Doctrine of Revelation (Part 5): The Properties of Inspiration

December 10, 2014

In our Defenders class we have been thinking about the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. We have been looking at the qualities of inspiration.

This section of the outline is entitled the extent of inspiration – that is probably misleading. It should probably be the properties of inspiration because, although the first two properties do deal with the extent of inspiration, the third one does not.

With respect to inspiration, we have seen that inspiration being plenary means that the entire Scripture is inspired by God. It is not as though there are simply some books or some portions of those books that are inspired, but the entirety of Scripture is the bearer of God’s inspiration. So inspiration is plenary.

The second quality has to do with the depth of inspiration. That is that inspiration is verbal. It is not only the breadth of Scripture in its entirety, but it goes down to the very words of Scripture which are inspired.

So the first two properties of inspiration speak to the extent of inspiration – its breadth and its depth. But the third property is that inspiration is confluent. This comes from the word meaning “to flow together.” The idea here is that Scripture is the product of both human authors and the divine author. God is the author of Scripture, but also the Scriptures are human products as well. People wrote Scripture. The books that they wrote reflect their individual personalities, their vocabularies, their education, their training, and so forth. These are very much human products. A correct doctrine of inspiration needs to be confluent to allow the Scripture to be both a human and a divine product.


Student: For interpreting the Scripture, what would we consider the book of Maccabees, since this is not catholic? [ed: the questioner appears to be asking about the books 1 & 2 Maccabees which are in the Roman Catholic Bible but not in the Protestant Bible and thus are not “catholic” or universal.]

Dr. Craig: This has to do with the question of the canon of Scripture, which we will discuss later. The question of the canon of Scripture has to do with what books actually belong in the Holy Scriptures. Which books are actually God-breathed? Here Catholics and Protestants differ with respect to some of these books, such as 1 and 2 Maccabees. Protestants regard these books as apocryphal books in the sense that they are not part of Scripture. They are not inspired by God even though they may be, and are, valuable historical sources for learning about intertestamental Judaism and the history of Israel.

The Protestant Reformers like Calvin and others thought very highly of these apocryphal Catholic Scriptures and thought that they could be a source of real wisdom and teaching and help, but they denied to them the canonical status of being inspired. We will take up that question a little bit later on. It doesn’t affect anything so far that we’ve said.

Student: Extending on that question, all of revelation is from God. Just like the Bible accurately recalls the fall and sins of David, then if you had . . . in one sense all of creation is accurate Scripture. If you had God’s perspective you can see through . . . in other words there is one sense in which everything when viewed through God’s eyes to see the error in what it is is just accurately recounting what is wrong. It is misconceptions people have had. Do you follow what I am saying?[1]

Dr. Craig: Are you saying that in a sense all of creation is a revelation of God?

Student: Right. By seeing how people have misinterpreted different things. Like the Maccabees may not be the same sense – a true Scripture, error-free. I am questioning what is error-free because people can take the absolute true Scripture and misinterpret it.

Dr. Craig: Certainly that is true but I think it is important that we recognize that we haven’t raised yet the issue of inerrancy of Scripture. A book could be inerrant and not be inspired. You might have a telephone book, for example, that has been so carefully proofread and put together that it is inerrant. But that wouldn’t make it inspired. Similarly, the question as to whether or not inspiration entails or implies inerrancy is a question we haven’t yet raised. That will be a further question that we will take up later on. Many people would think that the inspiration of Scripture doesn’t imply that Scripture is inerrant. Even those who think that it does imply inerrancy will always limit that in some respect rather than say it applies to simply everything that can be read in Scripture. So the question of inerrancy is a question that we will take up later on. It hasn’t yet arisen. Right now we are talking simply about this property of being God-breathed – the being inspired by God. What that implies with respect to truthfulness and inerrancy is a subsequent question that we will take up later.

Student: We spoke about the Wisdom of Solomon a few weeks ago. Paul quoted from that. I know it is not part of the canon but would it be considered inspired?

Dr. Craig: No, not by Protestants at least. It is very interesting that you do have quotations from some of these extra-biblical books right in Scripture itself. You mentioned the similarity of what Romans 1 says to Wisdom of Solomon, which could show that perhaps Paul knew that. But in addition to that there are passages in Scripture that seem to actually refer to these apocryphal books. I am thinking here of, for example, Jude. Turn to Jude 14: “It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying,” etc., etc. Here he is referring to this non-canonical book of Enoch and quoting it. So even the authors of Scripture will sometimes quote these non-canonical books. That doesn’t mean they are endorsing them as being Scripture or being inspired, but in the same way that Paul will quote from Greek poets and Greek literature they will sometimes even quote from these non-canonical or apocryphal books. But that isn’t to be understood to imply that these are, therefore, Scripture and had this property of being God-breathed or inspired.

