What is inspiration?

In several articles we have made note of the following from Abraham Rihbany's The Syrian Christ [108ff]. Rihbany, a Syrian familiar with our culture, noted as follows:

There is much more of intellectual inaccuracy than of moral delinquency in the Easterner's speech. His misstatements are more often the result of indifference than the deliberate purpose to deceive. One of his besetting sins is his ma besay-il -- it does not matter. He sees no essential difference between nine o'clock and half after nine, or whether a conversation took place on the housetop or in the house. The main thing is to know the substance of what happened, with as many of the supporting details as can be conveniently remembered.

Recently questions have been sincerely asked, and elsewhere objections have been raised, that this does not fit in with inerrancy, and indeed is not in accord with what is believed by those who hold to the doctrine.

In answer we will show that this is not the case; that inerrancy is not compromised and indeed fits in with such concepts -- the "problem" is that critics assume, as they often do, a completely modern, precision-oriented definition of "inerrancy," whereas as we will show, the doctrine (exemplified in the Chicago Statement) anticipates such methods by the Biblical authors, even if the framers of the document may not have been particularly aware of, for example, ma besay-il or other techniques.

Let us begin with a look at what adherents to the doctrine of inerrancy say that is relevant, beginning with the Chicago Statement. Article 4 includes this:

We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God's work of inspiration.

In this light it is unlikely that the CS framers would regard ma besay-il, etc. as "inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation." We speak here of forms of human language. CS denies that this can thwart inspiration. The full text of Article 7 is next in importance:

We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.
We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.

Please note that this amounts to a non-affirmation of a process of mechanical dictation. It also fits in with the point, made by Lee MacDonald in his book Formation of the Biblical Canon [240]:

There is no question that the early church believed that its scriptures were inspired by God, but...the canonical scriptures were not the only ancient literature that was believed to be inspired by God.

If it is claimed that the likes of ma besay-il "reduces" to human insight, this is false. Such claims are reductionistic, making it such that inspiration is either mechanical dictation or nothing at all. We will see later that those who describe the process of inspiration do not agree with such an assessment, and in fact do see varying levels of "interference" open in the inspiration process; then we will briefly comment on the means of inspiration under such circumstances.

Let's look at articles from the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy now. Article 6 states:

We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.

Based on this or similar ideas, some have argued for a "word for word" form of inspiration that encourages a dictation model. As Jocelyn Small writes in Wax Tablets of the Mind, a book on ancient methods of memory and cognition with relation to communication (5):

Exact wording is rarely crucial in oral societies, but often of great importance in literate ones, though this aspect took centuries to develop...Most oral societies are not only uninterested in the detail of the words per se, but even unaware of the unit of the word.

Words were known, of course, as units of speech, but were not for some time to be conceived as visual units. In this light, Article 6 clearly cannot be interpreted in terms of a "dictation model" (as the framers of the Statement wisely anticipated) but must mean that the means of inspiration produced content that was within an acceptable sphere of communication that God considered appropriate for the relaying of His message.

All of Article 8 is important for us:

We affirm that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

Clearly, ma besay-il as a literary style of the East, and as part of the "distinctive personality" of Easterners like Rihbany, is not ruled out by inspiration under this definition.

Next of relevance, the second part of Article 13:

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of metrical, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Once again it is clear that such things as ma besay-il would not possibly be excluded from consideration where inerrancy is concerned.

Next, the first part of Article 18:

We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

A later exposition is just as clear:

So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: Since, for instance, nonchronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.

And though implying moral issues, this passage just as well applies:

Although Holy Scripture is nowhere culture-bound in the sense that its teaching lacks universal validity, it is sometimes culturally conditioned by the customs and conventional views of a particular period, so that the application of its principles today calls for a different sort of action.

The same would and has certainly been said of literary and reportage convention.

Therefore those who would claim that such ideas as ma besay-il are incompatible with inerrancy, are not admitting the doctrine as it is formulated by those who promulgate it.

