Doctrine of Revelation (part 4)

January 18, 2010     Time: 00:40:31


(2) Theories of Inspiration (3) The Apparent Incoherence of Plenary, Verbal, Confluent Inspiration.

Theories of Inspiration

We come to our section on theories of inspiration. This material will take us into some fairly deep waters, and you are going to really need to put on your thinking cap! But I promise you that if you stick with me, it will be understandable, and, moreover, I believe that this can shed a light on the Bible that will make you see it in a new way in which you have never perhaps seen it before.

So let’s take a look at the theories of inspiration. Basically, there are really two theories of inspiration that compete. The first one would be the dictation theory of inspiration. Dictation theory says that God simply told the authors what to write, and they were at best stenographers. They just wrote down what God dictated. This is the Muslim theory of inspiration for the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a dictation, a recitation, which Mohamed simply records. This theory might seem on the face of it inadequate because after all the Bible doesn’t read like the work of one author. It reflects the human personalities and education and different circumstances of the various authors. It doesn’t sound like a dictation from one person. But those who would defend dictation would say that God accommodates himself to us by speaking in human terms. It would be, to use John Calvin’s analogy, the way we speak with a little baby. We will sometimes do baby talk when we are playing with a little child. Calvin says that when God talks to us he lisps, he condescends, to speak in our categories and with our vocabulary. So the dictation theory would have to involve some sort of accommodation like that. After all, God has already accommodated himself to reveal himself in Hebrew and in Greek. He has already adopted human forms of speaking. So why couldn’t he go even beyond that?

Hardly anyone holds to dictation theory anymore today, however, because it doesn’t really seem to take seriously the human aspects, or the humanity, of Scripture. The Scripture is a confluent revelation. It is the product not merely of God but also of the human authors. To treat the authors as merely stenographers and to say God simply accommodates himself by speaking in human style doesn’t really give a proper place to the human authors of Scripture. The Scripture also has various elements in it that don’t seem to be dictations. For example, there are the trivial elements in Scripture. The trivial things that are mentioned seem to be just reflections of the historical circumstances of the author. For example, in 2 Timothy 4:20-21, Paul gives some personal information and instructions: “Erastus remained at Corinth; Trophimus I left ill at Miletus. Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brethren.” Now are we to say that God dictated to Paul to write that? That Eubulus greets you? These seem to be trivialities that are only relevant to the people in the time who actually got the letter and don’t seem to be things that we imagine that God dictated. There are also elements in Scripture that express the emotions and anxieties and the depression of the human authors, and it seems implausible to attribute those to God’s dictation. These seem rather to be genuine human emotions that are being expressed. This comes out especially clearly in the so called imprecatory Psalms. Certain Psalms in the Old Testament have passages that are very difficult to understand if you think of them as dictations from God.1 Imprecatory Psalms are Psalms in which curses and disaster are called down upon the people who are opposed to the Psalmist. For example, Psalm 139:19-22:

O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God, and that men of blood would depart from me, men who maliciously defy thee, who lift themselves up against thee for evil! Do I not hate them that hate thee, O LORD? And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

This seems so contrary to what Jesus said about loving your enemies, and the Psalmist here is saying how much he hates them. It is hard to think of this as something that is dictated by God rather than a genuine expression of the Psalmist’s anger and indignation of those who opposed God.

It is for these kinds of reasons that virtually no one holds to the dictation theory anymore. Rather what folks want to hold to would be the second theory, which we would call the supervision theory of inspiration. This is the theory that God superintended the writing of Scripture by sovereignly guiding the authors of Scripture so that they would write God’s Word to us. They would express it in their own terms, their own language, and their own feelings; it would be a genuine human writing, but nevertheless this would be so superintended or supervised by the Holy Spirit that what they wrote would be God’s Word to us. On the supervision view, it is not surprising that there might be trivialities like greeting someone: it is not that God dictated to Paul to say those things, rather it is just that in the supervising work of the Holy Spirit, God knew that Paul would send these greetings and that’s O.K. with God, and, therefore, this is part of God’s Word. The imprecatory Psalms can express the genuine feelings of the author, and these are something that represent God’s Word, but it is the human author’s emotions that are expressed. It is not saying that we should have similar emotions – it’s not teaching us how we ought to feel.

