What Is Meant When We Say That The Bible Is “Inspired”

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Without a doubt, “inspiration” is probably one of the most misunderstood and misapplied doctrines in regards to Scripture. One of the problems that come from it is that it necessarily intersects with inerrancy so that–here comes the argument– if God is all perfect and all-knowing, then everything that he has made known is necessarily true. Before anyone calls me a denier of inspiration and inerrancy, let me be clear: I agree with the premise of the argument, though not its conclusion. Well, what does that mean?

Largely it means that Ken Ham won’t be sending me any birthday cards. Let me explain by asking a question, where do we get the term from?

The term comes from a passage of Scripture found in Paul’s second letter to his disciple and dedicated student, Timothy, where Paul writes,

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 complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV, emphasis added)

This passage is part of a larger context where Paul, realizing that his days were close to ending, that he had “fought the good fight,… finished the race,…[and] kept the faith“, is encouraging his protégée (2 Timothy 4:7, ESV). Part of his encouragement to his young friend was to, “[follow] the pattern of the sound words that [he had] heard,” from him in regards to the faith, and to pass such along to, “to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 1:13, 2:2, ESV).” Part of the means by which the young pastor is encouraged to do so is by Scripture. 

The problem is that, in the vast majority of translations what exists in Greek as an adjective is rendered and understood in English as a verb, as I highlighted in the above quotation. Paul isn’t so much saying what Scripture is as much as describing the nature of Scripture. We see something similar in Matthew 22.

When being questioned by those who denied a bodily resurrection, Jesus quotes a passage from Exodus 3, and does so as if God himself had spoken it to them. It seems as though Jesus saw Scripture as the means by which God had ordained to speak to successive generations. He was holding his audience responsible as if they had heard what was said themselves, which they had since they read the texts, at least, weekly. Inspiration needs to be understood then as expiration. That God is then, rather literally, speaking through the text to the reader. That, of course, raises all manner of questions.

 

Dr. R.C. Sproul, in his commentary on the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, titled Can I Trust the Bible? writes, in regards to this,

[Expiration] is a more accurate term than inspiration with respect to the origin of Scripture. But we use the term inspiration to cover the whole process by which the Word comes to us. Initially, it comes from the mouth of God (speaking, of course, metaphorically). From its origin in God, it is transmitted through the agency of human writers under divine supervision and superintendence. (p.24)

The fact that Scripture was “transmitted through human agency” bothers people because it means that God used men writing in specific contexts to specific audiences who had specific understandings of the world, which often leads people to false conclusions about the nature of scripture and the men who never considered where we would be today. That is the reason why critics, like Sam Harris, often falsely assume that the writers of Scripture were, pseudoscientists, (as he does in this abbreviated form of his podcast) when they were nothing of the sort. They were simply people, like us, operating under certain assumptions about the nature of the world and how it worked. But, then doesn’t that somehow affect inerrancy?

No, because inerrancy largely refers to the nature of the message, not the nature of facts under which they operated, and the direction of transmission. We recognize the fact that there are limits placed upon human knowledge, and that people can, but not always, make mistakes, which is why Sproul can say on page 31 of his commentary,

Finitude implies a necessary limitation of knowledge but not necessarily a distortion of knowledge. The trustworthy character of the biblical text should not be denied on the ground of man’s finitude.

The mistake that most people make in regards to inspiration, and how it leads to inerrancy, is that there are certain false assumptions, which is why when we run into something that looks superficially like a contradiction, it can become a problem rather than a benefit to us. Let’s make sure that we have a firm recognition of what Paul meant by describing Scripture as that which is “God breathed”, so that we don’t back ourselves into any corners or render our positions indefensible.

Dr. Michael Heiser discusses this issue in this excerpt from his podcast. 

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5 thoughts on “What Is Meant When We Say That The Bible Is “Inspired”

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