The written word of God was so important to the Jewish culture that scribes were a distinguished, respected and critical role in Jewish society. The importance of the painstaking process and precision with which they copied Torah, the Prophets and Writings was embedded into the foundation of Jewish culture going back to Moses.
Moses produced the Ten Commandments etched in stone. Those stone tablets were carefully placed into the Ark of the Covenant, carried with the nation of Israel as they traveled through the desert, and kept with ritual attention to detail in the most sacred place in the Tent of Meeting in the middle of their camp wherever they came to rest.
Scribes who carefully and painstakingly copied Scripture were still honored at the top of Hebrew culture in the First Century when Paul, also known as Saul of Tarsus, was alive. Paul was trained as a Pharisee of Pharisees under Gamliel, the most respected Pharisee of his day.
For that reason, I find it interesting, to say the least, the way Paul described the process by which the word of God was given by God to the people. He would have been intimately acquainted with the disciplined, careful and thorough way a scribe would copy Scripture. Yet Paul says,
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17
God-breathed, or inspired, is the way Paul described how people received God’s word and passed it on. If Paul wanted to convey the idea of verbatim dictation from God, as Muhammed claimed with the Quran, he would have likely described the process like a scribe painstakingly copying the text, but he didn’t.
Paul was intimate with the way scribes copied the scriptural text, but he didn’t describe the way people received God’s Word and passed it on that way. Paul, himself, received God’s Word and passed it on. That message he received from God and passed on has become scripture! Yet, he didn’t describe the process like a scribe copying verbatim.
I wrestled with what inspiration means in recent articles here and here. Given the way people like Paul described the way Scripture was conveyed and received, it is likely he didn’t mean verbatim dictation from God. If he meant verbatim dictation, he would have described the process more like a scribe copying scriptural text.
Instructive are the other ways Scripture is characterized in the New Testament. Peter, for instance, wrote the following in his second epistle:
“But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture becomes a matter of someone’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
2 Peter 1:21 (NASB)
Peter says that the prophecy was not initiated by human agency. People didn’t choose to prophesy; they were moved by divine agency. They didn’t interpret what they were moved to communicate; they simply communicated what they received.
The Greek word translated “moved” in this text is φέρω (pheró), meaning “to bear, carry, bring forth”. It has the same connotation as the idea of a conduit or conduction.
If Peter meant to say that the Word of God was “dictated” and copied down verbatim, like the scribes copied Scriptures, he would have likely used a word related to “scribe”, but he described a different kind of process. I think we have to assume that Paul’s inspiration is similar to Peter’s conduction.
Neither one used the well-known analogy of a scribe merely copying what was written, though Peter clarifies that the message prophets received and passed on was not interpreted by them. They passed it on with integrity and, presumably, accurately. Still, that is not the same thing as verbatim dictation.
Paul describes his own encounter with the risen Christ in this way. He says:
“For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not of human invention. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Galatians 1:11 (NIV)
Paul uses the same language in his first letter to the Corinthians when he says:
“For I handed down to you as of first importance what I also received….”
1 Corinthians 15:3 (NASB)
But what does it mean that the writers of Scripture were inspired, moved by God, did not initiate, or interpret or invent it. What does it mean that they passed on what they received?
If they didn’t take “dictation” from God, what does it mean that God inspired men and moved men with a message, and they passed on what they received?
In previous articles, I explained the podcast that prompted this line of thinking. In episode #82 on the BEMA Discipleship Podcast (dealing with “textual criticism” of the Bible), Marty Solomon made the following statement about growing up in a fundamentalist church: “Inspiration means accuracy in the world I grew up in.” Now he says, “That’s not what inspiration means. Inspiration means it was inspired by God.”
Solomon explained earlier in the same episode linked above that he went to a Bible college that ignored the scholarly consensus on biblical authorship. While this accepted scholarly view tends to be dismissed as “liberal” in some circles, it is nevertheless the consensus view.
The fact that Solomon’s Bible college didn’t even address other views led him to a crisis of faith. To Solomon’s chagrin, he encountered the scholarly consensus later in life, and he felt betrayed by his very conservative education that didn’t even mention it.
My experience was very different at the nominally Methodist, predominantly secular college I attended. The “higher criticism” passed down by the highly skeptical, Tubingen school of theology was the view I was taught in my college religion classes as a nonbeliever.
I later wrestled with that loose view of Scripture as a very new believer. I never felt comfortable with such a “low” view of Scripture. I commanded more respect than that. I was highly skeptical of the biblical skeptics, but I also wrestled with the idea of inerrancy.
