The prophet Amos once proclaimed an age of darkness for the Old Covenant people of God, when he said
‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘That I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.’ (Amos 8:11)
Of course that age ended when prophecy was restored in John the Baptist and the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. But one wonders if what the prophet said about God’s people 750 years before the coming of Christ does not apply to the situation we find ourselves in today. For example, in a 1997 survey, church growth advocate George Barna says that many American Christians claim to believe the Bible, but have their own beliefs about what it teaches. He writes:
Correcting people’s mistaken assumptions about Bible content is made nearly impossible by their self-assurance about their beliefs. Even if they are exposed to good Bible teaching they typically fail to absorb that input because they think they already know it all. Changing the errant theological positions of millions of Americans is a very tough assignment.1
Some of these errors are serious. 80% of born again Christians agree that the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves. Others are downright humorous: 12% of adults believe that the name of Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.
We, as historic Protestants, must not only know what we believe but why we believe it. Our Confession, then, begins a survey of the nature of Scripture. Notice that it spends five articles on this doctrine to press home the point to us that this is God’s Word, this is God’s teaching about Himself, from Himself, to us. Remember from our last article that Article 2 of the Belgic Confession says that God “makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word.” So what is it about this Word, that makes it able to do this?
What is “Inspiration?”
We confess that this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by the will of man, but that “men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit,” as the apostle Peter says …Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.
When we confess that the Scriptures are “holy and divine,” we are saying that they are “inspired.” What is this all about? It seems to me that there is no better brief definition of inspiration than that of B.B. Warfield. The great Princeton theologian defines it as:
A supernatural influence exerted on the sacred writers by the Spirit of God, by virtue of which their writings are given Divine trustworthiness.”2
It is the power of God upon the authors of Scripture that guarantees and ensures that their words will be God’s words, without mistakes or errors. But where do we find this taught in Holy Scripture itself?
There are three main texts on the inspiration of Scripture, the first of which is God’s words to Moses in Deuteronomy 18:18-20. Here the LORD promises to give a prophet like Moses. And notice that the LORD Himself “will put My words in His mouth” (v. 18). The prophet will speak “all that I command Him” (v. 18) and “in My name” (v. 19). And the false prophet speaks words “which I have not commanded him” (v. 20).
So did the prophets and other writers of Scripture simply hear a whisper of God and then write exactly what they heard? There are some times when the LORD actually gave the prophets the exact words to speak; but the majority of time they spoke “in My name” (v. 19), and as we shall see, this means that God was guiding and preserving the pen of the writers.
II Timothy 3:15–17
Another text on the inspiration of Scripture is in II Timothy 3:15–17. Here Paul reminds Timothy that the words of God he grew up hearing “are able to make you wise for salvation” (v. 15). And why? Paul goes on to say that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (v. 16).
Here Paul uses an interesting compound word, which is never used anywhere else in the New Testament. The compound word he uses is theopneustos. Theos is the Greek word for “God” and pneustos is the word for “spirit, breath, wind.” The phrase in the New King James, “inspiration of God” is not as good as the NIV which says, “God-breathed.”
This is important. The “inspiration” of Scripture is not “inspiration” in the sense of a literary inspiration that a writer has while writing on a favorite or moving topic. It is not being inspired in the sense of being spurred on to do something from some desire within us. And it is not even a religious inspiration to go on a missions trip, for example. The “inspiration” of Scripture is the fact that it is “God-breathed,” or, “breathed out by God.” The Scriptures are able to bring us salvation because they are the very words of God which He has breathed out through His prophets and apostles.
II Peter 1:20–21
Finally, II Peter 1:20–21 gives us a beautiful picture of the process of the writing and inspiration of Scripture. Basically what Peter says here is that Scripture did not originate in man (v. 20, 21), but it originated in God, who used the prophets and apostles as the instruments to communicate His word (v. 21).
Notice that the writers of Scripture were also guided by God. His providence is key in the writing of Scripture, as the writers “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” This word “moved” in verse 21 is in the passive voice – “they were moved.” This means that the activity of moving was not the activity of the men, but the activity of the Holy Spirit who moved them. They were passive, they were being carried.
Peter uses the same verb that is used in Acts 27:15, 17. In Acts 27 we have the account of the shipwreck of Paul. There was a great head-wind and they had to let the ship “be driven.” By analogy, just as the ship had to put its sail up and let the wind drive it where the wind willed, so too the writers of Scripture set their pens to begin writing all the while they were being led by the Holy Spirit.
So how is this beneficial to us? Besides giving us a confidence in Scripture, the inspiration of Scripture is a powerful proof of the sovereignty of God. Think about it. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul were “commanded,” as the Confession says, to write. And their writings, though from their pens, could not have any errors. Because God is totally sovereign, His words came through the pens of the writers. Our Confession says “God commanded His servants,” which is the prerogative of a sovereign God. He commanded, preserved, and guided the writers in His sovereignty.
How Was Scripture Inspired?
As we have seen in our previous article, we need the Scriptures as a new, clean pair of glasses to replace our sin-stained spiritual eyes. Unfortunately we can’t just end here, as there are various theories about how God inspired His word. Let us take a look at this for a moment. There are three major views on what is meant by inspiration.
