How Inspiration Works

How Inspiration Works

There are quite a substantial number of theories about how God inspires people to write his message. Several people have suggested recently that I collect some of my own essays in order to provide a coherent discussion, not just about the results of inspiration, but also the process. I don’t think I’ve written enough about that. (For those who are interested in my prior material, Inspiration, Biblical Authority, and Inerrancy, and my shorted, more edited items, The Authority of the Bible, and What is the Word of God?)

Before I go on, though, I must note that this essay is about looking at inspiration after you believe that a particular work, in this case the Bible, is inspired. There is nothing obvious about this conclusion, and I intend to write some more about why one might regard a particular work as inspired.

Typically, Christians have found proof texts in scriptures that make comments about inspiration. “All scripture is inspired (or God-breathed) . . .” (2 Timothy 3:16). “No prophecy of the scripture came by human will . . .” (2 Peter 1:21). These texts are not only used to prove the inspiration of scriptures, ignoring the circularity of using a Bible verse to prove that the Bible is inspired, but they also provide the foundation for an understanding of how inspiration worked. (Again, I’ll go into that issue in another post. Right now I’m working at a point after one has jumped into the circle and concluded that the Bible is inpired in some way.) I most commonly hear 2 Timothy 3:16 quoted in this connection. I ask someone what inspiration means. “All scripture is God-breathed,” comes back the answer. “God-breathed” is supposed to be obvious, but somehow the passage doesn’t enlighten us as to what God breathes and how. Another answer, that prophets speak as they are carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), doesn’t really answer the question either.

The process of inspiration is important not only in terms of how we understand God to behave in connection with people, but also in telling us what we would expect to result. For example, those who believes that God dictates the precise words that a prophet or other inspired writer puts on paper must in turn believe that those words, and not just the message they express, are important, and that they must always be the best words for the purpose. On the other hand, someone who believes that people receive impressions from God and then express them in human words will place a greater emphasis on the human side of the equation. The message is important, and it may be illuminated by knowing the person who speaks along with his or her cultural background and spiritual experience.

As the author of Hebrews expressed it:

1In old times God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets in many portions and in different ways. 2In these last days, however, he has spoken to us through a Son, one whom he has made heir of everything, and through whom also he created the universe. 3This Son is the brightness of his glory and the exact representation of his real essence. He sustains everything by his powerful word. He performed a cleansing from sins and sat down at the right hand of majesty in the {spiritual/heavenly} heights.

— Hebrews 1:1-3

God’s message came at different times and in different ways, a process that the author of Hebrews states culminated in God’s message coming through a person, Jesus. In Hebrews 4:12 he continues by calling the Word “alive and active” again referring to the Word of God as portrayed in Jesus. Those who place a heavy emphasis on the words, rather than the message, should give serious consideration to the view of revelation expressed in the book of Hebrews. According to this one scriptural author, whom most scholars leave unidentified, inspiration doesn’t always work the same way.

I would suggest that instead of looking for statements about how inspiration works in the scriptures, we should look at the scriptures themselves. There is no good reason to assume that those who experienced inspiration would also feel it necessary to define it. In fact, when we look at the scriptures we see no real effort to provide us with a theory of inspiration. There were simply people who claimed that they had a message from God, and they expressed it with some force under their various circumstances.

It doesn’t seem that in many cases we have words dictated by God. Other than Moses bringing the tablets of the law from Mt. Sinai, we don’t seem to have material actually written by God. Moses himself has various scribes chronicle the activities of the Israelites as they travel through the wilderness (Genesis 17:14, for example). This would appear contradictory to the notion that Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch, or that it was delivered as a whole by God to Moses. What need of scribes to record the details if God had provided the words already?

Elsewhere in scripture we have communication given through dreams, visions, direct prophetic oracles, and research. The books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles make reference to previously existing sources. Luke, in his gospel, makes a point of the research that he provided. John the revelator seems to have concocted a special form of Greek, unless one assumes he simply made an exceptional number of grammar errors, in writing the book of Revelation. I would suggest it is because he is so excited in the emotional state that results from receiving the vision, and that he struggles with words as he tries to describe what he has experienced. This seems far from verbal dictation.

We have prayers and stories that seem to express ungodly views (Psalm 137:8-9 and Judges 4-5, for example). We have variations in similar stories that can be observed by comparing Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, or the four gospels in many cases. Clearly there is something more than verbal dictation going on here. In fact, there seem to be quite a number of “somethings” going on.

If you accept the Bible as your sacred book, you will likely also have to come to the conclusion that God has spoken in times past in very many different portions and in very many different ways.

(In my next few posts I will be connecting this idea with the incarnation as I discussed it in my pre-Christmas posts, the basic issue of what literature is inspired, and the idea of a Biblical canon. Who decides what is authoritative and in what way?)

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