The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture

© David Peterson (2009)

1. A speaking God

Many people today seem to assume that God cannot communicate with us at all.  Even those who think there is some possibility of revelation, don’t link this specifically with the Bible.  They say:

a. There are many religions, with many claims of revelation;

b. All these are human attempts to feel after God and find him, and none is better than any other;

c. If there is truth anywhere about God, this can only be discovered by combining insights from different religions and philosophies.

But the Bible indicates from the beginning that the one true Creator God is able to reveal himself to us infallibly and that he has done so, in several important ways.

A. In the created order

Genesis 1 proclaims that everything that exists was brought into being by the word/command of God and that everything as originally created fulfils God’s purpose.

Psalm 33:6 reflects the same teaching when it declares:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

And Psalm 19:1-2 says:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.

This is what theologians like to call natural or general revelation: a revelation of God’s existence, power and glory through nature, which is generally available for all human beings to receive.

However, the Bible also tells us that because of our desire to be independent from God, there has been throughout human history a refusal to acknowledge this revelation and a refusal to respond to it appropriately by seeking after the true and living God. Genesis 3 marks the beginning of this.

Surveying this situation, the apostle Paul tells us that human beings have therefore been subject to the wrath of God:

since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20)

Instead of glorifying God as God or giving him thanks for all the good things they enjoy in his creation every day,

their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Rom. 1:21b-23)

So the consequence of this rebellion against natural or general revelation has been futile thinking (every human philosophy at some level), foolish and darkened hearts (leading to all sorts of wickedness, cf. Rom. 1:24-32) and false religion (cf. Acts 17:22-31).

Far from being a source of the true knowledge of God, human religion has been a way of hiding from God, erecting a substitute for the real thing (idolatry in any form).

Even the Christian religion can become a way of suppressing the truth about God, if we turn away from God’s special revelation in Scripture and make up our own theology and rules.

B. In special, supernatural revelation

In his grace and mercy, God has not given up on his rebellious creatures, but has spoken in special ways, at different times and in different places, so as to draw people to himself – a saved and reconciled people, called to bear witness to God by their words and deeds.

Special or supernatural revelation has become necessary because of humanity’s refusal to respond to natural or general revelation.

In the Garden of Eden story, the man and the woman are called to trust in the promise of God and to live in obedience to the word of God.  One of the implications of being made ‘in the image of God’ is to live under the word of God.  According to Genesis 1-2, that’s what it means to be truly human.

Even when the man and the woman rebel, in Genesis 3 God communicates with them again, proclaiming judgement but also giving a hope of salvation to come.

The full story of God’s saving plan for humanity begins in Genesis 12 with the call of Abram and the promise made to him:

The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ (Gen. 12:1-3)

There are several things to notice here about the nature of special, supernatural revelation as it is presented in a passage like this:

a. It is given to special individuals chosen by God (such as prophets and apostles) and called to communicate God’s revelation to others (e.g. Abram is to tell his wife and children, Gen. 18:19), so that they too can benefit from the same relationship with God;

b. God’s revelation in this sense is fundamentally about salvation and the restoration of those who believe to a right relationship with God;

c. God’s revelation is linked with the fulfilment of a whole sequence of historical events, from creation to new creation, from Abraham to Christ (contrast the Quran or the Hindu scriptures) – the Bible is not a collection of disconnected events or abstract thoughts about God!

If we look in more detail at the way in which special revelation is presented in the Bible, we see that:

a. Special words from God interpret redemptive acts (e.g. the exodus from Egypt and the cross of Christ);

b. Special revelation comes in different ways to those chosen to be God’s instruments: in prophetic words, in dreams, in instruction, commands, wise sayings, interpretations of historical events, letters or songs;

c. Special revelation progressively reveals the plan of God, which culminates in the sending of his Son as the ultimate revelation.

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Heb. 1:1-2)

We have not yet established that the Bible itself is the word of God.  What we have shown is that the Bible bears witness to an extraordinary pattern of divine revelation stretching over a period of some two thousand years and amazingly inter-connected:

a. No other religious book has the same character and content;

b. Those who want to reject the idea of special, supernatural revelation have to deny every single claim of revelation in the Bible and every interlocking piece of history;

c. Those who want to reject the idea of special, supernatural revelation have to explain why Israel came into existence, with its distinctive faith, and how Christianity came into existence, with its distinctive faith – based on the teaching of the Old Testament and yet decidedly different!

