Beliefs about the Bible: Biblical Inspiration 101

The Bible: what a controversial book it is. The bestseller of all history, no other book is itself the subject of so many books. It’s so big that it’s not even one book, but really 66 different, connected but independent books (and if you’re Catholic, there’s even more!).

Naturally, with the Bible being the kind of book it is, and with it having the reach it does, people have disagreements about it. Some people ignore it, others toss it aside as hogwash, a few spend all their time opposing it, and then there are those strange folk who believe that God is somehow behind it. I, unsurprisingly, am one is them.

However, even among Christians, people who do agree that God was/is involved, there is disagreement about exactly what He did. This question is the doctrine of Biblical inspiration. What does it mean to say that God inspired the Bible? Here I plan to give a quick introduction to the major theories.

Dictation Theory

The most strict theory of Biblical inspiration is dictation. According to dictation theory, God spoke every word of Scripture straight to the Biblical writers, perhaps even audibly, and they wrote them all verbatim. In this view, the writers aren’t technically authors; they are more along the lines of secretaries transcribing a letter for their bosses.

For dictation, every last bit of Scripture is inerrant truth straight from God, with no human part at all. The Bible is 100% of God, 0% of man. This view rules out the possibility that the writing styles, personalities, or worldviews of the authors had any influence at all on what they wrote, for better or worse.

Verbal, Plenary Inspiration

This is the theory you are probably most used to. In VPI, God revealed His perfect truth to the Biblical authors through the Holy Spirit, keeping them from all error, and providentially ensuring they used just the right words. The authors are actually authors, but they were given the truth by God and He was careful to make sure they wrote just what He wanted.

Now, unlike dictation, VPI says God worked in and through the style, personality, and experience of each author to get the right text. There is an actual human part to the Bible, but it is guided, protected, and overshadowed by God’s part to produce a word-for-word perfect Scripture. This excludes errors of any kind, whether scientific, geographical, historical, or theological.

Dynamic Inspiration

Next down the line is dynamic inspiration. Dynamic inspiration says that God gave the authors perfect truth through the Spirit, but that they wrote them down on their own. God inspired the truths in Scripture, but not the precise words and sentences used to express that truth. That part was the job of the authors alone.

In this view, there is clearly a strong God element and a strong human element in Scripture. Both work together to produce a Bible full of God’s truth. However, in this view unlike the previous two, this doesn’t require that Scripture be 100% free of all errors, only that it teach the truth about God and salvation. Minor errors on geography, census data, science, or certain historical details could seep in on the human end. These don’t affect doctrine, though.

Existential Inspiration

Further along we go until we find existential inspiration. Existential inspiration sees the Spirit’s work primarily in how Scripture is received. Scripture is “God-breathed,” but it is not God breathing out perfect truths. Instead, it is God breathing life into an otherwise normal human work. The Holy Spirit gives special power to the Bible that makes it fit for spiritual growth.

In this view, the text of the Bible is basically a human work, the result of fallible men encountering God. It has all the errors a normal book about God might have: historical, scientific, and even theological sometimes. The authors, especially the apostles, had close enough contact with God that their writings are reliable, but not flawless. Yet God takes this flawed human creation and fills it with life-giving power as the Spirit speaks to author and the reader.

Karl Barth’s View

Karl Barth was a brilliant but not entirely normal theologian of the 20th century. He was trained in liberal German theology that taught lots of modern nonsense before he made a sharp break back towards historic Christianity. This left him with a unique doctrine of Scripture influenced by both sides. Since it’s so different, I’ll spend extra time explaining this one.

For Barth and people who take after him, the true Word of God is Jesus, God’s fullest revelation of Himself. There are other, less primary forms of God’s Word as well: His deeds and speech in redemptive history, and the writings and preaching which testify to them. Scripture is not itself the Word of God, but a witness to God’s Word, just like John the Baptist was not the Christ but came to point people to Him. The Bible was written by Spirit-filled people appointed by God to testify in writing to His deeds, His words, and ultimately His Son.

In this view, Scripture is 100% divine and 100% human. It contains all the limitations, errors, even wrong beliefs and ideas of the human authors, but it still permeated by divine truth and stamped with divine approval so that it is a uniquely reliable authority for the people of God. Even though it carries all the mistakes of the authors, Scripture was inspired by encounter with the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit uses it to direct the reader’s gave to Him despite the text’s flaws. 

Natural Inspiration

Last and certainly also least is natural inspiration. No saving the best for last: I don’t like natural inspiration at all. It says that the Biblical authors were only inspired by God inasmuch as anyone can be through normal spiritual means. The way you feel after a convicting sermon, uplifting worship song, day of thanksgiving, or intense personal devotion is really all there was to it for those writing the Bible. The Holy Spirit did nothing more in them than He does in us.

In this view, Scripture can be and is loaded with human error of every kind. While it is pretty reliable, it is only so to the extent that the authors understood the truth. If John the Apostle’s writings have any advantage over John Piper’s, it is merely that the Apostle knew Jesus personally. Ultimately, Scripture is very valuable because of its place in Christian tradition and its devotional use, but its origin is not especially divine.

What I Believe

It’s a secret to everyone. Including myself. When I figure it out maybe I’ll let you know. Until then, he’s a handy chart to sum up what I’ve said here.

Summary Chart of Views on Inspiration
Name God’s Role Man’s Role Errors? Who Believes It
Dictation God’s words 100% Secretary-like None Fundamentalists
Verbal Plenary 100% God’s word Man writes under inspiration and providence None Most Evangelicals
Dynamic 100% God’s truths Man writes in his own words Some minor, non-doctrinal Some Evangelicals, many others
Existential Spirit brings life to text Man writes on his own Many, of any kind, but generally reliable Mostly radicals and liberals
Barthian Spirit points author and reader to true Word in Christ Man writes his own, human testimony to the Word Many, of any kind, but specially reliable and authoritative Karl Barth, Neo-Orthodox, Revisionist Reformed, some others
Natural God doesn’t do anything unique Man writes of his own initiative Many, of any kind Radicals and liberals

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2 Thoughts to “Beliefs about the Bible: Biblical Inspiration 101

    1. Unlike some of the other theories named here, “existential inspiration” really refers to a general mood or stream of thought, not one particular theory with which individual tend to identify by name. So it’s hard to say, “X and Y believe in existential inspiration.”

      This isn’t to say that such a list could not theoretically be provided, but I don’t tend to read enough of such people to think of any off the top of my head. Still, it applies broadly to most liberal, progressive, or neo-orthodox Protestants.

So what do you think?