More Foundation articles from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.


by Rev. David Blunt

In this and the next article we intend to cover in a straightforward way the meaning and importance of two concepts which are associated with the written Word of God - inspiration and infallibility. At one time it could be assumed that evangelical believers held unswervingly to each of these, but no longer. Many now hesitate to affirm that the terms apply to the Bible which they hold in their hands and some are even unsure as to their relation to the original writings. Can we be confident that the Scriptures are truly trustworthy?

The first article deals with the subject of inspiration and covers the need, fact, extent and consequences of inspiration.

Published in thePresbyterian Standard, Issue No. 18, April-June 2000.

"And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." - 2 Timothy 3:15-17.

O UR English word "inspiration" is derived from Latin and occurs just twice in our English translation of the Scriptures. Firstly it is found in the Old Testament, where we read in Job: "But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding" (Job 32:8). "Breath" is the meaning of the Hebrew word used here. The speaker is Elihu. He is hesitant to contribute to the discussion between Job and his three companions because of his youth. But he is also conscious of the fact that wisdom is from God. His Spirit is in His people and this is the source of true knowledge pertaining to salvation.

The second use of the word is in the verses quoted from Timothy, which form the key passage in the biblical conception of inspiration.

1. The Need of Inspiration

"...the holy scriptures,which are able to make thee wise unto salvation …."

Timothy is reminded by the apostle Paul of the place which the Word of God had occupied in his life since his infancy. It was the instrument graciously used to lead him to a saving trust in Jesus Christ.

The general revelation which God has given of Himself, in man's spiritual constitution and in the works of creation and providence, is not adequate to provide men with that knowledge which they require for salvation. Since the fall sinners hold back in unrighteousness the truth which constantly confronts them (Rom. 1:20). Natural revelation now speaks to man's depraved state, revealing the wrath of God as well as declaring His glory (Rom. 1:18-20).

Even in paradise special revelation was required, for we read of the instruction our first parents received regarding their duties and privileges and the particular command which had respect to one of the trees of the garden (Gen. 1:28-30; 2:16,17). Subsequent to the fall God provided further revelation, now making known the way of reconciliation (Rom. 1:16,17). This revelation was 'special' in that it was not given to mankind generally but to those from among whom the Lord would gather His elect. The psalmist highlights this fact: "He sheweth his word to Jacob, his statutes and his judgments to Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them. Praise ye the LORD" (Psa. 147:19,20).

Special revelation always signifiesword revelation, which in turn impliesinspiration. Whether that revelation to His people was by theophany, vision or dream, there was always made ready a man of God through whom the Lord would also communicate verbally. "God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners,spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets" (Heb. 1:1). The long ages of the patriarchs enabled the safe transmission of this immediate revelation to their posterity. Latterly God was pleased, for the benefit of His church, to commit the whole of His revealed will to a written form.

Inspiration was essential to secure the faithful transcription of that will. For us the Scriptures are "most necessary" (Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. I.i). All the other modes of special revelation have ceased too, contrary to the wilder claims of the charismatic movement. The Bible is a marvel, not simply because it was inspired, but because it is inspired by a perpetual "re-inspiration". The Old Testament, first written centuries before, made Timothy truly wise. Moreover, although his mother was Jewish his father was Greek (Acts 16:1) and it is likely that the young boy was given his schooling from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

The process of translation does not at all destroy inspiration: a faithful rendering of the original Hebrew or Greek text into a different language carries with it this precious quality. Thus the purpose declared by Paul is fulfilled, that believers under the New Testament should receive a blessing for their souls from the Scriptures of the Old Testament: "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom. 15:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:11).

2. The Fact of Inspiration

"...scriptureis given by inspiration of God...."

In these words the bare fact of inspiration is stated. The mechanics of inspiration are nowhere revealed to us in the Bible but the reality of it is. Even the term in the Greek original, θεόπνευστος, does not present us with an indication of the exact method God employed in bringing His Word to man. The best writers have been wisely cautious when attempting to give a definition of the process of biblical inspiration; they typically describe the power which the Holy Spirit exercised upon the human authors as "mysterious".

Certainly it is the belief of true evangelicals that God has secured an infallible transmission of His own special revelation to man; but does this force us to fix upon a particular theory of inspiration? Liberal opponents of the historic position wish to box evangelicals into a corner here by unfavourably characterising our belief as "divine dictation" and comparing the process to the passive way in which the stenographer or shorthand-writer functions.

We may go as far as to say that in the Holy Scriptures God has secured the same result as would be obtained by a mechanical dictation, in that the thoughts of His mind have been conveyed through selected human instruments to writing; we may also say that the Scriptures themselves contain the suggestion of a sort of dictation (e.g. 2 Sam. 23:2; Isa. 51:16, 1 Cor. 2:13; Rev. 2:1). How else are we to understand the experience of the Lord's servants such as Jeremiah: "Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth" (Jer. 1:9)? It is a caricature though of our position to suggest that it reduces the role of the apostles and prophets to something like that of a fax machine.

The liberal critics believe that they have the 'fundamentalist' on the horns of a dilemma. They say that there are only two possibilities: firstly, if the Bible text was entirely from God, it would have had to be dictated mechanically (which idea is absurd); or secondly, if man enters into it throughout, the Scriptures are inevitably fallible, full of legend, exaggeration and other mistakes (which would make its testimony unacceptable).

