On Biblical Inspiration

Introduction: the problem

The Bible, Christians believe, is inspired. What this means, however, is not at all clear, at least according to philosophical theology, in which there is a variety of theories. It seems to me there is a great deal of confusion on this topic, and that is possibly because the philosophical theologians who take it up are not thinking clearly enough about what the very text of the Bible itself says. This is ironic, considering that, if one really thought it were inspired, then he would pay close attention to what it had to say about the subject.

My thesis here is that if we wish to philosophize properly about the theology of Biblical inspiration, we must begin with what the Bible says about it. And when we look in that direction, we will find that much of the previous philosophical theology on this topic has been simplistic, in a certain sense, or anyway, not as subtle as the Bible itself is. As we will see, the Bible writers themselves indicate that they were inspired in several different ways. Some ways support one theory; others, another. Therefore, no single covering theory is appropriate.

First, let me explain a theory that, it seems, most theologians are pretty well agreed is wrong. It is the dictation theory: God spoke, and the authors wrote down his words, and that is what is meant when we say the Bible was inspired; there is nothing more to it. There are quite a few other theories, too. One has it that God simply determined the prophets and apostles to craft inerrant texts—freely. Another has it men wrote down various works, which were later identified as being God’s own truth. “Plenary, verbal inspiration” holds that God directly inspired every word as well as the whole collection of them. There are plenty of other theories as well.

There are, I think, two problems about this whole crowd of theories. One is that they are actually theories about different things. For example, the dictation theory tells us how the words found their way onto the original autographs. By contrast, the plenary verbal inspiration theory tells us about the authority of the words, but it does not tell us exactly how they got onto the original autographs. The determinism theory is probably best viewed as a theory about what ‘inspiration’ means, rather than a theory about the process or the authority. The whole jumble of theories could be greatly clarified if philosophical theologians carefully distinguished between such questions.

It is another problem that I will address in this essay, however. The problem concerns one of the central questions: How did the Bible texts come to be inspired? What was the process? What was going on? Philosophical theologians seem to think they must produce one single covering theory of this process. And that, I want to argue, is just wrong. In fact, the Bible texts were inspired by multiple different means. This can be shown by examining, of all things, the Bible itself. Imagine that!

A good place to begin this discussion is with the dictation theory, which seems to be the common whipping-boy on this particular question. The most obvious problem with it is that the Bible contains three different languages and many different idiolects (or collections of words in use), styles, and evident theological concerns, varying between different books and sections of books. If God simply gave us the entire text of the Bible, albeit to different people at different times, then why does the text not all sound the same? If God directly inspired every word of the Bible, or so the argument appears to go, then the whole Bible would have the same language and style.

This, however, does not at all refute any reasonable version of the dictation theory. The dictation theory is correct according to the Bible itself, in some passages at least. God did speak directly to at least some of the Bible writers, some of the time; and when he did so, he used the language, vocabulary, and style appropriate for the book’s (or the section of the book’s) audience. Why not?

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some examples.

Jeremiah: “thus saith the LORD”

Just for example, Jeremiah frequently says, “Thus saith the LORD.” Here is a rather more complex sample: “Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD, I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth”. (Jer 3:1) This sort of thing is a preamble that most readers doubtless rush past as they read the prophets. But notice what the preamble says. It contains not just one or two or three, but four layers of reported speech. What do I mean?

Here is one layer. Jeremiah could have simply launched in, “I remember thee [Jerusalem], the kindness of thy youth.” But this would be wrong, because Jeremiah is not claiming to remember Jerusalem; he is claiming that the Lord does. That should be obvious enough.

Here then is a second layer. Jeremiah could have simply written, “Thus saith the LORD, I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth.” This would make it clear that Jeremiah meant to say that the Lord said such-and-such. But, interestingly, this is still not all of Jeremiah’s entire preamble.

