Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. In this post—the second in our series entitled “How We Got the Bible“—we will explore what biblical inspiration really entails (and what it does not entail). The Bible itself claims to be the inspired, special revelation of the one true God.
The Bible is completely unique. Not sure? OK, let’s make a list of all books that took over 1,500 years to complete. With parts dating back more than 3,500 years, in which the most recent contributions are 1,900 years old. Written by 40 or so authors who corroborate each other’s writings. Containing accurate historical accounts of ancient events that have shown up repeatedly in archaeology (don’t skip over the preceding hyperlink). Claiming to reveal the plan of a loving God for his creation. With massive amounts of self-deprecating text to condemn the authors. Predicting trouble and ostracism for those who live by its teaching. Containing specific prophecies, many of which have proven true over long periods of time. Dwarfing other ancient writings in terms of the number and quality of surviving manuscripts.
How long is our list now?
When researching for this series I was primarily interested in focusing on how the biblical canon was developed—specifically how did we end up with the 66 books that comprise the Bible, what about the Apocrypha, why not other books, and so on. Biblical canon is an extremely interesting topic, but it rightfully fits in the context of a larger question: How did we get the Bible? (We’ll get to the topic of biblical canon in forthcoming posts in this series—and by the way, there are lots of interesting, new publications on canonicity.)
Drs. Norman Geisler and William Nix wrote a comprehensive text entitled From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible that begins with the topic of inspiration. This post will follow that text, which should be required reading for every Christian and student of the Bible.
Whether you are died-in-the-wool biblicist or a Christian neophyte, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the implications of our understanding (or denial) of the inspiration of the Bible. Not just in terms of heaven or hell as an end result, but whether we can trust the Scripture. I just returned from the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, which included some strong rhetoric about the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible (and a fantastic session on the biblical canon). Clarke attended most of the same sessions, so I won’t turn this series into a discussion about inerrancy. He will no doubt address many of the nuances and implications of the “battle for the Bible” in future posts. But consider these two questions:
- Is it even reasonable that an all-powerful and perfect God would inspire the writers of the Bible to produce a text containing errors?
- If God did not inspire the writing of the Bible, isn’t it just the product of human writers, and if that is the case why should we submit to its authority, teaching, and claims?
There are lots of corollary questions, and your answers would reveal a great deal about your understanding of the Christian faith. But for now let’s take a cue from Geisler and Nix and start with the topic of biblical inspiration.
My notes from reading their text are presented below. For a more robust and authoritative treatment of the topic I highly recommend reading From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible. Words in quotes are directly from Geisler and Nix (except where Scripture is being quoted).
The Character of the Bible
The words of the Bible did not originate with the human writers but were divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Through the process of revelation, God communicated to the prophets in many ways (Hebrews 1:1), including through angels, visions, dreams, voices, and miracles. Through inspiration, God communicated to others using the writers. The prophets searched their own writings to see what “the Spirit of Christ in them” was indicating (1 Peter 1:10-12). Peter’s text demonstrates that they were under authority, were dutiful to the original source of their information (the Holy Spirit), and that their words were not self-originating.
Geisler and Nix make the point that the end product was inspired. Accurate translations (i.e. closer to word-for-word than thought-for-thought) of the New Testament contain only a single use of the word ‘inspiration’ (in 2 Timothy 3:16), where it is applied only to the writings and not to the writers. Nevertheless, there’s an incredible amount of Scripture that speaks to the inspiration of the Bible.
God as the ultimate source and origin of biblical truth is the cornerstone of the doctrine of inspiration. But there is more to it than that.
The human writers of the Bible were not robots, and they were more than stenographers. “They wrote with full intent and consciousness in the normal exercise of their own literary styles.”
A sufficient definition of inspiration must have three fundamental factors:
- “God as the prime mover,
- Men of God as the secondary causes, and
- A divinely authoritative writing as the final result.”
The Nature of Inspiration
The New Testament contains an overwhelming number of passages where the writers clearly indicate their belief in the full and complete inspiration of the Old Testament. They quote from every part of the Scriptures as authoritative, including some of the most contested teachings. Jesus cites the creation of Adam and Eve, the destruction of the world by a flood, the miracle of Jonah and the great fish, and many other incidents in his teachings. That Jesus used the Old Testament Scriptures gives them authority, and his lack of citations of other ancient texts helps rule them out as having canonical authority.
No portion of the Bible claims less than full and complete authority, so biblical inspiration is plenary.