The problem for these critics is their refusal to believe in the miraculous. We have a Bible which is fully divine, yet not to the exclusion of the element of human personality. "For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Pet. 1:21). Men spoke but the Spirit of God controlled their utterances. He "moved" them. They were carried along, as Paul and his companions were by the mighty wind Euroclydon when on a ship sailing to Italy (Acts 27:17).

Moreover we are not to think that the Lord seized upon men who were unprepared and untrained for the purpose. It was "holy men of God" who spoke. There had been a work of providence and of grace to produce men fit for the task. The preparatory work had been going on culturally, intellectually and even emotionally throughout their former lives and even in their ancestors. The Lord said to Jeremiah: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations" (Jer. 1:5). Paul could recount: "But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen" (Gal. 1:16,17). If the Incarnate Word could be so prepared ("a body hast thou prepared me" - Heb. 10:5) then so could the humble penmen of the written Word.

The method of inspiration used by God in the production of Holy Scripture is such that the divine and human cannot be identified or distinguished. The same words of Holy Scripture may be attributed alternately to God Himself and to the human penman. This is clear from the way in which Psalm 110 is cited in the New Testament:

"AndDavid himself saith in the book of Psalms, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I make thine enemies thy footstool" (Luke 20:42).

"He saith unto them, How then dothDavid in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?" (Matt. 22:43-44).

ForDavid himself said by the Holy Ghost, The LORD said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool" (Mark 12:36).

"But to which of the angelssaid he (i.e. God - v.1) at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? (Heb. 1:13).

Do we maintain the inspiration of the human penmen themselves or of their writings? These authors were fallible men: their sinful failings are exhibited in Scripture for us. Indeed it is not the least of the arguments in favour of biblical inspiration that the penmen record so frankly their own faults (e.g.David in Psa. 73:22). Some seem not to have been conscious of inspiration at all times (Luke 1:3; cf. John 11:49-52). Others certainly were aware of being under inspiration (2 Pet. 3:2; 1 John 4:6; 1 Thess. 2:13). Yet it is to their words as preserved by God in the Bible that we now look, not to the men themselves.

3. The Extent of Inspiration

"...All scripture is given by inspiration of God...."

On theological grounds some have sought to evade the force of the word "all" in our text. Gaussen describes three ways in which the orthodox doctrine is challenged:

(i) Divine inspiration is nonexistent. This view attributes to Holy Scripture nothing more than the 'inspiration' of the poet or novelist, a purely natural power. Therefore the Bible is no more inspired than the writings of Cicero or Shakespeare. Such a view is at a complete loss to explain the content of the Bible, which includes many things that men could not have known apart from supernatural revelation. Messianic prophecy is a case at point. Scripture itself affirms that its human authors were not always aware of the significance or meaning of what they were writing (1 Pet. 1:10, 11).

(ii) Divine inspiration is not universal. The existence of divine inspiration is allowed, but only in a portion of the canon, not the whole. This is the realm of the so-called "Higher Critic", who by some uncanny skill is able to determine for us which parts of the Scripture are authentic, and which are the mere compositions of men. Rarely do such critics agree with one another! That the prejudice of such men blinds them to the wonderful truth of the divine inspiration of the Word of God is seen in the following dogmatic assertions of C.H. Dodd, who incredibly was for many years a Vice-President of the British and Foreign Bible Society:

"Moses...was a magician, a medicine man, whose magic wand wrought wonders of deliverance and destruction. That was how the people regarded him. To separate history from legend in the stories of his career is impossible and not very profitable."

"There are sayings (of Jesus), not many indeed, which either simply are not true, in their plain meaning, or are unacceptable to the conscience or reason of Christian people."

(iii) Divine inspiration is not plenary. This view approaches nearest to the orthodox one. The whole Bible is indeed inspired, it is said, but not to an equal degree, i.e. it is not all fully or plenarily inspired. On this view, Scripture is only fully inspired, in the sense of the individual words, when certain aspects of revelation are involved - prophecy rather than history, doctrine rather than narrative.

It has to be said that nowhere does the Bible itself warrant such a distinction. History and narrative are inextricably linked to prophecy and doctrine: all are involved for instance in that great theme of the Bible, the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. We stress that all the writings of the Bible are equally inspired of God - whether it is the speech of a man cursing God's servant (2 Sam. 16:6,7) or the sublimest statement on the love of God (John 3:16). True, the former was not inspired by the Holy Spirit in its original utterance, but equally with the statement of the beloved disciple it is inspired in its recording in Scripture.

We believe that inspiration extends to the very words and toall the words of the Bible (1 Cor. 2:13). Some of these words the human authors "sought to find out" (Ecc. 12:10). We may go further and state that inspiration must extend to the very letters of Scripture. In Galatians 3:16 the apostle builds his argument on the distinction between the singular and the plural of the word "seed" - a difference indicated at the level of individual letters. To settle the argument, the Living Word Himself speaks of the "jot" and the "tittle" - the smallest letter and the smallest part of a letter in the Hebrew language - as being of significance in the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 5:18).

4. The Consequence of Inspiration

"...and isprofitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may beperfect, throughly furnished unto all good works."

Because the Bible is inspired Jesus could pray for His own, "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (John 17:17). The Bible must be the supreme authority therefore in the Christian's life, our only rule to direct us. Only in feeding upon the Holy Scriptures and heeding the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking in them will the believer know fellowship with God.

The power of the inspired Word is seen as Paul speaks in universals: "perfect", "throughly furnished", "every good work". There is no situation in which we as believers are placed, no demand that arises, for which the Scriptures as the deposit of the manifold wisdom of God are not adequate and amply sufficient. This is so because they are nothing less than the lively oracles of God.