“Special revelation” is a type of God’s communication in which he makes himself known with a clarity and fullness not available in general revelation. We said there are three different kinds of “special revelation”:
1. The revelation of Jesus Christ
3. Particular revelation
Of these three, we said that the revelation of Jesus Christ was the most important. Jesus is the living word of God and primary source of all truth. Because we believe in the divinity of Jesus, we also believe in the divine authority of scripture. He taught that scripture is the authoritative word of God, and we believe what he has told us.
THE INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV) tells us that all scripture is “inspired” and useful for four different functions:
“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, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
“Given by inspiration of God” comes from the Greek term “theopneustos” or “theopneustia” which literally means “God-breathed.” There are two different theories about the nature of inspiration that attempt to explain this: dictation theory and supervisory theory.
PROPERTIES OF INSPIRED WRITING
1. “Inspired,” meaning it has a divine origin or comes from God.
2. “Authoritative,” meaning that to disbelieve or disobey scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God. Thus, the written word is the final arbiter in matters of faith and practice.
3. “Confluent,” meaning that scripture is the product of both God and human writers.
THE DICTATION THEORY OF INSPIRATION
For centuries, based on the scriptural passage 2 Timothy 3:16-17, it was thought that if scripture was “God-breathed,” God provided word-for-word dictation and that the writers of scripture were simply stenographers taking down the exact words that they heard from God. Dictation theory is also how Muslims currently view the process of inspiration that occurred in Muhammed’s writing of the Koran as dictated by Allah.
Problem with Dictation Theory
The problem with this view of biblical inspiration is that each book of the Bible seems to reflect the individual personality, background, vocabulary and writing style of each author. The Bible contains 66 books written by about 40 different authors. If God was dictating every word in every book, wouldn’t his own vocabulary and communication style be reflected consistently across every book of the Bible?
The Concept of Accommodation
Those who subscribe to dictation theory respond to this problem with a concept of “accommodation.” John Calvin explained that when we talk to a baby or little child, we often accommodate them and descend to their level by lisping like little children or talking like they do in order to communicate with them. It was Calvin’s thought that, in dictating what to write, God adjusted his words to accommodate the individual personality, background, vocabulary and writing style of each scribe — using words that they would understand.
Most Scholars Are Not Convinced By the Accommodation Idea
To most scholars, the explanation that God accommodated himself to the individual circumstances of 40 different authors doesn’t seem to adequately explain the readily apparent human aspects of scripture described above (i.e., individual personality, background, vocabulary, writing style of each author). For example, think about apparent trivialities like Paul asking disciples to bring his cloak that he left behind or Paul’s long introduction in which he individually names each person and greets each one personally.
Examples of the Human Aspect of Scripture
2 Timothy 4:20-22
Read for example 2 Timothy 4:20-22 in which Paul gives personal information and instructions to specific individuals:
“Erastus remained at Corinth . . . Trophimus I left ill in Miletus . . . Do your best to come before winter . . . Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brethren.”
Are we supposed to believe that God dictated that passage word-for-word and Paul simply wrote it down as his stenographer for all future generations to read? These seem to be trivialities that are only relevant to the people of that time.
Sometimes, scripture writers express their own personal emotions such as anxiety or depression or hatred. For example, read Psalm 139:19-22 (RSV):
19 O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God,
and that men of blood would depart from me,
20 men who maliciously defy thee,
who lift themselves up against thee for evil!
21 Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord?
And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Did God dictate these words to David word-for-word? We don’t think so. This is simply an expression of the writer’s anger against those who oppose God. This is a human element that entered into the psalmist’s writing.
What Happened to Dictation Theory?
When scholars examine passages like these, explaining how God “breathed” or “inspired” the words of scripture is difficult to do using dictation theory.
The dictation theory of the Bible has largely been abandoned.
TWO ASPECTS OF INSPIRATION: INNER VOICE AND CONFLUENCE
At this website we believe that scripture was:
• more frequently based on an inner voice or sense within the individual author.
• “confluent,” meaning that it was a product of both the human writer and God.
These ideas that the process of inspiration was frequently the result of an inner voice and the product of confluence are described by New Testament scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix:
“Sometimes God spoke in an audible voice (1 Samuel 3:4). No doubt the most common method God used was the inner voice of the individual’s conscience and communion with God. That is probably what is most often meant when the prophets write, ‘And the word of the Lord came unto me saying’ . . . The very words of the prophets were God-given, not by dictation but by the Spirit-directed employment of the prophet’s own vocabulary and style.”
Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 37 and 192.
THE SUPERVISION THEORY OF INSPIRATION
This idea suggests that God superintended the writing of scripture by guiding the authors so that they would write God’s word to us. The words would be expressed using the writers’ own language, emotions, background and personality, but it would also be superintended by the Holy Spirit so that what was written would be God’s word to us.
Under this model of inspiration, it would NOT be so surprising to read about apparent trivialities or the genuine, heart-felt emotions of the individual writer. Of course, we have to understand that passages like Psalm 139:19-22 are descriptions of the authors’ own feelings and are not something we want to emulate.
Problem: God’s Supervision vs. Free Will of the Writers
How does God supervise the process of writing in such a way that each writer maintains his own free will intact but writes exactly what God wants to say to his people? Put another way, how can scripture be inspired by God and yet be the product of free human activity (i.e., confluent)?
Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed New Testament scholars say that they simply don’t know, but they do believe that scripture is true, historically reliable and inspired of God. They say that it’s simply a mystery.
Evangelical scholars Norman Geisler and William Nix, who believe in the “infallibility” of scripture express the conundrum in this way:
“A final question concerns the means, or process, of inspiration. What means did God’s causality employ to produce scriptural authority without interfering with the personality, freedom, and individuality of the prophetic agents? Or, how did God produce an infallible book through fallible men? A frank and forthright answer, yet one often very reluctantly given by biblical scholars, is ‘We don’t know.’”
Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, (Chicago, Moody Press, 1986), 45.
How Did God Get His Intended Words on Paper If Writers Were Truly Free To Write What They Wanted?
Let’s assume for a moment that:
• each writer was entirely free to express his thoughts according to his own personality, background and vocabulary.
• the words that God originally intended ended up on each page of scripture.
“Free Will Defense” for Suffering in the World: In an earlier blog, we explained that a great deal of evil, pain and suffering in the world is due to the free will of humans, and we said that, where there is free will, God must stand back and willingly accept certain limitations on his omnipotence in order to allow people to freely choose. We said God could not exercise control over this decision or people would not be truly free. This was called the “free will defense.”
Free Will in Writing Scripture: So in writing scripture, how did the writers have a truly free will to write whatever they wanted but God somehow got the divinely-appointed words he wanted onto the page? How could he do that without interfering with the writers’ agency? If we can’t explain that, skeptics would say that we can’t logically use the “free will defense” to explain pain and suffering in the world.
God’s Foreknowledge: First, it’s possible that a few men who were given the job to write scripture would successfully get God’s words onto the page correctly. God foreknew exactly who, given the right set of circumstances, would freely listen to his Spirit and produce writing that was inspired and authoritative. He placed those few individuals in the specific circumstances that would produce the result he desired. They operated freely, but God foreknew that his inspired and authoritative words would land on the page because he chose the right people and right circumstances to place them in.
God’s Supervisory Role
That is how:
• each writer was free to express his thoughts according to his own personality, background and vocabulary, and
• the words that God originally intended ended up on each page of scripture.
This explanation allows us to:
• logically maintain that scripture is inspired, authoritative and confluent,
• understand that writers were free to address what to us might be apparent trivialities as in 2 Timothy 4:20-22,
• realize that writers were free to express their own flawed but genuine human emotions as in Psalm 139.
God did not control what was written through word-for-word dictation. He did not take away the free will of the authors and coerce them to write what he wanted. He simply foreknew those few individuals who would willingly allow themselves to be guided by the Spirit of God and the specific circumstances that would produce words that were inspired, authoritative and confluent.
So God’s “supervisory role” consisted of:
• foreknowing those individuals who, given the right set of circumstances, would write the thoughts he desired to provide as instruction for believers in all ages, and
• actually placing those specific individuals in the right circumstances for them to freely accomplish his purposes.
HOW DEPENDENT IS CHRISTIANITY ON THE INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE?
Many atheists have the mistaken impression that Christians’ entire belief system hinges on a belief in the historical reliability of scripture, its inspiration, and even its authority. Some atheists have developed a stereotype in their minds that scripture is Christians’ only refuge to support their belief system.
Would the Christian worldview or belief system collapse if we found that certain parts of scripture were not inspired by God? No, not necessarily. It actually depends on which specific beliefs we’re talking about. We first have to identify core beliefs that, if not true, might constitute an existential threat to Christian belief and then separate those core beliefs from more peripheral issues.
WHAT ARE CENTRAL OR CORE BELIEFS OF CHRISTIANITY?
