Getting Inspiration from Inspiration

Michael Allen
Monday, March 1st 2010
Mar/Apr 2010

In his Phaedrus, Plato claimed that the spoken word was more powerful than the written word. Presence and gravitas could be conveyed through speech. Print, on the other hand, muted one's rhetoric. The great philosopher intended this as a blanket statement, true with respect to all persons. Plato's observation was prophetic, with regard to the zest of many religious persons for direct and unmediated revelation from God. Indeed, there has not been a single century in which the church has not been assaulted by those who lay claim to or seek after a divine light or heavenly voice. (1) Paul's writings are secondhand, say these persons, and what we need is our own Damascus Road encounter.

This desire for unmediated spiritual experience has been exacerbated by a number of factors in our own day. Chief among them, surely, would be the development of a visual culture, where previously the oral and textual dominated society. Such shifts would be only moderately important for Christians, except that our religion is coupled to a book. We are a people of the book. We are birthed by the Word. We must read. While it is sad that we are "amusing ourselves to death," it is far worse that we are less capable to engage with the written Word of God.

In this article, however, I want to focus on another challenge of our day. Many persons-even within the world of conservative, evangelical Protestantism-have stumbled over the inspiration of Scripture. It seems that lack of clarity regarding how the Bible relates to God's speech leads to lack of resolve regarding personal devotion to Bible reading and study. This makes perfect sense. Inasmuch as the Bible contains something less than a word from God, it can be useful only in the same way that a self-help book may. Take it, leave it, pick it up when wanted. To the extent that the Bible is God's own Word, though, it is something else entirely. And, in a culture less and less enamored with print media, we need to ask if there is a divine mandate for fixing our attention to these pages and placing our hope in its message.

By focusing on the inspiration of Scripture, we may lay the groundwork for a deeper commitment to meditation upon and interpretation of its treasures. The claim is simple: The nature of Scripture shapes the use of Scripture. We will consider these in turn.

Human Words

Many suggest that a doctrine of Scripture must be shaped not by theological inferences or deductions, but by reflection upon the phenomena of the Bible itself. By observing the style and sources of the Bible, we may learn something of its nature. For example, knowledge of the place of koine Greek within the ancient world tells us something of the communicative intent of God, who chose to use this particular type of language to reveal his truth, aiming to reveal himself to the poor as well as the rich. Yet we must couple these observations with consideration of the Bible's teaching regarding its own production. In other words, it would deny the Bible's final authority if we did not ask what it teaches about itself. So we must look to the teaching as well as the phenomena of the Bible. We can note at least four signs of human involvement explicitly noted by the biblical authors.

First, there is human purpose in writing. The apostle Peter notes that the writing of the revealed Word serves to preserve divine revelation for later memory and future generations:

Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Pet. 1:12-15)

Second, research goes into the production of some biblical texts. The evangelist Luke points to the historiographic task that he undertook to compose his Gospel:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke is clear that he searches out and proceeds to write only "after investigating everything carefully from the very first."

Third, editors select some material for inclusion. John's Gospel concludes by telling us, "Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25). So a process of editorial selection must have taken place: discerning what to include and what to omit.

Fourth, writers structure the teachings in various forms. Most obvious, the various Gospels place things in different order (e.g., the Temple cleansing). They are clearly shaping their account to make a case, to rhetorically and argumentatively drive home a point. And their points, within their different contexts, are not entirely the same: whereas Matthew is dealing polemically with Jewish Christianity, Luke is clearly writing his Gospel in a way that shows its links with the ongoing mission of the early churches in Gentile territory (see its sequel: the Acts of the Apostles). Similar observations can be made about the relationship of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

All told then, the Bible pressures us to say that humans have composed these writings. At least in certain occasions, they made use of all manner of normal writing practices: research, selecting, editing, and so forth. While there may be some texts within the canon that came without such extensive human preparation (e.g., certain prophetic visions do not involve research), the biblical accounts show no hesitation in admitting their human composition.

