You’ve Got Questions: What are the Different Views on the Inspiration of the Bible (and Which One is Correct)?
Everyone who claims the name “Christian” must believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet, a wide variety of meanings are attached to the word “inspired.” There are four main views on the inspiration of the Bible:
1. Neo-Orthodox Theory. This view holds that God is utterly transcendent; that is, He is absolutely different from us and far beyond our comprehension (see What is the Incomprehensibility of God?). We can only know something about him if He reveals Himself to us, as He did in Jesus Christ. Neo-Orthodoxy asserts that the Bible is a witness to the Word of God or contains the Word of God. According to this view, as people of biblical times experienced God, they recorded their encounters the best they could. Sometimes their reports contained paradoxes or even errors, but their descriptions nonetheless help other understand God better. And as others experience God through these accounts, the accounts become God’s Word all over again.
Neo-Orthodoxy does have a high view of God. However, the Bible claims to be more than simply a witness to the Word of God. It testifies that it is God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Bible also claims that as God revealed Himself, people inspired by the Holy Spirit recorded His message (2 Peter 1:20-21). They could do so because God accommodated Himself to their limited understanding. Neo-Orthodoxy, thus fails to provide an adequate explanation for all the biblical evidence, and should be rejected entirely.
2. Dictation Theory. This view, as the term implies, suggests God simply dictated the Bible to human scribes. God chose certain individuals to record His Word and gave them the exact words He wanted. The writers wrote only what God dictated to them. This view is generally rejected by most, but has been suggested by segments of conservative Christianity.
Scripture does suggest that sometimes God may have communicated a precise, word-for-word message to human authors (Jer. 26:2; Rev. 2:1, 8). At other times, He allowed writers to express their own personalities as they wrote (Gal. 1:6; 3:1; Phil. 1:3, 4, 8). Still, the Holy Spirit ensured the finished work accurately communicated God’s intention. Thus, the dictation theory does not account for all the biblical evidence and is therefore inadequate as a theory of inspiration and should thus, be rejected entirely.
3. Limited Inspiration Theory. This view holds that God inspired the thoughts of the biblical writers, but not necessarily the words they chose. God guided the writers, but He gave them the freedom to express His thoughts in their own ways. Because the writers had this freedom, the historical details they wrote may contain errors. However, the Holy Spirit protected the doctrinal portions of Scripture from any error to safeguard God’s message of salvation.
The Bible is used for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16), but the historical records of the Bible are absolutely vital for the doctrinal parts of the Bible to be confirmed. An actual historical Adam is central to Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12-21. Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:41 imply that the book of Jonah is not merely a parable; rather, a real historical prophet named Jonah who actually preached to the Ninevites. Now, most Bible students recognize that there are statements in Scripture that are hard to reconcile. But is the best solution to admit error? If God allowed for error in His Word in Genesis 1, why would I consider believing that John 3:16 is true also? This view is therefore inadequate as a theory of inspiration, and should be rejected.
4. Verbal Plenary Theory. Like the other views, verbal plenary inspiration asserts the Holy Spirit interacted with human writers to produce the Bible. Verbal refers to the words of Scripture. Verbal inspiration means God’s inspiration extends to the very words the writers chose, but it is not the same as the dictation theory. The writers could have chosen other words, and God often allowed them the freedom to express their own personalities as they wrote. But the Holy Spirit so guided the process that the words they chose accurately conveyed the meaning God intended. Plenary means “full” or “complete.” Plenary inspiration asserts that God’s inspiration extends to all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. God guided the writers no less when they recorded the historical details than when they discussed doctrinal matters.
The verbal plenary inspiration view seems to deal best with all the biblical evidence. It recognizes the human element in Scripture, and allows that different writers wrote in different ways. But it also affirms the Holy Spirit as the Bible’s ultimate Author. The Spirit of God prompted human authors to communicate God’s message of love and salvation to a world that desperately needed it.
Implications of Verbal Plenary Inspiration
If the Word of God is indeed, dually authored as the verbal plenary inspiration view asserts, several implications are true for the way we approach the Bible:
First, it means the Bible is trustworthy. We can trust it to provide reliable information. It provides many insights into the history of God’s people and also describes God’s plan for the world and for our lives. It reveals life’s highest meaning and purpose, and tells us how to become all God wants us to be.
Second, verbal plenary inspiration means the Bible is authoritative. Because it is God’s Word, it speaks with God’s authority. It calls us to read it, to understand its meaning, and to submit to it. And it remains God’s truth whether or not we choose to submit.
Recommended Resources: Encountering the Old Testament and 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible