To understand how and why God’s word is “forever settled,” it is crucial that one understands the inspiration of the Bible. Unfortunately, much confusion exists on the subject. This confusion exists in part because those who teach that the Bible is inspired mean different things when they say it. One person might affirm, “The Bible is inspired of God,” when that person simply means, “The writers of the Bible had such good ideas, it was as if they came from God Himself.” Another person making the same statement means that God gave the words of the Bible. Another means that God providentially placed ideas before certain writers who in turn wrote Biblical books based on those ideas. But one must be able to affirm, “The Bible is inspired of God” with certainty of heart and clarity of meaning, coming only from a Biblical understanding of the concept.
What is a Basic Definition of Inspiration?
The word inspiration only occurs twice in the English Bible. It first occurs in Job 32:8: “But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding” (Job 32:8). The American Standard Version renders this, “…the breath of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” The second occurrence of inspiration is found in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” The phrase “is given by inspiration of God” is actually one compound word literally meaning “God-breathed.” So both Biblical instances of inspiration allude to the breath of God—this should not be too surprising, as the English word inspiration’s most basic meaning is “the drawing in of breath; inhalation.” As God’s breath is mentioned in Scripture, a reader’s thoughts are drawn to the lifegiving power of God’s breath (Gen. 2:7; Job 33:4). The Bible also equates God’s breath with His spoken word, as breath is used in human speaking: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth” (Psm. 33:6). Thus, when Paul affirms that “all scripture is God-breathed,” he is ascribing to Scripture the same Divine origin and power elsewhere demonstrated in God’s (figurative) “breath.”
Is the Bible’s Inspiration an Assemblage of Good Human Ideas?
Some hold the notion that inspiration occurs whenever a writer is struck with a good idea. Thus, writers such as Shakespeare and Twain are considered particularly inspired writers, since their works are filled with novel, interesting, and insightful thoughts. English dictionaries support this notion, as definitions of inspiration include, “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, esp. to do something creative,” and, “A sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Some people apply this definition to the Bible’s inspiration. However, this is not how the Bible portrays the concept, and has nothing to do with how the Bible came into existence.
The apostle Peter wrote, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Here is a clear difference between Shakespeare and Isaiah. Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets from his own imagination, perhaps occasionally borrowing ideas from others. He wrote at times what he himself chose to write, at other times what other human beings commissioned him to write. As genius as Shakespeare’s ideas may have been, they always came “by the will of man.” Contrariwise, Isaiah and other Biblical writers wrote “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost”—their writings never came by the will of man.
Peter described how the Old Testament prophets had written predictions of the salvation that Christians now enjoy in Jesus Christ:
Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into (1 Pet. 1:10-12, emph. LM).
The prophets who wrote those predictions did not fully understand how those predictions would be fulfilled. This is inexplicable if their writings came from their own minds.
Neither is the Bible, as some allege, the mere product of various human editors who took prior human writings and oral traditions and redacted them to suit their own purposes.
The very nature of revelation demands that something previously unknown to man has been revealed to man. And the Bible makes clear who did this: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). Throughout the period of revelation, God has spoken.
Is the Bible’s Inspiration “Thought Inspiration”?
Some claim that God directly implanted thoughts into the minds of Biblical penmen, who were then at liberty to express those thoughts in their own words as they saw best. In favor of this view is that sees Divine wisdom lying behind the composition of the Bible, and also that it explains the different vocabularies and writing styles found among the different writers of the Bible. Some well-meaning soul may ask, “What, then, is wrong with this view?”
The first problem with the “thought inspiration” view is simply that the Bible does not teach it. We are not free to pick and choose which view of inspiration we happen to like. Recall that Peter said, “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20). Peter denies that the prophets merely explained, translated, or interpreted general thoughts that God gave them.
The apostle Paul described how God revealed previously “hidden wisdom…by his Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:7-10). Paul explained further how he and the other apostles had received “not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (verses 12-13). Observe especially that the apostles did not reveal those Divine truths “in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth.” If Paul and other Biblical writers had chosen the words they wrote, the thoughts behind the words may have been Divine, but the words themselves would have been “words which man’s wisdom teacheth.” Paul emphatically denied this to be the case, stating that the apostles spoke words “which the Holy Ghost teacheth.” The Holy Spirit Himself provided the Biblical words themselves.
Additionally, if the Holy Spirit only provided thoughts for which fallible men supplied words, numerous arguments of Scripture would implode. Jesus refuted the Sadducees’ denial of life after death by quoting Exodus 3:6: “I am [rather than “I was,” LM] the God of [physically deceased] Abraham…Isaac…and Jacob” (Matt. 22:32). How could Jesus make an argument based on the tense of a verb if a fallible man chose that verb? Similarly, Paul alluded to God’s promises to Abraham “seed”: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16; cf. Gen. 22:18). If Moses had license to choose for himself whether to use the singular “seed” or plural “seeds,” Paul’s argument could not stand. But if God chose the singular noun, Paul has an irrefutable basis for his argument. God did and Paul does; therefore, “thought inspiration” is false.
Is the Bible’s Inspiration Only Partial?
Some would generally agree with the above statements about inspiration, but they do not believe that the entire Bible is inspired. This view creates evident problems; for example, how does one discern which portions of the Bible are inspired and which are not? If the Bible does not tell us how, who then is privileged to make such discernments? Are those people not then placed in a position of authority even over the Bible itself?
Some may overtly express the “partial inspiration” view, while others express it more subtly in such statements as “The Bible contains the word of God” (as opposed to “The Bible is the word of God”). Some put particular emphasis on the red-letter words of Jesus in the Gospel accounts, as though the other words of the New Testament did not derive from the same Source. However, all those words do derive from the same Divine Source.
On the final night of Jesus’ earthly life, He told His disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come” (John 16:12-13). Jesus had very few remaining “red-letter” words to speak in His life, but He had “yet many things to say.” How would Jesus bring those sayings to the apostles’ attention? He would send forth the Holy Spirit upon His apostles, who would both enable them to remember perfectly what Jesus had said in their presence and would also guide them into “all [remaining] truth” (cf. John 14:26). Thus, when the apostles later spoke and wrote under inspiration, they could affirm, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
The entire Old Testament is as surely inspired as is the New Testament. When David wrote his Biblical Psalms, he could say, “The Spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). Again, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16, emph. LM). Paul wrote, “For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (1 Tim. 5:18). Here Paul quotes from both the Old Testament (Deut 25:4) and the New Testament (Luke 10:7), referring to both as Scripture.
The Holy Spirit could have the writer express his personal thoughts, if the Holy Spirit so chose (cf. Rom. 9:1-3; 3 John 2-4). It is true that the Bible records statements of uninspired persons, such as found in the reproofs of Job’s three friends, or in the serpent’s reassurance to Eve, “Ye shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). However, though such statements may not be inspired, the recording of them is, as is whatever doctrinal application the Bible may make of such statements. The psalmist exulted, “Thy word is true from the beginning” (Psm. 119:160)—indeed it is, from the opening act of God’s creative work in Genesis to the closing benediction of Revelation.
“For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven” (Psm. 119:89). If the Bible were simply a product of human minds, there could no “settled” about it; and there certainly could be no “forever” about it. But in the Bible, God spoke through specially chosen men, using their vocabularies and talents to make known His will to man. Indeed, “God hath spoken.” And we can be thankful that what He has spoken has been preserved for us in written form—the collection of 66 books we know today as The Bible.