Student: The third element in this consideration is truth. Something can be true – like these citings from Enoch, for example, or what have you – and not necessarily be inspired. There are things we read that are true but that doesn’t mean inspiration.

Dr. Craig: Absolutely. As I say, truth isn’t indicative of being inspired. Here is the other example I was thinking of: Acts 17, Paul’s address on Mars Hill, verse 28. He quotes from the Greek poets. He says,

[God] is not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver . . .

He takes it that what this poet has said is true and he quotes the poet as a way of connecting with his audience. Just by virtue of quoting something doesn’t mean that one is saying this is an inspired document breathed by God.[2]

Student: I am having a hard time following. What then is your definition of inspiration if we have the extent – the properties – of it? So how do we determine that something has been inspired if we are not looking in what they’ve said in the canon has been referred to as God-breathed quotes from previous Scriptures. I am a little lost as to what is, in fact, the definition of inspiration.

Dr. Craig: We defined revelation as saying it is a communication from God. So if something is inspired, that means literally God-breathed. This text which has the property of being inspired is God-breathed; that is to say, it is God’s Word to us. It is his communication to us, and therefore it is revelation. Now, as such, these revelations from God can quote from other sources without saying that those things are also revelation and are God-breathed. As to how we know which documents are inspired, that is a further question that we will take up later on. In a sense, that is the question of the canon again. How do we know that some purported revelation from God is inspired? We will take that up later. But one step at a time. Right now we are simply looking at the properties of inspiration – it is plenary, it is verbal, and it is confluent. That, in itself, will raise some very interesting questions before we get to these subsequent questions about what does inspiration entail with respect to inerrancy, and how can we know if something is inspired. Those are logically subsequent questions that we will get to later on.

These are excellent questions that we will come to.


So inspiration of Scripture is plenary, verbal, and confluent. The question then is: how do you get such a text? How is such a text inspired? This brings us to theories of inspiration.

The first theory of inspiration that might seem the most obvious would be a dictation theory of inspiration; namely, God tells the human author what to write and the human author simply records what God has dictated to him. On this view the authors of Scripture are essentially stenographers. They take dictation from the Lord and write down what he says when he tells them to, and hence Scripture is God’s Word to us.

This is essentially an Islamic view of inspiration. This is what Muslims believe about the Qur’an. The Qur’an is not written by Muhammad. The Qur’an is dictated by Allah to Muhammad, and Muhammad is simply a recorder – a stenographer – who writes down the dictation that God has given him in the Qur’an. So the question is: is this sort of theory of inspiration one that is also applicable to the books of the Bible in the same way that the Muslim thinks, at least, that it is applicable to the Qur’an.

It is agreed by virtually everyone – I think this is universal – that a dictation theory of inspiration is inadequate. It doesn’t explain the nature of Scripture adequately, particularly with respect to this property of being confluent. Certainly, dictation could give you a plenary inspiration. It could give you a verbal inspiration if the person doing the dictation gives you the actual words. But it won’t give you a confluent inspiration because the human author here plays no role. He simply writes down what God tells him to. So it is not really a product of that human author.[3]

This is difficult to square with some of the data of Scripture. For example, the so-called levicula of Scripture. That is to say, those elements in Scripture that are literally lightweight or trivial, if you will. To give an example of this, look at the last chapter of Romans, Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he sends all these greetings to these various Roman Christians. So he says things like, in verse 16:6,

Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brethren who are with them. . . .

Are we really to think that these greetings are dictated by God and that they are the same sort of inspiration that attends the teaching of the book of Romans in the first twelve chapters? These lightweight or seemingly trivial parts of Scripture don’t seem to be things that would be appropriately ascribed to divine dictation. Certainly they might be of some historical interest but for the most part we don’t even have any idea who these people were that Paul has greeted here. So these seemingly trivial parts of Scripture don’t seem to accord very well with a dictation theory to think that God has dictated to Paul to greet these various people or to say a lot of the other things that he will say particularly in the closing sections of his letters.