2. Human words and divine revelation

The biblical books were not handed down from heaven on golden plates but were written by human beings:

a. You can see the differences in style and emphasis throughout the Bible (e.g. compare two contemporary prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel);

b. Biblical authors often identify other biblical writers by name when they quote them (e.g. Rom. 10:19-20 records what ‘Moses says’ and ‘Isaiah says’).

At the same time, biblical writers claim that God is speaking through these human agents and their writings:

a. For example, David is mentioned as the author of Psalm 95 in Hebrews 4:7, but God himself in Hebrews 4:3-5;

b. The Holy Spirit is said to be still speaking through this same psalm to Christians (cf. Heb. 3:7-11).

How can both claims be true together?  If they are genuinely human documents, how can they also be truly God’s revelation?

A. Three modes of divine revelation

Scholars have identified three modes of revelation mentioned in the Bible itself:

a. External manifestation – a ‘theophany’ (demonstration of God’s power and presence) such as when Moses was addressed at the burning bush (Exodus 3) or on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19-20);

b. Internal suggestion – visions and dreams given to the prophets (e.g. Is. 1:1; 2:1) and actual words put into their mouths;

Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth.’ (Jer. 1:9)

And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.’  So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.  Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.’ So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. (Ezek. 3:1-3)

c. Concursive operation – in literature such as the Psalms or Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament and the letters of the New Testament we see the Spirit of God working in, with and through the thoughts and character of the human authors, as they reflect on God’s actions or respond to some situation in life.[1] This is particularly suggested by texts such as these:

The oracle of David son of Jesse, the oracle of the man exalted by the Most High, the man anointed by the God of Jacob, Israel’s singer of songs: ‘The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me; his word was on my tongue.’ (2 Sam. 23:1-2)

If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. (1 Cor. 14:37)

B. God’s sovereign control of the process of revelation

False prophets are described as prophesying ‘out of their own imagination’ (Ezek. 13:2) or as prophesying ‘the delusions of their own minds’ (Jer. 23:26).  God warns Jeremiah:

The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. (Jer. 14:14)

True prophets were called by God and were moved and directed by the Holy Spirit.  But this did not mean that they experienced some form of ecstasy or loss of consciousness.  Their intelligence and personality was active in the reception and passing on of the message received.  So Peter says:

No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet. 1:20-21)

God made the prophets precisely the people he needed them to be, at particular times and in particular situations, so that they could function as instruments for the exact communication of his message.  Compare what is said about Moses and Aaron:

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?  Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’  But Moses said, ‘O Lord, please send someone else to do it.’ Then the LORD’s anger burned against Moses and he said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you.  You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.  He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.’ (Ex. 4:11-16)

God framed his own message in the language and style of his human instruments, without the message losing its identity and authority as the word of God.

a. He who ‘gave man his mouth’ is able to use any mouth he chooses to speak his words to his people;

b. Just as Moses was able to put words in the mouth of Aaron as his spokesman, so God was able to put words into the mouth of Moses as his spokesman;

c. God used each mouth in accordance with the nature of the person concerned (which he sovereignly fashions!) – which is why we see their distinctive character and style emerging in the communication process.

The words that were spoken and the words written down under God’s direction and control are to be understood and received equally as the word of God.  For example:

After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: ‘Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.’ (Deut. 31:24-6)

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you.’ (Jer. 30:1-2)

Then the LORD replied: ‘Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.’ (Hab. 2:2)

C. The ultimate revelation of God

The revelation through the Lord Jesus Christ is different from everything that precedes it because of who he is.  Jesus was the greatest ‘theophany’ of all time:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn. 1:14)

Nevertheless, Jesus claims that the Old Testament Scriptures testify about him (Jn. 5:39) and are fulfilled in him (Lk. 4:21).

The Son of God reveals the truth about God as Trinity in what he says and does.  He also reveals the way to eternal life through his own saving work. This is the final or ultimate revelation of God and his purposes.  There is no more that we need to know and nothing can surpass the revelation given in the Son (cf. Mt. 11:25-27).

