, however, always involves divine revelation. Revelation is the communication by God of truth that humans did not know and would not otherwise have known. No mere human being could ever simply will prophecy to occur.
If the prophecies of Scripture are not of human origin, then where do they come from? Peter answers this question positively in the second half of verse 21. He states that people spoke from God “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” This statement is valuable for at least two reasons.
First, it is valuable because it emphasizes the dual nature of Scripture. On the one hand, humans spoke. On the other hand, they spoke from God. Scripture has both a divine side and a human side. Neither side can be downplayed or explained away without doing serious damage to a biblical understanding of the nature of Scripture.
Second, the verse is valuable because it provides the Bible’s only real explanation of how the human and the divine were connected in the production of Scripture. Humans spoke from God “being moved by the Holy Spirit.” The word for moved (a form of the verb phero) has in this context the idea of being carried along. The idea is much the same as in Acts 27:15, where a ship was carried along by the wind in its sails.
The verse provides a beautiful picture of biblical inspiration. The human authors of Scripture were in full possession of their faculties, making their own decisions, composing their own texts. Nevertheless, as they wrote, they were being “carried along” by the Holy Spirit. They wrote the words that they chose, and in the end their words were the very words that God wanted. The text that resulted was fully the word of the human authors, but also fully the Word of God.
The dual nature of Scripture was recognized by no less an authority than Jesus Himself. Preparing to cite the Pentateuch in Mark 7:8-9, Jesus calls it the “commandment of God.” In the very next verse, however, Jesus states that “Moses said.” According to Jesus, the text was both the commandment of God and the saying of Moses at the same time, and He further designated it as the Word of God (Mk. 7:13).
In another episode, Jesus quoted Psalm 110:1, with the explanation that “David said by the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 12:36-37). As far as Jesus was concerned, the verse was genuinely David’s. In fact, Jesus went on to hinge an argument upon that fact that David had called Messiah “Lord.” Nevertheless, Jesus also recognized that David said these things “by the Holy Spirit.” The words of the Psalm were truly David’s. The words of the Psalm were also truly God’s.
Even Scriptures that involve direct revelation involve a human element in their authorship. Moses received the Decalogue from God, but he was still the author who incorporated the Decalogue into the Pentateuch. David called Christ his “Lord” by divine revelation, but he was still the author of the psalm in which that revelation was written. Anyone who denies or de-emphasizes the divine authorship of Scripture is on dangerous ground, but so is anyone who denies or de-emphasizes the human authorship of Scripture.
The Gospel Coalition has recognized this relationship in its confessional statement on the Scriptures when it says that God “by his Spirit has graciously disclosed himself in human words.” It simply is not true that this statement could open the door to error—except in the sense that any truth, if taken out of proportion, can open the door to error. It is neither a “strange” nor a “uniquely odd nuance,” but a straightforward assertion of the Bible’s own teaching about itself.
Is it possible for the Bible to be inerrant if it is a human book? The short answer is yes, for at least two reasons. The first is that, even apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, humans are capable of writing texts that contain no errors (and to say that a text is “without error” is exactly to say that it is “inerrant”). For example, the text, “Two plus two equals four” is inerrant, even though it is of purely human authorship. So is the text, “The doctrine of inspiration implies the inerrancy of Scripture.” Neither is God-breathed, but both are wholly accurate.
Second, the Bible is more than a human text. It is also a divine text. While a purely human text might contain errors, a God-breathed text cannot, even if it is also a human text. The analogy has sometimes (and rightly) been made to the person of Christ: even if His human nature was capable of sinning, the person never acted apart from the divine nature and was therefore impeccable.
The Holy Bible is a remarkable document. It is a genuinely human book, giving full play to the personalities of its human authors. It is also a genuinely divine book, God-breathed, profitable, fully authoritative, and absolutely without error.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Thy Servant, Blessed by Thee, Shall Live
The Psalter, 1912
Thy servant, blessed by Thee, shall live
And keep Thy Word with awe;
Lord open Thou mine eyes to see
The wonders of Thy law.
A pilgrim in the earth am I,
Thy will to me reveal;
To know Thy truth my spirit yearns,
Consumed with ardent zeal.
Thou dost rebuke the proud, O Lord,
Who hate Thy holy name;
But since I keep Thy righteous law,
Deliver me from shame.
I on Thy statutes meditate,
Though evil men deride;
Thy faithful Word is my delight,
My counselor and guide.