What does inspiration mean?

In current usage, inspiration means a sudden idea that solves a problem or is especially creative or brilliant in some way.


What does inspiration mean in theology?

This is a technical term used to describe God’s influence on the authors of Scripture such that their writing is both human and divine.


What are the different ways this is understood?

One view is that the men who wrote the Bible were inspired men, i.e. gifted and talented in different ways. Theologians of the liberal or rationalist school would hold to this theory.  Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote:

This is the finest consequence of the new approach to the Bible: it gives us the whole Book back again. If some one protests that it spoils the idea of inspiration, I ask why. We used to think that God created the world by fiat on the instant, and then, learning that the world evolves, many were tempted to cry out that God did not create it at all. We now know that changing one’s idea of a process does not in itself alter one’s philosophy of origins. So we used to think of inspiration as a procedure which produced a book guaranteed in all its parts against error, and containing from beginning to end a unanimous system of truth. No well-instructed mind, I think, can hold that now. Our idea of the nature of the process has changed. What has actually happened is the production of a Book which from lowly beginnings to great conclusions records the development of truth about God and his will, beyond all comparison the richest in spiritual issue that the world has known. Personally, I think that the Spirit of God was behind that process and in it. I do not believe that man ever found God when God was not seeking to be found. The under side of the process is man’s discovery; the upper side is God’s revelation. Our ideas of the method of inspiration have changed; verbal dictation, inerrant manuscripts, uniformity of doctrine between 1000bc and 70ad, all such ideas have become incredible in the face of the facts. source


What can be said about this theory?

The first thing is to raise the theological issue. This theory teaches us that the Spirit was “behind and in” the writing process of the Bible but that the final product still contains errors. What was, then, the result of the Spirit’s work here? What good end was obtained by His influence on the biblical authors?

Second, it will be shown that this theory is not the theory which the Bible itself teaches.


What does the word “plenary” mean?

Plenary is just another word for “all” or “entire”. William Newton Clarke asks:

Is it [Bible] an equal book, to be received as teaching us truth in all its parts? In Protestant theology it has been common to regard the Bible as a single source. That the Bible is a library, a collection, has indeed been always known, but the working theory has rather been that the Bible is a book, available in all its parts for the service of theology. A statement by a biblical writer in any part of the book has been considered valid for theological use, and material has been gathered with equal hand from the entire range of the Scriptures. Of course it has been understood that passages must be interpreted, and the historical setting has not been wholly overlooked, but neither has it been sufficiently regarded. It has been assumed that anything in the Bible may be wrought into theology; nay, more, — that everything in the Bible must be wrought into theology. Since the whole Bible is the equal text-book, a satisfactory theology must work in all biblical statements. A system that left some biblical utterances outside, not accounted for in its scheme of thought, would be regarded as unsound and in need of revision. Theology must be scriptural, and to that end must ignore no thought expressed in the Scriptures. …

Upon the question itself we shall probably have little difficulty, for today every intelligent student knows that the ancient method is wrong. For the purposes of theology the Scriptures are not of equal value throughout. Some parts of the Bible contribute to theology as others do not.  source


What are we to make of this teaching?

First, the word plenary here is understood correctly.  Evangelicals understand the entire Bible to be God’s word.  Now if the entire Bible is God’s word, then a theology should seek to systematize everything the Bible says.  All its statements need to be taken together to form a proper system.  Of course, it is true that full attention needs to be given to the historical as well as the literary context of the writing, but the theologian can never dismiss certain parts of the Bible.  Contrary to what the author above has said, any theology which leaves aside some biblical utterances is unsound and needs revision.


What is another way people understand the inspiration of the Bible?

Others understand inspiration as that process by which God ensure that no error ever was written into Scripture by its authors.  This is how Jesus understood the Scripture.  It is also the understanding of the Evangelical Theological Society which affirms, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”


How do you know that Jesus held to this understanding?

Because it is clear from Jesus ministry that He had taken over, without disagreement, the Jewish understanding of Scripture.  We find that Jesus handles the Scripture just as His opponents did.  They had common ground here.  Take the dispute Jesus had with the Jewish people recorded for us in John 10 where Jesus makes this claim: “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)  Later He blatantly says, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)  At this, the Jews are in a rage and prepare to stone Him.  They condemn Jesus for claiming to be God.  Jesus responds, however, by quoting Scripture.  He references Psalm 82 where God calls earthly judges “gods.”  At this point, Jesus expressly states this common assumption:

And you know that the Scriptures cannot be altered [or “loosed” or “broken”]. (John 10:35-36)

Clearly, Jesus expects that the Jews will show respect for the authority of Scripture.


