What Does Inspiration Really Mean?
‘Inspiration’ is a widely used term in various settings. We speak of writers being inspired to write, artists are inspired to draw, mold, or sculpt, musicians are inspired to write music, and architects are inspired to design buildings. In all of these cases ‘inspired’ means pretty much the same. They were motivated to do their job, by some influence upon them.
Then there are those who are ‘inspired’ by books, art, music, or architecture. When the word is used in this sense it means that the reader, art critic, listener, or ‘beholder’ (building codes inspector?) have had their emotions stirred positively by whichever object it is they are admiring at that time.
While the Bible can rightly be said to be inspired in both these senses, to stop at this would do injustice to the Biblical doctrine of ‘Inspiration’. The definition of the Biblical doctrine of Inspiration is found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy.
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. (2Ti 3:16-17)
Now, I say that this is a Biblical doctrine since I believe it is a doctrine clearly taught in Scripture, primarily because, Scripture actually claims inspiration for itself in the verses we just read!
(Well, Scripture and Clarence Larkin’s book titled, The Greatest Book on Dispensational Truth in the World both claim inspiration. Seriously, that’s the title. And seriously, the introduction claims that the Holy Spirit had a hand and helping Larkin draw the pictures, otherwise, how can we explain the fact that the drawings are so perfect? D. J., could you get me the exact quote?)
So just the fact that the Bible claims inspiration for itself is not proof in and of itself that it is inspired. Otherwise, how many other books would we have to recognize as inspired?
No, the definition goes deeper than just a claim. The word Paul uses is ‘θεοπνευστος’, transliterated ‘theopneustos’. This is a compound word combining the Greek words for God, ‘θεός’, and breath, ‘πνέω’. A literal translation would be God-breathed. This of course, follows the words, ‘All Scripture’. The Greek word for Scripture here is, ‘γραφή’, literally translated, ‘writing’. The writing that Paul is discussing with Timothy is, in the context, the ‘sacred writings’;
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2Ti 3:14-15)
‘Sacred writings’ obviously refers to the Old Testament that Timothy had been taught as a child. So Paul, is saying that the Old Testament is ‘God-breathed’. What does that mean? Clearly this word, ‘theopneustos’, is referring to God and his breath. LEt’s have a little science experiment. We know that sounds that we as humans make come from something called ‘vocal chords’. What we may not know is that the way vocal chords make sound is by vibrating as air passes over them. So what I want you to do now is hold your hand about an inch from your mouth and say this, “Scripture is God-breathed.” Did you feel that? As you spoke, you exhaled air. You probably felt five breaths, varying in length and intensity, against your hand.
O. K. Science class is over. Paul says that the Old Testament is God-breathed because he has in his mind the idea of God speaking.
So, why doesn’t Paul just say, “Timothy, the Old Testament that you studied from your youth is in actuality the very words of God?” Well, because Paul has something else on his mind as well. The words for breath and spirit, are very closely related in most languages. Think about it, our English words, ‘respiration’, ‘inspiration’, and ‘spirit’ all come from the same root. Paul has in mind the activity of the Holy Spirit when he tells Timothy that, “All scripture is God-breathed.”
This puts Paul in accordance with what the other Biblical writers taught about the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of inspiration.
In Genesis 1:2, where we are told that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, the Hebrew word for ‘Spirit’ can also be translated ‘breath’. The Septuagint (the Greek translation, of the Hebrew O. T., used by the Apostles) uses the word ‘πνεῦμα’, or, ‘pneuma’ for ‘Spirit’ in Genesis 1:2. This word can also be translated as ‘breath’. The point that I am trying to make by pointing this out is that Paul, by saying that Scripture is God-breathed, is also saying that the Spirit is the agent by which God spoke his words to man.
