A Readers Guide to the Inspiration of Scripture

There’s been quite a few posts here lately about the nature and authority of the Bible—and for good reason. As Christians, we are to be people of the book. Men, women and children who observe and obey God’s Word, who love it and long to know the God who reveals Himself through it.

There’s an important question that comes up when we start trying to understand the nature of Scripture, and that is: What do we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired? Do we mean the same thing as when we say that a great song, book or movie was inspired? Or is there something else going on that we need to wrap our minds around?

My goal in this post is relatively simple: I want to provide you with a ground-level understanding of the doctrine of inspiration that will help you as we continue on in this series looking at the nature of Scripture and its implications.

“Verbal Plena—what now?”

The doctrine of inspiration has to do with the origins of Scripture—where it came from and how it came to be. Theologians like to refer to it with a fancy term: “verbal plenary inspiration.” (I dare you to say that three times fast.) Despite being a painfully vague term (not to mention being a bit of a tongue twister), the concept behind it is pretty simple. In a nutshell, the term means is that every word of Scripture is inspired by God and written down by human authors. Inspiration in this view is not limited merely to ideas but to exact words—indeed, every “iota” and “dot” as Jesus says in Matt. 5:18. Every word is there because God intended it to be so.

But let’s break this term down in a little more detail:

Verbal. This term addresses subject. And the subject being defined is the words of Scripture. Simple enough, right? Let’s move to the next point.

Plenary addresses scope or extent. In other words, all the words of Scripture are equally inspired, from the most incredible description of a battle or miracle to the most detailed instruction about how the Israelites were to dress. There aren’t some parts that are more or less inspired than others.

Inspiration addresses method of transmission. God guided the human authors of Scripture—“carried them along by the Holy Spirit,” as Peter wrote—using their unique perspectives, writing styles and experiences to record the exact message He desired to be expressed to humanity.

Clear as mud? Alright, let’s look quickly at the Scriptural support for such a notion.

Where does the Bible Talk about Inspiration?

Biblically, the two passages that deal most directly with this idea are found in the epistles of Paul and Peter:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable…” (2 Tim. 3:16, emphasis added).

“…no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Pet. 20-21, emphasis added).

These terms—particularly Paul’s use of the term “theopneustos” (literally, “God-breathed”) and Peter’s saying that these men were “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” along with the hundreds of references throughout the Old Testament to the phrase, “Thus says the Lord”—point us to the starting point of Scripture; that is, God.

The idea these terms convey is not that men are communicating their own ideas about God anymore than they suggest that God took control of their minds and pens in order to “make” them write His Word. A proper understanding of inspiration obliterates these notions.

Inspiration, instead, tells us that God is communicating His words through men. God inspired the words that the original authors wrote. He used their unique gifts, vocabularies and personalities to communicate the Truth to mankind—enabling them to record the exact words He intended by the power of the Holy Spirit. Their personalities are fully intact, they are fully aware of what they’re writing,  and yet it is fully of God.

Humble Condescension

So what’s the point of this doctrine? Why do we need to really care about whether or not verbal plenary inspiration matters? While there are virtually endless implications, the key one is that we too often forget is that the point of all doctrine is adoration. Sound doctrine always leads to doxology.

And when we really start paying attention to the doctrine of inspiration, it will lead us to glorify God. In the inspiration of Scripture, we see a beautiful act of humble condescension on the part of our Creator. Just as He humbled Himself “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7) in the incarnation, so too, God humbles Himself by using human language to make Himself known to humanity.

While we’re tempted to set the written Word (Scripture) and the incarnate Word (Jesus) against one another—saying the Bible isn’t the Word, because Jesus is the Word (cf. John 1:1)—it’s not sustainable. But the two are not opposed—they’re complementary! In a sense they’re two sides of the same coin. They both reveal God perfectly to fallen humanity—one recording and expounding upon the plan of redemption and the other accomplishing it. The two mirror one another so magnificently that we must stand in awe that He would be so incredibly merciful to us!

This is what we cannot ignore as we continue to examine the nature of Scripture—it’s the reality that grounds all of our study; that prevents it from becoming a mere academic exercise. And like all good and true doctrine, if we are truly understanding it the way that God intends, we must hold fast to it and allow it to lead us to further adoration of our great and glorious Savior.