Words are slippery things. We often think we know exactly what we are talking about until someone asks us to define the precise meaning of the words we are using.
Take the word inspiration, for example. That’s easy, you may be thinking; I feel inspired to live a better life every time I read the Bible. Someone else may say, “I feel inspired when I see a beautiful painting or listen to enchanting music.” A third person may say, “I got the most inspiring idea!”
the meaning of inspiration
All these are good uses of the words inspiration and inspired, but are these definitions what the Bible means when it says that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God”? (2 Timothy 3:16, NKJV).
The Greek word translated “inspired” means “God-breathed,” indicating that the Book we call the Bible has been given to us by God Himself. Peter wrote that “prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
We can say, then, that concerning the Bible, inspiration means that the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit guided the Bible writers so that their writings accurately recorded God’s will. But how does inspiration work? How did the Holy Spirit inform and guide the Bible writers?
guidance related to writing
Many Bible passages reflect the fact that God revealed His will to the prophets through either the words they heard or visions they saw. Thus, Jeremiah could speak of “the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD” (Jeremiah 18:1; emphasis added), and John wrote that he “saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2; emphasis added).
But God also used other ways to inform the authors of the Bible. One is through history. Such events as Creation, the call of Abraham, and the incarnation of Christ are recorded in the Bible as God’s mighty deeds. God has acted in history through a series of divine events that have been recorded in Scripture, and this history makes up a large part of the Bible.
Jesus Christ is, of course, the complete form of God’s revelation. The book of Hebrews notes that “in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1, 2; emphasis added). All revelations before Jesus were incomplete. None of them, individually or even collectively, could add up to all that God needed to tell His people. But in Christ, God’s revelation came to its fullness.
W. H. Griffith Thomas said that Jesus “is a complete revelation [of God’s will]; instead of being temporary, it is permanent; instead of being preparatory, it is final; and instead of coming through subordinates, it is embodied in One Who is supreme.”1 And F. F. Bruce said that “the story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond him.”2
It’s tempting to think that all inspired writings came through a special revelation from God. However, Luke informs us that he researched many existing written and oral records to gather information about Jesus. He wrote his Gospel only after carefully examining the facts he compiled from these sources (see Luke 1:1–4).
Luke wasn’t alone in his use of research. Ezra 7 is a long letter from King Artaxerxes (see verses 11–26). Other Bible writers used such sources as the book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18) and the official records found in the royal records of Israel and other nations (see, for example, 1 Kings 14:19; 2 Kings 1:18; Esther 10:2).
So only part of the information we find in the Bible came through some form of direct revelation from God. Other parts came through researching existing records.
guidance related to writing
But while only part of the Bible came through revelation, all of it is inspired. Earlier, we saw that the word inspiration means “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). This is simply to say that the Holy Spirit guided the Bible writers as they wrote down what God showed them or told them. Inspiration also includes God’s guidance as the Bible writers gathered their information and His direction in writing out the message He wanted them to pass on to His people.
Some students of the Bible think of inspiration as God dictating the words and the Bible writers acting as His stenographers. Others think of such dictation as too mechanical and suggest that even though God didn’t directly dictate, He did guide the writers in the exact words they should use. This theory is sometimes called “verbal inspiration.”
It’s true that at certain times God did give exact words to the prophets. But in most cases, He allowed them a large amount of freedom in selecting words and even in the ordering of their presentations. For example, even though Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all writing about Jesus’ life and teachings in the Gospels, there is a great deal of variety in each writer’s vocabulary and in the way each one ordered the events in the gospel story. Good examples of this flexibility are the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7; Luke 6:17–49) and the various narratives of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1; 2; Luke 1–3).
The author of Ecclesiastes said, “He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.” And he “searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true” (Ecclesiastes 12:9, 10). His words are inspired because he was guided by the Holy Spirit as he wrote.
Clearly, then, both divine and human elements were involved in the writing of the Bible. Professor of theology Millard J. Erickson described this process nicely when he said that “the work of the Spirit of God is in directing the writer to the thoughts or concepts he should have, and allowing the writer’s own distinctive personality to come into play in the choice of words and expressions.”3
Thus, it’s the writers who are inspired and not their exact words. For that reason, “to express the idea of an inspiration which pervades all the parts of the record, the word ‘plenary’ [meaning full or complete] is more suitable than ‘verbal.’ ”4 This means that every part of the Bible is inspired through a process that combines divine guidance with human activity.
This is the process by which the words of humans became the Word of God.
1. W. H. Griffith Thomas, Hebrews: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1961), 21.
2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1990), 46.
3. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986), 207.
4. James Orr, Revelation and Inspiration (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 211.
George Knight is a former professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He writes from Oregon.