(image courtesy clker)
(image courtesy clipartlord)
By Spencer D Gear
What is the biblical view of its own inspiration? Is that important for Christians in their growth in understanding of the Bible?
I’ve written previously – although briefly – about this in:
- What is the nature of the Bible’s inspiration?
- The Bible’s support for inerrancy of the originals;
- “All Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16.
‘Inspiration’ is not a good word as it has too many contemporary connotations with other meanings. I readily say, ‘She’s an inspiration to me. I wish her well in her next skating competition’. That’s what I say about my 9-year-old grand-daughter about her roller skating. ‘That was an inspiring performance in that rugby league performance by Billy Slater that gave the Storm such a commanding victory’.
Oxford dictionaries give these nuances of meaning for the noun, ‘Inspiration’: ‘The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative; the quality of being inspired; a person or thing that inspires; divine influence, especially that supposed to have led to the writing of the Bible; a sudden brilliant or timely idea; the drawing in of breath; inhalation’. This demonstrates the problems we have in using ‘inspiration’ to describe the Bible’s authority.
The translation of ‘inspiration’ has been traditionally identified with a Scripture such as 2 Timothy 3:16 in the Authorised King James Version of the Bible:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
A couple recent translations have provided a more accurate translation of the first sentence in verse 16:
- ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God’ (ESV);
- ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’ (NIV);
Most of the other prominent translations continue to use a version of ‘inspiration’. However, the word used for ‘inspiration’ or ‘God-breathed’ in NT Greek is theopneustos = theos (God) + pneuma = breath or spirit. Colin Brown pointed to the literal meaning of ‘God-breathed, inspired by God’ (Brown 1978:708) and referred to Mayer’s study on ‘Scripture’. In exegeting the noun, graphe, Mayer explained that the adjective, theopneustos, means lit. ‘God breathed’. It does not imply any particular mode of inspiration, such as some form of divine dictation. Nor does it imply the suspension of the normal cognitive faculties of the human authors. On the other hand, it does imply something quite different from poetic inspiration. It is wrong to omit the divine element from the term implied by theo-, as the NEB [New English Bible] does in rendering the phrase ‘every inspired scripture’. The expression clearly does not imply that some Scriptures are inspired, whilst others are not. The sacred scriptures are all expressive of the mind of God; but they are so with a view to their practical outworking in life (Mayer 1978:491).
My view of the authority of the God-breathed Scripture is in agreement with that of A A Hodge & B B Warfield when they wrote:
The New Testament writers continually assert of the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and of the several books which constitute it, that they ARE THE WORD OF GOD. What their writers said God said….
Every element of Scripture, whether doctrine or history, of which God has guaranteed the infallibility, must be infallible in its verbal expression. No matter how in other respects generated, the Scriptures are a product of human thought, and every process of human thought involves language….
The Scriptures are a record of divine revelations, and, as such, consist of words, and as far as the record is inspired at all, and as far as it is in any element infallible, its inspiration must reach to its words. Infallible thought must be definite thought, and definite thought implies words….
Whatever discrepancies or other human limitations may attach to the sacred record, the line (of inspired or not inspired, of infallible or fallible) can never rationally be drawn between the thoughts and the words of Scripture (Hodge & Warfield 1881, emphasis in original).
A similar position is affirmed in the ‘Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy’ (1978). The ‘Short Statement’ of this position is near the beginning of this article and is followed by a more lengthy exposition.
It’s not unusual to encounter some unusual doctrine on various aspects of theology in people in person, and especially on Internet forums where there are often individualistic understandings of the Bible and its authority. I encountered one such person on a forum who wrote:
I believe if a person dwells too deeply on one word [of Scripture] they may miss the concept behind the words.
That is what we are dealing with in the bible: God’s concepts.
This is my opinion of the bible message: God, through His spirit, revealed His concepts to the writers of the bible. When we read the bible the Holy Spirit reveals God’s concepts through the words.
Getting het up about individual words is a waste of time. Whatever translation we read will always have God’s concepts behind it and if we are genuinely seeking to know what God wants us to know, He will inspire us to understand His concepts behind the words.
That said, if we do happen to have a problem with words in a particular translation, we should read it in the original Greek.
That isn’t easy if we have not studied Koine Greek so the next best thing is to look in a concordance.