It is all wrapped in third and fourth layers: “Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying,” and then comes the bit already quoted. It was already clear that Jeremiah meant to be quoting the Lord, so he did not have to add this third layer, in order to make that even clearer; but he does. Why? Evidently, he wanted to make perfectly clear the very thing that the philosophical theologians deny. Namely, “the word of the Lord” came to Jeremiah, saying a certain thing, namely, that he must speak in the hearing of the people of Jerusalem, the following words. That is quite a mouthful; but he says it because he thinks it’s important to say.

Again, Jeremiah would have faithfully followed the Lord’s command simply by beginning, “Thus saith the LORD, I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth.” But he did not. He wrapped it in the third layer in order to make it perfectly clear that he was commanded not just to say, but to make it perfectly clear that he was quoting the words of God. Jeremiah was both claiming to dictate from the Lord, and that the Lord specifically commanded him to. And there you have it: according to the Bible itself, at least parts of one book (and of course there are many others) are presented as the precise words of (and therefore dictated by) the Lord, as problematic as that might seem to be from a philosophical point of view.

“Now wait,” you might say. “Maybe Jeremiah just had a very definite feeling that he should write some prophetic poetry and attribute it to the Lord. He felt inspired, the words ‘just came to him,’ and he expressed the situation by saying what he did.” Perhaps indeed, but if you say so, then you are accusing Jeremiah of lying, because Jeremiah himself repeats three times: “saying…saying…saith.” These are three separate words in the Hebrew, forms of אָמַר or amar, glossed “to utter, say.” He does not write that he had a vision or a vague feeling or presentiment. He writes that the Lord commanded him to say that the Lord said such-and-such.

Let me be quite clear that my point is not to argue for the dictation theory as a single, thoroughgoing theory. Other texts are inspired in other ways. Let us look at some more scripture and see.

Isaiah: visions of words

Isaiah says all sorts of things indicating how he was inspired. He is very helpfully explicit about it. He opens the book with these words: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” (Isa 1:1) You might think this means the entire book is a vision ( חָזוֹן or chazon, “vision”), but it does not; this is just the heading of the first chapter of the book. The words serve as a description, and a kind of title, of the chapter. The chapter does not describe what we might call a single vision: there is a series of what we might call poetic “visuals” in the chapter, but it takes the form otherwise of rather colorful poetry. Chazon is evidently a word that refers precisely to the mental state of being inspired, properly speaking by God. It is, of course, different from amar, or literally saying something.

That said, matters become complex, because when he launches into his chazon, Isaiah also reports God’s words: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.” (Isa 1:2) Surely Isaiah has misrepresented his chazon if he was not exposed, in some sense, to the words of the Lord. I say “exposed” advisedly, because Isaiah himself does not seem to assert that he heard the word (דָבָר or dabar, “speech, word”) of the Lord. Rather, as he opens the second chapter, “The word [dabar] that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw [!] concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” (Isa 2:1) So here we have words being seen (חָזָה or chazah, “see, behold”). I will not rule out that Isaiah meant that he saw the words written on the wall, Belshazzar style, which he then proceeded to copy down. The more natural way to understand him, however, is that in a vision, he saw a series of images, perhaps accompanied by some words and ideas, that suggested “the word of the Lord.”

This seems to be what happens in the famous chapter 6, where Isaiah opens, “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” (Isa 6:1) I saw (רָאָה or raah, “to see”), the prophet says, and he reports, evidently in his own words, what he saw, rather than reporting words given to him by God. But, lest you think prophets never audibly heard the voice of God in their visions, Isaiah puts that to rest: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.” (Isa 6:8-9) So, when the vision was over, evidently, Isaiah picked up his pen and wrote down the words of the Lord (as well as his own, as he remembered them). That is, to be sure, intended by Isaiah to be not just “dictation,” but dictation of a personal encounter with God. And the very point of the vision bears on the subject of this essay: how was Isaiah inspired? Well, in that case, what happened was this: Isaiah had a vision; in the vision, God asked for a volunteer; Isaiah did so; and God sent him with a verbally-inspired message and to do other things.

