It is easy to slip into the habit of using words without knowing exactly what they mean. This is especially true when Christians use common theological terms in casual conversation. We can get so comfortable with familiar terms that we miss the wonderful, rich concepts they were intended to express. One such word is inspiration. Inspiration comes from the Latin for “breathing into,” but the actual Greek word has an even more pointed meaning. Although inspiration is not, strictly speaking, a biblical word, the entire message and authority of the Bible depend on the concept.
Definition of Inspiration
Inspiration is a property of the Scriptures. In fact, Paul tells us that all Scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). This phrase is a translation of one Greek word, which literally means “God-breathed.” God did not simply breathe into already existing words; rather, He breathed out the very words themselves. That nuance is significant. The Scriptures originate with God, are issued forth by God, and are the very word of God.1
The human authors of Scripture always wrote precisely what God intended.
Although the process behind the divine inspiration of Scripture is not revealed in detail in Scripture, the Bible tells us that it was entirely under the direction of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). So whether revelation came about directly (for example, by dictation, as with Revelation 2–3) or indirectly (for example, by means of careful human research, as described in Luke 1:1–3), the Holy Spirit’s superintending guidance ensured that the human authors always wrote precisely what God intended for them to write; the words they wrote were not merely human words, but were words communicated by the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:13).
Even though the Spirit oversaw the process, the human writers were not mere passive penmen. Their varied personal experiences and stylistic choices are reflected in the pages of Scripture, which can be seen in such things as the diverse vocabularies of the different books. Nevertheless, the final product was exactly as God wanted it.
Going beyond this basic definition of inspiration, it is important to clarify precisely in what way Scripture is inspired. Biblical Christianity holds that the Bible is verbally inspired. Verbal inspiration is the process by which God ensured that the individual words of Scripture (not just the overarching concepts) communicated exactly what He intended to say. This is not to deny the active role of human authors in selecting vocabulary and arranging the text; it is to say that the very words that the human authors wrote down were in fact God’s words.
This concept is taught by Scripture when God tells Jeremiah, “And whatever I command you, you shall speak . . . Behold, I have put My words (Hebrew, debārîm) in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:7–9). Likewise, in the New Testament, Paul notes that the message he proclaimed was “not in words (Greek, logois) which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
Both Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers based theological arguments on very fine points of language on the level of individual words. They appealed to such things as a particular pronominal suffix (for example, “my Lord” in Matthew 22:44–45, quoting Psalm 110:1). Paul noted the distinction between the singular and the plural forms of a noun (seed versus seeds in Galatians 3:16, quoting Genesis 12:7). Jesus even emphasized the distinction between the implied present tense of a verb as opposed to past tense (“I am the God of Abraham” in Matthew 22:32, quoting Exodus 3:6). If the very words of Scripture were not inspired, these arguments would carry no weight.
Verbal inspiration is clearly important since whole doctrines hinge upon the meaning of individual words. God used specific words to communicate His Word. We cannot be sure of our doctrine unless we know we can understand the meaning of Scripture on the basis of those exact words.
Discussion Questions . . .
Look at 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
- What do these verses teach about the product of inspiration? (Who or what is “inspired”?)
- What do these verses teach about the extent of inspiration? (How much of Scripture is inspired?)
- What do these verses teach about the usefulness of inspired Scripture? (Note that verse 16 teaches four overlapping uses of Scripture.)
- What do these verses teach about the purpose of inspiration? Why did God give us the Scriptures? How does this relate to personal sanctification? (Note John 17:17.)
Look at 2 Peter 1:21.
- What does this verse teach about the ultimate origin of Scripture? Was it from men or from God? What does this imply about the authority of Scripture?
- What does this verse teach about the means of inspiration? Who was involved?
- What does this verse teach about human involvement in the process of inspiration? Does this detract at all from the authority of Scripture? Why or why not?
- Today we often say that a speech or a musical composition or other creative effort is “inspired.” Given what these passages teach, can anything besides Scripture be “inspired” in the biblical sense? How can this be confusing in light of how the word inspired is used today?