What Does It Mean to Say the Bible is the “Inspired Word of God”?

What does it mean to say the Bible is the “inspired word of God”? And what difference does it make as we read the Bible? Do we need to think about this, or can we just read the Bible and enjoy it? All of these questions are good questions, and how we answer them is very important to our faith.

By inspiration, we are speaking about

The supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit upon the Scripture writers which rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or which resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God. (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 199)

As we try to pick apart this process, we should remember the words of the apostle Peter,

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1.21)

Inspiration is an attempt to understand the “how” of 2 Peter 1.21. How did the Spirit move a person to speak and write on God’s behalf?

What we are talking about is the work of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Peter spoke about this work when he quoted from Psalm 69 in one of his first sermons.

Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas. (Acts 1.16)

Peter understood the Scriptures to be nothing less than the Spirit speaking through the writer of the Scripture. So, whatever we say about inspiration, it is an attempt to understand the work of the Spirit of God speaking through the writers of the Scriptures to those who would later read those writings..

Theories of Inspiration

Because this is a difficult process to understand, several different theories about how the Spirit of God carried out this work have developed. Depending upon which theory we embrace, it will determine how we treat the Scriptures.

We all have a “theory of inspiration” even if we are not able to articulate it or even define it. We each hold core beliefs about what to do with this book, and how it relates to God, and what kind of authority it has over our lives.

The Intuition Theory

The intuition theory says that the Scripture writers had a high degree of insight. They were a type of religious genius. The work of the Spirit was to give them a brilliant religious mind at birth, but there was no particular revelatory work of the Spirit at the moment of writing down the sacred text.

If we adopt this view of inspiration, then we are relatively free to abandon the text when we feel like we have reached a higher level of religious insight than the biblical writers. In fact, the Word of God is nothing more than the wisdom of people, which is ever changing.

The Illumination Theory

The illumination theory moves beyond the intuition theory by seeing the Spirit at work in heightening the normal powers of the Scripture writers at the moment of writing the sacred text. Though the writers were given an increased perception about spiritual matters, there was still no direct revelation from the Spirit to the writer, just an increased ability to discover truth.

Once again, if we adopt this view, we are free to abandon the truth claims of the Scriptures whenever we feel that the Spirit gives us an increased ability to discover truth that might trump that of the Scripture writers.

The Dynamic Theory

The dynamic theory begins to see the Spirit and writer at work together in the producing of the sacred text. In this theory, the Spirit directed the thoughts and concepts of the writer to the thoughts and concepts he or she should have while allowing the writer’s own distinctive personality to come into play in the choice of words or expressions.

For example, the Spirit led Paul to the truth that we are struggling with spiritual forces in this world, but Paul’s personality described that struggle using an analogy of armor and weaponry (see Ephesians 6.10-12).

So, the question is, “What is inspired”? Did the Spirit inspire merely the thought or did the Spirit inspire the exact expression of that thought? In this view, the Word of God is really found behind the text, behind the expression of the words. Some who understand inspiration in this way have tried to discover the thought behind the expression, even liberating the thought from the expression. Often, the end result is that the identified thought bears little resemblance to the original expression.

With this theory of inspiration, like the ones before it, the text itself is not viewed as inspired in.

The Verbal Theory

The verbal theory sees the work of the Spirit as so intense that the exact word which God wanted the writer to use at that point was used. This goes beyond just the influence of thought, but to the selection of the words used by the author. At this point, inspiration involves revelation which led to an inspired text, a sacred text. The actual words on the page are inspired.

Here, the text itself takes on the power of sacred text. The actual word chosen is the inspiration of God, not just the ideas behind them.

The Dictation Theory

The dictation theory sees the writers as little more than just secretaries to whom the Spirit dictated the divine text. We see this in Moses on Mount Sinai and with John in the Book of Revelation where the angel said to John, “Write what you have seen” (Revelation 1.19).

Choosing a Theory of Inspiration

Which one of these theories is correct? The best way to handle that question is to look at how the New Testament writers and Jesus treated the sacred text of their times, what we call the Old Testament.

First, Jesus and the New Testament writers viewed Scripture as revelation from the Spirit. We have already noted that Peter understood Scripture as the Spirit speaking through the Scripture writer.

Second, Jesus viewed the words of Scripture as inspired by God. Consider the following exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders from John 10. Jesus was debating with the Jews about whether or not He was the Messiah. Jesus claimed to be one with the Father, and the Jews accused Him of blasphemy. In response, Jesus said,

Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came, and the Scripture cannot be broken, what about the one whom the Father set apart as His very own and sent into the world? (John 10.34-35).

Exposition of this text is difficult and not the focus here, but I quote this verse for two reasons.

Notice that Jesus said that the word of God came to the Scripture writer. Scripture, according to Jesus, was the result of a revelation from God by the Spirit. Moreover, notice how much emphasis Jesus put on the plurality of the word “gods.” In other words, Jesus was implying that the specific word chosen by the Scripture writer was the result of the Word of God coming to the writer through the Spirit.

So, either the verbal or the dictation model seems to best represent the biblical view of inspiration of the Old Testament. The word of the Lord came to the Scripture writer in such a powerful way that the end result was that the writer used the exact words desired by the Spirit. The Spirit worked through the distinctive personalities of each writer, but the end result was an inspired text, down to the word choice.

The primary reason for choosing a theory of inspiration wisely is because it will determine how much authority we apply to the words of the sacred text themselves. How authoritative is the text? According to Jesus, the words on the page are the Word of God as revealed through the Spirit to the Scripture writers, and God continues to speak through the Scriptures to us today.

The following article is an excerpt from Word of God Speak by Dr. Todd Pylant. Click HERE to read more sample chapters, or learn more about the book, or purchase the book for only $10.


Inspiration