The supervision theory would be the theory that contemporary defenders of inspiration would hold today.

The Apparent Incoherence of Plenary, Verbal, and Confluent Inspiration

The Problem

The problem, however, is that there really isn’t any explanation given here of how this can take place. How can the Holy Spirit supervise the writing of Scripture so that the human authors freely write what God wants them to write? How can you say that the Scripture is verbal and plenary in its inspiration and yet is the free product of human activity? That leads to this objection: the apparent incoherence of plenary, verbal, and confluent inspiration. The problem is, how can inspiration be verbal and plenary, how can the very words of Scripture be inspired by God, and yet also be the product of free human activity? How can the Holy Spirit supervise the writing of Scripture so people freely write words that are God’s words to us?

When you read many theologians on this, they don’t have any answer to this at all. They are at a loss. Here are three quotations from some representative theologians. The first is from John Henry Newman, a very highly respected Catholic theologian of the 19th century. Listen to what he says about this problem:

In what way inspiration is compatible with that personal agency on the part of its instruments, which the composition of the Bible evidences, we know not; but if any thing is certain, it is this, – that, though the Bible is inspired, and therefore, in one sense, written by God, yet very large portions of it, if not far the greater part of it, are written in as free and unconstrained a manner, and (apparently) with as little consciousness of a supernatural dictation or restraint, on the part of His earthly instruments, as if He had had no share in the work. As God rules the will, yet the will is free, – as He rules the course of the world, yet men conduct it, – so He has inspired the Bible, yet men have written it. Whatever else is true about it, this is true, – that we may speak of the history, or mode of its composition, as truly as of that of other books; we may speak of its writers having an object in view, being influenced by circumstances, being anxious, taking pains, purposely omitting or introducing things, supplying what others had left, or leaving things incomplete. Though the bible be inspired, it has all such characteristics as might attach to a book uninspired, – the characteristics of dialect and style, the distinct effects of times and places, youth and age, or moral and intellectual character; and I insist on this, lest in what I am going to say, I seem to forget (what I do not forget), that in spite of its human form, it has in it the spirit and the mind of God.2 3

That is a very eloquent statement of the problem that Newman admits he has no solution for. He simply affirms the humanity and the divinity of Scripture.

It is not better on the Lutheran side. Look at the next quotation from Robert Preuss, a very prominent, contemporary Lutheran theologian. He says:

The Lutheran doctrine of inspiration presents a paradox. On the one hand it was taught that God is the auctor primaries of Scripture, that He determined and provided the thoughts and actual words of Scripture and that no human cooperation concurred efficienter in producing Scripture. On the other hand it was maintained that the temperaments (ingenia), the research and feelings (studia), and the differences in background (nationes) of the inspired writers are all clearly reflected in the Scriptures; that there is nothing docetic about Scripture; that God’s spokesmen wrote willingly, consciously, spontaneously, and from the deepest personal spiritual conviction and experience; that psychologically and subjectively (materialiter et subjective) they were totally involved in the writing of Scripture. These two salient features of the doctrine of inspiration must be held in tension . . . .

Now it may seem utterly inconsistent that the Spirit of God could in one and the same action provide the very words of Scripture and accommodate Himself to the linguistic peculiarities and total personality of the individual writer so that these men wrote freely and spontaneously. But this is precisely what took place according to the Biblical evidence and data. And if Scripture does not inform us how both of these facts can be true, we must not do violence to either or try to probe the mystery of inspiration beyond what has been revealed. The Lutheran teachers are well aware that there is a lacuna in their theology at this point. . . . ; and they are content to retain this logical gap and accept the paradox.4

So he is saying you just live with the paradox, just live with the mystery.

