Plenary Verbal Inspiration and its Problems

Plenary Verbal Inspiration and its Problems July 14, 2018

It is common in evangelical theology to argue that the Holy Spirit’s influence extends to the very choice of words used, but falls short of dictation. On this theory, each word used is exactly the one that God intended. Inspiration is not a matter of guidance or assistance, but something given, imparted, conveyed to biblical authors as “sacred penmen,” and extending to the selection of words.[1] As such: “Each writer was guided so that his choice of words was also the choice of the Holy Spirit, thus making the product the Word of God as well as the word of man.”[2]  In support, it should be admitted that Jesus placed importance on the words and very minutia of scripture (Matt 5:18; John 10:35–36). Justin Martyr and Athenogoras described divine inspiration like the Spirit playing a musical instrument and among Protestants there has been a common analogy of authors as the Spirit’s pen, in one poem “Th’ inspired pens of his beloved disciples.”[3] Here inspiration is plenary and verbal.

Against plenary verbal inspiration theory, common as it is evangelicalism, it does have a few shortfalls.

First, it is not all that clear exactly how it differs from dictation theory. While dictation theory and verbal theory are not strictly the same, the difference is one of degree rather than mode of inspiration. For instance, Millard Erickson suggests that the Holy Spirit directs the thoughts of the Scripture writers, but the direction is quite precise and extends to the very choice of words in the author’s vocabulary: “By creating the thought and stimulating the understanding of the Scripture writer, the Spirit will lead him in effect to use one particular word rather than another.”[4] I submit that directing an author’s mind to a specific word is merely dictation at a subconscious level.

Second, if we take 2 Pet 1:20–21 at face value, God inspires persons, not pages, by the direct agency of the Spirit. Verbal inspiration can too quickly jump from “God” to “Scripture” and bypass the all-important human subject in the process of inscripturating God’s Word. Scripture is indeed “God-breathed” as 2 Tim 3:16 claims, yet this should be taken to refer to the Spirit’s movement in the mind of human authors to spirate from them a divinely driven and humanly given written text.

Third, if God inspired “all” words of Scripture, we have to wonder whether he must have inspired the words of sources quoted in Scripture. For instance, portions of the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch (pseudepigraphical works) are quoted in Jude 9, 14–15. Paul also quoted the pagan author Aratus in his speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17:28). A whole chapter of the Bible, Daniel 4, was written by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, a life-long pagan. Verbal inspiration forces us into some peculiar positions, like saying that God inspires noncanonical and even pagan works when it comes to the use of sources since these are part of the “words” of Scripture.

Fourth, there are some very human parts of Scripture which are peculiar if we attribute them to verbal inspiration. It would also seem odd for God to inspire Paul’s anacoluthon in 1 Cor 1:15–16 with his forgetfulness and last moment remembrance of whom he actually baptized in Corinth. Did God make Paul forget whom he baptized? Similarly, when Luke says that “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning,” I think he really did carefully investigate things, and God was not putting words into his mouth (Luke 1:3). Did God inspire Luke to claim he had carefully investigated all things, or did God inspire Luke’s mind to research about Jesus’s life and the beginnings of the church to create the Lucan Gospel?

Fifth, a further factor we have to consider is that when New Testament authors cited the Old Testament, they often did so in a way that was inexact or even different to the original Hebrew. Sometimes this is due to their reliance on the Septuagint rather than the original Hebrew, but on other occasions the citation is almost paraphrastic and resembles no extant version of the Old Testament text (e.g., Joel 2:28–32 = Acts 2:17–21; Ps 68:18 = Eph 4:8; Amos 9:11-12 = Acts 15:15-18) or else minor adjustments are made to the Old Testament text (e.g., Hab 2:4 = Rom 1:17). In citing the Old Testament, the New Testament authors were not so much concerned with reproducing the exact words of an autograph, but with conveying the meaning of the text, and they even felt the liberty at times to render the text more conducive to their interpretive and expository intentions.

Sixth, another criticism of verbal inspiration, at the risk of sounding irreverent, is that if God inspired the all the words of Scripture in their Greek case, order, and syntactical construction, then in the book of Revelation, God needs some remedial training in Greek grammar. That is because the Greek of Revelation, highly Semitized and rough, is poor compared to the polished Greek of Luke and Hebrews.

Seventh, the verbal inspiration theory suffers from an inadequate account of textual criticism and the composite composition of some biblical texts.

There are problems with assigning inspiration to the original autograph and no further.[5] To begin with, we don’t have the autographs, we possess various manuscripts and citations of the Scriptures in their original languages, from which textual critics attempt to construct what the original text might have been. However, there is no 100% guarantee that we have the exact text that was originally written. Now to be fair, I think we can have great confidence that our Bible’s does substantially reflect what the biblical authors wrote, but a few lingering questions remain: How did Mark’s Gospel end? Should the doxology in Romans be placed at Rom 14:23, or 15:33, or 16:23? Where did the story of the woman caught in adultery come from? As a result, text critics these days prefer to speak in terms of an Ausgangstext (i.e., the initial or earliest recoverable text) rather than an Autograph (i.e., the first copy of a biblical text), the former is an approximation of the latter.

