Understanding the Inspiration of the Bible

"Everyone has a basis of authority on which he thinks and acts. For the Christian this is the Bible, claimed to be a book that is different from all others," says Charles Ryrie. [1] The Bible is indeed different from all other books--it claims to be the inspired word of God. But this raises many questions. Where does the Bible say this? And what does this mean, anyway? Is the entire Bible inspired, or just parts? Is the Bible inspired just in its teachings, or in its history as well? If the Bible is God's word, then how can so many events be told from a human perspective?

Answering these questions by examining the Bible's testimony about itself will provide a greater, more accurate understanding of this important issue. This is not an attempt to quote the Bible in order to prove the Bible, but an examination of the Bible's claims for itself and what they mean.

The Biblical View of Inspiration
The Bible, as we will see, claims to be infallible and inerrant. To avoid confusion, we must first ask, What does this mean? This means that the Bible is completely without error, and it cannot be wrong in anything that it affirms--whether the issue is historical, scientific, or spiritual. It records things as they really happened and only teaches the truth. In the words of New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, "When the texts are interpreted in accordance with their historical and literary context, what they say is true." [2]

Technically, there is a fine distinction between the two words infallible and inerrant, but they both imply the same thing. The term infallible has traditionally meant that something cannot error (we will also use it this way). To say that something is inerrant is to say that it does not error. If something is infallible (i.e., it cannot error), then it is certainly inerrant as well (i.e., it does not error). Both convey the point that the Bible never affirms anything that is false. However, because of a recent trend to redefine the word infallible, it is important to add the word inerrant when referring to the Bible to ensure clarity. Now let us investigate--does the Bible really claim to be without error, and what does "inspiration" mean?

Perhaps the most direct statement about the inspiration of the Bible is 2 Timothy 3:16, which declares that "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." Inspiration in the biblical sense is unique. Do not confuse it with the common usage of the word, as when we say that Beethoven was inspired to compose great symphonies. The Greek word translated inspired in 2 Timothy 3:16 literally means "God-breathed." It refers not to the writers, but to what is written. Thus, the origin of Scripture is God, not man--the Bible came from God through the men who wrote it; God, who is true (John 3:33), breathed out truth. This applies to the entire Bible, and extends to the actual words, not just the concepts ("all Scripture"). Jesus also affirmed this for the Old Testament (Matt. 5:18) and promised this for the New Testament (John 16:12-15; 14:26).

It is important to note that the original texts were inspired, not any copies. However, the science of textual criticism has firmly established that the text of the Bible we now have today is approximately 99.5% the same as what was originally written and no fundamental doctrine rests on a disputed reading. [3]

Second Peter 1:21 reveals the "how" of inspiration: "For no prophecy of Scripture was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved [literally, born along] by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." Prophecy means divinely inspired teaching. It includes, but is not limited to, predictions of the future. Thus, the entire Bible is prophetic, since it is all inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). This verse, therefore, reveals the dual authorship of God's word--the Holy Spirit was a co-author with the human writer.

Dual authorship is further indicated by many passages in the New Testament where "portions of the Old Testament which were written by various men are assigned to the Holy Spirit as the Author." [4] For example, in Mark 12:36 the Holy Spirit is said to by the author of Psalm 110, which was written by David. In Acts 4:25, Psalm 2 is ascribed to the Holy Spirit, even though it was written by David. Also see Hebrews 3:7; 10:15-16.

This brings us to an important definition of biblical inspiration: the Holy Spirit guided and guarded the men involved in the writing so that, "using their own individual personalities, they composed and recorded without error God's word to mankind in the words of the original manuscripts." [5]

Norman Geisler further explains that "The human writer is seen as one who has received a revelation [revelation means the giving of truth from God, inspiration refers to the recording of this truth] and actively participates in its writing, while God gives the revelation and oversees the writing. Hence, the message is wholly from God, but the humanity of the writer is included to enhance the message. Both the divine and human concur in the same words (1 Cor. 2:13)." [6]

It cannot be overemphasized that inspiration was not a mechanical dictation where the human element of writing was obliterated. God allowed a certain amount of their individual styles to be expressed. Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit of God guided and controlled each writer so that what they wrote was not distorted in any sense, but was what God wanted written. In other words, because God is omnipotent (Rev. 19:6), and the Biblical authors were "born along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21), people did not (in fact, could not) corrupt God's truth in the process of recording it. It is very important to understand these concepts.

The process of inspiration extended to every word of every book of the entire Bible (2 Tim. 3:16 -- "all Scripture"), refuting the idea of myth and error. Jesus taught this, claiming that inspiration extended to the very words (Matt. 5:18), and Paul also believed in the accuracy of the very words (see Gal. 3:16 where he bases his entire argument on the tense of a single word in the Old Testament. He could not have done this if he did not consider the very words accurate). This is called the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration, which means that the very words (verbal) were all (plenary) God-breathed. The result must be inerrant and infallible because God is behind the writings, and He is perfect. If it were not inerrant, we would be left with God inspired error (a contradiction in terms!). Jesus said that God's word is truth (John 17:17). Truth is an accurate, undistorted view of reality that is consistent with itself and does not allow for the presence of myths (1 Tim. 1:3, 4; 2 Tim. 4:4), errors, mistakes, or contradictions: "Every word of God is flawless..." (Prov. 30:5). "I, the Lord, speak the truth..." (Isaiah 45:9). That which isn't real, isn't true.

The importance of inspiration
According to 2 Timothy 3:17 there is a reason that all Scripture is God-breathed and therefore without error. In the context of 2 Timothy 3, Paul is talking about the peril of apostasy (false teaching) and the need for protection from it. In order to stand firm in Christ and the truth, we must have a solid foundation, since many will oppose the truth (v. 8), "evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived" (v. 13), and "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (v. 12). If the Bible contains errors, it is not a solid foundation. Therefore, the entire Bible is God-breathed so that we may "teach, correct, reprove, and train in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." If all Scripture is not God-breathed and inerrant, the man of God is not adequate, and certainly not equipped, for doing the work of God. The standard for our beliefs must be fully backed by God's authority, or it will fall, and we will go with it.

If only parts of the Bible are infallible we are even worse off--how are we to determine which parts are true and which are not? We would be free to make Christianity whatever we want it to be. And if one believes, for example, that the Bible is inerrant when speaking on spiritual matters but not on historical matters, a major problem is encountered--if the Biblical writers were incorrect in their historical picture, considerable doubt would be cast upon their trustworthiness in other areas that we cannot verify. In fact, many of the Bible's teachings on "spiritual truth" would be meaningless if certain events were not real, historical, and factual.

For example, in Romans 5:12-21 Paul contrasts Adam's disobedience and its consequences (sin and death) with Christ's obedience and its consequences (salvation). If Adam was not a literal, historical individual, Paul's point would be meaningless. Further cases of theological truths being inseparably linked to the reality of historical events are 1 Cor. 15:14-19, where Paul says that if Christ's resurrection from the dead is not a real event in history, Christianity is worthless; Matthew 19:4-6, where Jesus bases His teaching about divorce on the reality of God's creation of Adam and Eve as the first humans; and Matthew 24:37-39, where Jesus affirms the reality of the flood in Noah's day by comparing it to His return.

Historically, the Christian Church has held to the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration (as explained earlier) from the very beginning. Unfortunately, many denominations and individual Christians do not believe that the Bible is all the word of God and all infallible. The one who denies that the entire Bible is the infallible word of God no longer has a solid, absolute foundation for their beliefs and is therefore open to being "tossed about by every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14), not to mention that they would be disagreeing with Jesus (John 10:35; 17:17; Matt. 5:18). The Bible is the standard that judges us; we are not the standard that judges the Bible.

Ultimately, we must recognize that as one reads the Bible, it is the Holy Spirit who confirms to a person that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. He will testify that all of its words are true and that it is authoritative for our lives. He will show that it calls for our obedience. Therefore, the most important thing to do in order to come to an accurate belief about the Bible is to read the it, investgate it, and discover its truths for oneself. We then must make a choice if we are going to accept the Bible or not as God's infallible and inerrant word.

1. Charles Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), p. 1,965.
2. David Van Biema, "The Gospel Truth?" Time, April 8, 1996, Vol. 147, no. 15.
3. See A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman Geisler and William E. Nix (Moody Press) for an in-depth analysis of this issue, as well as the issue of canonization and further treatment of inspiration.
4. Ryrie, p. 1967.
5. Ryrie, p. 1966.
6. Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1990), p. 146.

Scripture quotations are generally from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.


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