Divine Words

More must be said. Not only is the Bible a human book, but it comes to us from heaven. Indeed, it is right to call this "God's Word." The Bible not only pressures us to say that it is a human book, but it simultaneously mandates us to speak of it as inspired by God. Again, at least four observations are explicit in the Bible.

First, the prophets speak on God's behalf and with God's authority. Numerous episodes can be found in the Old Testament where a prophet is recognized as the bearer of God's own words. Paradigmatic is Jeremiah's calling:

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord." Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jer.1:4-10)

Jeremiah's calling is much like that of Moses, Joshua, and others (see, for example, Exod. 4:10-16; Num. 12:6-8; Deut. 18:17-20). God's words are put in the prophet's mouth.

Second, the written words of the prophets are treated as divinely authoritative:

In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin." Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. (Jer. 36:1-4)

Here the prophet is told to record the word of the Lord for posterity's sake. The written word is treated like the prophetic sermon, for God's wrath is poured out on Jehoiakim when he had the scroll burned bit by bit (see verses 27-31). God invests the written word with the quality and necessity of the spoken word. Scripture (writings) conveys proclamation beyond the life of the prophet. Eventually, the apostle Peter will share the same reasoning with his readers, explaining why he recorded his apostolic teaching for the sake of those who would live beyond his lifetime (2 Pet. 1:12-15).

Third, the New Testament writers are considered peers of the Old Testament prophets:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Pet. 3:15-16)

Peter observes that Paul writes difficult truths at times, which are twisted by some. What is important for our purposes is to note that Paul's teachings are mistaken by these ignorant persons just as, Peter adds, "they do with the other Scriptures," which shows that Peter views Paul's writings on par with the Hebrew Scriptures. Other texts could be adduced to show that the apostolic teaching, like that of the Israelite prophets before them, was "of God" (see Gal. 1:11-12; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 2:12-13).

Fourth, the doctrine of inspiration is unveiled in Paul's second letter to Timothy as a way to explain how God's words flow through human instruments: the Scriptures. (2)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

The Greek word theopneustos has been studied up and down, left and right. The image is that of God breathing out, a notion surely informed by the creation account when God breathed life into the dust and made man (Gen. 2:7). Just as God created by his word in Genesis, so God brings about the new creation by the proclamation of his gospel. To that end, God inspires or breathes out life into and through the writing of the apostles. The picture is not of texts, already written, now receiving blessing; rather, the notion is of texts produced by God's very breath. (3) As John Webster says, "Talk of inspiration indicates that the generative impulse of the biblical text is not human spontaneity…it is not a voluntary, self-originating movement, but a 'being moved.'" (4) The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture honors the biblical pressure to speak of the Bible as coming from God.

A Biblical "Compatibilism"

If the Bible is both human and divine, as the Bible forces us to say, then we are pressured to say that something can be done by both creatures and the Creator. To say this, and to maintain that this is not a logical contradiction, can be explained with the help of a term called "compatibilism." God wrote the Bible. Humans wrote the Bible. These two statements are compatible.

The biblical compatibilist affirms that we must hold together two truths without offering a philosophical or theoretical resolution of the apparent tension between them on the surface. Compatibilism does not remove mystery; rather, it locates mystery where the Bible does: affirming all that the Scriptures affirm and confessing that a higher coherence is possible. These discussions typically arise in debates regarding divine sovereignty and human responsibility. How can God foreordain horrendous evils and yet hold the agents of these events responsible for such actions? For example, how can the crucifixion of Jesus be predetermined by the counsel of God while Judas and others are nevertheless held responsible for his death? While some texts are difficult to understand, the Bible unequivocally affirms both, such as in Acts 2:23: "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." Biblical compatibilism as an explanation may also be applied to the Bible itself. In other words, the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is one instance in the wider panoply of human history, where God superintends and guides historical processes in such a way that the result is from God yet humans are genuinely active. So the text is guaranteed by divine authorship even while it is delivered through the hands of men. That the production of these Scriptures is ensured by God's providential governance in no way undermines, negates, reduces, offsets, or eliminates the many layers of human involvement: researching, selecting, editing, polishing, and so on. (5) In short, the divine and human authors do not compete, they cooperate.

