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Inspiration is the critical doctrine that Scripture comes from the mouth of God and is therefore true. We will look at the issues of infallibility and inerrancy, and the two methods of inspiration. Finally, we will address the issue of the scope of inspiration. Is Scripture true in all it affirms, or is it only true in areas of faith and practice?
D. The Method of Inspiration
E. The Scope of Inspiration
1. Limited Inspiration (Infallibility)
2. Plenary Inspiration
Course: Why I Trust My Bible
What we’re dealing with here is the whole doctrine of what’s called the inspiration of Scripture. The definition of inspiration is that Scripture comes from the mouth of God. The primary verse for this is 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is” – the older translation said “inspired,” the NIV says, “All Scripture is God breathed,” and I love that translation. But we had to say something differently in the ESV, so we said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is, therefore, profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The doctrine of inspiration has to do with source. 2 Timothy 3:16 says Scripture comes from the very mouth of God, and then it spells out the implications of that.
Notice that the doctrine of inspiration deals with source, not mode. Where does Scripture come from? The doctrine doesn’t primarily deal with how God did it or how he spoke it. Sometimes when we’re talking about inspiration we go off into another topic: did he dictate it, or did he do it some other way? That’s an important question, but first and foremost the doctrine of inspiration is about where Scripture came from. Scripture says it came from the very mouth of God.
There are two words that are connected with discussions of inspiration that are important to know. The first is the word “infallible,” and in our statement of faith, this is the word we use. Scripture is infallible. In other words, it’s true in all that it affirms. Everything it says is true. That’s the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. Because it comes from the mouth of God, and God cannot lie, everything it says must be true.
The other word is “inerrancy,” and inerrancy is the doctrine that there are no errors in Scripture—there are no internal contradictions, there are no contradictions between the text and science and history. Now you may look at that and you may say, in essence infallibility and inerrancy mean the same thing. Yes, as far as the English words are concerned, they mean exactly the same thing. But there has been a debate for the last thirty years around those two different words. So people are going to use these words differently and you need to be aware of what’s behind them.
Inerrancy is sometimes associated with modernism. Modernism affected the church a hundred years ago, destroying large portions of it. The part of the church that stayed faithful fought for the authority of the text, and inerrancy was one of those words they wanted to use to say that the Bible is true in everything it says.
When I was in seminary, at Fuller Seminary in the early 70’s, we were in the middle of this debate in the church, and Fuller championed the “infallibility” word. By “infallible” they meant that Scripture is true in areas of faith and practice, but it’s not necessarily true in areas of history and science. That was how Fuller divided it. Scripture is true in areas of faith and practice. If it says this is what you believe, this is how a Christian behaves, then that’s true. But if Scripture makes a statement about science or history it’s not necessarily true. That’s outside the scope of inspiration. We’re going to get into that in a moment, but that’s historically the difference between those two words. Is everything it says true, or is only some of it true?
I was just talking to a professor at a local school a couple of months ago and it was interesting to hear exactly that distinction championed again, and this is what he’s teaching: The Bible says Quirinius was Governor of Syria when Augustus ordered the world to be taxed, but not necessarily, since that’s a statement of history and therefore not inspired. That was the teacher’s position.
The Method of Inspiration
There are three theories of inspiration that do have to do with how God breathed out Scripture. On one side of the spectrum, is the idea of “inspiring.” Some people think Scripture is inspiring. They may think Doonesbury is inspiring or they may think that Shakespeare is inspiring or Garfield is inspiring or Scripture’s inspiring too, but that it’s completely a human book.
As far away as you can get from “inspiring” is what’s called “the dictation theory.” The dictation theory says that God simply spoke every word and the writers wrote down what they heard. In other words, the Gospel writers were nothing more than stenographers. There certainly are areas of Scripture that claim that. “Thus saith the Lord, I had a vision and God said to me.” There are places of Scripture that say these are the exact very words that God told me to write down.
One of the problems with the dictation theory, though, is that if you were reading Greek (and it comes through somewhat in English), the writers are all really different. They have different sets of vocabulary; they have different ways in which they like to speak. There is a tremendous amount of personal variety in the writing of the New Testament. The Greek of Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Luke are exquisite and difficult Greek. John, however, is second grade Greek, “see Spot run” Greek. It could be that God inspired different personalities, which is what this position says. But you do have a problem that there is this real definite variety of writing style and vocabulary throughout the Greek New Testament.
The theory that’s in the middle (and you’ll find I normally sit in the middle) is called the dynamic view of inspiration. The dynamic view of inspiration makes two affirmations. One is that the writers wrote exactly what God said. In other words, the dynamic view of inspiration holds firmly that these are the very words of God. And yet the dynamic view of inspiration says that God did not override their writing styles and personalities. It’s a mystery, we simply don’t understand it.
Some people aren’t comfortable with mystery. They want it more concrete and so they tend to go toward the dictation theory. 2 Peter 1:20, that the writers of Scripture wrote as they were moved along by the Holy Spirit, is the verse that the dynamic view of inspiration likes to hold to. The Holy Spirit superintended the process, didn’t override their personalities, but what was written was exactly what God wanted written. God did not want Matthew to tell the story of repentant thief; God did want Luke to tell the story of the repentant thief.
The Scope of Inspiration
Let’s move to the whole issue of the scope of inspiration. The historical issues of infallibility and inerrancy raise the issue of the scope of salvation. Is it “all Scripture is inspired,” or as most of the people at Fuller wanted to translate it, “all the Scripture that is inspired” is profitable? How much of Scripture is from God? And the Fuller position and many others hold to what’s called “limited inspiration.” They use the word infallible and by that they mean that the inspiration of Scripture is limited. It doesn’t apply to all of the Bible. It applies to faith and practice, but not necessarily history and science.
Let me tell you some of the problems connected with this position because I really don’t believe it. “Jesus Christ died on the cross.” Is that an inspired statement or non-inspired statement? It’s historical in one sense, but the minute you say Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, which is the affirmation of Scripture (not in those words, but that’s what it teaches), is that inspired or not? This creates an artificial separation between faith and history, because Christianity happened. And if Christianity didn’t happen, then none of it is true. We’re not like Hindus. In Hinduism, it doesn’t matter whether the different people lived or not—Hinduism is not grounded in history. Christianity must have happened; that’s why Paul says that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then everything we believe is false.
So the problem that Fuller had, and the people who followed it have, is answering how you determine what is history and what is science, and what is faith and what is practice? It’s virtually impossible in Scripture to make that distinction. All the way through the story of creation, you have historical facts woven together with theology—the significance of the creation of human beings, and supremacy of God.
Only affirming infallibility is also contrary to Scripture, I think. The most straightforward, natural reading of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that “all Scripture is inspired.” That’s the claim that it makes. We see Paul in Galatians say that the Old Testament refers to “seed,” not “seeds” and builds a whole theological argument on the fact that it is singular and not plural; we see Jesus say that not a jot or a tittle are going to pass away; we see this incredible desire to validate every single statement in Scripture. When we see these thing, we start seeing why you can’t separate Scripture into different parts, some of which is inspired and some which is not.
You can also make the argument that if the Scripture writers can’t get history right what makes you think they can get theology right? It’s a lot easier for me to historically date the bombing of Pearl Harbor than it is to talk about what you should believe or how you should behave. If I can’t get a historical fact right like Pearl Harbor, what makes you think I can get anything right? So there are some very strong arguments against limited inspiration.
The people who believe with limited inspiration are trying to deal with two issues. One is the apparent contradiction between Scripture and science. For example, Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds. We now know that there are in fact smaller seeds than the mustard seed. This been used as an example for decades that the Bible is full of errors because the mustard seed isn’t the smallest of seeds.
They’re also trying to deal with the places, especially in the Gospels, where they appear to contradict each other, and how we handle those apparent contradictions. Their solution is to say, “It’s not all inspired; there are mistakes in it.”
The other view of inspiration is the doctrine of plenary inspiration, and we’ll go into more detail next time. A plenary inspiration view says that you can explain the apparent contradictions; there is no contradiction between Scripture and science. All Scripture claims to be from the mouth of God and I believe that all (from the word plenary, meaning full) Scripture is from the very mouth of God.
“Limited” Inspiration (Infallibility)
The question of the scope of inspiration is, “how much of Scripture is inspired?”; “how much of it comes from God?” There are two basic positions on the scope of inspiration. The first is called limited inspiration and the word infallibility is often connected with this position. This is an awkward use of the word infallible, because in English, the word infallible means entirely true. However, over the last twenty years in America, the word infallible has, I think unfortunately, come to be connected with this position of limited inspiration. The doctrine of limited inspiration teaches that Scripture is true in statements that relate to faith and practice, but not necessarily in other areas, such as history or science. As I mentioned in the last lecture, Fuller Seminary, the seminary I went to, championed this position while I was there. The seminary desired to say that when a passage states what we should believe or how we should behave, then this falls under the umbrella of inspiration and is true. But statements related to other areas, such as history (e.g., “Quirinius was governor of Syria when Augustus ordered the world to be taxed,” in Luke) or science (e.g., Jesus’s claim that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, and claims in Genesis 1 that God created the world), fall outside the scope of inspiration. I think that what those who hold this position are struggling to deal with the problem of apparent contradictions. They have seen places where it seems that the Bible contradicts itself or science, and their solution to this problem is to say, “Well, that part of Scripture is simply wrong.”