How should one respond to such a view that is at variance with positions taken by evangelical theologians on the doctrine of the Scripture down through the centuries? Would it pay me to shut up and say nothing or pursue a biblical understanding? I chose the latter as there could be many people in Internet land who may be open to a biblical response and don’t know how to respond to this person who is promoting a ‘concepts’ version of inspiration of Scripture.
Orthodoxy: Words are critical to understanding
I responded as follows:
I disagree profoundly with this view of inspiration of Scripture where one does not have to think deeply about words but deal with ‘concepts’ (whatever that means).
It was said by this person that in the Bible we are dealing with ‘God’s concepts’. Not so! We are dealing with words that make up sentences that become propositions, questions, imperatives, etc. That’s why the Scriptures in numerous places speak of the ‘word’ of the Lord or God, etc.
God didn’t reveal concepts to the authors of Scripture, but he revealed words that became sentences. This is the orthodox doctrine of verbal-propositional revelation of Scripture.
You stated: ‘Getting het up about individual words is a waste of time’. Try telling that to someone who wants to know the difference in meaning among the words agape, philia, and eros, the three Greek words for love.
This person stated: ‘If we do happen to have a problem with words in a particular translation, we should read it in the original Greek. That isn’t easy if we have not studied Koine Greek so the next best thing is to look in a concordance’.
Is that so? My knowledge of the Greek tells me that the place to understand biblical words is not to go to a concordance, but to go to a biblical word study or a Greek dictionary. The most extensive word study that transliterates Greek words (i.e. puts Greek letters into English characters), is the three volume, Colin Brown (ed) 1975, 1976, 1978. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Exeter: The Paternoster Press. If one reads Greek, the most highly recommended is the 10 vol series by Kittel & Friedrich (eds), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1964ff).
In saying all that, the Holy Spirit takes these words and sentences (verbal-propositional revelation) and reveals himself to us with personal application. But the original documents are not ‘concepts’ but are made up of words and sentences where words are important and have meaning. If you don’t believe me, how are you going to deal with the understanding of what happens at death for unbelievers if you don’t understand the meaning of the Greek word for ‘destruction’ in a verse such as Matt 7:13,
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many (ESV).
For some further perspective on the view I have been espousing, see:
‘Revelation was verbal‘;
‘What the Bible is: Personal and propositional revelation‘;
A nod of rejection
How do you think this person would respond to the information I provided above? The person was quick to respond that I made ‘a good case’ but this person still thought ‘that what God imparts to us are His concepts. We must agree to differ’.
This is simply a nod of acknowledgement but forget about the content of the information that I provided. Evidence means nothing to a person who is sold on a view that the Bible deals with ‘concepts’ and not verbal-plenary revelation where words make up sentences to give meaning. However, that person provided not one shred of biblical evidence to support the view about ‘concepts’ as a method of inspiration of Scripture.
My reply was:
There can be no concepts unless God communicates via words and sentences in Scripture. Words are important – every word in Scripture. Verbal-plenary inspiration has been the standard position advocated throughout Christian history. See, ‘In defense of … the Bible’s inspiration‘.
The come back was that the agree to differ position continues because ‘I have had experience of God communicating with me in concepts’. This was not on a regular basis, but she did concede that God ‘also communicates in words’. She asked: ‘Would you confine God to only one method of communication?’ and said that she began to think on ‘God’s concepts when I delved into John 1. The whole of creation is God’s concept’.
How should I respond?
Here goes: Do you understand what you have done with this comment? You have switched horses and have moved from understanding the Bible to understanding how God speaks to you personally. This is dangerous when you meld the two.
In an earlier post you wrote: ‘I believe if a person dwells too deeply on one word they may miss the concept behind the words. That is what we are dealing with in the bible: God’s concepts’.
So you were ‘dealing with in the Bible’ and now you want to apply that to ‘concepts’ in how you ‘have had experience of God communicating with me’. I find that to be dangerous because it is imposing on Scripture what is not there.
Some examples from the Old Testament
We know from Exodus 32:15-16 that God himself wrote the first “two tablets of the testimony” (the law). These tablets were the work of God, but in his anger, Moses destroyed these tablets (32:19). So what did God do? God arranged for the rewriting of the original tablets (Ex. 34:1, 27-28) by whom? “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (34:27). In Deut. 10:2, 4, the Scriptures emphasise that the copy of the law contained “the words that were on the first tablets that you broke” (10:2) and were “in the same writing as before” (10:4).
