Interpreting Inspiration: Linking God, Mankind, and the Written Word

What do Christians mean when they say that the Bible is inspired? Inspiration in a theological sense is not equivalent to the inspiration a musician or a painter might feel to produce art. Theologians hold a variety of beliefs about its specific nature and mechanism, but most agree that inspiration involves God’s communicating to a human an impetus to write some message beneficial to believers in the future. The inclusion in the Bible of quotations from extra-biblical texts poses an explanatory challenge to the theology of inspiration. For example, the book of Jude in the New Testament includes a quotation attributed to Enoch, one of the earliest patriarchs in the book of Genesis: “It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’”[i] This passage either directly quotes or accurately paraphrases The Book of Enoch, a work of Jewish literature likely from the inter-testamental period, a 600-year gap between the completion of the Old Testament and the writing of the New Testament.[ii] Jude, however, attributes the quotation to Enoch himself, presenting a problem that a consistent theology of inspiration must resolve: any proposed model must account for quotations from witnesses deemed unreliable inside inspired writing. One candidate is thought inspiration, wherein God communicates thoughts to human authors through primarily non-verbal communication, then those people, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, choose words with which to express God’s thoughts.

To establish a definition of inspiration which can account for extra-biblical occurrences, we first define the general criteria which a theology of inspiration must fit, then narrow the definition by showing what inspiration is not. The theology of inspiration is properly understood in relation to the theology of revelation, the self-communication of God to humanity. The Bible depicts various forms of divine revelation: a direct audible voice, prophetic dreams, miracles, and subtle prompting from the Holy Spirit. Christians believe that God uses these methods to communicate truth about himself and the world to believers. Inspiration must be distinguished from revelation, to show how God’s communication concerning himself is written down in human language for future believers.[iii]

Inspiration, as distinct from revelation, refers to the specific impulse given by the Holy Spirit along with an experiential revelation to write their experience or the message they received for the benefit of God’s people in the present or future.[iv] The results of inspiration communicate information from and about God, both propositional and narrative. For instance, the Pentateuch contains doctrinal statements, civil laws, moral laws, and narrative elements like the story of Abraham.[v] Jesus said that the Old Testament scriptures “bear witness about me.”[vi] Paul wrote to Timothy that “[a]ll Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.”[vii] The “Scripture” of which Paul speaks refers to the inspired writings of the Old Testament, identifying their purpose and utility for the people of God at a time long after they were written, thus demonstrating that they fulfill a major purpose of inspiration.[viii]

The theology of inspiration is closely linked to the question of canonicity, but the two questions are not the same in that inspired writing is not necessarily canonical. The existence of non-canonical, potentially inspired books is implied by scriptural mentions of other writings of prophets which are now lost. For example, 1 Chronicles 29:29 mentions the writings of Nathan the prophet and Gad the seer, both of which have been lost, though Nathan does appear in the Bible as a true prophet of God.[ix] Two primary models aim to explain the formation of canon. The community canon model defines the canon as the body of “a set of writings that are selected by the community as a standard.”[x] In the intrinsic canon model “the books of Scripture are not canonical based on the determination of the community, authority, or tradition, but rather based on the intrinsic merits of the books.”[xi] This model does not necessarily equate “inspired” and “canonical.” Rather, it positions inspiration as a prerequisite to canonicity in the intrinsic canon model, with the caveat that a book must also possess other characteristics to be considered canonical, such as application for later generations.

Inspiration is not merely a human record of an experience with the divine, but also a written record of the message received. That Christ himself used the Old Testament as authoritative (e.g. Matthew 4:4 cf. Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 9:13 cf. Hosea 6:6) demonstrates that it “does not merely witness to revelation as if a record of human responses to God’s revelation, and hence a human book.”[xii] Rather, the inspiration given from God is content-full: a word of God, not simply an encounter. This is seen in the experience of the prophet Samuel as a boy. When God called Samuel’s name, “The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him,” despite his experiential encounter.[xiii] Later, “the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.” God’s self-communication in this case included a “word,” or message. Concerning the gospel, the topic of many of his epistles, Paul writes, “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”[xiv] The revelation Paul received from Jesus Christ contained a message: the gospel which he would later communicate in his epistles. This shows that Paul’s writing did not merely record his response and reaction to a mystical experience. Rather, he communicated the message he had received.

With these clarifications of what inspiration is not, we can now turn to the question of what inspiration is. The model suggested by Marie-Joseph Lagrange, a Catholic theologian of the Thomist school, “presents biblical inspiration as the special instance of collaboration between God and human writer: God acts as a primary author or the principal cause of the text, while the writer acts as its instrumental cause.”[xv] In other words, God non-verbally communicates thoughts to authors. The authors then choose words to express the thoughts received from God. Peter described the process in his second epistle: “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”[xvi] Peter’s inclusion of the phrase, “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” implies one additional role of God in the process of inspiration; the authors were guided by the Holy Spirit as they chose words.

The distinction of God as primary cause and author as instrumental cause can accommodate inspired work compiled by multiple authors. For example, the book of Proverbs was partly written by Solomon, partly a compilation of proverbs chosen by King Hezekiah’s men, and partly attributed to two other men: Agur and King Lemuel. To adapt Lagrange’s synthesis to this multi-author work, God as the principal cause of the text remains constant. The human writers and compilers, however, are all acting in response to God’s impetus. The response is to communicate ideas received from God. Some authors do so by collecting existing writings, judging them consistent with the message received from God.

Paul’s writing occasionally shows his awareness of the mechanics of inspiration where it explicitly attributes a specific statement to God or to his own judgment. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul answers some questions from the church concerning marriage and the widowed. He writes, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): …”[xvii] Here he directly credits God as the source of this command. Several verses later, he writes the reverse: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) …”[xviii] Later in the chapter, he gives his opinion on an issue without having specific command: “Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”[xix] Paul’s recognition of when he was speaking otherwise than from a direct message from God reveals that he understood himself to be directly communicating a message from God in most of his writings, and that he felt a need to indicate when he was speaking from his own judgment.

How then does this theology of inspiration account for the inclusion of material from the Book of Enoch in Jude’s writings? Does Jude’s inclusion of an extra-biblical source act as an endorsement of that work? As before, God communicated the thoughts of the inspired work. This implies that the quote from the Book of Enoch does serve as endorsement of that particular section of the book, in that its record of Enoch’s speech, in that instance, matched the message Jude received to write. However, the citation of a small section does not serve as an endorsement of the entire book; rather, it indicates that the author found the book readily available and useful to communicate the thought they were to write.

The theology of inspiration is critical to the way Christians use the Bible for doctrine and practice. That the Bible is a message from God allows Christians to trust its truthfulness. More specifically, thought inspiration de-emphasizes the specific language of the Bible, thereby enabling Christians to consider a translation of the Bible the word of God. Since it is the message of the Bible that is believed to be inspired and not specific language, translation from one language into another does not decrease the authority of the text. While accurate translation work is critical and the original language can give additional insight into what was meant by the authors, Christians need not be versed in biblical languages to read inspired writing. In this way, the theology of thought inspiration enables Christians of all languages to read the inspired word of God.

 

i. Jude 1:14–15 (ESV).
ii. Edward Mazich, “‘The Lord Will Come with His Holy Myriads’ An Investigation of the Linguistic Source of the Citation of 1 Enoch 1, 9 in Jude 14b–15.” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 94, no. 3-4 (2003): 276-281.
iii. Philip Moller, “What Should They be Saying about Biblical Inspiration? A Note on the State of the Question.” Theological Studies 74, no. 3 (2013): 609.
iv. Moller, “Biblical Inspiration”, 609.
v. See Deuteronomy 6:4; Deuteronomy 24; Exodus 20; Genesis 12–25.
vi. John 5:39 (ESV).
vii. 2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB).
viii. Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Theological Table Talk: On the Inspiration of Scripture.” Theology Today 54, no. 2 (1997): 212-215.
ix. See 2 Samuel 7.
x. John C. Peckham, “The Canon and Biblical Authority: A Critical Comparison of Two Models of Canonicity.” Trinity Journal 28, no. 2 (2007): 231.
xi. Peckham, “Canon and Biblical Authority”, 234.
xii. Norman Gulley, “Revelation-Inspiration Model of a Relational God.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 18, no. 2 (2007): 152–182.
xiii. 1 Samuel 3:7 (ESV).
xiv. Galatians 1:12 (NIV).
xv. Moller, “Biblical Inspiration”, 619.
xvi. 2 Peter 1:21 (ESV).
xvii. 1 Corinthians 7:10 (ESV).
xviii. 1 Corinthians 7:12 (ESV).
xix. 1 Corinthians 7:25 (ESV).

 

Matthew West ’17 is from Marysville, WA. He is a prospective major in Engineering Science modified with Computer Science.

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