Traditionally, there have been three broad views about how the Bible writers were inspired:
Verbal Inspiration: The Holy Spirit dictated the Bible, word for word.
Thought Inspiration: The Holy Spirit inspired men’s ideas; prophets then expressed these ideas in their own words.
The Bible contains the Word of God, that is, it records the experiences of great and Godly men and so has other material not necessarily inspired. That is, in the judgement of those who subscribe to this view, some parts of the Bible are not worthy of the sacred canon. This might be called “non-plenary”, “incomplete”, or “partial” inspiration.
We will ignore the third view as an example of “Cafeteria Theology” where one is free to decide what parts of the Bible to believe and what can be ignored. Let us assume immediately that the entire Bible, as we have it, is inspired, as declared in 2 Tim 3:16, 17, 2 Peter 1:19-21. See also 2 Sam 23:2, Neh 9:30, Eze 2:2, 11:5, 24, Micah 3:8, Zech 7:12, 2 Peter 1:19-21, Rom 1:2, 3:2, Heb 3:7, 5:12, 9:8, Mark 12:36, Acts 28:25, 1 Tim 4:1.
The central question here is what does, “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16, 17) or “inspired” mean? That is, Did God inspire men or words? Or, Did the Holy Spirit prompt ideas or dictate?
To answer this central question of inspiration we observe the following:
- The mechanism of inspiration in the Bible was quite varied.
- Some writers saw visions and then recorded the vision (Dan 8:1, 2, 10:1-3, Revelation (numerous times), etc.)
- The prophet is awake and talking directly with a messenger (Zech 4:1, 2)
- Luke researched events and interviewed witnesses before compiling his Gospel and Acts
- Some passages are direct quotes from non-inspired sources (see table below) that the Bible writer used.
- Balaam was possessed and unable to curse Israel (Num 23, 24)
- Some passages are clearly direct quotes from God (eg, the 10 commandments in Ex 20:1-17, 31:18, Deut 10:4, 5)
- Moses even used another person (Aaron) to deliver his messages (Ex 7:1, compare Ex 4:15, 16)
- A dictation model of inspiration would have all four Gospels recording the same event in exactly the same language; but significant variations are obvious.
- The language of the Bible is quite varied and depends on the background of prophet. John wrote very simply (at times, stretching Greek grammar to breaking point); Paul and Luke used quite complex Greek constructions with a large vocabulary; Matthew’s Gospel is very Hebraistic is style; Peter’s two epistles are quite different in style because he used different translator-secretaries to record them (Silas in the first instance, 1 Peter 5:12). If the Holy Spirit had dictated the Bible, its style would be uniform.
- Paul says that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to [the control of] the prophets” (1 Cor 14:32) indicating that the prophet does not lose his/her personality in the process.
Lastly, if God had dictated the words of the Bible intending that they would be immutable and important, then God would have miraculously preserved the exact words as inspired and “dictated”. Even a casual glace at the history of the Bible text suggests that this was never the case – there are thousands of variations in the Bible text, but all preserve the ideas in the text. That is, while many “errors” and variations exist in the Bible text between manuscripts, none are significant for the message.
Thus, the Bible, God’s Word and its central message of God’s love and salvation, has been miraculously preserved but not necessarily the exact words that the Bible writers used. (It is possible that some Bible writers even produced more than one version or revision themselves!)
So, what does this do for the doctrine of bible inerrancy? It depends on what one means by this and different creeds define it differently. Suffice to say here that the Bible itself does not claim inerrancy but simply says that the Bible has all we need for knowing Jesus and imitating His life and obtaining salvation.