What about these warnings? The biblical writers knew how to distinguish between the original manuscripts and copies. Deut. 4:2 states: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it”. In Deut. 12:32 it is clear: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it”. From Proverbs 30:6 we have this command: “Do not add to his [God’s] word, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar”.
Some examples from the New Testament
We are dealing with the words and sentences revealed in Scripture and not concepts. How do we know this?
These verses from Revelation 22:18-19 counsel, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book”.
These verses particularly apply to the Book of Revelation (and in the originals). Notice that God does not say, “I warn everyone who hears the concepts of the prophecy of this book” and “if anyone takes away from the concepts of the book of this prophecy”.
There are various other NT emphases that deal with the normative standard of the original documents:
b. In passages such as Matt. 5:21ff, the tradition of the OT text was not allowed to hide the genuine word of God (see Mark 7:1-13). Take Matt 5:21 where Jesus said, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment”. They are specific words dealing with a specific topic (murder) and not some broad “concept“. And those words are in Scripture.
d. Paul told the believers not to tamper with the God’s word (2 Cor. 4:2), where he wrote, “We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word“. There is no such statement of ‘tamper with God’s concepts’.
f. 2 Thess. 3:14 gives a warning to “anyone who does not obey what we say in this letter” (the apostolic message).
g. Believers are warned not to be troubled (“quickly shaken”) by “a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter” that was purported to be from the apostles but was not (2 Thess. 2:2).
There are plenty of NT emphases on the word or words in Scripture and not concepts in Scripture.
Words are absolutely essential to the formation of sentences to provide propositions, questions, imperatives, etc. in Scripture. The theory of ‘concepts’ is that of human invention where a person has transferred from what happens in God speaking to her personally to the nature of inspiration in Scripture
Resemblances of John Shelby Spong’s heresy
How different is this person’s views about ‘concepts’ in the Bible than that of the Episcopalian heretical teacher, John Shelby Spong, who stated:
Behind the narrative [of Scripture] is an unnarrated proclamation. Behind the proclamation is an intense life-giving experience. The task of Bible study is to lead believers into truth, a truth that is never captured in mere words but a truth that is real, a truth that when experienced erupts within us in expanding ways, calling us simultaneously deeper and deeper into life, and not coincidentally, deeper and deeper into God. Our Christ has come, said the Fourth Gospel, that we ‘may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).
Human life alone could not produce that which we have experienced in Jesus Christ. He is of God, so the Christmas story points to truth, but the words used to describe or capture that truth are not themselves true in any literal sense (Spong 1991:225).
Parallels with Emil Brunner
The online Christian forum presenter wanting to see the Bible as ‘concepts’ has parallels with the theological neo-orthodoxy of Emil Brunner who wrote:
The doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture … cannot be regarded as an adequate formulation of the authority of the Bible. It is a product of … late Judaism, not of Christianity. The Apostolic writings never claim for themselves a verbal inspiration of this kind, with the infallibility that it implies (Brunner 1946:127-128).
Domenic Marbaniang’s brief assessment of Brunner’s view of revelation was: ‘Emil Brunner sees revelation as not contained in some objective and controllable text or system. To him revelation is the event of divine-human encounter’ (Marbaniang 2011).
Brunner’s view of the Bible went even further:
Once the fatal step is taken of regarding Scripture as true in itself, it is obvious that this quality applies equally to every single part of Scripture down to the smallest detail…. The dogma of verbal inspiration is involved not as the cause but as the consequence of the new unspiritual conception. The identity of the word of Scripture with the word of God has now changed from indirect to direct (Brunner 1964:34).
Brunner was a Swiss, Reformed, neo-orthodox theologian who critiqued liberal theology. ‘The Christian faith, he maintained, arises from the encounter between individuals and God as He is revealed in the Bible. Brunner, in attempting later to leave a place for natural theology in his system, came into conflict with Barth over the question of natural revelation’ (The Columbia electronic encyclopedia 2012).
Roger Olson has two assessments of Brunner (in reviewing Alister McGrath’s book on Brunner) that you might like to consider:
- A Favorite Theologian Revisited: Emil Brunner (Review of Alister McGrath’s Book: Part One);
- A Favorite Theologian Revisited: Emil Brunner (Review of Alister McGrath’s Book: Part Two).
Biblical support for verbal-plenary inspiration.