It is this website’s position that these are “essential doctrines” that constitute core beliefs of Christianity:
• the existence of God,
• the deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit,
• humanity’s sinful condition and need for redemption,
• Christ’s atoning death for our sins and his bodily resurrection,
• Christ’s gospel of faith, repentance, believers’ baptism, indwelling of the Holy Spirit and enduring to the end,
• the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.
Beyond these essentials, we can’t think of very much that, if it were NOT true, would be an existential threat to the Christian worldview.
SCRIPTURAL CHARACTERISTICS THAT ARE FREQUENTLY MISUSED OR DESCRIBED INCORRECTLY
Before explaining this, we need to clarify that Bible scholars have a name for the 66 original documents that were written by 40 different authors of the Bible. Scholars call these individual documents that were written in Hebrew (Old Testament) or Greek (New Testament) the original “autographs” or “autographa.”
There have been fundamentalists or evangelical Christians, such as New Testament scholars Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, who believe that these original “autographs” were inerrant, infallible, plenary and verbally inspired:
• “Inerrant”– Evangelicals say this means the manuscript that each author of scripture originally wrote (i.e., the original “autograph”) was “true and reliable in every matter it addressed,” whereas the average person gets the impression that this means the Bible we hold in our hands today is “incapable of being wrong” in the truth that it teaches, in its translation from other languages, in its transmission from copy to copy over the centuries. In its use by laypersons, the term “inerrant” gets stretched far beyond its original technical meaning and applied to modern Bibles rather than the original autographs. This is very confusing to the average person.
• “Infallible” – Evangelicals say this means the manuscript that each author of scripture originally wrote (i.e., the original “autograph”) was “free of any falsehood, error or deceit,” whereas the average person gets the impression that this means the Bible we hold in our hands today is “incapable of making mistakes or being wrong” in the truth that it teaches, in its translation from other languages, in its transmission from copy to copy over the centuries. Evangelicals say this despite the fact that Geisler and Nix earlier told us they could not explain how an infallible book arose from fallible authors. Despite its highly technical meaning, laypersons often use the word “infallible” very loosely in describing modern Bibles.
• “Verbal inspiration” – This term addresses the depth of inspiration that is found in scripture. Evangelicals say this means that in the manuscript that each author of scripture originally wrote (i.e., the original “autograph”), not just the propositions or ideas, but the specific words that were used in the original Hebrew and Greek were inspired by God, whereas the average person would think this means the authors were inspired to write certain ideas or propositions that appear in the Bibles we read today. The original “autographs” of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew. The copies that Jesus used would have been in Greek. In his explanation of Old Testament passages, we do not observe Jesus going back to the original Hebrew words and trying to explain what those original Hebrew words meant. It did not appear that the specific Hebrew words were as important to him as the propositions or ideas.
• “Plenary” – This term addresses the breadth of inspiration that is found in scripture. Evangelicals say “plenary” means that in the manuscript that each author of scripture originally wrote (i.e., the original “autograph”) ALL of the words in that manuscript were inspired by God from cover to cover. So according to this perspective, the apparent trivialities and flawed emotions of the author that we talked about earlier would be considered inspired writing. The average layperson might find that a little confusing.
Because it is hardly ever explained to the average person that:
• these scriptural properties are strictly limited to the original autographs written by the prophets and apostles in the original Hebrew and Greek, and
• these scrptural properties are re-defined to mean something other than how those terms are commonly understood by the average person,
this website has decided not to use these highly technical terms and opted rather to use descriptors such as “inspired” and “authoritative” to explain the properties of scripture.
Scripture is inspired, authoritative and confluent.
As to “inspiration,” the original autographs were frequently a result of an “inner voice” that each author felt inspired them to write.
Regarding transmission, the copies we have today are 99% the same as the original autographs. So Bibles that we possess today are “authoritative” in that they represent the mind and will of God as expressed in the original autographs.
Scripture is “confluent” in that it represents the mind of God and the freely written vocabulary, background and writing style of each individual author.
Due to what appear to be certain human aspects of scripture, it is difficult to believe in a theory of inspiration that suggests God dictated every word and the writers acted as stenographers.
If God did not dictate the words and simply supervised the writing process, how did writers maintain their free will while God simultaneously got the divinely-appointed words on paper that he originally desired? We said that he chose the correct persons, placed them in optimum circumstances and let them freely compose the words that he foreknew they would write.
Finally, we said that the Christian worldview is not so delicate or tenuous that it might be destroyed if some part of scripture were proven to be untrue, that is unless the error concerned a core belief of Christianity.