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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

Inspiration: How did it work?

What do we mean when we say that the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Our view of Scripture will inevitably be shaped by our understanding of what we mean by inspired. The authoritative and inerrant qualities of Scripture flow directly from the idea that it is God’s words that he has given to humankind (i.e. inspired).

As noted in the previous article, the idea that the Bible is God-breathed is not a human invention, but rather comes from the witness of Scripture itself (2 Peter 1:20-21; 2 Timothy 3:16; Acts 1:16; 3:18, 21; 4:25; Micah 4:4; Jeremiah 30:4; Isaiah 8:11; Amos 3:1; 2 Samuel 23:2). When the biblical authors speak, it is not their words but God’s voice speaking through them.

While it seems straightforward to say that we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it is surprisingly difficult to nail down exactly what we mean. We say that the Bible is essentially written by God, but we also understand that it was human beings, not God himself, who actually wrote and recorded the original text. When we really think about biblical inspiration, a startling number of questions arise.

How exactly did this inspiration work?

Was it something similar to an artist viewing a landscape and being moved in a flurry of emotions to paint a masterpiece?

Were the biblical authors in a constant state of inspiration, or did it come and go?

When the authors wrote under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, were they still thinking their own thoughts or did the Holy Spirit override their consciousness?

Did they have flexibility to express the inspired ideas in their own words, or were the words written down dictated to them without creative license?

These are questions that are worth pondering. Unfortunately, we do not have the privilege of travelling with the Paul and sitting in while he wrote his epistle to the Romans. It would be fascinating to observe John, as he sat down to finally put his memories of Jesus’ ministry to parchment. Did he realize what he was writing was on level with the Old Testament writings?

While we do not have access to the original authors themselves, careful study of the Scriptures can help us piece together a fairly fleshed out picture of what the inspiration of the biblical authors looked like.

What was the experience of the biblical authors?

If we are taking Scripture at its word and trusting that it is, indeed, the inspired Word of God, we should not look for passages in Scripture describing the intricacies of how divine inspiration worked. The Scriptures we have are the finished product of inspiration and seem unlikely to provide insight about how they were produced. It seems more fruitful to rather consider the nature of the biblical writings to infer what inspiration practically looked like.

There are a vast array of Systematic Theology books which will categorize the different aspects of divine inspiration in different ways (both Christian Theology by Millard J. Erickson and Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem are great places to start), but my approach will be much more simplistic and practical. We will consider, making inferences from the nature of the biblical texts, what the experience might have been for those writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

Creative Interpretation or Dictation?

One of the biggest questions we face when understanding inspiration is whether or not the authors were allowed any flexibility to offer God’s divine revelation from their perspective. My position is that there must be a finely defined line drawn between creative freedom of the authors and maintaining the integrity of what God has revealed.

On the one hand, if God is real and exists as the objective standard for truth, there is little wiggle room for subjective interpretation when God speaks. For instance, when God gives a message to the prophet Elijah to deliver to the Israelites, it seems obvious that the message itself is not open for Elijah’s interpretation. God says what he says and expects Elijah to communicate the revelation accurately.

Yet, on the other hand, when we consider the diversity of the voices reflected in Scripture, it becomes clear that the inspiration which the biblical authors were under was not analogous to the role of a typewriter in the composition of a letter. The Holy Spirit, it seems, did not simply hi-jack the body of the author and use them as a puppet to record the exact wording without any autonomy of the author.

What we see in the Bible is an astounding variety in the perspectives and focuses of each book. This aspect of theology is called Biblical Theology and is worth looking into (Biblical Theology by Andreas J. Kostenberger). Each of the biblical authors have their own unique voice, which harmonizes with the rest of Scripture to produce something that is astoundingly varied and yet uniquely unified.

I think this allowance of personality in the biblical text is why we are given such a large body of inspired Scripture. By having four Gospel accounts, we are able to see Jesus’ ministry through the eyes of very different people, each with their own emphasis and insights.

Mark’s Gospel (in all likelihood told from Peter’s perspective), is written primarily for a Roman audience and focuses almost exclusively on Jesus’ actions because Peter was a man of action, and the power of Jesus' miracles are what would have impressed those in the Roman culture.

Matthew, a tax collector, presents the same story from a Jewish perspective which is exceedingly orderly and meticulous.

Luke, a gentile physician, was not an eyewitness but thoroughly interviews countless eyewitness accounts in order to piece together an account of Jesus’ life geared towards an audience who was unfamiliar with the Jewish culture.

And John, apparently a thinker, fills in the gaps left by the three synoptic gospels (the term used when referring to Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while fleshing out the significance of Jesus’ divinity.

Each author seems to have been afforded the license to record the events of Jesus’ life in their own words, from their own perspective and with their own interests in mind, while at the same time writing within the parameters of the Holy Spirit's leading in order to compile a monumental collection of sixty-six books which reveals, with beautiful variety and striking unity, God's plan of salvation for humankind.

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