I was about to prepare a comprehensive overview of the biblical support for the nature of ‘inspiration’ of Scripture when I realised that other evangelical scholars have already done this. I refer you to this material.
Further support also is found in:
- The summary by Prof Andrew Snider in his ‘TH605 Theology I’ class notes under the heading ‘The Biblical Theme of Inspiration’, pp. 22-26.
- Edwin A Blum 1979, ‘The apostles’ view of Scripture’, in Geisler (1979:37-53). A fairly large portion of this article is available online HERE.
- John W Wenham 1979, ‘Christ’s view of Scripture’, pp 1-36. Again, a largish section of this article is available free online HERE.
- Greg L Bahnsen 1979, ‘The inerrancy of the autographa’, pp 149-193. You should get a fair understanding of this teaching in the large chunk available online HERE. This is the finest article I have read on this topic.
- I highly recommend this entire book that includes the above three articles: Norman L Geisler (ed), Inerrancy (1979).
I suggest a careful reading of the information in these articles to equip you with information to be able to work through the important issues of God’s view of biblical authority – especially of inspiration or the God-breathed Scripture.
‘Concept’ is abstract
Another poster chimed in with a brief, but excellent, example of how the ‘concept’ principle leads to shipwreck in discussions. He wrote that concept is an abstract idea that means ‘existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence’. He explained that ‘if the creation was a concept then it would only exist in thought’.
This is an excellent example of how there is need for revelation of concrete situations in Scripture and that can only be expressed in words and sentences, not in concepts.
How do you think this ‘concept’ thinking person would respond to this information about creation? She had her bit to say about my view, addressing me as Oz, but the fair floss view of the Bible continued:
That is true of man but not of God. I believe what it says in John 1. God’s thoughts became reality:
What I get from John 1 is, ‘In the beginning was the word’.
But the Greek word here is Logos and that carries a meaning beyond a single word. It also speaks of the Logic or Thought process of God and that ‘logos’ turns out to be the second person of the trinity: God the son.
God the son is the Logos of God and through this Logos everything came into being. God ‘thought’ creation into existence. Through the ‘thought/Logos/Son, everything was made.
That’s just how I see it – at this phase in my Christian walk, growth and understanding. If you consider it wrong, Oz, that’s OK.
You have more book learning than I have and good for you.
As I have said before, if God wants me to understand it differently, If He feels that my understanding is wrong, He will enlighten me. He has done so before in many areas all through my life..
We are all learning all the time and I am open to His teaching – as I am sure are you OZ.
My response did not take a lot of mulling over as it stood out like a sore thumb:
From where did you get your understanding of the Greek word logos. You didn’t tell us.
You stated: ‘If you consider it wrong, Oz, that’s OK’. To this point you have not refuted the biblical evidence I have provided to demonstrate that in both OT and NT God revealed ‘words’ that were in sentences and he did not reveal ‘concepts’. Why are you refusing to deal with the evidence I provided to refute your claim?
We are not dealing with whether it is OK or not OK, we are dealing with what God revealed in Scripture. They were words and not concepts. I provided evidence to counter your claim, but you came back with nothing other than ‘that’s OK’. That’s far from providing biblical evidence as a defense of the position you are advocating.
Yes, I also am on the learning curve, but we are dealing here with providing evidence or leaving me with no evidence for your position.
Verbal inspiration without the originals
I have used this illustration in a number of my articles because I have found it to be extremely helpful in explaining biblical teaching on the inerrancy of the original biblical documents, even though we don’t have the originals (the autographa). R. Laird wrote:
Reflection will show that the doctrine of verbal inspiration is worthwhile even though the originals have perished. An illustration may be helpful. Suppose we wish to measure the length of a certain pencil. With a tape measure we measure it as 6 1/2 inches. A more carefully made office ruler indicates 6 9/16 inches. Checking with an engineer’s scale, we find it to be slightly more than 6.58 inches. Careful measurement with a steel scale under laboratory conditions reveals it to be 6.577 inches. Not satisfied still, we send the pencil to Washington, where master gauges indicate a length of 6.5774 inches. The master gauges themselves are checked against the standard United States yard marked on platinum bar preserved in Washington. Now, suppose that we should read in the newspapers that a clever criminal had run off with the platinum bar and melted it down for the precious metal. As a matter of fact, this once happened to Britain’s standard yard! What difference would this make to us? Very little. None of us has ever seen the platinum bar. Many of us perhaps never realized it existed. Yet we blithely use tape measures, rulers, scales, and similar measuring devices. These approximate measures derive their value from their being dependent on more accurate gauges. But even the approximate has tremendous value—if it has had a true standard behind it (Harris 1969:88-89).
