Question: "What are the different theories of biblical inspiration?"
Answer: The doctrine of inspiration is the teaching that the Bible is God-breathed and is therefore our infallible rule for faith and practice. If the Bible is simply the work of the human imagination, then there is no compelling reason to follow its doctrines and moral guidelines. The Bible itself makes the bold claim to be God-breathed: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). We notice two things regarding Scripture in this verse: 1) it is “inspired by God,” and 2) it is “profitable” for Christian living.
There are four views of inspiration:
1. The neo-orthodox view of inspiration
2. The dictation view of inspiration
3. The view of limited inspiration
4. The view of plenary verbal inspiration
The neo-orthodox view of inspiration emphasizes the transcendence of God. Neo-orthodoxy teaches that God is so completely different from us that the only way we could ever know Him is through direct revelation. This view of the transcendence of God denies any concept of natural theology (i.e., that God can be known through His creation). Furthermore, neo-orthodoxy denies that the Bible is the Word of God. Rather, the Bible is a witness, or mediator, to the Word of God, Jesus. The neo-orthodox theory of inspiration is that the words in the Bible aren’t God’s words, but they are fallible words written by fallible men. The Bible is only “inspired” in that God can sometimes use the words to speak to individuals.
The neo-orthodox theory of inspiration is no inspiration at all. If the Bible is the fallible product of fallible men, then it really has no value, at least no more than other books. God could just as well “speak” to us through the works of Dickens or Stevenson as He could through the Bible.
The dictation theory of inspiration sees God as the author of Scripture and the individual human agents as secretaries or amanuenses taking dictation. God spoke, and man wrote it down. This view has some merit, since we know there are portions of Scripture in which God essentially says, “Write this down” (e.g., Jeremiah 30:2), but not all Scripture was created that way. The Pentateuch is essentially a chronicle of the Jewish people prior to settling in the Promised Land. While Moses is the primary author, much of the Pentateuch required editorial work on Moses’ part, as he undoubtedly compiled earlier records for some of the history. Luke states in the preamble to his gospel that he performed detailed research into the events of the life of Jesus before writing (Luke 1:1–4). Many of the prophetic books read like journals of the prophets’ lives. The bottom line is that the dictation theory only explains certain portions of Scripture, but not all of it or even most of it.
The theory of limited inspiration is the opposite view of the dictation theory. Whereas the latter sees Scripture as primarily God’s work with minimal human contribution, the former sees Scripture as primarily man’s work with limited help from God. The theory of limited inspiration says that God guided the human authors but allowed them freedom to express themselves in their works, even to the point of allowing factual and historical errors. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit prevented doctrinal errors. The problem with this view is that, if the Bible is prone to error in its historical accounts, then how can we trust it in doctrinal matters? With limited inspiration, the reliability of the Bible is called into doubt. This view also seems to ignore the fact that the Bible’s story of redemption from Genesis to Revelation is told against the backdrop of human history—the doctrine is woven within the history. We can’t arbitrarily say that the history is inaccurate and then state it contains a kernel of doctrinal truth.
The final view, and the view of orthodox Christianity, is the theory of plenary, verbal inspiration. The word plenary means “complete or full,” and verbal means “the very words of Scripture.” So plenary, verbal inspiration is the view that every single word in the Bible is the very word of God. It’s not just the ideas or thoughts that are inspired, but the words themselves. Second Timothy 3:16–17 uses a unique Greek word, theopneustos, which literally means “God-breathed.” Scripture is “breathed out” of the mouth of God. The Bible’s words are God’s words.
Furthermore, “Prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). This passage gives us a clue as to how God inspired the human authors. Men spoke (or wrote) “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The verb for “carried along” is used to speak of a sail being filled with wind and carrying a boat along the water. When the human authors were putting pen to paper, the Holy Spirit “carried them along” so that what they wrote were the “breathed-out” words of God. So, while the writings retain the personality of the individual authors (Paul’s style is quite different from that of James or John or Peter), the words themselves are exactly what God wanted written.
The proper view of biblical inspiration is the orthodox view of the church, which says that the Bible is the plenary, verbally inspired Word of God.