From its inception until now, Christianity has hinged upon a certain truth: God is not silent. Churches across the world assemble weekly, colleges and seminaries are erected, and debates echo across the internet because of this truth. God speaks to man by breathing out his words. This formulation is the basis for what is called the doctrine of inspiration, a word which comes from the Latin inspirare, to breathe into. It is the doctrine of how God’s words are communicated to man. But what precisely does it mean to be inspired? What is the object being inspired? To what extent does this inspiration occur? These questions are matters of contention in the theological realm. The doctrine of inspiration is formulated differently among those who would profess Christianity. In light of these differences, I will argue that the Plenary Verbal position is the correct position on the basis of textual evidence and historical support. In this post as well as Part 2, therefore, I will present and explain four prominent positions on the doctrine of inspiration: the Neo-Orthodox position, the Roman Catholic position, the Limited position, and the Plenary Verbal position. I will seek to defend the veracity of the Plenary Verbal position by examining sources pertaining to inspiration which are considered prominent in each of these camps, summarizing each position clearly and faithfully, and finally arguing carefully from a textual and historical perspective that the Plenary Verbal position is the best position among the four while rebutting major objections raised against it.
Neo-Orthodox view of Bible’s origin
The first position we will examine is the Neo-Orthodox position. This view is represented by Karl Barth, who wrote extensively on inspiration. Barth and his Neo-Orthodox followers hold that inspiration is “the effective powers by which God discloses himself freely to men, making them accessible to himself and so on their part free for him.”1 This inspiration then is essentially a type of mystic communication from God to man. Barth explains this further in his writings arguing that upon the moment of inspiration into an individual reading the Bible that “the Bible therefore becomes God’s Word in this event.”2
The Bible, then, is not an objectively inspired document, which is to say it does not stand by itself as a document which contains the word of God as breathed out by him. It is a by which inspiration occurs at certain places to certain people. Hence, inspiration is subjective. It does not occur only to those reading or writing the Bible, but it can occur on multiple levels, which might be “affirmations of theology,” the “history of salvation and revelation,” the “hearing and speech of biblical witnesses,” and the “being and act of the community,” among others.3
According to those of the Neo-Orthodox tradition, preaching and meditation are others vehicles by which inspiration can occur. This multi-faceted view of inspiration is the hallmark of this position for inspiration is not limited to the Scriptures; nor is it inherently a quality of the Scriptures. Based on the Neo-Orthodox definition, inspiration must necessarily include Scripture but is not limited to Scripture. Inspiration is sort of the wind or atmosphere that carries men to the Word of God, influencing hearts and minds in transcendent fashion. Its nature is not explicitly clear according to Neo-Orthodox theologians, only that it is some form of power that influences the mind and heart.
Barth would say this act of inspiration continually occurs today and certainly must occur as a means of salvation. Considering the early church in Acts, Barth concludes, “It was a result of this spirare and inspirare that the Word was understood and accepted by three thousand people.”4 Peter’s sermon in Acts is understood to be inspired by God, and likewise Peter’s hearers are recipients of this inspired sermon and are inspired to receive it as the Word of God, granting them salvation.
Roman Catholic view of Bible’s origin
The second position is the Roman Catholic position. While we could explore the different speculations and theories that the church’s theologians take on inspiration, we will limit ourselves to official dogma because we are interested in a strictly official Roman Catholic position. As such, we will look to Dei Verbum wherein much of its doctrine of inspiration is contained. The church proclaims that the “Old and New Testaments” are “sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author.”5 They see the Scriptures as having dual authorship, both human and divine. The divine authorship does not override or supersede the human authorship according to the church; for interpreters are exhorted to determine “what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.”6 In other words, inspiration is not so much God commanding every word to the prophet, but as a divine influence of thought such that the human words of Scripture convey exactly what God intended, a process in which the divine and human authors work together.
What makes the Roman Catholic position unique, however, is that it believes that the church itself is inspired as well. While Dei Verbum does not explicitly state that the church is inspired per se, it makes statements that necessarily imply it. The inspired Apostles not only presented the word of God through one stream, Scripture, but also through another, tradition.
Tradition in the church receives a continuous supply of inspiration as it develops doctrine through official dogma: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.”7 While not explicitly labeled inspiration, this is most certainly inspiration. For it is revelation from God being transmitted through human vessels by means of a divine confluence of thought. Hence, as time moves forward, inspiration continues to flow into the church, and it “constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.”8 Further proof is seen when the council calls both Scripture and tradition as being “from the same divine wellspring.”9 Thus, we see that the Roman Catholic Church sees inspiration as occurring in both the Scriptures as well as sacred church tradition.
The Limited (Liberal) view of Bible’s origin
The third position is the Limited position. This position is referred to as such because of its view of inspiration as being limited to only certain parts. The Limited position defines inspiration as the divine influence of thought on humans, both the writers of the Bible and the individuals and communities of the world. However, what is unique about this position is that inspiration is always constrained. It does not reach into all thoughts of people, nor does it dictate words. It reaches only to certain categories of thought, but does not infringe into other areas.
God inspires theological statements and matters of faith, but no further. Inspiration does not occur in matters of historical, scientific, or social data in the Scriptures. Data such as measurements, dates, observations of natural events, societal ethics, and other matters which are not distinctly theological or pertaining to faith are seen as being untouched by inspiration. What this means is that the Scriptures are primarily the work of human authors without any divine influence. Only the theological matters are influenced by the divine, but the rest of it is prone to error.
Jack Rogers, a prominent theologian of this position, states, “Of course the Bible is error-ridden. The divine author was limited to and by the imperfect human writers he had to use in preparing it.”10 Hence, we see that inspiration in the Scripture is limited and does not extend into all words or ideas of the authors. It remains, however, a medium by which humanity apprehends “normative divine revelation,”11 i.e. that which is theological or pertaining to faith, such as love, integrity, hope, and other concepts. In other words, scripture is not the only piece of writing that is inspired and inspiration occurs elsewhere outside the circle of biblical authors.
What we see, then, is that the Limited position views inspiration as occurring in individuals and the community. Jack Rogers writes that God’s divine truth is transmitted in an “ongoing work of the Spirit in the community, as discerned by critical rational judgment.”12 In other words, inspiration continually flows into the individuals. Love, hope, faith, etc. are concepts which are being breathed out from God into the hearts and minds of people. While part of that inspiration touched the authors of the Bible, such inspiration also touches others as well, and does so perpetually throughout the ages. Such inspiration does not penetrate or dictate the minds or hearts of its vessels. It only influences them in a limited way, constrained to theology and faith. This is why it is categorized as limited.
These are three of the four major views on inspiration. In Part 2 we will take A Final Look at Inspiration, examining the fourth position, Plenary Verbal Inspiration. This fourth and final view is the orthodox view and that which is held by the administrators of this blog. The Plenary Verbal view makes up for what lacks in the preceding three, and is well-established by the testimony of the Scriptures themselves as well as church history.
1 Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), 1963. 53
2 Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark), 1936. 183
3 Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), 1963. 51
4 Ibid., 55
5 Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (November 18, 1965. Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1965).
10 Jack B. Rogers, Biblical Authority (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1977), 52.
12 Ibid., 53.