With that we now move to comments by proponents of inerrancy, starting with those from the multi-essay volume Inerrancy and Common Sense, which includes essays by such staunch advocates of the doctrine as R. C. Sproul, Roger Nicole, and James I. Packer.

J. Ramsay Michaels in his essay is critical on what he (via Pinnock) calls "rational empiricists" who cannot withstand any idea that God would "reveal something which is not factually accurate." Michaels denies their claims, noting [63] as we have:

God alone, and what He intends, must be the measure of any inerrancy we confess. Other measures, such as journalistic accuracy in reporting historical events or discourses, a strict chronological sequence, the absence of outside sources or redaction, numerical exactness, and uniformity of perspective, are based on expectations which we bring to the text. They may or may not be part of what God intends. We have no right to assume that what He intended to do is different from what He did to....The role of faith is to accept this revelation on His terms, not ours.

This is not at all conceptually different from our regular admonitions against coming to the text with a Western, modernist perception or precoception.

Later, Nicole, in an essay titled "The Nature of Inerrancy" not only affirms the usual limitations (numerical exactness, for example) but also the "considerable measure of freedom" [84] used by the NT writers when quoting the OT. Nicole advocates: "We have no right to posit a procedure which in our judgment the writers of the Bible should have used and then to proceed to judge them in terms of their conformity or lack of conformity to it."

Finally, an essay by Fee goes to some lengths [168-9] to admonish readers to get behind the "original setting" for what was written, notably: "The correct meaning of a passage must be something the author intended and his readers could have understood." This is not at all different from what we have regularly said here about high and low context, per Malina and Rohrbaugh:

Malina and Rohrbaugh note in their Social-Science Commentary on John [16ff] that the NT was written in what anthropologists call a "high-context" society. In such societies people "presume a broadly shared, well-understood, or 'high' knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing." Readers were required and expected to "fill in the gap" because their background knowledge was a given. Extended explanations were unnecessary.

Next, a key comment from R. Laird Harris' Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Harris, also a conservative inerrantist, explicitly denies mechanical dictation [12] in favor of what he calls concursive operation, a term related to one used by B. B. Warfield some years ago. While some parts of the Bible, as even we have stated, were dictated, in other cases Harris asserts that the natural abilities of the writers were used in the process of inspiration.

This principle of concursive operation is quite explicit in the Chicago manifest which does not at all remove the human element and "personality" of the inspired Scriptures.

Finally, I. Howard Marshall in Biblical Inspiration [43] observes that the most precious verse for this doctrine, 2 Tim. 3:16, offers no solace for dictation theorists but asserts that God was so active in the process that the "product ultimately comes from him" while it "allows for the activity of the Spirit in special ways within the process without requiring that we understand all of the Spirit's working in one and the same way." Dictation is possible, but so is a "general concursive action" in which the Spirit inspires "normal human forms of composition".

Let's now have a look at some of the passages cited by critics in alleged favor of a "mechanical dictation" thesis.

2 Peter 1:20-21 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

Of course this as we have noted refers only to prophecy -- not narrative, as the Gospels are; not letters, as the Epistles are; not proverbs. At most it applies only to those parts that Harris peaks of as dictated.

Harris also argues that the word "interpretation" here suggests an etymological meaning of "unloosing," so that the meaning is that prophecy did not have its origins in human acts. This would then say nothing about method, other than the non-specific "moved by the Holy Ghost", the word "moved" being used for such as carrying John the Baptist's head on a plate to bringing forth fruit in John. Obviously this no more requires mechanical dictation than saying, "he moved John to speak" means (requires) that he gave John the exact words by dictation.

Marshall [25] concurs, adding that this means no more than to "warn against individualistic, human interpretations of prophecy" in which the prophets by themselves are claimed to have decided what to say, and he adds that it applies to prophecy only and NOT necessarily to the whole of the OT (which also has narrative history, proverbs, etc.).

Matthew 10:16-20 Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. ut when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.

