What Is Biblical Inspiration?

Biblical inspiration is the doctrine in Christian theology that “the human authors and editors of canonical scripture were led or influenced by the Deity with the result that their writings many be designated in some sense the word of God” (B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, “The Oxford Companion to the Bible”, 1993, pp302-3).


The word “inspiration” comes from the Latin noun inspiratio and from the verb inspirareInspirare is a compound term resulting from the Latin prefix in (inside, into) and the verb spirare (to breathe). (See inspiro.) Inspirare meant originally “to blow into”, as for example in the sentence of the Roman poet Ovid: “conchae […] sonanti inspirare iubet” (“he orders to blow into the resonant […] shell”). In classic Roman times, inspirare had already come to mean “to breathe deeply” and assumed also the figurative sense of “to instill [something] in the heart or in the mind of someone”.

When Jerome translated the Greek text of the Bible into the language of the common people of Latium (the region of central western Italy in which the city of Rome is located), he translated the Greek theopneustos as divinitus inspirata (“divinely breathed into”). In Christian theology, the Latin word inspirare was already used by some Church Fathers in the first centuries to translate the Greek term pnéo.

The Church Fathers often referred to writings other than the documents that formed or would form the biblical canon as “inspired”. Some modern English translations opt for “God-breathed” (NIV) or “breathed out by God” (ESV) and avoid “inspiration” altogether, since its most literal meaning (and etymology), unlike its Latin root, leans toward breathing out instead of breathing in. The -tos ending in the Greek theopneustos also designates a passive construct whereby the subject God is breathing out the object (scripture).

The Book

The Book

Writers’ internal claims

Ex 31:18 (NIV) alleges that God directly wrote the Ten Commandments with no human intervening. (Ex 34:1,28 (NIV) alleges that God also wrote a copy of the Ten Commandments.)

The Bible contains many passages in which the writers claim divine inspiration for their message or report the effects of such inspiration on others. Besides the direct accounts of written revelation, such as Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, the Prophets of the Old Testament frequently claimed that their message was of divine origin by prefacing the revelation using the following phrase: “Thus says the LORD” (for example, 1Ki 12:22-24;1Ch 17:3-4; Jer 35:13; Eze 2:4; Zec 7:9; etc.). The Second Epistle of Peter claims that “no prophecy of Scripture … was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pe 1:20-21). The Second Epistle of Peter also implies that Paul’s writings are inspired (2Pe 3:16)

The book of Matthew was written c. 41. Paul’s second letter to Timothy was written c. 65. At Ti 3:16-17 (AKJV), the Bible alleges evidence that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable […]”. The English word “is” is implied in the Greek. The AKJV inserted the words “given by” which changed the part of speech from an adjective to a noun, “inspiration”, the title of this article. Here Paul may be referring to the book of Matthew, since the scriptures were known by Bishop Timothy since his “infancy” (Ti 3:15 (NIV)).

Others offer an alternative reading for the passage; for example, theologian C. H. Dodd suggests that it “is probably to be rendered” as: “Every inspired Scripture is also useful…”. This misplaces the implied “is” in perhaps a well thought out linguistic attempt to weaken the original direct assertion. A similar translation appears in the New English Bible (NEB), in the Revised English Bible (REB), and (as a footnoted alternative) in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The Latin Vulgate mistranslated the Greek similarly & should have used the Latin adjective “inspiravit”, instead of the noun “inspirata”. With regard to misplacing the “is”, Daniel B. Wallace calls this alternative “probably not the best translation.”

Evangelical viewpoint

Evangelicals view the Bible as superintended by the Holy Spirit, preserving the writers’ works from error without eliminating their specific concerns, situation, or style. This divine involvement, they say, allowed the biblical writers to communicate without corrupting God’s own message both to the immediate recipients of the writings and to those who would come after. Some Evangelicals have labelled the conservative or traditional view as “verbal, plenary inspiration of the original manuscripts”, by which they mean that each word (not just the overarching ideas or concepts) was meaningfully chosen under the superintendence of God.

Evangelicals acknowledge the existence of textual variations between biblical accounts of apparently identical events and speeches. They see these as complementary, not contradictory, and explain them as the differing viewpoints of different writers. For instance, the Gospel of Matthew was intended to communicate the Gospel to Jews, the Gospel of Luke to Greeks, and the Gospel of Mark to Romans. Evangelical apologists such as John W. Haley in his book Alleged Discrepancies in the Bible and Norman Geisler in When Critics Ask have proposed answers to hundreds of claimed contradictions. Some discrepancies are accounted for by changes from the master manuscripts (which are alleged to contain very nearly the original text and) that these alterations were introduced as copies were made (maybe of copies themselves), either deliberately or accidentally.

Many Evangelicals consider biblical inerrancy or biblical infallibility to be the necessary consequence of the Bible’s doctrine of inspiration (see, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy).

Three basic approaches to inspiration are often described when the evangelical approach to scripture is discussed:: 239 

  • Verbal plenary inspiration: This view gives a greater role to the human writers of the Bible while maintaining a belief that God preserved the integrity of the words of the Bible. The effect of inspiration was to move the writers so as to produce the words God wanted. In this view the human writers’ “individual backgrounds, personal traits, and literary styles were authentically theirs, but had been providentially prepared by God for use as his instrument in producing Scripture.” However, the theory nuances that “God so mysteriously superintended the process that every word written was also the exact word he wanted to be written—free from all error.”
  • Verbal dictation theory: The dictation theory claims that God dictated the books of the Bible word by word, suggesting the writers were no more than tools used to communicate God’s precisely intended message.
  • Dynamic inspiration: The thoughts contained in the Bible are inspired, but the words used were left to the individual writers. This suggests the underlying message of the Scriptures are inspired, while the exact wording is dynamic.
  • Partial inspiration: the Bible is infallible in matters of faith and practice/morals, yet it could have errors in history or science (e.g. the Big Bang could be true, and the Genesis creation account is more allegorical than historical).
  • Intuition theory: The authors of the Scriptures were merely wise men, so the Bible is inspired by human insight.

Theories seeing only parts of the Bible as inspired (“partial inspiration”) meet with insistent emphasis on plenary inspiration on the part of its proponents.

Critical viewpoint

The New American Commentary by T.D. Lea and H.P. Griffen says, “[n]o respected Evangelicals maintain that God dictated the words of Scripture.” By this, Lea & Griffen were referring to the entirety of the Scriptures, i.e. every single word in the Bible. Lea & Griffen meant that they advocated verbal plenary inspiration as fact, instead of the verbal dictation theory.

The Evangelical position was criticized as being circular by an anonymous Catholic author, who accepted the doctrine of biblical inspiration. This author claimed that the Bible can only be used to prove doctrines of biblical inspiration if the doctrine is assumed to begin with. Some defenders of the evangelical doctrine such as B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, however, moved away from a circular argument and “committed themselves to the legitimacy of external verification” to inductively prove the doctrine, though they placed some restrictions on the evidences that could be considered.

Lutheran and Reformed viewpoint

As Lutherans confess in the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets”. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession identifies Holy Scripture with the Word of God and calls the Holy Spirit the author of the Bible.

According to Frederic Farrar, Martin Luther did not understand inspiration to mean that the scriptures were dictated in a purely mechanical manner. Instead, Luther “held that they were not dictated by the Holy Spirit, but that His illumination produced in the minds of their writers the knowledge of salvation, so that divine truth had been expressed in human form, and the knowledge of God had become a personal possession of man. The actual writing was a human not a supernatural act.” John Calvin also rejected the verbal dictation theory.

Luther asserted that “He [the pious Christian] should not doubt that however simple they [the Scriptures] may seem, these are the very words, deeds, judgments, and history of the high majesty and wisdom of God; for this is the Scripture which makes fools out of all the wise[.]”

The doctrine of sola scriptura was one of the central teachings during the Protestant Reformation. It teaches that the Bible is the final authority for moral, spiritual, and for some, civil matters. As Luther said, “The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”

Catholic viewpoint

Hildegard of Bingen receiving divine inspiration (illustration in the Rupertsberger Codex, c. 1180)

Hildegard of Bingen receiving divine inspiration (illustration in the Rupertsberger Codex, c. 1180)

The Catechism alleges that the Bible’s human writers were “consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” The Catechism also claims that the Bible is “without error”. The Catholic Church holds the Bible as inspired by God, but that it does not view God as the direct author of the Bible, in the sense that he does not put a ‘ready-made’ book in the mind of the inspired person.

Pope Benedict XVI gave the following (non-dogmatic) explanation in 2007:

The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject — the pilgrim people of God — and lives within this same subject. …[T]he individual author or group of authors … are not autonomous … they form part of … the “people of God,” … the deeper “author” of the Scriptures. …[L]ikewise, this people … knows that it is led, and spoken to, by God himself, who — through men and their humanity — is at the deepest level the one speaking.

The Catholic view of biblical inspiration stems from the belief in the historical authenticity of the foundation of an infallible inchurch, and Jesus’ grant of teaching authority to that church through his apostles. Because the church designated the canon through its tradition, its authority to identify the inspired books is accepted, rather than any self-contained or inherent claims of the Scriptures themselves.

Modernist Christian viewpoint

The typical view within Liberal Christianity and Progressive Christianity rejects the idea that the Bible is divinely inspired. Some advocates of higher criticism who espouse this view even go so far as to regard the Bible as purely a product of human invention. However, most form critics, such as Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) and Walter Brueggemann (1933- ), still regard the Bible as a sacred text, just not a text that communicates the unaltered word of God. They see it instead as true, divinely inspired theology mixed with foreign elements that can sometimes be inconsistent with the overarching messages found in Scripture and that have discernible roots in history, mythology, or ancient cultic practices.

Neo-orthodox viewpoint

Emil Brunner (1889-1966) was one of the primary advocates of Neo-othodoxy. He wrote, “[T]he Christian Church believes the Bible to be the Word of God” & “Christian faith is Bible faith.” He also wrote, “Yes, God has made known the secret of His will through the Prophets and Apostles in the Holy Scriptures.” Brunner rhetorically asked, “Is the whole Bible God’s Word then?” Brunner answered, “Yes, insofar as it speaks of that which is ‘here’ in Christ.” It goes without saying that presently some, but not all copies & translations contain errors. But Brunner’s illustration was, “If you buy a phonograph record you are told that you will hear the Master Caruso. Is that true? Of course! But really his voice? Certainly!” Brunner kept emphatically writing, “[T]he Bible[…] makes the real Master’s voice audible,—really his voice, his words, what he wants to say. Men’s personalities can be discerned in Bible, just as Brunner wrote, “[…] God speaks His Word through the voice of man. Paul, Peter, Isaiah and Moses are such men.” Brunner ultimately concludes that, “Only a fool listens to the incidental noises when he might listen to his Master’s voice!”

The Neo-orthodox doctrine of inspiration views the Bible as “the words of God”. This view was a reaction to the Modernist doctrine, which Neo-orthodox proponents argue eroded the value and significance of the Christian faith. Karl Barth (1886-1968) was another one of the primary advocates of Neo-othodoxy.

Other viewpoints

A 2011 Gallup survey reports, “A 49% plurality of Americans say the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally, consistently the most common view in Gallup’s nearly 40-year history of this question.”

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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