What does Jesus mean when He says that Scripture cannot be broken?

First, Jesus does not mean to say that the Scripture and the laws it contains cannot be broken in terms of violated.  Clearly, they can.  Rather, Jesus is simply expressing something on which both He and His opponents agreed.  They all agreed that Scripture was infallible.  Schurer writes:

The fact most essentially conclusive for the religious life of the Jewish people during the period under consideration is, that the law, which regulated not only the priestly service but the whole life of the people in their religious, moral and social relations, was acknowledged as given by God Himself. Its every requirement was a requirement of God from His people, its most scrupulous observance was therefore a religious duty, nay the supreme and in truth the sole religious duty. The whole piety of the Israelite consisted in obeying with fear and trembling, with all the zeal of an anxious conscience, the law given him by God in all its particulars. Hence the specific character of Israelitish piety during this period depends on the acknowledgment of this dignity of the law.  source

When Jesus says the Scripture “cannot be loosed” καὶ οὐ δύναται λυθῆναι ἡ γραφή, He is not arguing for this point.  He is asserting it as something to which they both agree.  The Scripture is God’s word; and therefore, not capable of being in error; and therefore is of final authority in all disputes.  Gaussen asks:

Is it possible to admit that the Being [i.e. Jesus] who makes such a use of the Scriptures does not believe in their plenary verbal inspiration? And if He could have imagined that the words of the Bible were left to the free choice and pious fancies of the sacred writers, would He ever have dreamed of founding such arguments on such a word? The Lord Jesus, our Savior and our Judge, believed then in the most complete inspiration of the Scriptures; and for him the first rule of all hermeneutics, and the commencement of all exegesis, was this simple maxim applied to the most minute expressions of the written word, “AND THE SCRIPTURE CANNOT BE BROKEN.”   source


Wasn’t Jesus simply saying that this Psalm, which He quotes, was infallible?

On the contrary, Jesus’ words are that the “Scripture” cannot be broken.  This word “Scripture” is referring to the canon of Scripture which was then the Jewish canon which is the equivalent of our Old Testament.  Young notes:

We may note in passing, that when Christ speaks of the Scripture, He is not limiting His reference to this one particular passage, as Bernard apparently thinks is the case. It is not the individual passage alone to which He makes reference. Possibly, as Bultmann has stated, He is reasoning a minori ad maius [from the less to the greater]. But the argument would seem to be that this particular passage, which belongs to and is a part of Scripture, also cannot be broken. This passage, in other words, has validity, because it belongs to the irrefragable Scripture.   Edward J. Young, “The Bible and Protestantism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 121 (1964): 240.


Where else do we see this understanding of Scripture in the ministry of Jesus?

Consider how Jesus turns aside each of the devil’s temptations.  Each time, a simple “It is written…” (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10) is considered sufficient to deny the truth of whatever the devil is asserting.  Even the devil quotes Scripture as authoritative! (Matthew 4:6)  Consider as well Jesus repeated rebuke of the Jewish leaders for elevating their tradition above that of Scripture.  “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” He asked them (Matthew 15:3); and by doing this, you invalidate the word of God. (Matthew 15:6)  When He spoke with the two men on the way to Emmaus, He explained to them the prophecies concerning Himself “beginning from Moses and all the prophets.” (Luke 24:27)  Then we also see Jesus using Scripture to prooftext His own teachings.  “Have ye not read?” He asked on a number of occasions. (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10)  All these are clear indications that the doctrine of the Jews as it pertained to Scripture was taken over by Jesus; He had no objection to it.


What did Jesus mean here when He spoke about “Scripture” or “law”?  Was Jesus’ Scripture the same as ours?

Scripture here refers to what we call the Old Testament.  By the time of Jesus, the Jewish religion had a canon of Scripture which is similar to our Old Testament.  Bruce writes:

While the relation of the Gospels to the NT canon is of paramount importance, the Gospels themselves bear witness to an already existing canon of Holy Scripture. All four of them not only presuppose the divine authority of the OT writings but claim that those writings were uniquely “fulfilled” in the gospel events.  Bruce, “Canon,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 93.