Apparently no one told God, or Isaiah, about how naive it was to suppose God might dictate something. Later, such dictation actually becomes notarized. “Moreover the LORD said unto me, Take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man’s pen concerning Maher-shalal-hash-baz [Speed the Spoil, Hasten the Booty]. And I took unto me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah. And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said the LORD to me, Call his name Mahershalalhashbaz.” (Isa 8:2-3) There are two interesting things here. The Lord not only commands that certain words be spoken; he commands the very process of writing: “Take the a great roll, and write in it with a man’s pen.” Second, he commands the use of two witnesses to the act of writing. The Bible does not merely contain dictation; it contains dictation that God himself demands to be notarized.

But we can see here, to be sure, that the Bible itself reports that “inspiration” takes a variety of closely related forms. Some forms support some philosophical theories and undermine others.

Moses: “write thou these words”

Jeremiah’s great roll was not, of course, the first time close attention was paid in the Bible to the question how certain words are recorded. Several famous instances are given in the books of Moses: “And Moses wrote this law [i.e., most of Deuteronomy], and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and unto all the elders of Israel.” (Deut 31:9) The same law was deposited beside the Ark: “when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, That Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.” (Deut 31:24-26)

Thus, the way in which Deuteronomy might be called “inspired” is different, and still more complex. Deuteronomy never shows God commanding Moses to say this or that, apart from the time when he dictates the Song of Moses of chapter 32 (“Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel”; Deut 31:19). By the way, did you notice that this was a song that was authored by God? Surely, being a song, and being delivered audibly, God would have sung the song. Now that’s inspiration I would have like to have heard!

So, apart from that, it seems Moses wrote down his own words in the book of Deuteronomy, words that he also delivered orally (“These are the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which Moses spake unto the children of Israel”; Deut 4:45). Yet it can also be the case, and it is, that these words were approved by the Lord enough to permit them to be placed beside the Ark, which was extremely holy. The Deuteronomic law was intended to represent the same law that was given directly by God, by “plenary verbal inspiration,” and which was written down especially in Exodus and Leviticus. There, God tells Moses to be his amenuensis: “And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.” (Ex 34:27)

Returning to the issue of the theory of Biblical inspiration, one could say that, in fact, Moses went up by himself into the mountains and he wrote out a bunch of laws while the people waited, with some rather vague feelings-based inspiration. He merely said that the Lord told him to write “these words.” Or rather, you might say that some post-exilic Second Temple scholar like Ezra wrote “these words.” Such things might strike you as the more sophisticated thing to say. Sure: the text of Exodus could be a lie. But let us be very clear that the text of Exodus says that Moses wrote down the words that God gave him to write down. Let us also be clear that unless the mode of its inspiration was dictation, then the text, the text that purports to endorse the Mosaic law as God’s law, does in fact lie.

Even more, the words of the Ten Commandments were said to have been written by God with his own finger (Ex 31:18; 32:16). This is a step beyond inspiration. This is not “inspiration” at all, unless you want to say God inspires himself; rather, those particular copies of the Decalogue (there were two of them, recall) were directly from God himself, if you believe the Bible, anyway. But of course, there are a lot of people who are far too sophisticated to believe that God would have actually given words to Moses to write down, let alone that he wrote anything with his own finger. Ironically, such people don’t regard the Bible as a significant source when it comes to formulating theories of inspiration…of the Bible.

