“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
“All Scripture is God-breathed.” The New Revised Standard Version, the Good News Translation and the New Living Translation say, “All Scripture is inspired by God”. The King James Version and some others say, “given by inspiration of God”. The Bible is central to the Christian faith. Christians believe that there is something about the Bible which is different and special, something which means we can trust the Bible completely, base our lives on it, and find eternal life through it. Most Christians would say that this is because the Bible is inspired by God. So tonight I want to help us think about what we mean when we say “the Bible is inspired by God”. In the process I want to tell you why I believe in the in the “infallibility” of the Bible but not in the “inerrancy” of the Bible, and why that distinction matters.
All the Holy Books of the great religions claim to be inspired and authoritative. So which is right? Just because the Bible itself claims to be inspired by God doesn’t prove anything to anyone – that is a circular argument. Instead, Christians generally say that we trust the Bible because
The Bible is The Word of God
If we were good anglicans After every Bible reading we would all say “Thanks be to God for his Word.” But what do we mean, the Bible is “The Word of the Lord”?
Some parts of the Bible are literally God’s words. God said, “Let there be light.” Or the 10 commandments. Or the words of the prophets when they said, “Thus says the Lord”. And of course, all the words from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ were God’s words because he truly was the Son of God, God become man for our salvation. But what about the rest of the Bible? The OT histories or the letters the apostles wrote? The whole Bible is God’s self-communication to us, but generally most parts are not God’s direct speech. Only John’s apocalypse describes itself as `revelation’. The majority of scripture makes no claim to have been directly revealed to the authors by God, especially not those statements and prayers which are addressed TO God, or words ascribed to Satan or to false teachers.
When we say that the Bible is the Word of God we are using a metaphor. Calling the Bible `the Word of God’ is picture language. It is a mistake to understand it to say that “the Bible is the words of God’. It would be more accurate to describe the Bible as a combination of words God said with other words which human beings said and wrote. So it is too simplistic to suggest that “What the Bible says, God says” in every case. That is not what we mean when we call the Bible the Word of God.
There are two basic models of how the Bible came to be written. The first we can call Localised Inspiration, and the second is Generalised Inspiration.
Localised Inspiration thinks of God inspiring specific individuals to write the texts which form the Bible. Some scholars call this “verbal inspiration” or “mechanical inspiration” – as if the Bible was dictated by the Holy Spirit word for word to its writers. For scholars who believe in verbal inspiration, one consequence is the doctrine of inerrancy, meaning that the Bible contains no errors of any kind. This idea was developed by B.B. Warfield towards the end of the 19th century, and affirmed in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. This view is still very popular with evangelicals in America and Canada. P.D. Feinberg explains inerrancy like this.
“Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality, or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”
Inerrancy does recognise that there are different genres, different kinds of language in the Bible, from history to parable and from poetry to apocalyptic language. But at the same time his idea of inerrancy insists that there are no errors of any kind in the Bible texts. Every detail of history or geography or dates or numbers is exactly correct (with the possible exception of rounding up of approximate numbers). You will see how the doctrine of inerrancy might be very important for some issues, for example for Young Earth Creationists who want to defend the belief that God created the world in seven literal days of 24 hours.
Jim Packer put it this way.
“No Christian will question that God speaks truth and truth only (that is, what he says is infallible and inerrant). But if all Scripture comes from God in such a sense that what it says, he says, then Scripture as such must be infallible and inerrant, because it is God’s utterance.” Packer claims that `The authority of the Scriptures rests primarily and essentially on the fact that they come from the mouth of God.’
One obvious problem with the idea of inerrancy based on verbal inspiration is that it rests on there being just one inspired author, who wrote a unique inspired first manuscript known as the “original autograph.” But that doesn’t fit with what we know about how the New Testament documents were written and copied and edited. And the idea of an original inspired autograph is pretty meaningless when the origins of the Books of the Old Testament are losts in the proverbial mists of time.
But the chief problem I have with the doctrine of inerrancy is that the Bible DOESN’T actually claim to be inerrant! The Bible suggests that it is literally God’s utterance, just that Scripture is inspired. Inerrancy over-literalises the metaphor of Scripture as God’s Word. And the doctrine of inerrancy is simply not present in the scriptures usually cited to support it. For example 2 Timothy 3:16 refers only to the reliability of the Bible in matters of salvation, faith and life, and not to blanket inerrancy. In practice inerrancy is contradicted by the ways Jesus and the New Testament reinterprets the Old Testament.
James Dunn, Professor of NT at Durham, described B.B. Warfield’s teaching on inerrancy as “exegetically improbable, hermeneutically defective, theologically dangerous and educationally disastrous.” And I think Dunn is right. Most British evangelical scholars (as opposed to American evangelicals) are happier to accept the idea of the “infallibility” or “entire trustworthiness” of the Bible. Howard Marshall, who was Professor of New Testament at Aberdeen, wrote “The Bible is entirely trustworthy for the purposes for which God inspired it, to guide people to salvation.” We can rely on the Bible for ALL matters of faith and practice, without demanding its inerrancy (or absence of errors) in matters such as science or history. So for example, Old Earth Creationists like me are happy to believe that the days in the Creation story in Genesis 1 refer to long periods of time, not periods of 24 hours. It doesn’t bother me in the least that the lists of kings in the Old Testament histories might be incomplete or that the geography might appear a bit jumbled in places.