Is there mechanical dictation here? No: One can say "I will tell you what to say" to a newscaster and hand him a script; one can also say the same to someone and give them general advice: "Tell him about your trip to Spain" -- leaving you to fill in the details. One must allow for Marshall's advice that one cannot limit the Spirit to a strict dictation method.

It has been questioned, however, whether the above is appropriate as an expression of a doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration. This leads to a problem that has been noted particularly by Kern Trembath in Evangelical Theories of Inspiration, and which also explains why certain Skeptics and critics seem to be stuck in "mechanical dictation" mode. Trembath finds that evangelical theories of inspiration end up being "dictation theories in all but name....it is impossible to construct a theory of the unique and divine status of a given set of words without simultaneously constructing a theory of dictation." [91]

We, it so happens, disagree, but the matter Trembath notes perhaps explains why proponents of inerrancy say little if anything about the mode of inspiration, or do as Warfield did [21] and merely declare it "inscrutable". In a sense this is correct, but it is not for lack of being able to explain how the process could work.

The problem here, we maintain, is the same one we have encountered when addressing the claims of unconditional election; thus:

Does God need to decree and cause, actively, every movement of a finger to accomplish His purpose?...A certain parable runs like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

If God wishes for a kingdom to fall, He may do so by controlling every battle, every rider, every horse, every molecule. Or He may do so by controlling a single nail, or by moving a grain of sand, or by diverting a single cannonball. By any means He chooses, His will and purpose may and will be accomplished. And even if "all things" in Eph. 1:11 is universally inclusive, we may add, it does not indicate that God's direct influence in "all things" is at a "micro" level in which every conceivable element is personally controlled.

God's will may be exercised over a "thing" like a battle via the mere movement of a single nail or a single cannonball. (Some have even suggested that this is indicated in Scripture, in Hos. 6:4 and probably Is. 54:15, where God says that things have happened, but "not by me.")...

Earlier on, Warfield [23] rejected "providential preparation" as having any direct influence on inspiration, but we believe that he acted too quickly. A God who could not ensure that His Word produced for man, contained exactly what words He desired any other way than via mechanical dictation, is not a God of much creative means.

Of course like the battle above, one may not know what means were used to make a Luke write a certain way. Obviously God could direct Luke to certain experiences in his lifetime that made him inclined to use certain words at a later date. Other means could be suggested, but the point is that to keep the idea that every word is what God wanted (verbal, plenary inspiration) yet not maintain mechanical dictation, requires some dimensional thinking and not so much of a logocentric concentration.

Trembath makes the point [98] that words are human and cultural creations, and that more than one word or set of words can be used to relate the same idea. Comparing the Synoptics, it is obvious that Luke was often free to select a word different than that of Mark or Matthew in relating the same story. The meaning of the story did not change by this word choice, but it cannot be maintained here that verbal, plenary inspiration attached any sacredness of use to particular words in particular forms. But nor is there a need to resort to Trembath's post-modern solution of inspiration as a subjective experience.

A reader has suggested a helpful analogy that he calls the "Fingerprint/Morse Code Hypothesis":

Suppose I had an exact message, with all the information, and no more, and no less I wanted to transmit in Morse Code. I chose a messenger to do this for me though! I specially transmitted the exact code to him, and he then dipped a finger in ink each time he pressed a " dot" on the canvas.

Under my direction he did this exactly right, and the reader would get EXACTLY what I wanted the reader to get. However, the messenger I chose would still have his unique fingerprint imprinted inseparably with the exact information I transmitted.

Perhaps we can see an analogy here. God-breathing the exact message so that each word is His in the Bible; but using the unique personality of the writer to transcribe each word (sentence structure) and so on!

Though as we have noted, there are places where one may ascribe a mechanical dictation thesis (as with OT oracles), narrative sections (like Genesis and Luke) may be better explained by a theory of this nature. The "fingerprint" may amount to the sum of the personality, experiences, and cultural mores of the inspired writer; just as the writer's unique embryonic development gave him the fingerprint he had in the first place?

Thanks go to Ryan Carothers of San Jose, CA for helpful comments and suggestions for this article.