You can imagine other issues and discussion needed for certain other books. What about Genesis? It stands to reason that these chapters were understood, by their original readers, to be stories passed down by tradition to Moses. Should we say that these chapters were inspired because they were written by the first great prophet of the Hebrews? Perhaps; but in what sense were they inspired? Was the Holy Spirit on hand when Moses (or “the Elohist” and “the Yahwist”; but I think it was Moses) wrote them? Did God approve them? I think the inspiration of GEnesis must have a great deal to do with the fact that God is reported interacting with his people, as in the first (pre-law) chapters of Exodus. These chapters are regarded as inspired because they report faithfully on the acts of God. I’m also strongly inclined to believe that, yes, the Holy Spirit was on hand as Moses crafted those chapters. But I do not know.

We will pass quickly over writings such as Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Many psalms were avowedly written by David, in the first person; God certainly did not instruct him to write them down. They are certainly inspired, but not in that sense. I offer no theory as to what the sense is in which they are inspired, but I am inclined to think they are no less inspired than the rest of the Bible. Similarly with Job: even if it is fiction, it contains deep and true doctrinal insight and is certainly inspired; but what it means to say so, I am not prepared to explain. I can see, from an examination of how other books were inspired, that it requires special study and that we might simply not be able to say definitively. There is no one covering model of how the Bible’s authors were inspired.

But there is one more source of writings that I do want to discuss the inspiration of.

What about the New Testament?

The four great Gospels might be thought to be inspired—again, regardless of what this word really means—simply because they contain faithful reports of the time of Jesus on earth, as written down by two apostles of Jesus (Matthew and John) and two close associates of two other apostles (John Mark, an associate of Peter, and Luke, an associate of Paul). At least, this is how they are supposed to get their authority. But in what sense are they inspired? That is a different question. Again, their inspiration is not like Jeremiah’s “Thus saith the LORD” or Moses’ “Write thou these words.”

Before we answer, consider also the letters of Paul, John, Peter, James, and Jude. These are accorded the authority they possess in the church because they are written by apostles (Paul, John, and Peter) or because they are written by brothers of Jesus who were leaders in the church (James and Jude). They contain elaborations of the same teaching reported of Jesus in the four Gospels; if they contradicted anything Jesus said, one can be sure they would have been lost and forgotten. There is even an instance of Peter famously calling the epistles of Paul “scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16). But again, this explanation of their authority does not actually answer the question: how were they inspired, or in what sense were they inspired?

It is an epistle of Paul, in fact, that gives us the word “inspired.” The English word suggests “in-spirit-ed,” and is evidently intended to convey something like “crafted in the Spirit,” that is, written by a person working with the Holy Spirit. The Greek is θεόπνευστος or theopneustos, glossed “God-breathed, inspired by God.” The word comes to us from the following: “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.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

We are simply not told how Paul was inspired by God—except that we do learn in one of his more cryptic references that he was “caught up to the third heaven” where he “heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” (2 Cor 12:2-4) This suggests he too was a prophet, who learned at least some things in visions. Of course, his sudden conversion on the road to Damascus was a vision as well, and it seems he continued to experience visions throughout the next days. But he always keeps obscure how he learned most of his Christian doctrine. He exhibits great Bible scholarship and learned much of what could be learned from the basic insight that Jesus fulfilled the Messiah prophecies. Of course, he must have been taught by other disciples and apostles. But even so, to say that Paul’s own writing was inspired suggests that the Holy Spirit was somehow on hand as he wrote. We assume that because he gave such abundant evidence of being converted and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But to say that is not to say anything about what the process of inspired epistle writing looked like.

Beyond that, I am not sure we are in a good position to speculate.


Make no mistake, saying much more about Paul, or much more about any of the other topics I have touched on, would involve speculation.

Why? Because we are not talking about a purely a priori philosophical matter. These are matters of fact. Consider some examples we did not draw any conclusions about: God inspired Moses as he wrote about the creation; God inspired Solomon as he compiled godly proverbs; God inspired Paul as he wrote about atonement and salvation. Does the word ‘inspired’ mean the same thing in all three places? Maybe not. We can see from the other examples, catalogued above, that it might not have been the same kind of process in all three cases.