I am certainly convinced of the infallibility and the entire trustworthiness of the Bible. But you will have worked out that I am not persuaded about the mechanical or verbal inspiration of single authors. There is no place where the Bible ever claims that kind of inspiration for itself. It certainly wouldn’t fit with all that we know about how the many different pieces of literature were edited and bound up to bring us the Scriptures as we know and believe them today. Even when the New Testament quotes the Old using the formulae, `the Lord said’ or `the Lord says’, this metaphor does not imply a `dictation’ theory of revelation. The Bible can be the God’s self-communication to us without being dictated or directly revealed to the authors word by word.
2 Peter 1:20 is referring only to the Old Testament prophets when it tells us, 20 … no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
The prophets were inspired by the Holy Spirit to say and write what God wanted them to write. But apart from the Old Testament prophecies and for parts of the Book of Revelation, none of the other authors of Bible texts claim that God directly told them what to write. If we look at WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS about itself, we find that it is not the authors but it is all Scripture which is “inspired by God” or “God-breathed”.
Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would help them to remember his teaching.
John 14:26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
John 16 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, will guide the disciples into all the truth but even this does not suggest that the Holy Spirit dictated to the authors. If we look at how the New Testament texts came to exist, Luke explains his process of writing his Gospel like this.
Luke 1:1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Paul’s companion Doctor Luke explains how he did his research and then wrote his own “orderly account” which comes to us as Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts. In the same way as far as the New Testament Letters are concerned, Paul and Peter and James and John never even hint that God was telling them word-for-word what to write. None of them knew that their letters would one day be gathered together to form the New Testament. They just wrote what they believed and what they thought their readers needed to hear.
I do not believe that God dictated the words of Scripture to its individual writers. So how do I understand the inspiration of Scripture? I subscribe to the second theory of how the Bible was written, which we can call Generalised Inspiration. The idea of God speaking every word does not fit with the various ways in which the Bible texts actually came into being. It is explicitly the Scriptures which are inspired rather than any particular authors. So we need to think instead about the ways the Holy Spirit worked in many individuals to produce the Bible texts we have received today. The Bible was written across the years and generations, the Old Testament by the people of Israel and the New Testament by the church. Paul Achtemeier wrote, `Inspiration … occurs within the community of faith, and must be located at least as much within that community as it is with an individual author.’
It is far better to understand the Inspiration of Scripture as an example of “joint causation”, explaining things both (naturally) in terms of human actions and (theologically) in terms of God’s providence or activity. This leads to an idea called “concursive inspiration”, God and human beings working side by side. We can think of the `concursive action’ of the Spirit in the production of the Bible, so that the Scriptures are both human documents created through historical and literary processes, and equally at the same time the texts which God purposed to be written. In some places the writer was consciously recording God’s words as revealed to him. In other places God’s activities of inspiration were shaping the thought processes of the writer, guiding their inquiries and their analysis and their reflections and their interpretations.
Jim Packer explained concursive inspiration like this: `God in his sovereignty so supervised and controlled the human writers of Scripture that although what they wrote was genuinely their own, and in their own idiom, it was nevertheless the very word of God’.
This concursive approach doesn’t require the specific intervention of God at any point. “If God wished to give His people a series of letters like Paul’s, he prepared a Paul to write them, and the Paul he brought to the task was a Paul who spontaneously would write just such letters.” The detailed mechanism of inspiration is not the prime concern. “The doctrine of inspiration is a declaration that the Scriptures have their origin in God: it is not and cannot be an explanation of how God brought them into being.” An understanding of the authority of the text is a necessary prelude to any approach to the doctrine of inspiration.”
God inspired the Bible throughout the process of the formation of Scripture and this had two functions. Firstly, inspiration was ensuring that all the testimony to God’s events and words of salvation and revelation was faithfully preserved and recorded. Secondly, God’s inspiration was guarding the community of faith in valid and normative theological interpretations of the events. We can trust that Jesus really did make all the wonderful promises and do all the amazing things we read about in the Bible, because Matthew and Mark and Luke and John were inspired in their accounts of what Jesus said and did. And we can trust that our understanding of who Jesus was and what He accomplished is correct because all the other New Testament writers were inspired to write exactly what God wants us to read. Inspiration is not the origin of Biblical authority, but inspiration is the guardian of that authority.
The Bible is God’s inspired Word. God did indeed inspire the Bible as it has come to us across the millennia. The Bible is completely reliable and entirely trustworthy for all matters of faith and Christian living. I am not persuaded by the idea of localised inspiration, or mechanical inspiration. I am equally unconvinced by the doctrine of inerrancy which regards the Bible as a book of God’s words, dictated to the authors by the Holy Spirit, completely free of any inaccuracies of any kind. On the other hand, the idea of generalised inspiration and joint causation which I hold to views the Bible just as much as God’s Word. But that Word of God needs to be interpreted correctly in the light of the original settings of the texts.
If we want to enjoy all these blessings which the Bible will bring us, Scripture itself uses a number of pictures to show us what we need to do. We must read it. We must feed on it and take it into our very being. We must bathe in it for spiritual cleansing. We must look into it like mirror to see our true self. We must meditate on it. We must commit it to memory. We must study it. We must teach it to others. We must talk about it. And we must preach the Bible and sow its seeds of truth in the field of the world. We need a regular diet, feeding ourselves on the Word of God by sermons based on the Bible, Bible Studies and personal Bible reading. In all these things we know we can trust the Bible because the Bible was given by the inspiration of God – all Scripture is God-breathed.