Too often we fail to note that the Arminian-Calvinist debate has connections to other doctrines. The Augustinian approach should be maintained, not only so that God may be given all glory but also so that other cherished doctrines can be coherently explained, such as Christology and the Eucharist that are also clarified by Augustinian compatibilism. (6) The key point here is to note that the same Bible can only be construed as "the word of the Lord" and "the word according to human authors" if God is working through the creaturely writers. Whereas Augustinianism lets both biblical truths stand (divine sovereignty and human agency), Arminian notions modify one aspect in order to alleviate tension and remove mystery.

Inspiration is therefore a subset of providence. God's guidance of human history to suit his redemptive purposes involves his superintending care of the whole process of Scripture's production. Just as providence does not negate human history, neither does inspiration negate the human authorship of the Bible. Herman Bavinck explained that "God's Spirit in divine inspiration will confirm and strengthen, not destroy, the self-activity of human beings." He continued, "The Spirit of the Lord entered into the prophets and apostles themselves and so employed and led them that they themselves examined and reflected, spoke and wrote as they did. It is God who speaks through them; at the same time it is they themselves who speak and write." (7) In the end, therefore, a compatibilist explanation of the inspiration of the Bible avoids a doctrine of divine dictation of the Word of God to the human authors.

Receiving Inspiration from Inspiration:
The Use of a Doctrine

My theology students delight in reading Thomas Watson's A Body of Divinity for many reasons, chief of which is that Watson exemplifies the Puritan tradition of highlighting the various "uses" of a doctrine. In our own day, Ellen Charry has spoken of the "aretegenic" function of Christian doctrine; that is, the way belief shapes virtue and encourages human flourishing. (8) Kevin Vanhoozer has been more specific, suggesting that doctrine provides the stage notes by which performers fill their roles in the script-in this case the ongoing drama of redemption. (9) If such ways of thinking about doctrine are correct, what use might the doctrine of Scripture's inspiration have?

Surely the value of Bible reading increases exponentially inasmuch as one believes this book is distinguished from others. Here, the nature of the Bible determines the use of the Scriptures.

Thomas Watson offers wisdom regarding the practical implications of biblical inspiration:

If the Scripture be of divine inspiration,
then be exhorted to,

Study the Scripture.
Prize the written Word.
Believe it.
Love the written Word.
Conform to it.
Contend for it.
Be thankful to God for it.

Adore God's distinguishing grace, if you have felt the power and authority of the Word upon your conscience. (10)

Each exhortation is worthy of an article, if space would permit. In conclusion, note that each of these refrains is based on, fueled even, by the reality of God's inspiring production of the Bible. The Bible must be treated as Watson here describes: studied, prized, believed, loved, and more, because it is from God and presents Christ and the gospel. If many of us fail to fulfill these exhortations, perhaps some of our failure can be attributed to our less than thorough grasp of the truly inspired nature of Scripture. Perhaps we need to get some inspiration for a renewed commitment to study of the Bible from this very doctrine of biblical inspiration.

1 [ Back ] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), ch. 3.
2 [ Back ] In its immediate historical context, 2 Timothy 3:16 surely means by "all Scripture" the writings we know as the Old Testament writings. Yet, if point three (above) is also true, then what 2 Timothy 3:16 says about the writings of the prophets would also be true of the writings of the apostles. So, by extension, "all Scriptures" applies to the New Testament.
3 [ Back ] B. B. Warfield's study of this text and the whole idea of inspiration remain peerless. See essays collected in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 1: Revelation and Inspiration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).
4 [ Back ] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 37.
5 [ Back ] The idea of dictation has been rightly criticized because it suggests that the human authors were mindless conduits, a notion that is flatly contradicted by the authorial reflections on offer in Luke and 2 Peter.
6 [ Back ] On compatibilism and two-natures Christology, see Michael Allen, The Christ's Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T & T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology; London: T & T Clark, 2009), ch. 4.
7 [ Back ] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 432.
8 [ Back ] Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
9 [ Back ] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005).
10 [ Back ] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 34-38.
Monday, March 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology