Inspiration

February 13, 2010


Ready for a little etymology (the study of the origin of words)? The Latin word spiro means “to breathe.” In the English language spiro is transliterated (brought in letter for letter) as “spire.” Adding a prefix to “spire” gives us several meanings: The prefix “con” means “together.” Thus, “conspire” means “to breathe together.” The English prefix “per” means “through.” So “perspire” means “to breathe through” (for men this means “to sweat” but for women it’s “to glisten”). The prefix “ex” means “out.” “Expire” therefore means “breathe out,” meaning “to die” (as in “giving up the spirit”).

With this background, “inspire” means “to breathe in.” When we speak of the “inspiration” of the Scriptures, it is the process of God breathing into the writers of Scripture. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God” (II Timothy 3:16). The words translated “inspired by God” is one word in the original Greek text, theopneustos. This word literally means “God-breathed” from the word theos that means “God,” and pneo that means “to breathe.” The verb pneo is the root behind the Greek word pneuma that is translanted “spirit,” including biblical references to the Holy Spirit.

But how exactly did God “breathe” into the writers of Scripture? Often in Scripture we are told what God did (e.g., created the heavens and the earth) but not told how He did it. The apostle Peter tells us “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (I Peter 1:21, NASB). We gather that God not only wanted to communicate His message to humans, but He also wanted those communications recorded so that His followers through the centuries would have His truth available. Thus, Scripture is a depository of God’s truth.

The doctrine of “inspiration” deals with God’s influence upon the writers of Scripture. Within Christendom there are differing views of the extent of God’s influence. A low view of inspiration holds that biblical writers were inspired merely like Shakespeare was inspired, resulting in “inspiring” writings that have survived as cultural classics. This view does not seem to square with the teachings of the Bible. When many of Jesus’ disciples fell away, He asked the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68, NASB). Scripture presents itself as more than an inspiring religious text. It presents itself as being God’s truth, containing the words of everlasting life (“Thy word is truth,” John 17:17).

A higher view of the inspiration of the Bible, consistent with what is found within the pages of Scripture, is that the Bible is fully inspired. In short, all of Scripture, as opposed to mere parts, originated with God. The Latin word for “full” is plenos. Hence, a higher view of Scripture is referred to as “plenary inspiration,” i.e., the entirety of Scripture has its source in God.

A final question regarding God breathing into the writers of Scripture is whether His influence upon the writers extended to the thoughts they communicated through their writings, or even to the very words they chose. This is especially important when considering the words and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. There are two schools of thought within those who hold to a high view of Scripture: (1) The Gospels accurately capture the thoughts that Jesus expressed (the “authentic voice”) but not the exact words. (2) The Gospels contain the exact words of Jesus.

What is the support for the view that the Gospels are the “authentic voice” (Latin, ipsissima vox) of Jesus, capturing His thoughts but not necessarily His very words? First, Jesus probably spoke mostly Aramaic, yet the Gospels were written (as far as we know) in Greek. Therefore much of what is recorded in the gospels is already a translation, calling into question whether the exact words of Jesus are important, since precision can be “lost in the translation.” Next, Jesus spent hours teaching, yet most of the teaching passages in the gospels are very short, indicating the Gospel accounts are summaries. Third, where parallel accounts exist (i.e., especially when Matthew, Mark and Luke contain the same account), the Gospel writers often do not agree word-for-word, but rather thought-for-thought. (e.g., Matthew 16:13 compared to Mark 8:27 and Luke 9:18). Finally, New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are not word-for-word. These reasons are the primary arguments that the Gospels contain the gist of Jesus’ teachings, but not the very words themselves.

Critics of the “thought-for-thought” view find weaknesses in the notion that inspiration involves only the accurate portrayal of Jesus’ thoughts, not His very words. It is argued that ipsissima vox opens the door to questioning the place of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Gospel writers to record Jesus’ very words (“He will…bring to your remembrance all that I said to you,” John 14:26). Further, Luke states that he is writing “so that you might know the exact truth” (Luke 1:4, NASB).

Can we know the exact truth without having the exact words of Jesus? In other areas of life it may be alright to deal with things that are “approximately true” (like the old adage, “close enough for government standards”). But when dealing with words spoken by incarnate deity, “approximation” has troublesome implications (e.g., who would want a neurosurgeon to operate in an “approximate” area of our brain, with an instrument that was “approximately” what is used for the operation, with post-operative drugs prescribed that are “approximately” what is essential for our condition? I am reminded of the man who was said to have made $25,000 in the potato business in Maine. On closer inspection, that was “approximately true,” only it wasn’t Maine, it was Texas. And it wasn’t potatoes, it was oil. And he didn’t make it, he lost it. And it wasn’t $25,000, it was $250,000. And it wasn’t him, it was his brother. So much for “approximate” truth).

The more extended view of inspiration holds that the Gospels contain the “authentic words” of Jesus (Latin, ipsissima verba), a view commonly called “verbal inspiration” (“word for word”). Hence, divine involvement in the inspiration process extends beyond the thoughts of the Gospels to the very words chosen by the Gospel writers.

Evidence for verbal inspiration (ipsissima verba) includes Jesus basing His argument on the very tense of a verb in Matthew 22:29-33. After the Sadducees posed a hypothetical question to Jesus, thinking they had stumped Him on the issue of the afterlife, Jesus made reference to God in telling Moses that He is (not “was”) the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). His point was that at the time God spoke to Moses the patriarchs were long dead physically, yet God told Moses, “I am the God” of the patriarchs, indicating they were still alive, living in the afterlife. Jesus concludes, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” If Jesus did not have confidence that Exodus 3:6 was an accurate record of what God told Moses, right down to the tense of the verb (“I am” versus “I was”), He could not have made the argument. Therefore, a fortiori, Jesus’ words to the Sadducees had to be recorded precisely as spoken (ipsissima verba) for His argument to make sense, and to make sense as to why the multitude “were astonished at His teaching” (Matthew 22:33, NASB).

I would encourage those who have followed this journey into the subject of inspiration to not lose sight of the clear biblical teaching that God Himself is involved in breathing the words into the writers of Scripture (II Timothy 3:15, I Peter 1:21). Further, the Holy Spirit of God superintended the writers (John 14:26) so that the final product we called the “Bible” is, indeed, precisely what God desired to be available as the sole basis of faith and practice for His followers. As Paul the apostle wrote, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” (I Corinthians 2:13, NASB). Remember what Peter wrote: “The grass withers, the flower falls off, but the Word of the Lord abides forever. And this is the word which was preached to you” (I Peter 1:24, NASB).