I almost don’t want to talk about this. Not because I don’t believe it or I’m afraid of the ensuing conversations that will follow, but because this topic is rather deep. There’s so much nuance to consider. I could make a few blanket statements that would satisfy many people, but blanket statements are so broad they inevitably fall short on closer examination. As you read, please take into consideration that there is no way to be truly brief about this topic.
If you’re a believer, you’d probably agree with the blanket statement that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Second Timothy 3:16 says as much, but where the blanket gets kind of thin is where you dive into how was it inspired?
Second Peter 1:21 says…
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.
So, let’s start here. Two things from this verse in 2 Peter. First, no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man. Basically, that means God’s Word was never produced because one day Paul or Luke or Peter or even Moses sat down and decided to compose some Scripture. In other words, NONE of the Biblical authors decided by their own will to write Scripture. That itself actually presents a few things to consider.
Let’s take the Apostle Paul as an example. We know that Paul wrote more than two letters to the Corinthian church. Paul was a letter writing machine. He maintained correspondence with the churches he planted. In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul makes reference to a letter he wrote before he penned what we know as 1 Corinthians.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people…
We can tell from this one verse that Paul’s prior letter contained some instruction and teaching. Therefore we can say this. Paul wrote other letters that contained teaching and instruction to the Corinthian church – and in all likelihood to many of the churches he planted – that did not make it into the Bible. Does that mean the teachings Paul wrote in those extra-biblical letters were somehow less than correct? No. It’s unlikely that the guy who wrote Romans and Ephesians somehow wrote other letters that weren’t coherent with the letters we do have. That wouldn’t be consistent and would mean that Paul was unstable in his teaching. The other letters of Paul that have been lost to the ages were likely just as theologically astute as the ones we still have in the Bible.
Why then were they not considered inspired? I can’t give you an answer based on their content because we don’t know their full content. All I can tell you is that over the decades which followed the birth of the Church and the planting of the churches in Asia, these letters rose to the top and the others faded. When the Council of Carthage met in A.D. 367, there was final agreement among the Church (in the east and west) over the books of the New Testament we have today. But don’t think wrongly about it. They didn’t pick the letters. Rather, they agreed that the letters which had risen to the top and were already being viewed as Scripture were indeed inspired Scripture.
Now, I said all that to get to this. Paul was always writing letters with orthodox teaching and instruction, but only a few of them were inspired. No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, yet Paul was exercising his will while writing to the churches he planted in all of his letters, inspired or not. So how can what Peter wrote be true and it also be true that the human author’s will was at work in his writings? The only answer is that inspiration – in the Apostles’ case – was a matter of God breathing into a letter that they had already purposed to write. An Apostolic letter doesn’t always mean it’s inspired. But God did choose to inspire some of the letters that the Apostles planned to write.
The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
So if the will of the author is at work, that means things like the personality, education, and even the desires of the author will be present in the work. Where inspiration kicks in is that God uses those qualities in the author, in that particular letter, to produce a final product that is more than just the writings of one man. Which leads to the second half of 2 Peter 1:21… but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit didn’t take over the will of the author to give him dictation – although there are some clear places where dictation happens. But even in dictation, the author is still exercising his will to obediently write what God was speaking. Inspiration was never automatic or trance-like where the author lost control of his mind and body to conduit the words of God directly to paper.
This is important…
God knows how to write. He did it twice for Moses (the tablets of the Law, both times – Exodus 31:18 and Exodus 34:1). He could’ve written things down for us if that’s how he had wanted to deliver Scripture. He could have dropped scrolls from the heavens for the scribes to simply copy. But because God desires relationship, not robotic obedience, even inspiration of the Scriptures contained an element of the authors freely submitting to the process. And that process permanently imprinted the personality, the knowledge, the desires of people that Yahweh has loved and spoken through into the pages of Scripture. I think that’s cool. Through the Holy Spirit, Yahweh influenced the author’s choice of words, which made the words of Scripture both human and divine.
So, we’re almost a thousand words into this. What have we said? In a nutshell we’ve seen that inspiration is a divine process that uses human writings. God inspired human authors as they wrote, and the product was a letter or a book to which believers naturally (or supernaturally) gravitated for authoritative teaching about God, his Church, and his ultimate plan for redeeming all things. Now let’s look at some specific methods of inspiration.
I mentioned earlier that there are times when God directly dictated the Words of Scripture. This is most clear in the Prophets and Revelation. God spoke directly to men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Apostle John to give them prophecies about things that were in the future. As of today, many of them have been fulfilled, and some we are still waiting for fulfillment. Due to the nature of prophecy, the inspiration of prophetic literature required direct dictation.
So, let’s keep chasing this. I heard Dr. Michael Heiser say this. When the prophet Isaiah died, we didn’t have the completed book of Isaiah that we see today in our Old Testament. There was a body of texts that Isaiah had written down over the years as he received revelation from the Lord and spoke it to the kings of Judah. When he died, the Sons of the Prophets took his texts and put them together into a cohesive work. The Sons of the Prophets (sometimes called school of the Prophets) is talked about in several places in the Old Testament. Second Kings 4:38 contains a clear reference to this group of men.
