What are some different views of how the Bible is inspired?

(Note: This is a practice answer to a possible exam question and is therefore sketchy in places)

How can the Bible be both a divine book and a human book? How should we understand the words of Scripture to be God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16)? Christians have proposed a number of views regarding the inspiration of the Bible, which we will survey briefly. Each view attempts to explain how the Scriptures can be written by humans and divinely given at the same time.

At the outset, we should clarify that the technical term “inspiration” is potentially misleading, given the contemporary use of the term to describe far less than God’s divine supervision (e.g. songwriters, athletes and performers are “inspired”). Some have suggested abandoning this term: for example, AT McGowan prefers the term “divine spiration”, while Wayne Grudem avoids the term altogether and simply states that Scripture is God’s own words. For our purposes we will retain the term inspiration, acknowledging its longstanding use.

Firstly, the mechanical (or dictation) view states that humans were passive in the process of recording God’s Word. They functioned like typewriters or instruments and played little part in the process. Most patristic writers and some Fundamentalists today hold to this view. For example, Athenagorus wrote: “the Spirit [made] use of them as a flute player breathes into a flute.” While this view is attractive because of its simplicity, there is a docetic assumption behind it which devalues the human authors’ contribution to Scripture (for example, Luke’s polished historical narrative, or Mark’s marketplace narration). Christians need not resort to an Islamic or Mormon view of inspiration, where the human authors were merely downloading Scripture from God.

Another view formulated by German theologian Karl Barth is the encounter view. In this view, the Bible is not viewed as God’s revelation; rather, Jesus Himself is. The Bible, rather, functions as a witness to “the event” – an existential encounter with God. Only once this encounter occurs does the Bible become God’s Word. Barth’s view of inspiration arose from a broader desire to form a theology around the Word, as well as him being wary of bibliolatry. As a result, he chose to define revelation so that it is not an objective item to be dissected and analysed (i.e. the Bible). The encounter view therefore, would not affirm that the Bible in its essence is God’s Word. This view is attractive to some as it avoids the issue of attributing difficult passages or human elements to divine supervision (since the Bible is merely a witness to revelation and not the revelation itself). However, the encounter view fails to consider the possibility that God’s Word can be both the content of the revelation and the revelation itself. Ian Maddock offers the analogy that, while a handwritten marriage proposal becomes a proposal (the event) once it’s opened, even if it is not opened the document (the content) is still intrinsically a proposal. In other words, using Barth’s terminology, the Bible can certainly be God’s Word in itself, and become it.

Given the limits of the two views above, it seems best, therefore to embrace both the divine supervision and human contribution to the formation of God-breathed Scripture. A verbal plenary view of inspiration states that all of the Bible, down to each word, ultimately comes from God. For example, 2 Peter 1:21 describes this process: “…men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Again, this is not to subscribe to a mechanical view of inspiration: rather, God superintends the background, heritage and circumstances of individual writers so that their written work is both their own free compositions, and the very Word of God. The meticulous research of Luke’s history in Luke and Acts is as divinely inspired as John receiving the letters in Revelation 2 by dictation.

The verbal plenary view of inspiration is held by many evangelical Christians today. A verbal plenary view contends that every word written is superintended and guided by God, regardless of the means. Michael Horton notes that biblical writers were moved to say things, both by God entering their lives and thoughts, as well as by his Spirit preparing and guiding their lives to make His Word come forth from their own minds and hearts. This dual-authorship view of the Bible upholds both divine and human agency so we are able to confidently believe that the Bible is truly God’s Word to us.

Evaluate the ‘verbal-plenary’ view of inspiration in relation to alternative theories of inspiration.
(40 minutes)

Sources and helpful links:

  • Maddock, Ian. “Characteristics of Scripture: Inspired and Authoritative.” NT601 The Knowledge of God (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Grudem, Wayne. “The Authority of Scripture.” Pages 73-89 of Systematic Theology. Leiceister: IVP, 1994.
  • Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
  • Frame, John. Review of AT McGowan’s The Divine Spiration of Scripture, 2007. https://frame-poythress.org/review-of-andrew-mcgowans-the-divine-spiration-of-scripture/


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