Again, this is not unique to Paul, Peter says the same,
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. (2Pe 1:21)
“Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. (Act 1:16)
After Peter and John are released by the Sanhedrin, they go and tell their friends what God had done. Their friends respond,
And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? (Act 4:24-25)
The writer of Hebrews affirms the Holy Spirit’s role in the inspiration of the O. T. as well,
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” (Heb 3:7-11)
And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” (Heb 10:15-17)
In Revelation, when Jesus addresses the seven churches, he tells them to, “…hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev, 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22)
I think we have established that Paul believed that the O. T. was inspired, and by inspired he means that the, Scriptures, or the O. T. is the breath, or, words of God, and that these words were given by the Spirit. The other N. T. writers affirm the same.
But in 2 Peter, Peter includes Paul’s writings in the category of ‘Scripture’;
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. (2Pe 3:15-16)
The N. T. writers seem to recognize their own writings as on par with the O. T. writings as well.
Before we start down this road, I think it is helpful that we recognize that the Old Testament prophets believed they were inspired. When they use such language as, “The Word of the Lord came…”, “Thus says the Lord…”, or other similar phrases, they are confessing that the words that they spoke or wrote down were not their own words, but the words of God. They were claiming inspiration.
Likewise, when Moses gave the Law, he understood that these were not just a bunch of rules that he had made up, but that he was speaking and writing the words of God.
So, now, we come to the New Testament, and read the words of Paul;
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12)
When we read these words we begin to recognize that Paul is claiming inspiration for himself. He is claiming that his writings are just as inspired as any of the Old Testament prophets writings were.
Next, we see that Paul placed his own teaching on par with the teaching of Christ about divorce;
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. (1Co 7:10-12)
In verse 10, Paul summarizes Jesus’ teaching on divorce. He says, “the Lord says this”. Then, beginning in verse twelve, Paul gives his teaching, which is complimentary to Jesus’ teaching, concerning divorce. In verse twelve he says, “I say this”.
Should we understand Paul to be saying that this is something to be taken as a lesser teaching that of Christ, and therefore that we can ignore Paul’s teaching if we like? Or, is he simply stating the fact that Jesus had actually said these words and then separating the quote from Jesus form his own words which he prefaces by saying, “This is what I say”?
I think the latter interpretation is more faithful to the text. If it is, then Paul is claiming to be so inspired that his teachings are equal with Christ’s teachings.
Concerning the other writers of the New Testament, first of all, we have the words of Jesus concerning the inspiration of the Apostles. He says,
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Act 1:8)
So this is Jesus telling His Apostles that they were to be His mouthpieces in all the world. If they believed Jesus, then they also must have believed that they were speaking and writing the words of Christ. They must have known that they were inspired.
The writer of Hebrews seems to claim to be a spokesperson for Christ, and therefore, inspired, in the first two verse of Hebrews, although later, in chapter 2, he seems to say that he is not an Apostle,
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world….
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb 1:1-2, 2:1-4)
The general tone of James’ letter seems to be of someone who is writing with authority, making several commands throughout the letter, with no appeal to outside sources for their validity, however, he makes no claim of inspiration.
Peter claims inspiration rather explicitly,
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 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. (2Pe 1:16-21)
John claims to be a ‘witness’ of Christ (when he says “we..testify”, ‘testify’ means to ‘bear witness),
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us– that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3)
John is even more explicit when he tells us that he heard the voice of Christ telling him to write the things that he saw in a Spirit-induced vision in a book,
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” (Rev 1:9-11)
It has been theorized that Jude was claiming to be inspired when he said that his mind was changed about the topic of his letter (the theory being that the Holy Spirit moved upon him to write the words that he ended up writing),
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jud 1:3)
In any case, I think that there is conclusive evidence to point to the fact that most of the writers of the New Testament believed that they were inspired.
But as I have already pointed out, the fact that they claim to speak God’s words really doesn’t prove that they are speaking God’s words. It does however call their character into question. Were they deceived? Were they lying? Were they hearing voices? Or were they telling the truth from a sound mind? If they were deceived, lying, or hearing voices, then we really can’t put much stock in what they have to say. But if they were telling the truth from a sound mind, then we have reason to believe that they truly were inspired, and that they were truly speaking God’s words.