My discussions with people in evangelical churches that do not have a strong expository preaching and theological foundation (that seems to apply to many contemporary churches in my country) indicates that the people don’t have a basic understanding of the nature of Scripture. A well articulated position of biblical inspiration or infallibility is hard to find.
The quagmire is even more clearly exposed when you visit Internet Christian forums. If you don’t believe me, take a visit to these and see the various views on Scripture and other topics that are promoted.
If people believe that God revealed concepts, words, or impressions, they could all be accepted by them as satisfactory theology of the nature of the biblical revelation. They could become suckers for this ‘concepts’ view of biblical authority by the person on the forum.
As we have seen, the Scriptures affirm their verbal, plenary, propositional inspiration or God-breathed nature. In his chapter on ‘the divine nature of the Bible’, Norm Geisler concludes:
The internal evidence that the Bible is of divine origin is very strong. Unlike any other book in the world, the Bible bears the fingerprints of God. It has sanctity, divine authority, infallibility, indestructibility, indefatigability, indefeasibility, and inerrancy…. The denial of the inerrancy of the Bible is an attack on the authenticity of God the Father, the authority of God the Son, and the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. The infallibility of the Bible is as firm as the character of God, who cannot lie (Geisler 2002:252).
But please remember that this applies to the original documents of the Bible (the autographa) and not to your favourite translation.
Brown, C (ed) 1978. The new international dictionary of New Testament theology, vol 3. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Brunner, E 1946. Revelation and reason. Philadelphia: Westminster.
Brunner, E 1964. The word of God and modern man. Tr by D Cairns. Richmond, Va: John Knox.
Geisler N 2002. Systematic theology: Introduction, Bible, vol 1. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.
Geisler, N L (ed) 1979. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Harris, R. L. 1957, 1969. Inspiration and canonicity of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Marbaniang, D 2011. Emil Brunner (1889-1966): Theology of Revelation, January 31. Domenic Marbaniang (online). Available at: http://marbaniang.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/emil-brunner-1889-1966-theology-of-revelation/ (Accessed 8 August 2014).
Mayer, R 1978. Scripture, Writing, in Brown, C (ed), The new international dictionary of New Testament theology, vol 3, 482-497. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Spong, J S 1991. Rescuing the Bible from fundamentalism: A bishop rethinks the meaning of Scripture. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
The Columbia electronic encyclopedia 2012. Emil Brunner (online). Columbia University Press, 6th ed. Available at: http://www.factmonster.com/encyclopedia/people/brunner-emil.html (Accessed 8 August 2014).
Westcott, B F n d. Introduction to study of the Gospels, 5th edition (in Hodge & Warfield 1881).
 Billy is a leading Australian rugby league player for the Melbourne Storm. See his profile at: http://www.melbournestorm.com.au/team/profiles/billy-slater.html (Accessed 8 August 2014).
 Oxford dictionaries (online). Inspiration. Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/inspiration (Accessed 8 August 2014).
 Here Hodge & Warfield cited Canon Westcott, ‘The slightest consideration will show that words are as essential to intellectual processes as they are to mutual intercourse … Thoughts are wedded to words as necessarily as soul to body. Without it the mysteries unveiled before the eyes of the seer would be confused shadows; with it they are made clear lessons for human life’ (Westcott n d:Introduction.14-15).
 Charis, reply #9, ‘NIV or NIP’, UK Christian Web, 7 August 2014, available at: http://www.christian-forum.co.uk/index.php?topic=12640.0 (Accessed 8 August 2014).
 Ibid., OzSpen, post #11.
 I should have used the language of ‘verbal-plenary revelation’.
 Ibid., Charis, reply #12.
 Ibid., OzSpen, reply #13.
 Ibid., Charis, reply #15.
 Ibid., OzSpen, reply #17.
 Ibid., Charis, reply #9.
 Ibid., Truster reply #20.
 Ibid., Charis reply #20.
 Ibid., OzSpen reply #23.
 There is no pagination in this online edition of the article.
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at date: 23 March 2018.