Finally, what about Reformed theologians – Calvinist theologians – as in the Presbyterian Church? B.B. Warfield, one of the great Reformed theologians, wrote the following. The classical doctrine of inspiration, he says,

purposely declares nothing as to the mode of inspiration. The Reformed Churches admit that this is inscrutable. They content themselves with defining carefully and holding fast the effects of the divine influence, leaving the mode of divine action by which it is brought about draped in mystery.5

So here, again, they accept the humanity and the divinity of Scripture, but as to how this could happen, well, this is draped in mystery, and they do not know the answer.

This is the problem that we confront. If you want to have a supervision theory of inspiration, how is it that the Holy Spirit can produce a revelation which is verbally, word for word, God’s revelation to us, and yet this is done through the free, spontaneous authorship of human writers?6

Biblical Inerrancy and the Problem of Evil

This problem came to the attention of a number of Christian philosophers, and an argument for its solution was given by Randy and David Basinger in an article published in the Evangelical Quarterly in 1983.7 What Basinger and Basinger are arguing is basically that if you believe in a doctrine of biblical inerrancy and you believe in human free will, then this is going to imply a dictation theory of inspiration. Inerrancy plus human freedom gives you a dictation theory of inspiration. Really, inerrancy isn’t the issue as you read their article; it is really verbal inspiration that is the problem. It has to do with how the very words of Scripture can be God’s Word to us if the human authors have freedom.

You might think that they are arguing in favor of the dictation theory, but, no, they aren’t. You would be missing their point. Rather what this argument basically is is an argument against verbal inspiration. This is because what they will say is: since nobody believes in the dictation theory, therefore you have to give up either human freedom or biblical inerrancy. But no one is going to give up human freedom, so what goes out the window is biblical inerrancy or verbal inspiration. The subtext is that this is really an argument against verbal inspiration because if you believe in verbal inspiration and human freedom, you are stuck with a dictation theory of inspiration, and that is a non-starter, since no one believes that theory.

How does their argument go? It is in six steps. This is the argument that they first present in favor of biblical inerrancy – this is the way they imagine someone would argue for biblical inerrancy:

1. The words of the Bible are the product of free human activity.
2. Human activity, such as penning a book, can be totally controlled by God without violating human freedom.
3. God totally controlled what the human authors did, in fact, write.
4. Therefore, the words of the Bible are God’s utterances because God controlled what the human authors freely wrote.
5. Whatever God utters is errorless.
6. Therefore, the words of the Bible are errorless.

So this would be the way they might imagine you would argue for biblical inerrancy. You would argue that God can superintend the composition of a book through free human agency so as to produce an inerrant, verbally inspired product. What they then go on to argue, though, is that if you buy into this line of argument for biblical inerrancy, you can’t use the Free Will Defense to respond to the problem of evil! The Free Will Defense against the problem of evil goes like this, “Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? It is because of human freedom. Human beings have rebelled against God, they have sinned, and therefore the world is fallen, and that is how you explain evil. It is because of human freedom.” But what Basinger and Basinger say is: you can’t use that anymore if you believe premise 2 in the above argument for biblical inerrancy (the premise that states that human activities can be totally controlled by God without violating human freedom). If God can totally control things without violating human freedom, then why has he produced a world in which people sin and fall away and evil exists? Why didn’t he produce a world of free creatures where everybody always does the right thing and the world isn’t fallen? If you are going to use the Free Will Defense to avoid God’s being the author of evil, then you cannot hold onto premise 2 – you can’t say that human activities can be totally controlled by God without violating human freedom. So, they say, given the reality of human evil and the fact that God cannot be the author of evil, premise 2 has to be false. It is false that human activities can be totally controlled by God without violating human freedom. The only way he can totally control people would be by violating their freedom.

But then that produces the following argument:8

1. The words of the Bible are the product of free human activity.

2′. (This is the new, replacement premise) Human activities, and their products, cannot be totally controlled by God without violating human freedom.

Then they add the following conclusions based on this new premise 2′:

7. The doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible entails God’s total control of the words of the Bible. (These are the very words that God wants to be in the Scripture.)

