One of the most important steps that the Christian can take towards gaining a balanced and reasonable understanding of the Bible, is to take a moment to consider what they believe about the “nature of inspiration”. When God chose to communicate to us in the form of the written word, what method did He use? How did the message go from His mind to the pages of our Bibles? How were the ideas of the Creator delivered to us?
As you might imagine, there are a lot of strong opinions about this. However, most ideas on this question fall under two camps that could be termed, “verbal inspiration” and “thought inspiration”. While different groups may use different terminology, the two approaches to how God inspired the Bible could be described in the following way:
Those who believe in the “verbal inspiration” of scripture teach that God carefully directed, if not dictated every word of the Bible to his servants the prophets. Adherents to this approach to the nature of inspiration, usually take the passages of scripture very literally, often making direct, literal applications to our lives today. This group will speak courageously about the inerrancy of Scripture and how it is the absolute and final authority on all subjects, for all people, throughout all time.
Those who believe in the “thought inspiration” of scripture believe that God inspired people with ideas, concepts, principles and in some cases some very specific directives, but that when all was said and done, these ideas were ultimately written down in the personal words of the prophets and were filtered through the lens of the prophet’s worldview, their personal experience, language and in some cases, personal convictions and opinions.
That any of us have a strong conviction of how inspiration works at all, may be our biggest problem! Who are we to come to Holy Scripture or the ways of our Creator, with a pre-conceived opinion of how Inspiration MUST operate? As one of my theology professors was fond of saying, “How much better it would be, how much more responsible it would be, if we simply came to scripture, OBSERVE what happens in the text, stand back and say, hmmm, isn't it interesting that this kind of thing can happen under the umbrella of inspiration!” We can accept the premise that inspiration is real, but we should be careful about presuming that we know HOW inspiration works.
After following this good advice for a while, you will no doubt develop some personal convictions of how inspiration appears to work. It may take a few years of observing, but it will be time well spent! Using this approach, Bible students are less likely to be “blown away” when they come across passages that are difficult to understand, that appear to contradict, or statements that reflect an old worldview. Rather than discontinue study as a result of confusion or discouragement, the seeker of truth can say, “Wow! Look at that! Isn’t that an interesting feature of the “nature of Inspiration!”
This, I believe, will help people arrive at a more responsible approach to Scripture then those that start and finish with a strong pre-conceived conviction of how inspiration MUST work!
From my own journey, I have come to the conclusion that “thought inspiration” of scripture is the best approach. I offer the following evidence for this conclusion.
Different Author Styles
If the Bible was dictated by God, and the prophets simply wrote the message down word for word, you would expect one authorship style throughout – God’s. Instead we see a variety of different personalities emerging from the different books of the Bible as each new writer shares the things that God has inspired them to write down. While this may not be readily noticed in a surface reading of the King James Version of the Bible, where it all sounds like Shakespeare was the author of the Bible, there are definite differences that emerge from the various authors of the Bible. People who are trained in linguistics and who are able to work with the original languages that the books of the Bible were written in, are especially attuned to the reality of the different writing styles.
Different Cultural Reflections
The books of the Bible were written by approximately 40 different authors, over a period of about 1200 years. As we shall see with some specific examples in future blogs, the changes in culture, religious belief, and philosophy are often reflected in the things that are written. While the overall message of scripture is amazingly consistent and in harmony, there are many examples of a development of thought, reflecting the changes in belief and culture over a 1200 year period. This gives strong evidence that God inspired the ideas and thoughts, but each individual Biblical author passes these thoughts through the filters of their unique culture, language, and education. One author, such as Joel, may be a simple shepherd. Another author may have had a “PhD” like the Apostle Paul. Each was inspired by God to write down a message. Each used the language skills, imagery, education, and talents that they had, to best share the messages that God had given to them.
“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:20,21 ASV
Again, this appears to be a description of God moving on the heart of an individual through His Holy Spirit, and then the prophet speaks (or writes). The result is that the message that is produced is NOT the original thought of the prophet, he did not come up with it on his own, it is not his agenda, it is a message from God. However, it is men who do the speaking, men who do the writing. The Holy Spirit moves on the heart, man delivers the message of God, but in most cases, it is in the prophets own words.
Some authors of the Bible are kind enough to let us know when they are switching from God’s message, to their own opinion. For example, in Paul’s discussion on marriage, divorce and the advisability of remaining single, in 1 Corinthians 7, he is clear to point out that some of the wisdom that he offers is his own and not a directive from above! Can we be sure that all Biblical authors were as courteous? This is just one of many ideas to keep in mind as you develop your approach to understanding the message that God has for you today, from the ideas that He gave to His prophets so long ago. We shall consider many more in articles to come.
For now, rest assured that as you study the scriptures with a prayerful heart, and are open to the guidance and teaching of the same Holy Spirit that inspired the prophets, you will find the insights that you need for faith and understanding!