Bible Basics: Inspiration and Inerrancy

  • Bible Basics: Inspiration and Inerrancy
Bible Basics: Inspiration and Inerrancy

By special revelation God communicated in the Bible the truth we must know to be in right relationship to Him. Inspiration is about the preservation of that revelation and is the guarantee of the inerrancy of God’s special revelation to us.

The biblical concept of inspiration is based on 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” In addition, 2 Peter 1:20–21 says, “Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.”

The word translated “inspired” in 2 Timothy 3:16 literally means “God-breathed” and expresses the concept of exhalation by God. The Scriptures are the product of God having breathed them out.

God guided the human authors to varying degrees so that His Spirit guaranteed the accuracy of what was written. At the same time the authors were actively involved using their own personalities, backgrounds, and styles. Saying it is accurate and without error expresses what the Bible itself claims—that it is God’s Word and it is truth. Jesus said, “Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth” (John 17:17). And the psalmist wrote, “The very essence of your words is truth” (Psalm 119:160a). Inspiration extends to the very words the authors selected but is only attributed to the original manuscripts, not to the copies or the translations based on those copies.

“All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The term “Scripture” is used exclusively in the New Testament of the sacred writings, of some portion of the Bible, sometimes the whole Old Testament (Matthew 22:29; John 10:35), and sometimes of a specific passage (Luke 4:21; John 13:18). All parts of the Bible are equally inspired. Thus, the Bible is fully inspired in all its parts. We use the word plenary to describe this aspect of inspiration.

In addition, “Scripture” is even used of a specific New Testament passage and sometimes to a larger portion of the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 5:18, in support of paying elders for their work, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 25:4, but the words of Christ recorded in Matthew 10:10 and Luke 10:7 are also connected with Paul’s statement, “For the Scripture says.” This is probably the earliest instance of our Lord’s words being quoted as Scripture. While this support for a workman is also found in other Old Testament passages like Leviticus 19:13, the wording clearly is that of Christ recorded in Luke 10:7. Then in 2 Peter 3:16, Peter specifically refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture.

An important aspect of inspiration we need to understand is inerrancy. The word inerrancy means “freedom from error or untruths.” Clarifying the definition of inerrancy has become necessary because many have, in very subtle ways, retained words like inspiration, infallible, and even inerrant in speaking about the Bible while denying it’s free from error.

In view of this, when defining inerrancy, it is always important to state clearly what it means and what it does not mean. It does not demand rigidity of style and verbatim quotations from the Old Testament. The inerrancy of the Bible means simply that the Bible tells the truth. Truth can and does include approximations, free quotations, language of appearances, and different accounts of the same event as long as those do not contradict.

It is important to bear in mind that belief in inerrancy is in keeping with the character of God. If God is true, and He is (Romans 3:4), and if God breathed out the Scripture, then the Scripture, being the product of God, must also be true. This is why the Psalmist affirms, “The very essence of your words is truth” (Psalm 119:160a).

A number of different issues invariably come up when considering the doctrine of inerrancy. What about the variety of styles, or the varying ways certain events are described, or the different reports of events? How does this mesh with the concept of inerrancy?

Inerrancy allows for variety in style. The gospel of John was written in the simple style one might expect of an unlearned fisherman; Luke was written with a more sophisticated vocabulary of an educated person; Paul’s epistles reflect the logic of a philosopher. All of these variations are entirely compatible with inerrancy.

Inerrancy allows for variety in details in explaining the same event. This is particularly observed in the gospels. It is important to remember that Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the writers of Scripture wrote their accounts in Greek, meaning they had to translate the original words into Greek. One writer would use slightly different words to describe the same incident, yet both would give the same meaning, albeit with different words.

There is an additional reason for variety in details. One writer might have viewed the event from one standpoint while the other gospel writer viewed it from another standpoint. This would make the details appear different, yet both would be accurate. Inerrancy does not demand verbatim reporting of events. In times of antiquity, it was not the practice to give a verbatim repetition every time something was written out.

A verbatim quote could not be demanded for several reasons. First, as already mentioned, the writer had to translate from Aramaic to Greek in recording Jesus’ words. Second, in making reference to Old Testament texts it would have been impossible to unroll the lengthy scrolls each time to produce a verbatim quote. Furthermore, the scrolls were not readily available, hence, the freedom in Old Testament quotes.

Inerrancy allows for departure from standard forms of grammar. Obviously, it is wrong to force English rules of grammar upon the Scriptures. For example, in John 10:9 Jesus declares, “I am the gate,” whereas in verse 11 He states, “I am the good shepherd.” In English this is considered mixing metaphors, but this is not a problem to Greek grammar or Hebrew language.

In Matthew 8:5–13, it is noted that the centurion came to Jesus and said, “I am not worthy.” In the parallel passage in Luke 7:1–10, it is noted that the elders came and said concerning the centurion, “If anyone deserves your help, he does.” It appears the elders first came and spoke to Jesus, and later the centurion himself came. Both accounts are in accord with things as they are.

Inerrancy allows for problem passages. Even with so vast a work as the Bible it is impossible to provide solutions to all the apparent problems. In some cases, the solution awaits archeological findings. In another case it awaits the linguist’s research. In other cases the solution may never be discovered for other reasons.

However, the answer is never to suggest there are contradictions or errors in Scripture. If the Scriptures are the product of inspiration, then they are entirely free from error. Inerrancy demands the account does not teach error or contradiction. In the statements of Scripture, whatever is written is in accord with things as they are. Details may vary but it may still reflect things as they are.