There are at least four problems as I see it with the doctrine of limited inspiration. The first simply has to do with how the different types of statements can possibly be divided. How do you divide a statement of faith from a statement of history? For example, let’s say there was a verse that said Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins. Is that an inspired statement or not? It’s a historical statement, because it’s claiming an historical event, but it’s also a theological statement. That statement simply cannot be defined as only history or only faith. This is the major problem with this position: Christianity is rooted in history. If the events told in Scripture did not happen historically, then Christianity is not true. If Christ was not raised from the dead, then we are the worst of sinners and we’re still in our sin. Christianity absolutely demands that Jesus was born, that he lived a sinless life, and that he lived as the fulfillment of prophecy. It demands that he died at the hands of unjust people, it demands that he was raised from the dead. All of the central theological affirmations of our faith are rooted in history. Therefore, if the historical parts of Scripture are not true, then its theology fails too. That’s the fundamental problem with this position.
A second problem with limited inspiration is that it is contrary to Scripture. The most natural straight-forward reading of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” All Scripture is breathed out by God. It is possible to understand this verse to mean that all Scripture that is inspired is profitable, but this is not the clearest meaning of the Greek—it’s not at all the natural way to say it.
A third problem with the position is that the New Testament asserts the historical veracity of thousands of facts in the Old Testament. In Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, he lists one after another (see page 94). (By the way whenever I refer to Wayne’s book I’m referring to the bigger one, Systematic Theology, not the smaller Bible Doctrines). On page 94, he lists historical fact after historical fact from the Old Testament that the New Testament claims to be true. Part of his point is that it’s unnatural to say that history is outside of inspiration.
Fourthly, I would argue that if the authors of Scripture cannot get history right, how do we know that they got anything else right? If Luke cannot date the census with Quirinius being governor of Syria, how can we possibly believe the he got statements of faith right? Statements of fact and history are so much easier to get right than the issues of faith and practice. So again, if they can’t even get dates and places right, I’m not going to believe the other things they say about faith and practice. These are just some of the problems with that position.
The other position on the scope of inspiration is called plenary inspiration, it just means full inspiration. This is position that the word inerrancy is often connected with—it’s that Scripture has no errors. That’s what the doctrine of plenary inspiration says, that everything Scripture says is true. In other words, this position doesn’t try to dissect Scripture: if it says it, I believe it; it’s true from cover to cover.
Here are some of the arguments for inerrancy. First, Scripture claims to be inerrant. Though people would argue with that statement, I think it’s very clear that Scripture claims to be true. For example, Proverbs 30:5 states, “Every word of God proves true.” The Proverb doesn’t say that most of what God says is true, but that every word of God is true. So if Scripture is from the mouth of God, then it is true. In John 17:17 Jesus says to God the Father, “Your word is truth.” It is interesting that it doesn’t say true, but truth. God’s word defines what is true and what is false. It claims a level of veracity of truthfulness that is total. How the New Testament refers to the writings confirms this. For example, in John 10:35, Jesus says, “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came,” and then he adds parenthetically, “and Scripture cannot be broken.” That’s a very important phrase. Jesus is saying of Scripture that it can’t be broken, it can’t be false, it can’t be untrue. If it says it, it is true. In addition, in Matthew 5:18, Jesus says, “Until Heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot (jot and a tittle in the King James Version), will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Again, there is this intense interest in the truthfulness of the details. It is not just that huge chunks of the Old Testament are true, but also every jot and tittle, every iota and every dot. My favorite argument comes out of Galatians 3:16. Paul is arguing his position and he says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” In other words, Paul’s entire argument hinges on the fact that the biblical writer got it right when he used the singular form and not a plural. That is an incredible attention to detail, and the authors of the the New Testament are saying that every little bit is true. You can trust the details. There are many other verses that support this point, but these are some of the main ones where Scripture affirms its truthfulness.
A second argument for plenary inspiration comes from the very character of God. Grudem elaborates on this (see pages 82-3). Hebrews 6:18 states, “It is impossible for God to lie.” I think most of us would agree with that. God is not going to lie. Well if God is not going to lie, if that is his character, then how can there be anything that is not true in the Word of God. God can’t lie, so if you believe that Scripture comes from him, then everything has to be true in it. A pretty strong argument can be made that moves from the character of God, he who never lies, to the Word of God, which has no untruth in it.
The primary problem with plenary inspiration is the observation of possible contradictions. I’ll always call them something like possible contradictions, since these are places where it might appear, to some people, that Scripture contradicts itself. An example of this is Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. When did Jesus cleanse the temple? Well, it depends upon which Gospel you’re reading. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he cleansed the temple at the end of his life. He went through the temple and chased out the money changers, cleansing the temple as a pronouncement of doom on the Jewish nation. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus cleansing the temple at the end of his public ministry, in the last week that he lived. John has him doing it three to three and a half years earlier, at the very beginning of his ministry. Now there is a solution to the problem, but this is the problem that a person is faced with if they want to believe in plenary inspiration or inerrancy.
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