However, it is worth noting that the whole of  the New Testament is the explanation and filling out of the revelation given by the Son.  This is so because of  his promise of the Spirit to his disciples, guaranteeing that they would be his authentic witnesses:

The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (Jn. 14:26)

3. Inspiration and illumination

A. The unique work of inspiration

A key text for understanding this is 2 Timothy 3:16, where the context is the unique value and significance of Scripture:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (NRSV)

This traditional rendering (‘all scripture is inspired by God’) can give the impression that ‘the writers of Scripture were helped, nudged and motivated by God to produce better and truer writing than they could ever have produced on their own.’[2]

But it is misleading to think of ‘inspired’ in the sense of an extraordinary and uplifting work of art or piece of literature. The Greek word theopneustos implies that God has actually ‘breathed out’ Scripture, rather than ‘breathing into’ the writers and their writings what he wanted them to say.  Hence the NIV, ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (‘breathed out by God’, ESV) is a better translation. This term recalls the OT idea that God’s word has creative power. In some contexts, such as Psalm 33:6, ‘the breath of his mouth’ is a parallel to ‘the word of the Lord’:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

God sovereignly worked through the whole process by which the  biblical documents were written, edited and collected together as the canon of Scripture.  Inspiration is first and foremost about God’s creative power and not about ‘dictation’.

God prepared the situation in which they were to write and he prepared the people who would write his words.  So he brought ‘the right men to the right places at the right times, with the right endowments, impulses, acquirements, to write just the books which were designed for them.’[3]

2 Timothy 3:16 insists that the text of Scripture is inspired, not the human authors.  But, of course, 2 Peter 1:21 makes it clear that ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’.  What they said, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, was what God wanted them to say.

So both things are true: the authors of Scripture were ‘inspired by God’ and their writings were ‘inspired by God’.  Scripture is not merely ‘the record of God’s revelations’ but revelation itself. Since God has supreme knowledge, power and trustworthiness, the product is uniquely ‘the word of God’.  The God who has acted in history to reveal his character and will has ensured that some of the people involved in those events have been able to interpret and record them correctly for us.

B. The ongoing work of illumination

‘Inspiration’ describes the activity of God in providing Scripture for us in the first place.  Certain prophets, apostles and other writers were chosen by God to record his word for their unique situation, but also so that this revelation would benefit his people throughout time.

Other prophets spoke from God but their word was not recorded and preserved.  Paul even talks about other letters he wrote which are not in our New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:9, a previous letter to the Corinthians; Col. 4:16, ‘the letter from Laodicea’).

Furthermore, we know of many writings – some quite godly and encouraging – which were never regarded by believers as ‘inspired by God’ (e.g. the Old and New Testament Apocrypha).

The process by which God enables us to recognise and understand  his words has traditionally been called illumination, to distinguish it from inspiration:

a. Inspiration relates to the unique historical process by which the Scriptures came into existence;

b. Illumination refers to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, enabling believers to hear God’s voice through the Scriptures, to understand what is written and to apply the message to their own situation;

c. The ‘canon’ or ‘rule’ of Scripture was recognised by God’s people over time as they acknowledged the inspiration of some documents and not others: certain documents were regarded as God’s revealed truth for his people in a way that other documents were not.

Paul mentions the process of ongoing illumination for believers in Philippians 3:15, when he says:

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you[4]

In Ephesians 1:17 Paul prays for illumination, so that his readers might be able to understand more of God’s glorious purpose for their lives:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.

The reference in both of these texts is not to new revelation but to a better perception and understanding of revelation already given.

C. The infallibility of Scripture

The idea of infallibility flows from the belief that Scripture is God-breathed.  God has ensured that his people have an accurate and trustworthy revelation – one that will not lead us into error about God and his will.

Sometimes people say, ‘If God used human agents, there must be errors in the Bible’.  But the whole point of claiming that ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ and that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ is that God sovereignly overruled to make sure that his revelation was infallibly conveyed to us.

We need to have a clear biblical theology of the word of God.  A passage such as Isaiah 55:11 (NRSV) insists that God’s word will infallibly perform the purpose for which he sent it:

so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

In context, this refers to the promises and warnings of the prophets. They are as effective to achieve God’s purpose as his word of command is in creation (cf. Genesis 1).

Jesus said to his contemporaries: ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God’ (Mt. 22:24).  The implication is that those who rightly know the Scriptures do not err – at least when it comes to knowing the will of God  There is no promise that we will be wise about everything and never make mistakes!

The truthfulness of the Bible and the effectiveness of its various parts to accomplish God’s purpose is directly related to the trustworthiness and sovereignty of God himself.  He does not make promises which he cannot keep!

As Martin Luther said, ‘A man’s word is a little sound that flies into the air and soon vanishes; but the Word of God is greater than heaven and earth, yea greater than death and hell, for it forms a part of the power of God and endures everlastingly.’[5]

4. The Authority of Scripture

Biblical authority is rooted in the authority of God himself: its author does not lie (Titus 1:2).  If all scripture is truly ‘breathed out by God’ (2 Tim. 3:16), it must carry his own authority.

Jesus’ testimony is that whatever stands written in Scripture is a word of God and carries the authority of God.  For example:

a. He opposed Satan’s temptations with no other weapon than ‘It is written’ (Mt. 4:4, 7, 10);

b. He repeatedly explained that things must happen ‘so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled’ (e.g. Mk. 14:49; Jn. 13:18; 17:12)

c. He gave legal authority to the whole of the Old Testament when he quoted from the Psalms and said, ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’ (Jn. 10:34-5);

d. He challenged the religious authorities of his day on the basis of Scripture and accused them of  nullifying the word of God by their own traditions (Mk. 7:6-13).

Sometimes critics say that Jesus’ teaching about the authority of Scripture was only an accommodation to the beliefs of his day.  It is even suggested that it was one of the consequences of the incarnation that he had a limited understanding of these things (the implication is that, if he was born today he would know better, along with all the liberal scholars who make such claims!)

However, Jesus constantly insisted that he was a trustworthy witness to the character and will of God and related that witness to the teaching of Scripture. Moreover, this was the way he spoke as the resurrected Christ, when the period of his humiliation was over.  There is no change in his attitude to the Scripture, for example, in Luke 24:44

This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.

If we share Jesus’ belief in the divine authority of Scripture, this will require a careful study of what God caused to be written for our learning, using the best tools available.  Not every passage will have direct application to us (e.g. the laws of Moses), but the teaching in its original context still comes with the authority of God:

a. We are bound to work out its application for us as Christians;

b. The New Testament will be a guide to us about how to apply the Old Testament;

c. We will also need to consider other principles for the interpretation of different literary genres in the Bible.

The authority of scripture is not an abstract or theoretical idea.  If we are to take the authority of the Bible seriously, it means daily submission to the revelation God has given and obedience to his words:

a. For us as individual believers, as we read and reflect on Scripture daily, praying for faithfulness in interpreting and applying the word to ourselves;

b. For pastors, as we prepare to teach others, making sure that the word of God is taking control of our own lives first and that we are not hypocrites when we preach it to the church;

c. For the church locally, nationally and internationally, that our relationships, teaching and behaviour might truly reflect the Bible’s teaching.

If we are concerned with the honour and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, each of us has a responsibility to call our brothers and sisters back to the Scriptures:

a. In personal and private ministry to one another;

b. In public teaching situations, in synods or in congregational meetings, where decisions are being made about how to speak and act as Christians.

c. In theological writings and other Christian publications guiding Christians how to live and behave.

d. In Christian songs and other items contributed to Christian gatherings.


[1] If this idea is taken seriously, then the reader will take careful account of the literary and contextual character of every biblical verse and will ask where a verse fits in the course of God’s progressive revelation.

 

[2] T. Ward, ‘The Bible, its truth and how it works’, in P. Gardner, C. Wright & C. Green (ed.), Fanning the Flame Bible Cross and Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003),  25.

[3] B. B. Warfield, ‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, Biblical Foundations (London: Tyndale, 1958), 67.  ‘If God wished to give his people a series of letters like Paul’s, he prepared a Paul to write them, and the Paul he brought to the task was a Paul who spontaneously would write just such letters.’

[4] He actually uses the verb apokalypsei (‘make clear, reveal’) in this context, implying a revelation different from that given to the apostles and prophets who wrote the Scriptures.

[5] M. Luther, ‘Of God’s Word’ XLIV, in W. Hazlitt (trans.),  The Table Talk or Familiar Discourse of Martin Luther (London: David Bogue, 1848), 20.

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