The other part that is difficult to square with dictation would be those passages expressing the very human emotions of the authors where the authors’ own personality and emotions come very much into view. This certainly doesn’t look like a dictation from the Lord. It looks like the author is really expressing his own anger or joy in his written word. One very powerful example of this would be the Imprecatory Psalms. These are the Psalms that express terrible anger on the part of the psalmist where he is calling down God’s curse upon people and which seem very ill-suited to think that God dictated these. Look at Psalm 139:19-24 for example:

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.
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

Here, and in other Imprecatory Psalms, the psalmist expresses his own emotions and anger that do not seem to be very plausibly ascribed to dictation.

So the dictation theory cannot really account for a confluent Scripture which is the product of both the human authors and the divine author. It makes the only author of Scripture God, and there really isn’t place for these very human elements in the Scripture.[4]


Student: Is dictation the theory that the Catholic Church holds to?

Dr. Craig: No, no. Why would you say that?

Student: I’ve heard that there is a view that is different from the Protestant view.

Dr. Craig: I can’t think of any reason to think that the Catholic Church would be committed to a dictation theory of inspiration. As I say, I can’t think of anyone who holds to this. It is usually just sort of set up as a straw man to knock down because the Scripture is so obviously a human product as well as a divine product. So, no, I think that would be unfair.

Student: Sometimes clearly it is dictation, right? But not every word. So like Jeremiah says, “The word of the Lord came to me and said, ‘Go and proclaim the heirs of Jerusalem.’ Thus says the Lord.”

Dr. Craig: Yes. It does seem like, in the case of prophesy at least, there God is giving him these words to say. But that only serves to underline the difference between, say, Jeremiah’s prophesy and the book of Philemon in the New Testament where Paul is writing this very personal letter about this runaway slave and trying to secure his freedom and forgiveness. It doesn’t look like prophesy. If you recall when we first introduced this subject, that was one of the reasons that led to an undermining of belief in the Bible as revelation. They thought of revelation as being all like prophesy, and so much of the Bible is not like that. Much of the Bible is historical, the result of historical research like Luke’s Gospel or the book of Acts. Other parts of it are like Paul’s occasional letters that he writes to various churches. It seems clear that if you think of revelation as this prophetical model that a lot of the Scripture would not be revelation. But that is why we need to construe revelation more broadly to be some sort of a communication from God but not a word-for-word dictation.

Student: Later in the same book there is a conversation between Jeremiah and God.

Dr. Craig: Right. I think that is obvious that that is not dictated by God.


Let’s look at a second view that one might adopt to try to take account of these factors. That would be an accommodation view. On this view, the idea is that God accommodates himself to the limitations and the vocabulary of the human author so that what is written has these human qualities to it.

John Calvin pointed out that any sort of divine revelation from God in human language is going to involve this kind of accommodation. God is already accommodating himself to us in speaking in Greek or Hebrew, right? Because that is not God’s natural language. He is already accommodating himself by adopting human languages to reveal himself in. But then Calvin would say that God stoops even lower. He says God lisps in Scripture in the way that we might talk to a baby when adults will sometimes coo and talk in baby talk to a little child. This is the way in which God speaks to us in Scripture – by accommodating himself to our limitations.

While I think the accommodation view certainly does have valuable insights – it obviously is true that God has to condescend and accommodate himself to us in order to reveal himself to us in language – still it doesn’t really get at the problems of the dictation theory raised by things like the levicula and the human emotions that are expressed. We still want to say that there is some way in which the human author has input into Scripture that would explain things like the phenomena that we’ve looked at.[5] The accommodation theory doesn’t really allow that sort of human input.

So the view that is adopted by most persons who believe in the inspiration of Scripture would be a view called a supervision view of inspiration. That is to say, the Holy Spirit doesn’t dictate to the human authors what to write, but he supervises the writing of Scripture in such a way that the human author will write what God or the Holy Spirit wants him to write. So the author is under the direction of the Holy Spirit in spontaneously writing what then is God’s Word.

That seems to get it right, doesn’t it? That would give us a confluent Scripture. It would explain how the Scripture could be the product of human authors and reflect their personalities and emotions and limitations, but it could also be from God in that God is supervising the writing of Scripture. But I think the difficulty is understanding how that is going to give you verbal inspiration. How can the Holy Spirit supervise the writing of Scripture in such a way that the very words of Scripture are inspired but they are not dictated by God? This is the real problem. How can God or the Holy Spirit supervise the human author in such a way as to produce a verbal, plenary, inspired text but without dictation. That will be the question that we are going to take up next time.[6]



[1] 5:08

[2] 10:07

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:01

[5] 25:03

[6] Total Running Time: 27:25 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)