8. Therefore, the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible is false.

Why is the doctrine of verbal inspiration false? Because God cannot control what free persons will do, and therefore, given human freedom, he cannot guarantee what these authors would write. They go on to say, if you persist in affirming the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration, then since premise 7 is true (that is, the doctrine of verbal inspiration entails God’s total control of the words of the Bible), you have to deny premise 1, which means you must agree that verbal, plenary inspiration implies a dictation theory of inspiration, which is to deny confluence (the human aspect of Scripture along with the divine aspect).

Basically they give you a dilemma. You are either going to have to give up verbal inspiration or you are going to have to give up confluency. You will have to buy into dictation (which no one wants to do) or you will have to give up verbal inspiration.

Geisler's Response

Norman Geisler, in a subsequent issue of the Evangelical Quarterly,9 responded to the Basingers by saying that there is a hidden assumption in their reasoning, which is premise 9:

9. If God can infallibly guarantee what some men will do, then he can do the same for all.

In other words, Basinger and Basinger are assuming that if God can so control the authors of Scripture that they freely write the words he wants them to write, then that means he can control everybody so that nobody ever sins and everyone does the right thing. They are assuming that if God can control certain persons so that they freely do what he wants, then he can do that for everybody. Geisler thinks that that just isn’t necessarily true, that premise 9 is false. He says,

It may have been because only some men freely chose to co-operate with the Spirit, so that he could guide them in an errorless way. Or it may have been that the Holy Spirit simply chose to use those men and occasions which he infallibly knew would not produce error.

Now I think Geisler is on the right track in responding to Basinger and Basinger. But notice what Geisler’s argument presupposes – it presupposes that God has middle knowledge.

A Middle Knowledge Perspective

“What in the world is middle knowledge?” you may be wondering. This will be addressed more fully when we get to the Doctrine of God and the doctrine of omniscience, but here is a little capsule summary of what middle knowledge is. Middle knowledge is the doctrine that God knows not only everything that could happen or everything that will happen, but he also knows what any possible person that he might create would freely do under any possible circumstances in which God might place him. Geisler’s paragraph here, or solution, presupposes that God has that kind of knowledge. An omniscient God would know those kind of facts, so he knows, for example, what Pontius Pilate would do with Jesus if he were the procurator of Judea at the time of Christ. He knows what Judas would freely do if he were one of the twelve disciples and were tempted to sell Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver, and so forth. God knows what every possible person would freely do in any possible set of circumstances he might place him in.

So when it comes to producing a verbally inspired Bible, what does God need to know? He simply needs to know who would freely write a certain piece of writing if he were in a certain set of circumstances. So by creating that person and placing him in just those circumstances, God guarantees that that person will write what God wants him to write.10 So if God wants to produce the book of Romans, all he needs to do is to create a Paul of Tarsus, place him in exactly those circumstances, and Paul will freely write the book of Romans with no consciousness of divine dictation or superintendence or anything of that sort. Remember: inspiration is not a property of the author; it is a property of the text. It is the text that is inspired; the text is God-breathed. But when you have middle knowledge, you need virtually no action of the Holy Spirit on the person if that person would freely write in those circumstances what God wants him to write.

On this perspective it is perfectly imaginable that God would have been happy if Paul had chosen to use certain synonyms rather than the very words that he used. God would not have been upset if he had chosen to greet somebody else or if he omitted talking about leaving Trophimus ill in Miletus. Now God knew that he would write that, and that’s fine. So God allows him to write that, and this becomes God’s Word to us. But it is not to say that God dictated to Paul that he had to write these things.

Similarly, in the Psalms, God allows the human author to have the full range of his expression: the anger, the despair, the anxiety, the doubt that comes out in the Psalms. These are all genuinely human emotions, not dictated by God, and God allows these things to be expressed. The lesson to be learned in something like the imprecatory Psalms is not that we should hate our enemies, but it may be some other lesson that God is teaching us, for example, that we need to be honest with God in prayer, that God honors the sincere prayer of the doubter or the person who is angry with God or who is crying out to God from the depths of despair. The lesson that God has to teach us through Scripture is not necessarily what just lies on the surface. It may be deeper. So the middle knowledge perspective is that God knew which persons under which circumstances would freely write what he intended to be his Word to us. It does become God’s Word to us in virtue of that superintendence.

