What Does It Mean That the Bible Is “Inspired”?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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In English, we use the word “inspire” in various ways. A leader may “inspire” his followers to greater devotion; a poet may be “inspired” by someone she loves; an artist may be “inspired” to paint by a beautiful landscape; an athlete may be “inspired” to greater achievements by a competitor.

But the doctrine of inspiration is far removed from these ideas. This theological term reflects the way 2 Timothy 3:16 is often translated in English: “All Scripture is inspired by God” (NASB). The word translated “inspired” is the Greek word theopneustos, which literally means “God-breathed.” Paul is not merely affirming that Scripture is inspiring to us (though to be sure it is); he is affirming that it comes from God. God breathes out or speaks all Scripture, thereby making it His very Word. Peter makes a similar point in 2 Peter 1:20–21: the biblical writers “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (ESV).

What does the Bible teach about its own inspiration? First of all, as we saw in the passages above, inspiration means that the Bible is God’s Word through the work of the Holy Spirit. What’s more, 2 Timothy 3:16 insists this is true of all Scripture. Many people like certain parts of the Bible, but they want to ignore or reject other parts they do not like. The Bible’s teaching about itself simply will not allow us to pick and choose the parts we want, like some kind of buffet. All of it is God’s Word.

This extends even to the specific words of Scripture. Some have argued that the Holy Spirit only gave the biblical writers revelatory ideas in their heads—and then left them alone to put those ideas into their own words as best they could, warts and all. This would mean that the words of Scripture are merely the words of men. But Scripture equates its words with God’s words (cf. Matt. 19:4–5 with Gen. 2:24; cf. Rom. 9:17 with Ex. 9:16), which is why Jesus (Matt. 22:32, 44–45; John 10:35) and Paul (Gal. 3:16) both appeal to specific words in Old Testament Scripture to prove a point from God’s Word.

God’s inspired, written Word is still available to us today, even if we don’t speak Greek or Hebrew.

But here’s the interesting thing. While the Bible insists that it is God’s Word down to its very syllables, it also insists it was written by human authors. And these human writers were not merely taking dictation from God. They genuinely authored the words they wrote (e.g., Deut. 1:1; Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1; John 21:24–25; the opening of most New Testament epistles), making their different personalities and writing styles so evident in Scripture. Yet the Holy Spirit oversaw the whole process to ensure that the words written were exactly what God wanted written. Scripture thus has a genuine dual authorship (e.g., Mark 7:9–13; Acts 4:25)—what theologians call concursus. Think how this affects the way you read your Bible. You can read, study, and understand the Bible the way you would other human books, but in doing so, you are hearing directly from God Himself (1 Cor. 10:11).

By communicating to us in the written words of human authors, God preserves His revelation and makes it widely accessible. Written revelation can be preserved because it can be copied. Technically speaking, only the original manuscripts of Scripture were fully inspired, since the Holy Spirit superintended the work as the human authors wrote. Those original manuscripts—written in Hebrew (or Aramaic in a few places) in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament—no longer exist, but for centuries they were copied carefully by hand. We still have many of these ancient copies through which the original text is preserved. By studying and comparing them, the discipline of textual criticism makes the original text available to us. Written revelation can also be widely disseminated because it can be translated accurately into any language. We know this because New Testament writers sometimes quote from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (called the Septuagint or LXX). A good translation, then, accurately reflects the original text. God’s inspired, written Word is still available to us today, even if we don’t speak Greek or Hebrew.

Let’s summarize what we’ve said into a definition of what is called verbal-plenary inspiration. In His work of inspiration, the Holy Spirit superintended the human authors as they wrote Scripture so that all Scripture, even down to the very words in the original writings, is God’s Word as well as the words of the human writers. This has huge implications for what Scripture is.

For Further Reading:

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