The inspiration of the Bible makes it authoritative. Jesus himself said, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). He claimed the authority of Scripture when he cleansed the temple (Mark 11:17), for rebuking the Pharisees (Matthew 15:3-4), and for settling doctrinal disputes (Matthew 22:29). When he was challenged by Satan, Jesus resisted on the basis of the authority of the written Word. Jesus responded to each challenge, “It is written…It is written…It is written.” He also said, “Everything written…must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Ultimately, Jesus endorsed the complete authority of Scripture when he said, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void”(Luke 16:17). The written Word comes from God and has the authority of God invested in it.
The apostle Paul wrote that the church rests upon the foundation of the New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). He preserves the pattern of Scriptural authority throughout his writings, which comprise nearly half of the New Testament.
While there certainly are portions of the Bible where the words are directly given from God, nowhere does Scripture state or imply that the entire Bible is a word-for-word dictation. In fact, Paul distinguishes portions of Scripture where he is communicating out of his apostolic authority, but not out of a direct statement from God. The writers of the biblical text were authors and composers, not merely recording secretaries.
The Bible does reference nonbiblical documents such as the book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13), the Book of Enoch (Jude 14), and even a Greek poet (Acts 17:28), but these citations do not claim or imply that these other documents are inspired.
The Inspiration of the Old Testament
2 Pet. 1:20–21 makes a specific, general claim for the inspiration of the Old Testament—it was received by the people of God as prophetic. Prophetic literature was given a special place in Hebraic culture. Moses placed his law by the ark, and later it was preserved in the tabernacle (Deuteronomy 10:2). Each subsequent prophet after Moses added to the collection of writings.
False prophets were exposed in time by their inaccuracy, and by the lack of miraculous confirmation. Deuteronomy 18:22 states, “When a prophet speaks in the name of the that LORD if a word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken.” Whenever confirmation was needed, God designated his own prophets by miracles (Numbers 26:10, 1 Kings 18:38, Exodus 8:19).
All of the Old Testament writers were prophets, either by title or function—their prophesy was a gift, not necessarily the result of training. In fact, Amos confessed that he was neither a prophet or a son of a prophet (Amos 7:14-15). David was a king, but he declared, “The spirit of the Lord speaks by me; his word is on my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2). The New Testament directly calls David a prophet (Acts 2:30). Solomon, also a king, received visions from the Lord (1 Kings 11:9). In Numbers 12:6 the Lord stated, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.” Daniel was a statesman, but Jesus called him a prophet (Matthew 24:15).
Moses, the lawgiver and leader of the nation of Israel, is called a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15 and Hosea 12: 13. Joshua succeeded Moses and was designated a prophet of God in Deuteronomy 34:9-10. Samuel, Nathan, and Gad were all prophets (1 Chronicles 29:29), as were Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 minor prophets. These prophets were included in an official register. There is no evidence that any nonprophetic writing was preserved with the sacred collection which started with the Mosaic law.
There was a continuity of prophets, each adding his book or books to its prophetic predecessors. This succession is called the “colon principle” which affirms that each book completes the preceding and links the prophetic history. There are even parallel texts, such as the last chapter of Kings and the material of Jeremiah 39, 40, and 41. Likewise, Chronicles ends with the same two verses that begin Ezra through Nehemiah.
The Old Testament books claim divine inspiration. Sometimes the authority is implied, but usually it is the result of the explicit claim “Thus says the Lord.”
The phrase “the Law” is often used as a shortened form for the Law of Moses—designating the first five books of Jewish Scripture. However, the phrase can describe the entire Old Testament, as in John 10:34. Sometimes the phrases “the Law and the Prophets” and “Moses and the Prophets” are used interchangeably. Jesus made the remarkable claim in Matthew 5: 17 that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but rather to fulfill them. Jesus used the phrase “the Law” as synonymous with “the Law and the Prophets,” which refers to the divinely inspired documents of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:18). Luke 16:16 presents “the Law and the Prophets” as the entirety of divine revelation up to the time of John the Baptist. Luke also wrote that the “Law and the Prophets” were read in the synagogues (Acts 13:15). According to Matthew, the Golden Rule was the summation of the Law and the Prophets.
The New Testament uses the phrase “It is written” or similar phrases in more than 90 passages. Clearly the New Testament writers placed great emphasis on the moral authority of the Old Testament.
The strongest endorsements of the inspiration and authenticity of the Old Testament come directly from Jesus, “who showed no tendency toward accommodation” according to Geisler and Nix. Geisler and Nix clearly interpret Jesus’ references to Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah as confirmation of historical events. The Old Testament claims divine inspiration for itself. The New Testament claims the same for the Old Testament. Finally, Jesus himself taught that the Old Testament came from God.
The Inspiration of the New Testament
Although Jesus never wrote any books, he did endorse the authority of the Old Testament. He also promised the apostles that he would inspire them, and that their witness would have divine authority. In the Olivet Discourse Jesus said, “Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
Acts 1:21-22 states that apostles would only consider an eyewitness to the ministry and resurrection of Jesus for apostolic succession. When the apostle James was executed (Acts 12:1-2) he was not replaced with another apostle. The apostles instead began to appoint elders (Acts 14:23), not additional apostles.
The Gospels were written as authoritative biographies about the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah (Mark 1:1, Matthew 1:1, Matthew 1:17-23, Matthew 2:15-17). Luke wrote so that we would have an orderly account of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4). John wrote a later, non-synoptic Gospel that we “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
All of Paul’s letters lay claim to inspiration. In Romans 1:1-3 he declares his calling as an apostle, and sets up the book of Romans by referencing God’s promises made to the prophets in the Holy Scriptures. Paul concludes 1 Corinthians by stating that “the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). He repeats the claim to apostleship in 2 Corinthians 1:1. In Galatians 1:11-12 he strongly proclaims, “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
The apostle John introduces the book of Revelation as, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1-2). John wrote, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea'” (Revelation 1:10-11).
Geisler and Nix point out, “No book in the Bible contains a more explicit claim to divine inspiration than the Revelation. The warning not to tamper with its words is placed under a threat of divine judgment, which is the strongest such threat in Scripture. It is an appropriate conclusion to the claim that the entire New Testament is the inspired Word of God, on a par with the sacred writings of the Old Testament.”
The apostle Paul noted that his signature was a sign of the authenticity of every one of his epistles (2 Thessalonians 3:17). The fact that these letters and books were circulated, read, collected, and quoted within the early New Testament church gives evidence that they were accepted as prophetic or divinely inspired from the very beginning.
According to Geisler and Nix, “Every one of the New Testament writers is quoted with divine authority by an apostolic father….In summary then, the inspiration of the New Testament is based on the promise of Christ that His disciples would be directed by the Spirit in their teachings about Him. His disciples claimed this promise, and there is clear indication that the writers of the New Testament themselves, as well as their contemporaries, recognized it as accomplished. They believed that the New Testament was divinely inspired, and from the time of the very earliest Christian records on, there has been an almost unanimous support for the inspiration of the New Testament along with the Old.”
The Evidences for the Inspiration of the Bible
Inspiration involves three elements: divine causality (God as the prime mover), the prophetic agency (men of God as the secondary causes), and a resultant divinely authoritative writing.
Luke has had nearly 100 details from his writing verified through archaeology. Many of these details were disputed for centuries, but eventually archaeology bore them out. There are no demonstrable mistakes in his writing, and he is widely considered to be one of the most accurate writers from antiquity. His two books, Luke and Acts, support the historicity of Christ, the apostles, and the events of the early Christian church.
Geisler and Nix write that “Jesus affirmed the Bible as:
- Divinely authoritative (Matthew 4:4, Matthew 4:7, Matthew 4:10),
- Imperishable (Matthew 5:17),
- Infallible (John 10:35),
- Historically reliable (Matthew 12:38–40),
- Scientifically accurate (Matthew 19:4–6),
- Factually inerrant (Matthew 22:29; John 17:17), and
- Having ultimate supremacy (Matthew 15:3–5).”
“Jesus was neither accommodating nor limited in His affirmations about Scripture. He proclaimed that ‘all things have been delivered to me by my Father’ (Matthew 11:27 RSV) and that ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’ (Matthew 24:35). Thus, what He affirmed, He affirmed with ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18).”
“The Bible is the most archaeologically confirmed book in the world.”
Wrapping Up the Discussion of Inspiration
OK, back to our two questions. I hope this post has helped you appreciate that the Bible is not merely the product of human minds, but that it is indeed inspired. We say that “the Bible is the inspired word of God” so easily and frequently that it is easy to forget why we claim that inspiration. With a healthy appreciation of the inspiration of the Bible, and all that entails, we can move on to the discussion of the formation of the biblical canon.
The Bible received its authority through inspiration. It received its acceptance through canonization.
HT: Norman Geisler, William Nix, Mark Berry.