I have here a long quotation from B.B. Warfield that is stunning because Warfield, without knowing the doctrine of the middle knowledge or endorsing it, virtually describes it in this quotation:

So soon, however, as we seriously endeavor to form for ourselves a clear conception of the precise nature of the Divine action in this ‘breathing out’ of the Scriptures – this ‘bearing’ of the writers of the Scriptures to their appointed goal of the production of a book of Divine trustworthiness and indefectible authority – we become acutely aware of a more deeply lying and much wider problem, apart from which this one of inspiration, technically so called, cannot be profitably considered. This is the general problem of the origin of the Scriptures and the part of God in all that complex of processes by the interaction of which these books, which we call the sacred Scriptures, with all their peculiarities, and all their qualities of whatever sort, have been brought into being. For, of course, these books were not produced suddenly, by some miraculous act – handed down complete out of heaven, as the phrase goes; but, like all other products of time, are the ultimate effect of many processes cooperating through long periods. There is to be considered, for instance, the preparation of the material which forms the subject-matter of these books: in a sacred history, say, for example, to be narrated; or in a religious experience which may serve as a norm for record; or in a logical elaboration of the contents of revelation which may be placed at the service of God’s people; or in the progressive revelation of Divine truth itself, supplying their culminating contents. And there is the preparation of the men to write these books to be considered, a preparation physical, intellectual, spiritual, which must have attended them throughout their whole lives, and, indeed, must have had its beginning in their remote ancestors, and the effect of which was to bring the right men to the right places at the right times, with the right endowments, impulses, acquirements, to write just the books which were designed for them. When ‘inspiration,’ technically so called, is superinduced on lines of preparation like these, it takes on quite a different aspect from that which it bears when it is thought of as an isolated action of the Divine Spirit operating out of all relation to historical processes. Representations are sometimes made as if, when God wished to produce sacred books which would incorporate His will – a series of letters like those of Paul, for example – He was reduced to the necessity of going down to earth and painfully scrutinizing the men He found there, seeking anxiously for the one who, on the whole, promised best for His purpose; and then violently forcing the material He wished expressed through him, against his natural bent, and with as little loss from his recalcitrant characteristics as possible. Of course, nothing of the sort took place. If God wished to give His people a series of letters like Paul’s He prepared a Paul to write them, and the Paul He brought to the task was a Paul who spontaneously would write just such letters.11 12

On that understanding of inspiration, you see that it is perfectly consistent to believe in a verbal, plenary, and confluently inspired Scripture. It allows for the humanity of Scripture to shine through because these are the free products of the human authors. It allows for the trivialities that are part of the historical circumstances of the times at which they wrote. We can understand passages like the imprecatory Psalms as genuine expressions of human emotion and yet at the same time still regard these as God’s verbally inspired Word for us, for our profit and instruction and edification.

That is my solution to the problem of how you can have a verbal, plenary, and confluent inspiration.


Question: Without resorting to middle knowledge, do you think it is feasible to say that God inspired the thoughts and ideas in the author’s minds, and they wrote from those thoughts and ideas to produce their books? And if a writing wasn’t in keeping with the message of God, God could veto it by sending them back to the drawing board to edit their work, or, if their product was unacceptable, then inspire somebody else as an alternative to write something else.

Answer: I do not think that that is going to get you a verbal inspiration that will say that the whole book of Romans, for example, is verbally inspired by God. It does sound as if it reverts back to this manipulation view of God; God is going to be interrupting and stopping the authors. What if Paul gets through Romans chapter 10 and he goes off course, and God has to intervene and abort the procedure? It just doesn’t seem to be a plausible theory. I can appreciate why one might think like this. This would be the natural way we would think – he just inspired their thoughts and let them write it down the way they would themselves, but that won’t give you a verbal inspiration of Scripture. Without middle knowledge, it is very difficult to see how you can come up with verbal inspiration.

Question: [comment how middle knowledge is helpful to understand this concept]

Answer: Good, thank you! I found it helpful, too. When I hit upon this, it was as if somebody turned on the light. That’s the way middle knowledge is – it is such a fruitful theological concept; it serves to illumine other doctrines, like the doctrine of inspiration, in dramatic ways.