The testimony of the Early Church is that both the O. T. and the N. T. are God’s words.
The one sent from men is a liar; the one sent through man tells the truth, as God too, who is truthful, may send truth through men. The one, therefore, who is sent not from men or through man but through God derives his truthfulness from the One who makes truthful even those sent through men.-Augustine, Epistle to the Galatians.
We have learned the plan of our salvation from no one else other than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us. For they did at one time proclaim the gospel in public. And, at a later period, by the will of God, they handed the gospel down to us in the Scriptures-to be the ‘ground and pillar of our faith.’-Irenaus, Against Heresies.
Then, if God had been unable to make all things of nothing, the Scripture could not possibly have added that He had made all things of nothing: (there could have been no room for such a statement,) but it must by all means have informed us that He had made all things out of Matter, since Matter must have been the source; because the one case was quite to be understood, if it were not actually stated, whereas the other case would be left in doubt unless it were stated.
If therefore God, when producing other things out of things which had been already made, indicates them by the prophet, and tells us what He has produced from such and such a source (although we might ourselves suppose them to be derived from some source or other, short of nothing; since there had already been created certain things, from which they might easily seem to have been made); if the Holy Ghost took upon Himself so great a concern for our instruction, that we might know from what everything was produced, would He not in like manner have kept us well informed about both the heaven and the earth, by indicating to us what it was that He made them of, if their original consisted of any material substance, so that the more He seemed to have made them of nothing, the less in fact was there as yet made, from which He could appear to have made them? Therefore, just as He shows us the original out of which He drew such things as were derived from a given source, so also with regard to those things of which He does not point out whence He produced them, He confirms (by that silence our assertion) that they were produced out of nothing. “In the beginning,” then, “God made the heaven and the earth.” I revere the fulness of His Scripture, in which He manifests to me both the Creator and the creation. In the gospel, moreover, I discover a Minister and Witness of the Creator, even His Word. But whether all things were made out of any underlying Matter, I have as yet failed anywhere to find. Where such a statement is written, Hermogenes’ shop must tell us. If it is nowhere written, then let it fear the woe which impends on all who add to or take away from the written word.-Tertullian, Against Hermogenes.
It was fit and proper, therefore, that the Holy Ghost should no longer withhold the effusions of His gracious light upon these inspired writings, in order that they might be able to disseminate the seeds of truth with no admixture of heretical subtleties, and pluck out from it their tares. He has accordingly now dispersed all the perplexities of the past, and their self-chosen allegories and parables, by the open and perspicuous explanation of the entire mystery, through the new prophecy, which descends in copious streams from the Paraclete. If you will only draw water from His fountains, you will never thirst for other doctrine: no feverish craving after subtle questions will again consume you; but by drinking in evermore the resurrection of the flesh, you will be satisfied with the refreshing draughts.-Tertullian, On The Resurrection Of The Flesh.
…and that we might receive the teaching concerning the transcendent nature of the Deity which is given to us, as it were, “through a glass darkly” from the older Scriptures,—from the Law, and the Prophets, and the Sapiential Books, as an evidence of the truth fully revealed to us, reverently accepting the meaning of the things which have been spoken, so as to accord in the faith set forth by the Lord of the whole Scripture, which faith we guard as we received it, word for word, in purity, without falsification, judging even a slight divergence from the words delivered to us an extreme blasphemy and impiety.-Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius.
Moreover, concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God.-Theophilus, To Autolycus, Book Three.
I’ll finish the conclusion tomorrow. I’ve still got to talk about infallibility and inerrancy. I’m also going to try and tell you why I spent all this inspiration stuff.
Filed under: Bible, Inerrancy, inspiration, Theology | 1 Comment »