On top of that, our Bible is not always the representation of a single autograph composed by a single author, but represents a living text. In the case of the Book of Jeremiah, the received Hebrew text of Jeremiah is based on the twelfth century Masoretic text (MT), yet the Septuagintal version of Jeremiah (LXX, Greek translation), based on an underlying Hebrew Vorlage, is 2700 words or one-eighth shorter than MT Jeremiah. To make it even more complicated, textual fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls offers support for LXX Jeremiah against MT Jeremiah in some instances and support for MT Jeremiah against LXX Jeremiah in other instances! It is probable that two different editions of Jeremiah were in circulation and are expressed in the LXX and MT. Textual scholars normally maintain that shorter readings are likely to be the more original, since the tendency of scribes was to add rather than excise texts, in which case, LXX Jeremiah and its underlying Hebrew Vorlage would have a better case to represent an original autograph. However, our critical editions of the Hebrew Bible and our English Bibles are based on the longer MT Jeremiah on the grounds that it represents not an original autograph but an original edition! So, when you’re reading the Book of Jeremiah in your NIV or ESV, you’re not reading a copy of the autograph, you’re either reading an inspired edition, or reading an inspired linear development from an autograph.[6]

In addition, I would aver that inspiration covers a wider suite of human processes that are guided by divine providence. For instance, it is clear that certain books in the Bible have been composed and compiled over a period of time, like the Pentateuch, which is a collection of Mosaic traditions that were probably edited by a priestly circle sometime soon after the Babylonian exile.[7] Then there are the Psalms, which is actually a collection of five books of Psalms with individual Psalms written by various authors, with each book having its own distinctive themes and literary history. Other writings, like Isaiah, probably emerged in three distinct phases as Isaiah’s prophecy was remembered, reinterpreted, and re-inscribed over the course of the Assyrian (Isaiah 1–39), Babylonian (Isaiah 40–55), and Persian (Isaiah 56–66) periods. The Gospel of John includes the Evangelist’s own conclusion (John 20:31), an epilogue subsequently attached (John 21:1-23), and a final conclusion composed by the Gospel’s editors (John 21:24-25). I tend to be cautious about certain theories of biblical books having been stitched together from multiple sources – as is often proposed for 2 Corinthians and Philippians – but in general there are often good grounds for regarding some biblical books as a collective enterprise composed over some decades by an initial author and subsequent editors.[8] A high view of Scripture should embrace both the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of authors as well as the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of creaturely processes, including the composition, editing, transmission, and canonization of ancient texts, which gave us the Holy Scripture. Inspiration and sanctification must apply to the entire phenomenon of Scripture, not just the autographs.[9]

Eighth, related to the last point, we also have to consider the translatability of divine Scripture. If inspiration applies to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in their autographs, then, in what sense are our subsequent translations – whether in English or Japanese – to be considered the inspired Word of God?[10] The verbal theory of inspiration becomes analogous to Islam where the Qur’an in Arabic and in Arabic alone is Allah’s revelation through the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammed. Yet Christians have, since Irenaeus, always insisted on the translatability of God’s word into many languages as God’s word to that ethnic group, and not merely an image or translation of God’s word.[11] Inspiration must encompass more than original words in their autographs, or else, our English Bible is a mere approximation of God’s Word and not God’s Word per se.

In the next blog post I’ll argue for the dynamic view of biblical inspiration.

Photo form wikimedia commons.

[1] Eleazar Lord, Inspiration not Guidance or Intuition, Or, The Plenary Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures (New York: A.D.F. Randolph, 1858), 60-63.

[2] Stanley E. Anderson, “Verbal Inspiration Inductively Considered,” in Evangelicals and Inerrancy (ed. R. Youngblood; Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1955), 13 (13-21).

[3] Justin, Address to Greeks, 8; Athenagoras, Supplication, 7, 9. Isaac Reeve, The Vision (Houlston & Stoneman, 1857), 16; and James Bannerman, Inspiration: The Infallible Truth and Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1865), 388.

[4] Erickson, Christian Theology, 215.

[5] CSBI § 10.

[6] See J. Daniel Hays, “Jeremiah, The Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Inerrancy,” in Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics (eds. V. Bacote, L.C. Miguélez, and D.L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 133-49.

[7] For example, Moses did not write the account of his death and burial in Deuteronomy 34. There are also clear indications that many of the patriarchal narratives are told from the vantage point of those who lived in the land of Israel in a much later time, like when Gen 14:14 declares that Abraham chased Lot’s captors as far as Dan, even though the Israelite tribal area of Dan did not receive its name until after the Danites captured the territory during Israel’s conquest of Canaan (see Josh 19:47; Jdgs 18:29). See William S. Lasor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush, Old Testament Survey (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 6-9.

[8] For two different evangelical approaches to biblical criticism, see (on the conservative side resisting biblical criticism) James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (eds.), Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012) and (on the more moderate side affirming biblical criticism) Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry (eds.), Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (London: SPCK, 2013).

[9] See John J. Brogan, “Can I Have Your Autograph? Uses and Abuses of Textual Criticism in Formulating an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture,” in Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics (eds. V. Bacote, L.C. Miguélez, and D.L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 93-111; Norris C. Grubbs and Curtis Scott Drumm, “What Does Theology Have to Do with the Bible? A Call for the Expansion of the Doctrine of Inspiration,” JETS 53 (2010): 65–79. John Webster (Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 17–18) describes the process of the composition of Scripture as a type of “sanctification,” which he defines as “the act of God the Holy Spirit in hallowing creaturely processes, employing them in the service of the taking form of revelation within the history of the creation.”

[10] See Allert, “Is a Translation Inspired?” 86-92.

[11] Irenaeus, Adv Haer 1.10.2.

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