Question: Would this all also apply to the eventual recognition by the body corporate and then officially later on in some of the councils?

Answer: You are talking about the canon of Scripture. Right, if you believe God has middle knowledge, then you could claim that God knew the church would be guided to recognize just those books that would be the authoritatively inspired Scripture. We’ll talk a little bit about the canon later on, but certainly this is just a piece of God’s general providence over all of human history, and so you could apply it in other areas, too.13

[Q&A: Asks Dr. Craig if the concept of “infallibility” will be covered, and Dr. Craig says yes]

Question: The small issue I have is, aren’t we on a slippery slope if we label anything trivial? Earlier you labeled certain passages “trivial,” but isn’t it possible it doesn’t appear to be important, but it is?

Answer: Conceivably! This is not my own terminology. Scripture scholars who have wrestled with the problem of inspiration speak of what they call the levicula, which are the sort of light passages like “Trophimus I left ill in Miletus.” It seems so tied to its historical circumstances that for subsequent generations it’s hard to see if this has a lot of doctrinal or theological weight. Certainly it might be, you are right. Maybe I can amend it to say “apparently trivial.” Still, these final greetings in Paul’s letters don’t carry the same theological weight as, say, the central chapters of the books of Romans do. I think we can all recognize that. It is a relative term is what I’m saying, I guess. It is not saying that they are unimportant.

Followup: I consider that particular passage, “Trophimus I left ill in Miletus,” important. I think the notion that we frequently hear currently in today’s church how God heals and there are certain people that can heal anybody at any time. But yet here we have a very concrete example of Paul, the premiere Christian of his day, leaving someone sick. That is an incredibly important point to make!

Answer: Yes, I concede the point. You are right. This is a dagger in the heart of the prosperity, health and wealth Gospel. When Paul says he left Trophimus ill in Miletus, it implies that those health and wealth prosperity Gospel preachers have just got it wrong. So I’ll concede the point, and I’ll amend it by saying “apparently trivial” or “relatively trivial” compared to the weighty parts of Scripture such as the central chapters of the book of Romans. But you are right; I don’t want to be understood to say that these are of no significance. I take that correction.

Question: Are we saying all Scripture is first draft? If so, how do we account for some of the books that appear to have additions to them?

Answer: I don’t think this commits us to saying that these are first draft documents. It is entirely conceivable, for example, that Luke wrote a first draft of his Gospel and then revised it in light of further evidence and testimony. But it is saying that the Scripture that we have today that is verbally inspired is God’s Word to us, down to the very words and throughout its entire breadth. But the historical process by which this came about is something that is under the superintendence of God, and it may well be that God knew that if he were to pick a Luke he would revise it in light of hearing this or that story and would adjust it until finally the product that comes to be canonical Scripture is God’s Word for us, just as it should be. Again, I don’t think that even commits us to saying that that means that there could not have been a different way of saying it or that there couldn’t have been a synonym used instead of the word that is here. It doesn’t commit us to saying it is picture perfect in that sense. It just is saying that God is pleased to appropriate this human discourse and to let this human discourse be his Word to us, and so he speaks to us through it.14


1 5:00

2 John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Scripture proofs of the Doctrines of the Church, Tracts for the Times 85 (London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1838), p. 30.

3 11:11

4 Robert D. Preuss, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 2 vols. (St. Louis; Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1970), 1: 290-291.

5 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (Oxford University Press, 1931; rep. ed.: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981), p. 62.

6 15:08

7 Randall Basinger and David Basinger, “Inerrancy, Dictation and The Free Will Defence,” Evangelical Quarterly 55 (1983): pages 177-180

8 19:38

9 Norman L. Geisler, “Inerrancy and Free Will: A Reply to the Brothers Basinger,” Evangelical Quarterly 57 (1985): pages 347-353

10 25:12

11 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Biblical Idea of Inspiration,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel G. Craig with an Intro. by Cornelius Van Til (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1970), pp. 154-155.

12 31:31

13 35:16

14 Total Running Time: 40:30