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).[1]


The word inspiration comes by way of Vulgate Latin and the King James English translations of the Greek word θεοπνευστος (theopneustos, literally, “God-breathed”) found in 2 Timothy 3:16–3:17:

πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ, ἵνα ἄρτιος ᾖ ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐξηρτισμένος.[2]
Omnis Scriptura divinitus inspirata utilis est ad docendum, ad arguendum, ad corripiendum, et erudiendum in justitia : ut perfectus sit homo Dei, ad omne opus bonum instructus.[3]
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.[4]

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”). The word “inspiration” comes from the Latin noun inspiratio and from the verb inspirare. Inspirare is a compound term resulting from the Latin prefix in (inside, into) and the verb spirare (to breathe). Inspirare meant originally “to blow into”, as for example in the sentence of the Roman poet Ovid: “conchae […] sonanti inspirare iubet[5] (“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”. 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”.[6] Some modern English translations opt for “God-breathed” (NIV) or “breathed out by God” (ESV) and avoid “inspiration” altogether, since its connotation, unlike its Latin root, leans toward breathing in instead of breathing out.


The Bible contains many passages in which the authors 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, 1 Kgs 12:22–24;1 Chr 17:3–4; Jer 35:13; Ezek 2:4; Zech 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” (2 Pet 1:20–21). The Second Epistle of Peter also implies that Paul’s writings are inspired (2 Pet 3:16)

Many Christians cite a verse in Paul’s letter to Timothy, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as evidence that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable …” Here St. Paul is referring to the Old Testament, since the scriptures have been known by Timothy from “infancy” (verse 15). 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…”[7] A similar translation appears in the New English Bible, in the Revised English Bible, and (as a footnoted alternative) in the New Revised Standard Version. The Latin Vulgate can be so read.[8] Yet others defend the “traditional” interpretation; Daniel B. Wallace calls the alternative “probably not the best translation.”[9]


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

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.”[10]

Theories seeing only parts of the Bible as inspired (“partial inspiration”)[11] meet with insistent emphasis on plenary inspiration on the part of its proponents.

Roman Catholic

The Roman Catholic Church holds the Bible as inspired by God, but 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.[12]

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. [13]

As summarized by Karl Keating,[14] the Roman Catholic apologetic for the inspiration of scripture first considers the scriptures as a merely historical source, and then it attempts to derive the divinity of Jesus from the information contained therein, illuminated by the tradition of the Catholic Church and by what they consider to be common knowledge about human nature. After offering evidence that Jesus is indeed God, they argue that his biblical promise to establish a church that will never perish cannot be empty, and that promise, they believe, implies an infallible teaching authority vested in the church. This teaching authority is able, in turn, to establish the “canon” of the Scriptures, namely, those books which are to be accepted by believers as inspired.


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.”[15] John Calvin also rejected the verbal dictation theory.[16]

Although Luther did not believe God physically penned the Bible, he 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.”[17]

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.”[18]


Rembrandt’s The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel.

Evangelicals view the Bible as a genuinely human product, but one superintended by the Holy Spirit, preserving the authors’ 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 authors. 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”[19] and Norman Geisler in “When Critics Ask”[20] have proposed answers to hundreds of claimed contradictions. Some discrepancies are accounted for by changes from the autographa (the original manuscripts) that have been introduced in the copying process, either deliberately or accidentally.

Many Evangelicals consider biblical inerrancy and/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[by whom?] when the evangelical approach to scripture is discussed:[21]:239

  • Verbal dictation theory: The dictation theory claims that God dictated the books of the Bible word by word, suggesting the authors were no more than tools used to communicate God’s precisely intended message.[21]
  • 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 authors so as to produce the words God wanted.[21] 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.”[22]
  • Intuition theory: The authors of the Scriptures were merely wise men, so the Bible is inspired by advanced human insight.[23]
  • 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).[23]
  • Dynamic inspiration: The thoughts contained in the Bible are inspired, but the words used were left to the individual writers.[21] This suggests the underlying message of the Scriptures are inspired, while the exact wording is dynamic.

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[24] and calls the Holy Spirit the author of the Bible.[25]


At times, the Verbal Plenary Inspiration theory has been criticized as tending toward a dictation theory of inspiration,[26] where God speaks and a human records his words. C. H. Dodd wrote:

The theory which is commonly described as that of “verbal inspiration” is fairly precise. It maintains that the entire corpus of Scripture consists of writings every word of which (presumably in the original autographs, forever inaccessible to us) was directly “dictated” by the Deity… They consequently convey absolute truth with no trace of error or relativity… No attempt will be made here to formulate an alternative definition of inspiration… That I believe to be a false method. There is indeed no question about the original implications of the term: for primitive religious thought the “inspired” person was under the control of a supernatural influence which inhibited the use of his normal faculties.[26]

In the New American Commentary by T.D. Lea and H.P. Griffen, it was written, “[n]o respected Evangelicals maintain that God dictated the words of Scripture.”[21]

The Evangelical position has been criticized as being circular by non-Christians and as well as Christians such as Catholic and Orthodox authors, who accept the doctrine of biblical inspiration but reject the Protestant arguments in favor of it. These critics claim that the Bible can only be used to prove doctrines of biblical inspiration if the doctrine is assumed to begin with.[14] Some defenders of the evangelical doctrine such as B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, however, moved away from such circular arguments 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.[27] Others such as Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, and John Frame have accepted circularity as inevitable in the ultimate presuppositions of any system and seek instead to prove the validity of their position by transcendental arguments related to consistency.

Modernist Christianity

The typical view within Liberal Christianity and Progressive Christianity rejects the idea that the Bible is divinely inspired in a unique way. 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 cultural/cultic practices. As such, form critics attempt to separate the kernel of inspired truth from the husk that contains it, doing so through various exegetical methods.


The Neo-orthodox doctrine of inspiration views the Bible as “the words of God” but not “the Word of God”. It is only when one reads the text that it becomes the word of God to the reader. This view is a reaction to the Modernist doctrine, which, Neo-orthodox proponents argue, eroded the value and significance of the Christian faith, and simultaneously a rejection of the idea of textual inerrancy. Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Emil Brunner(1889-1966) were primary advocates of this approach.


  1.  B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, “The Oxford Companion to the Bible,” Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), Pages 302 to 304
  2.  Aland, B., Aland, K., Black, M., Martini, C. M., Metzger, B. M., & Wikgren, A. (1993). The Greek New Testament (4th ed., p. 554). Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies.
  3.  Biblia Sacra juxta Vulgatam Clementinam. (2005) (Ed. electronica.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
  4.  The Holy Bible: King James Version. (1995) (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  5.  Ovid, Metamorphoses 1, 334.
  6.  Metzger, Bruce (1987). The Canon of the New Testament : its origin, development, and significance. New York: Oxford UniversityISBN978-0-19-826180-3.
  7.  Dodd, Charles Harold (1978). The Authority of the Bible. London: Collins. p. 25. ISBN0-00-625195-1.
  8.  The Douay-Rheims Bible, relying on the Vulgate, has “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach …”. See the comment in the New Jerusalem Bible study edition- footnote ‘e’, page 1967 Darton Longman Todd 1985. ISBN0-232-52077-1, but with the caution “less probably”.
  9.  Daniel B. Wallace (1996). Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. pp. 313–314. ISBN0-310-21895-0Many scholars feel that the translation should be: ‘Every inspired scripture is also profitable.’ This is probably not the best translation, however, for the following reasons: (1) Contextually […] (2) Grammatically […]
  10.  Jones, Jeffrey M. (July 8, 2011). “In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally”Gallup.
  11.  For example: Elwell, Walter A., ed. (2001) [1984]. “Verbal Inspiration”. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker Reference Library (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. p. 1242. ISBN9780801020759. Retrieved 2017-08-29The spirit of the Renaissance, developments in philology and textual criticism, the emergence of ideas of the partial inspiration of the Bible in some quarters, and the initial expression of philosophical views that would find their culmination in the Enlightenment – all helped to stimulate theological reflection. And the refinement of plenary and then verbal inspiration were among the consequences.
  12.  Durand, Alfred (1910). “Inspiration of the Bible”The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Archived from the original on 25 November 2010. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  13.  Ratzinger, Joseph (2007). Jesus of Nazareth. Translated by A. J. Walker. London: Bloomsbury. p. xx.
  14.  Proving Inspiration, Catholic Answers Archived 2006-02-12 at the Wayback Machine.
  15.  Farrar, F. W. (1886). History of interpretation. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 339.
  16.  Farrar, F. W. (1886). History of interpretation. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 345.
  17.  Hannah, John D. (1984). Inerrancy and the Church. The University of Michigan: Moody Publishers. p. 113. ISBN9780802403278.
  18.  Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, 15.
  19.  Haley, John W. Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible. W.F. Draper.
  20.  Geisler, Norman (1992). When Critics Ask. Wheaton, IL, USA: Victor Books. p. 604. ISBN0896936988. Archived from the original on 2017-03-05.
  21.  Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). Vol. 34: 1, 2 Timothy, Titus. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  22.  Myers, A. C. (1987). The Eerdmans Bible dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Entry on Inspiration
  23.  Huffman, Justin (July 18, 2017). “The Inspiration of Scripture”Baptist Bible Hour. Archived from the original on 2017-09-25.
  24.  “God’s Word, or Holy Scripture” from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article II, of Original Sin
  25.  “the Scripture of the Holy Ghost”. Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Preface, 9
  26.  Dodd, Charles Harold (1978). The Authority of the Bible. London: Collins. ISBN0-00-625195-1.
  27.  Coleman, Richard J. (January 1975). “Biblical Inerrancy: Are We Going Anywhere?”Theology Today31 (4). OCLC60620600. Archived from the original on 2002-05-03. Retrieved 2008-07-01.

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