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Theories of Inspiration

In the Nick of Time

Nearly everyone who claims to be a Christian also professes to believe in the inspiration of the Bible. They give different answers, however, to the question of what inspiration is. These differing answers are sometimes viewed as alternative theories of inspiration.

For example, some people mean that the Bible is inspired in the sense that it is inspiring. They would point to the music of Mozart or the poetry of Shakespeare as other inspiring (and therefore inspired) works. For these people an inspired work is one that addresses the human condition in some profound way. They would see the Bible as inspired in the same sense as Milton or Brahms, perhaps even to a greater degree. They would not, however, see the Bible as uniquely the Word of God. Their view of inspiration leads to take a low view of Scripture and a low understanding of its infallibility and authority.

Others see inspiration as the operation of the true and living God in the production of Scripture, but they wish to limit this operation to only portions of the Bible. In other words, they see some parts of the Bible as inspired but other parts as uninspired. The inspired parts communicate God’s message with His full authority, but the uninspired parts contain only human reflections and speculations, perhaps even errors. This theory could be called partial or limited inspiration.

For example, some evangelicals argue that Paul contradicts himself concerning the status of women. They observe that in Galatians 3:28, Paul states that in Christ there is neither male nor female. This verse is supposed to be the inspired declaration of God’s view of the relationship between the sexes, contradicted (this theory suggests) by 1 Timothy 2:11, which forbids women from teaching or usurping authority over males. The latter passage is dismissed as an assertion of Paul’s rabbinical bias, not endorsed by God. Even though Paul wrote both verses, they would say only one is genuinely inspired, limiting inspiration to only some parts of Scripture.

For those who hold this view, the problem is to decide which parts of the Bible are inspired and which are not. One version of this theory suggests that the moral or ethical teachings of Scripture are inspired. Another argues that the saving message of the Bible is inspired. Both versions would exempt factual matters such as history or science from inspiration. People who hold this theory see the Bible as inspired and authoritative when it teaches morality or ethics or salvation, but they insist that it may contain errors when it records history or speaks to scientific issues.

In practice, the partial inspiration theory turns out to be a way of dismissing those sections of Scripture that a reader finds uncomfortable. Typically, the inspired passages are taken to be those that agree with the sensibilities of the reader. This is a highly subjective method that grows out of a flawed understanding of inspiration.

Another theory sees all of the Bible as inspired, but holds that some parts are more inspired and authoritative than others. For example, the words of Jesus are thought to be supremely important and authoritative, while the teachings of Peter or Zechariah might be more or less inspired and authoritative. Perhaps this theory of degrees of inspiration is part of the motivation for red-letter editions of the Bible—editions that put the words of Jesus in red.

Scripture itself, however, never hints that inspiration has any degrees, grades, or variations. Either a text is inspired or it is not: no intermediate category exists. Furthermore, the apostles regularly placed their own words directly alongside the words of Christ, insisting that their teachings were as authoritative as His. To cite one example, Paul did just that in 1 Cor. 7:10-12. Dealing with issues related to marriage, he pointed to the teachings of the Lord Jesus as authoritative. Then, dealing with a related issue that Jesus had not addressed, he asserted his own teaching as equally authoritative (vv.11-12). Scripture is either inspired or not. There are no degrees of inspiration.

Some have favored a theory called dynamic inspiration. This is the theory that God inspired the thoughts, which the human authors then recorded in their own words. This theory leaves open the possibility that somewhere between the thinking and the writing, the subject matter could become garbled. Even though God’s inspiration of the thoughts might be infallible, the humanly-authored product might very well contain errors.

One frequent objection to this theory is that thoughts require words, and consequently God could not have inspired thoughts without words. This objection, however, relies upon an extra-biblical theory of mental operations, and the theory is actually contradicted by experience. Any number of internal, mental operations may be performed without the necessity of words. One can remember the smell of bread baking, or wish that a pain would vanish, or admire a sunset, or imagine a red dragon—all without the medium of language. It is entirely possible that God could have evoked such remembering, wishing, admiring, or imagining directly, leaving it to the human authors to express those mental operations in their own words.

The problem with dynamic inspiration does not consist in the relationship between thoughts and words. It consists in the actual biblical evidence. The only text that directly references the inspiration of Scripture is 1 Timothy 3:16-17, and that text flatly states that all Scripture (i.e., writing) is inspired of God. One might be able to have thoughts without words, but no one has yet been able to invent a system of writing without words. Certainly those systems of writing that God chose to employ relied upon words. The writings are inspired, not the thoughts—and if the writings are inspired, then the words are inspired.

Finally, some have envisioned the production of Scripture as a process of transcription. God dictated what He wanted written, and the human authors simply transcribed the divine dictation. Sometimes this theory is called the dictation theory. It is also known as the mechanical theory.

The dictation theory is not what Scripture itself describes, however. The writers of the Bible were not mere transcriptionists receiving divine dictation. Rather, they were thinkers and authors whose words were truly their own, while simultaneously remaining the words of God. Scripture is a unique book in that it has dual authorship. The words that Moses wrote are really and fully the words of Moses—but they are also really and fully the words of God. The same can be said of every other biblical author.

All of the above are mistaken theories of inspiration. Biblical inspiration is not limited or partial, it is not a matter of degrees or thoughts, and the Bible was not dictated. The actual nature of inspiration becomes clear only when the biblical text is allowed to provide its own definitions.

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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.

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Look Down, My Soul, on Hell’s Domains
John Ryland (1753–1823)

Look down, my soul, on hell’s domains,
That world of agony and pains!
What crowds are now associate there,
Of widely different character.

Oh were it not for grace divine,
This case so dreadful had been mine!
Hell gaped for me! but, Lord, Thy hand
Snatch’d from the fire the kindling brand.

And now, though wrath was my desert,
I hope to share a better part;
But heaven must wonder sure to see
A sinner enter, vile as me.

Oh grace, rich grace, delightful theme!
All heaven shall echo with the same;
While angels greet a sinner thus—
“Art thou become like one of us?”

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is 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 this post expresses.