We can imagine interviewing Paul in the hereafter: “Paul, I would like to ask about when you wrote the words, ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ (1 Cor 13:13) The church believes these words were inspired. We believe this means you were working with the Holy Spirit as you wrote. But what exactly did that mean in your case?” Would you not be on the edge of your seat listening to his answer? I would. Do you not think you could learn some facts from what he had to say? I know I could.

Thus, there is a historical fact of the matter as to how, or by what method, Paul was inspired. No a priori theory of Biblical inspiration can tell us what his answer would be; it is a matter of fact. Moreover, we cannot know the answer, not until the hereafter.

My point, then, is that it is silly to suppose that we can philosophize our way to the right answer in the case of Paul, on the basis of a general covering model. This is because the Bible itself exhibits several different ways of inspiration. There is no single covering model, according to the Bible. We cannot even begin our discussion by smugly dismissing the dictation theory, when that theory is, in some cases, actually God’s own truth, according to the Bible. Which Christians think is inspired, you know.






Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

2 responses to “On Biblical Inspiration”

  1. Bob

    God is an imaginary construct. God did not inspire or perspire anything. People of the word, more inclusively, people of the book are delusional. They retain a piece of mind that they “protect” from reality, or so they would think were they capable of some sort of introspective analysis. They would experience anomie were they to realize that their reality is completely subjective. Their only reality are the rules to which their senses subject them. They are a copy of the deity constructed who is suspended in apprehension. The idea that nothing may exist outside of the self is intolerable and so the self constructs a cosmos in which to exist, and lest the rules of their universe become unbelievable, others must exist to give them the rules, both gods and men.

    1. I used to think as you do…well, what you say in the first half of your comment (after that it goes off the rails). I would been inclined to say much the same when I was 18, when I first started thinking about alternative explanations of belief in God. But I was never as dogmatic and arrogant as you are, confidently asserting that believers are “delusional.” (I wouldn’t have misused “anomie,” as you do, either.)

      But this notion that solipsism (“The idea that nothing may exist outside of the self is intolerable”) is somehow the more sophisticated view is just silly nonsense. The vast majority of nonbelievers are not solipsists; they think a cosmos exists outside themselves. Now, you are quite right that if something exists outside yourself, this does demand an explanation (which is how both the Argument from Contingency and the Argument from Causality both begin). What you seem not to have noticed is that if you are a solipsist, you still need an explanation of the many details found in your experience. Why on earth think that you are all that exists? Do you think rationality somehow demands you believe this, because you can’t “prove” that anything outside of your experience exists? But this is a philosophical position, and no philosophical position is as self-presenting as your experience. By the same ridiculously stringent empiricist standards you can’t “prove” that anything is not outside of your experience. As far as your raw experiential data is concerned, commonsense realism is every bit as coherent as solipsism (and as Berkeleyan idealism and Russellian phenomenalism). And it has an absolutely massive advantage over those, namely, it provides the theoretical basis of a thoroughly rigorous and consistent scientific description of the universe you observe, and also of the cognitive science of perception that explains how such a universe might result in your experiential data.

      I have explained the latter in a rather technical way, but the basic idea is extremely simple and obvious. I actually think you have managed to persuade yourself of this ridiculous solipsistic outlook in order to avoid confronting having to explain a physical universe. Indeed, if you posit that you are the only thing that exists, then you remove the chief “problem” you are trying to avoid, namely God. Talk about throwing out the baby (Jesus!) with the bathwater! What childish reasoning. At least normal nonbelievers, such as I was for 35 years, are perfectly OK with such challenges as explaining how morality can arise out of nature.

      And again, your solipsism simply doesn’t have the advantage you think it does. You aren’t more rational because you have *assumed* nothing exists outside of yourself. That is indeed just an assumption, and it is an irrational assumption at that, because it begs the question against the competing position, namely, that your experience is can be best explained by things outside of you.

      What a pretzel you have tied yourself up in just in order to avoid your creator!

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