The higher criticism of the Tübingen school in Germany deviated substantially from the historic (orthodox) traditions on biblical authorship, dating and other aspects of biblical study. If a conservative Bible college might be accused of ignoring the modern consensus on biblical studies, the Tübingen school of textual criticism can be accused of ignoring the historical consensus on biblical studies.
I should add that “textual criticism” does not (necessarily) mean being critical of the text, as in being skeptical of it, though much of modern biblical textual criticism can be characterized that way. Textual criticism is simply a way of analyzing a text based on the internal composition, the elements of the writing and the document, itself.
The goal of textual criticism, generally, is to flesh out an accurate understanding of a text. Textual criticism is used for analyzing historical documents, including the Bible. It isn’t simply a liberal way of studying the Bible. It is a method for gaining greater understanding of any historical text.
(For an example of textual criticism to examine evidence of the reliability of the New Testament writings, see Lecture – Dr Peter Williams – New Evidences the Gospels were Based on Eyewitness Accounts.)
The failing of his Bible college even to address competing views on biblical authorship left Marty Solomon feeling duped. That the competing “liberal” view is the current scholarly consensus on the subject smacked to him like betrayal from the hyper conservative school in which he studied.
Many people on discovering they weren’t taught about the world of competing views, especially on the subject of the Bible, distrust what they were taught and reject it wholesale. That reaction is understandable. We don’t do anyone any favors by not being honest and forthright about competing views.
With that said, I want to get back to the point Solomon makes about biblical inspiration. He said that “inspiration meant accuracy” in the world in which he grew up. This is what I would call a literal or fundamentalist view of the Bible – that it is one hundred percent accurate. Full stop.
Taking this view to the extreme, a person might claim that the Bible has no errors. It has no factual errors, no grammatical errors, no spelling errors, no historical errors, no errors in statements about geography, biology, science, etc.
Most conservative modern scholars with a “high view” of the Bible would say that the Bible is inerrant. What they mean by that, however, may differ from person to person. Inerrancy in the original “autograph” means that the Bible was without error as originally spoken or written (though various historic manuscripts and modern translations may have errors). This view of inerrancy is probably the modern, conservative consensus.
The modern conservative consensus accounts for the many, obvious deviations among manuscripts and interpretations of manuscripts that result in the various translations we have. A person can admit the differences and still have a “high” (respectful) view of the Bible.
The Bible, itself, doesn’t claim to be one hundred percent, word for word, accurate (or even inerrant). The closest we get to a statement like that is that it is “God-breathed” (inspired), and that people “moved” by God received that inspiration and passed it on.
The concepts of inspiration and conduction suggest an internalizing of the message and passing on the internalized message. Not (merely) word for word dictation. We can still have a high degree of confidence in the integrity and accuracy of the message without committing to inerrancy (word-for-word translation).
Peter says of the prophets and Paul says of himself that revelation comes from God’s initiative to people, and the people who receive it pass along, carry, conduct, communicate the revelation they receive.
We need to recognize that this idea of passing along the revelation they received is not the same thing as what Muhammed claimed when he wrote the Quran. Muhammed claimed an angel dictated to him, and he wrote down what was said to him word for word. Muhammed’s description is more like a scribe copying the message.
Muhammed also claimed that he was taken over by an angel (though he first thought it was a demon). He lost his own agency in the process. He was more or less possessed by the angel/demon that he claimed dictated the Quran to him.
This is not what we see occurring in the revelation from God to the prophets or to Paul in the Bible. A more accurate description is that God inspired or moved them, allowing them to respond and become the willing vessels of God’s revelation.
Indeed, if God is love as Scripture says (1 John 4:16), God does not force or thrust Himself on people against their will. God invites people to engage. The relationship is interactive. It isn’t one-sided.
This is true even of Paul, who was stricken and blinded on the road to Damascus. God got Paul’s attention in dramatic fashion, but in the interaction that followed God allowed Paul the choice to resist or to yield to what God was revealing.
What we see in Scripture is God engaging men who are willing to be His agents. God initiates the contact, and God initiates the revelation – God inspires and moves – but men use their own agency to become the conduits of what they receive from God. They choose to pass on what the receive.
We might expect one hundred percent, word for word accuracy if God merely “dictated” His word to men, Rather, it is described as inspiration that is received, internalized and passed on like a conduit. In that sense, our modern insistence on inerrancy seems inappropriate. We can have a high degree of confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the word from God that we have, but we don’t have to die on the hill of inerrancy.
I am not saying that they were inaccurate. If they passed on what they received, I would assume that they passed on accurately what God revealed to them, but there are differences between word for word transcriptions and accurately passing along a message.
If God didn’t possess these men, or take over their faculties, or violate their agency (and I see no reason to believe God did that), then these men were left to communicate what they received from God in their own words. Even if they didn’t interpret or attempt to add explanation to what was revealed to them, they (naturally) were constrained by their own language, cultural context and understanding in passing along the revelation they received.
That we might find some factual inaccuracy in this process would not be surprising. Yet, if God is sovereign, we should expect that God knew what He was doing; He knew who He was dealing with; He knew the thoughts and intents of the hearts of the men He used to reveal Himself, and entrusted that message to them to be passed on with integrity.
Thus, we don’t have to die on the hill of wooden fundamentalism or even on the battleground of inerrancy (however we might define it) to have a high view of Scripture. You won’t find the word, inerrancy, anywhere in Scripture. What we do find, though, is sufficient enough to give us warrant to trust it.
The more we prod and poke the Bible with the tools of textual criticism, the more questions we have and the more nuance we see. For some people, the very idea that an error might be found in the text can trigger a crisis of faith, but I submit we have good reason to have more robust faith than that.
I submit that we need to be more honest than to ignore scholarly consensus. We need to be more sophisticated in our approach and analysis of Scripture. I believe we can trust the text we have, and we can allow for the possibility that the process that led to the scriptural text we have was “messier” than we might care to concede.
After all, we see throughout all of the writings of the Bible, God working through the messiness of human history. If we read candidly the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, Moses, and Aaron, David, and Saul, and Solomon and Judah, we see God working out His purposes despite the repeated failures and character flaws and weaknesses of the people He chose to work through.
God’s sovereignty is not negated or lessened by the frailties and foibles of human beings. His sovereignty is emphasized all the more by His ability to accomplish His purposes despite them – and even through human imperfection!
The Bible is utterly candid about the failings of God’s people, from start to finish. We can be candid also and trust God all the more for His grace and His commitment to accomplishing His purposes through fallen people.
We can be highly confident in the Bible without having to commit to the proposition that the Bible is accurate in every word, every statement of fact, and in every aspect. We can trust the Bible, as Paul says,
“for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”2 Timothy 3:17
4 thoughts on “What Does It Mean that the Word of God Was Inspired by God and Received and Passed on By Men?”
Great post. Very interesting. I agree that inspiration allows the writer to formulate their ideas through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!
However, if humans are finite creatures, how would they be able to know future prophecies fulfilled in Scripture? For these prophecies to be fulfilled, wouldn’t there need to be a God who has future knowledge? Thoughts? Thanks for your feedback.
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You are absolutely right! I fear I have understated the accuracy of the Bible in making my point. I am fond of keeping up with modern archaeology as it seems to be always affirming the references to people and places mentioned in the Bible. Also, one sign of a false prophet in the Old Testament, where people looked to prophecy more for prediction of the future, was that the assertions proved to be false. The test of a real prophet was that the things they predicted actually came to pass. Of course, just when we say that we find a true prophet of God being led by God, it seems, to mislead King Ahab, affirming the false prophecies given by his 400 prophets. (1 Kings 22:15) The reference to prophets by Paul and Peter in the New Testament probably was meant more to refer to the message (whether predictive or otherwise) that was written down and considered to be Scripture. There are predictive elements to it, but it is much more than that. It may well be (and I believe it was) that they were extremely accurate in communicating what they received. Does that mean that they dictated, as it were, word for word what God communicated to them using God’s exact language? What language did God speak to them? Was there only one way of saying what God communicated to them? More importantly for us today, do we have an accurate record of exactly what God said to them? I think this is where we get in trouble focusing to a hyper extent on accuracy, and it becomes a stumbling block for many people. I believe that they accurately understood what God communicated to them, and they communicated it the best they could in their own language, cultural context, knowledge and understanding. The amazing thing is that they were able to communicate timeless truths that are no less relevant and meaningful today in our modern world with only an Ancient Bronze Age understanding of the world! The 2000 years that separate us from what Jesus said to his disciples and the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, John, etc. are also timelessly true in the same sense. That the Bible is capable of being translated from Hebrew and Greek to Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and all the languages of the world without losing its timeless meaning is truly remarkable. It is transcendent. We do need to be careful to preserve the message as accurately as humanly possible in the translations, but we can have good confidence we have done that. We have something like 25,000 manuscripts of just the New Testament in many languages dating back to the early centuries. There ARE many variations, but the wealth of manuscripts allows us to compare and contrast and determine with a high degree of accuracy what was originally said – maybe even word for word to a large extent. More importantly, we very confident that we have an accurate message of what was said. Even Bart Ehrman, the great agnostic/atheistic New Testament scholar who makes much of the variations admits in print none of the variations reveal any deviation in the core doctrines of Christianity.
Appreciate your articulation regarding a timely subject. Would appreciate hearing your expression of the ‘confirmation’ process regarding that which was passed on orally.
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