Question: "What is verbal plenary inspiration?"
Answer: The Bible is God’s Word to humanity. It was written by human authors, but God prompted and guided them to write what they did. Every word, word form, and word placement in the Bible’s original manuscripts was divinely and intentionally written. This is the orthodox view of the church and is known as verbal plenary inspiration.
Inspiration, the quality of being “God-breathed,” refers to the fact that God supernaturally guided the authors of the Bible to write exactly what He wanted to communicate. Everything in Scripture is there because that’s what God desired to say to humanity. The extent of that inspiration is defined by the dual terms verbal and plenary. Verbal means that every word of Scripture is God-breathed. Every single word, not just the ideas behind the words, is in the Bible because God wanted it there. The word plenary means “complete or full”; when used to describe the inspiration of God’s Word, plenary means that all parts of the Bible are equally of divine origin and equally authoritative.
The apostle Paul implicitly taught the verbal plenary inspiration of the Word of God. In Galatians 3:16, he wrote, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” Paul used the number of the noun—the fact that Moses wrote a singular word, not a plural—as the basis for his argument that Christ fulfills the covenant. This supports verbal inspiration. In Romans 15:4 Paul wrote that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us” and in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is God-breathed.” Everything and all are words that support the doctrine of plenary inspiration.
Second Peter 1:21 says, “For 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.” This passage reveals how God led human authors to write Scripture. Men wrote as they were “carried along” or “moved” (KJV) by the Holy Spirit. What we read in the Bible is indeed God’s words to us. According to Jesus, even the smallest letter within a word and the slightest pen stroke within a letter are God’s design and will be fulfilled (Matthew 5:18).
The term verbal plenary inspiration should not be taken to mean that the words in the Bible themselves are “holy.” The Greek word halas (“salt” in Matthew 5:13) is not “holy” simply because it’s found in the Bible. Other, non-inspired writings also contain the word halas, and their use of the word does not make them special. What verbal plenary inspiration does mean is that all the words, forms of words, combination of words, and wording in the Bible are God’s divine intention for Scripture. The words, phrases, and clauses work together to give us His message, and each portion of Scripture is purposefully there.
Verbal plenary inspiration applies to the original manuscripts of the books of the Bible. The Bible translations we have today are the works of scholars who have studied copies of the original manuscripts, but the doctrine of inspiration does not extend to translations. Most modern translations are trustworthy, but no one translation is divinely inspired in the way the original manuscripts are.
Also, the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration does not mean that God condones or encourages all the actions recorded in the Bible. For example, God states that murder is sinful, yet He also inspired historical records of people committing murder. So, the Bible contains true history as well as God’s moral instructions. The Ten Commandments are inspired, and so is the written record of Absalom’s murder of Amnon; both passages are instructive, and both passages are inspired. The interpretation and application of the Ten Commandments differs from that of Absalom’s story and requires sound biblical hermeneutics.
Verbal plenary inspiration is an important concept and tenet of the Christian faith. God’s inspiration of the text of Scripture extends to the very words themselves and to all parts of Scripture and all subject matters of Scripture. The doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration stands in contrast to the belief that only parts of the Bible are inspired or that only the thoughts or concepts that deal with religion are inspired. Verbal plenary inspiration is an essential characteristic of the Word of God, as His words reveal who He is and what He has done for us through Christ (see John 5:39–40; Acts 8:35).