The Dynamic View
This view says that the Holy Spirit only affected the writers and not their writings. Inspiration is understood to be a literary or religious “inspiration.” Scripture then, is a revelation of the religious feelings of the writers. We get kind of a sneak peak beyond the outer religious actions of the writers into their hearts and minds. This is the view of Liberalism, which we have already seen, the Scriptures do not support.
The Mechanical View
In reaction to the dynamic view of Liberalism, Fundamentalism says that God inspired His word by literally dictating each and every word to the writers. As we’ve said, some parts of Scripture were literally dictated, but for the most part, this is not true. We can study the peculiar style of Isaiah, or of John, or of Peter. This is because their personalities, their styles, their background and training are used by God to communicate His word.
More relevant to our day is that this view is the view of Islam. If you should speak with a Muslim, keep in mind that they argue against Christianity’s doctrine of Scripture by using the mechanical dictation view. Muslims believe that the Qu’ran is the word of God because Allah was actually moving the pen of Mohammed. Allah just needed a vessel to control to get His word to men. They say that our Bible is not completely inspired because the writers added and deleted important parts. So how would we respond to this accusation?
The Organic View
Our view has been described as the organic view of inspiration. This means that God moved the writers of the Bible to use their style, vocabulary, research, and personalities in such a way as to communicate His perfect, unerring word to His Church.
Charles Hodge, another of the great Princeton theologians, said
We learn from the Scriptures themselves, that the Holy Spirit, in employing men as his instruments in conveying truth, did not change their mental habits; he did not make Jews write like Greeks, or force all into the same mold. Each retained his own peculiarities of style and manner, and, therefore, whatever is peculiar to each, is to be referred, not to his inspiration, but to his original character and culture … God effects his purposes by those instruments which he has, in the ordinary course of his providence specially fitted for their accomplishment.3
The Bible is both the Word of God and the word of man. This means that God speaks, but also Isaiah preaches. The Spirit communicates to us while Paul is rebuking the Galatians. And the marvelous thing is that the nature of Scripture is based on God’s nature. Because He is holy and not able to sin, His word is holy and not able to lead us into error (infallibility). So, in response to Islam, God didn’t have to dictate His words through the prophets and apostles, because His holiness guarantees that His word would be written by the writers of Scripture without error.
How Much of the Bible is Inspired?
Another question we must answer is how much of the word of God is inspired? I hope from the above discussion it is evident that we believe the whole thing is. But for the sake of awareness of our culture, note that there are basically two views on this question.
The partial view says that just the moral and religious teachings were inspired by God. All the details of history, archaeology, and chronology are not inspired. They can be right, because the writers lived in that culture; but they also made mistakes in dates, details, and place names.
Verbal, Plenary View
In contrast to this, we wholeheartedly believe in what is called verbal, plenary inspiration. What does this mean?
First, the Scriptures are verbally inspired, meaning that the very words themselves are inspired. How do we know this? For example, in Matthew 5 Jesus gives that famous statement “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot and one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18). A “jot” was the smallest of Hebrew letters, the yod, while the “tittle” is the serif part of a letter. In our language this would be a dot in an “i,” or a cross of a “t.” Notice also that in Matthew 22:43–45 and in Galatians 3:16, Jesus and Paul base an entire theological argument on one simple word of the Old Testament.
Second, the Scriptures are fully (plenary) inspired. As we’ve already quoted, Paul says in II Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
The Spoken/Written Word
… men spake from God … and that afterwards God, from a special care which He has for us and our salvation, commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed word to writing; and He Himself wrote with His own finger the two tables of the law…
Finally, our Confession speaks of the word of God as coming through different means in the history of redemption. His inspired word first came through the spoken means. This is truly amazing. Think about Moses, writing the book of Genesis after the Exodus. The spoken word of God had been preserved down through the covenant line for millennia!
So why did His spoken word get written down for us on paper and with ink? Here our Confession uses the language of John Calvin that the Scriptures are an accommodation to us: “afterwards God, from a special care which He has for us and our salvation.” What is accommodation? It is coming down to another persons’ level; stepping into someone else’s shoes. This is like when we as parents make sounds and eat some baby food before giving it to our children or when we empathize with the struggles of a friend. And God has done this in the Bible. In Nehemiah 9:13-14 the writer praises God who “came down” onto Mount Sinai to communicate with His people. And, finally, the Psalmist extols the LORD who “humbles Himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and in the earth” (Psalm 113:6).
2 B.B. Warfield, “The Biblical Idea of Inspiration,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Volume I (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprinted 2000) 77-78. 3 Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (Geneva Series Commentary; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprinted 1989) 4.
Questions for Further Study/Discussion
- What are some common theological errors that people you know believe?
- Why would our Confession spend 5 of its 37 articles on the doctrine of Scripture, if all Christians believe the Bible?
- How important is the inspiration of Scripture for our faith, worship, and evangelism?
- How can Scripture be both the word of God and the word of man?
- Why did the Lord have His word written?
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde (B.A., M.Div.) is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, CA (www.oceansideurc.org)