And Elisha returned to Gilgal, and there was a famine in the land. Now the sons of the prophets were sitting before him; and he said to his servant, “Put on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.”
We don’t know a lot about the Sons of the Prophets except that they appeared be a group of godly men who were taught and possibly trained by the Prophets. So back to Isaiah, when he died, these men assembled his writings into what we know as the book of Isaiah today. They didn’t write Isaiah, but they played a role in the process of inspiration as they prayerfully assembled his writings into what we have in our Bibles today.
So inspiration isn’t just the writing, but it’s also in the assembling… and that carries over into the period of time between the Old Testament and New Testament. During that time, no more Scripture was written, but what did happen was the Old Testament was assembled into the form that we know today. Prior to the Babylonian and Assyrian exiles, the Old Testament wasn’t actually complete. The Prophets were in the midst of writing, the historical books weren’t complete because Israel’s history was still unfolding, so it wasn’t until the time between the Testaments that the Jews had every complete work. These Jews are frequently called Second Temple Jews because they were the descendants of the faithful ones who moved back to Jerusalem from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple. These guys assembled the Old Testament as we know it. They were inspired by Yahweh to include the books we have and leave out books like 1 and 2 Enoch. Inspiration brings in and includes the process of assembly.
How can we know that what they did was divinely inspired? It’s actually simple. Jesus accepted the work of the Second Temple Jews as inspired because he made zero effort to correct their work. In other words, it’s the Bible that Jesus read and accepted as inspired Scripture, so we can safely assume that the work of the Second Temple Jews was inspired as well.
Alright, take a deep breath. We’re on the way out now.
[ I must pause and remind you that this discussion is only scratching the surface. As I’ve been writing, I’ve thought up several things to discuss that I’ve elected to leave out for the sake of a more brief article. So please, if this sparks your interest, don’t be satisfied with what I’m saying here. Keep digging. ]
So, inspiration comes in the writings, it came in the assembly process, but how do we know that Yahweh isn’t still inspiring new works of Scripture? This is a powder keg subject because it speaks directly to the validity of the writings of other pseudo-christian churches. If God no longer breathes out new Scripture through divinely inspired authors, then any writings authored after the deaths of the Apostles cannot be considered inspired Scripture. And to take it further, any post-Apostle author who claims their writings are inspired Scripture is a false prophet. To be clear, I know that some of us still believe that God calls apostles today. For now and for the sake of brevity, let’s agree that there’s room for discussion concerning the definition of a present-day apostle. The Apostle John was the last one to die, and his writings in Revelation were the last ones penned by any Apostle. At the end of Revelation, the Apostle John makes a declaration.
For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
This is the closing warning against adding any further revelation to the body of inspired Scripture, which by this time had been written but not formally assembled. Some argue that John is only talking about the book of Revelation itself. This is true, but when you take into consideration the larger picture of divinely inspired placement and order of the books of the New Testament, the warning serves as a bookend to the canon of Scripture itself.
Add to this, Hebrews 1:1-2.
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds;
Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of who God is and what his plan for humanity entails. In the past he spoke through prophets, but today Jesus Christ is the final Word offered. We should expect no more revelation to follow Jesus Christ. Take this into account when you read the book of Revelation, and you’ll see why it is considered the final book, and why its warning about adding or taking away from its words applies to the whole of the Word of God.
That spells a certain defeat for any later writings that claimed to be Scripture. This is why Joseph Smith is a false prophet. This is why Charles Taze Russell is a false prophet. Both of these men came claiming either that they had an entirely new revelation from God which superseded the teachings of the Old and New Testament, or that the existing Bible was corrupt and they had received revelation on how to correct it. I mention these men because the movements they founded, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, both continue to claim that they are Christian. But according to the Word of God, they forfeit that claim by embracing new revelation that they consider inspired writings.
Let’s make this practical. When you hear someone say that God inspired them to write a book, or a song, you can have confidence that whatever they wrote should not be given the same authority as Scripture. That doesn’t mean that God didn’t lead them to write, that doesn’t mean that what they say isn’t sound in its teaching. But these works are just like Paul’s other letters. They’re good, but their not inspired. We use the word inspired in a common way – like that movie inspired me – to communicate that we were moved to action. But when we’re talking about inspired Scripture, we’re talking about a different category of inspiration. To date, I’ve written two books and hundreds of blog entries. I even felt led to write them, and I think they’re all helpful. But none of them are divinely inspired like the Scriptures were so they should never be held with the same regard and given the same authority.
This is long enough. Trust me, I know that I haven’t answered every question or considered every objection. (And don’t even get me started on the relationship between inspiration and inerrancy!) But I do feel like this will give you a great starting place. But even the most thorough explanation will leave room for questions and have space for different thoughts. What you believe about the inspiration of the Word will always boil down to a matter of faith. I believe that inspiration has brought about a body of Scripture that is both human and divine, and that plays well with God using the foolish things of this world to confound the wise. He uses broken people to convey the divine message of hope, redemption, and eternal life in Christ. I welcome your thoughts and questions.