What (or who) is inspired?

A recent issue of JETS has an interesting article on inspiration that resonated with some conversations I’ve been having with others recently. Grubbs and Drumm (who wrote the article) cite various recent evangelical theological definitions of inspiration (Warfield, Henry, Chicago, Grudem, Grenz, Erickson, Geisler) and correlate them with generally-accepted accounts of the origins of the texts in Biblical studies, including the use of secretaries, co-authorship, compilation and revision history. They suggest that the former accounts are inadequate to cope with the latter evidence.

I think they are right, but I am not sure that the doctrine of inspiration is where the problem lies. In the verse that is the basis for all such claims, it is text, not its author, that is inspired (‘all Scripture is God-breathed and useful…’ 2 Tim. 3:16); many of the definitions Grubbs and Drum cite speak the language of the ‘superintendence’ of the Holy Spirit (so Warfield or Chicago, e.g.) in the production of the Scriptures. If we focus on this, the role of the Spirit in ensuring providentially through any and every historical process of production and transmission of the text, that the text reaches the divinely-intended form, we can affirm any account of inspiration – including plenary verbal inspiration, extending to the MT vowel-points, and/or the Textus Receptus or the LXX if you really want – with supreme indifference to the literary pre-history of the text.

The problem is not 2 Tim. 3:16, but 2 Pet. 3:2: ‘…you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles.’ (NRSV) Inspiration, the divine superintendence of the production of the texts, tends to be linked in classical doctrines of Scripture (right back to the patristic debates over the edges of the NT canon) to claims concerning authorship. The OT books are written by prophets; the NT books by apostles (or those close to them) – and so we speak, and have long spoken in the tradition – of ‘the inspired authors’, moving the category of inspiration from text to author. This is not the core dogmatic claim, however, and might perhaps be understood – even in patristic usage – as an inexact figure of speech.


  1. phillip mutchell
    May 25, 2011

    I don’t get your point, unless it’s that the authors you mention tend to miss the wording, even Peter’s only telling us to focus on the words, the people speaking them are thus made holy because of the divine nature of the words, i.e. the spirit of Christ that was in them, borne along, these are simple figures to suggest the momentary elevation of the Man to ‘that stature of a perfect man’ hence Saul can be among the prophets, Balaam’s ass can speak. This is inspiration or in the Words of W.B.Yeats ‘Of a sudden my body burned, and it seemed that I was blessed and could bless.’

  2. Matt Frost
    Jun 8, 2011

    I have recently been enjoying Webster’s 2003 book on Holy Scripture, and a big part of why is the way he contextualizes inspiration. You see, it isn’t the inspiration of the text that is its primary attribute — as leads to the divinization of the text as an object beyond question, or likewise of the authors. The text is a creature of the divine word, just as we are, just as the church is. As such it is a sanctified creature, but never therefore other than a creature. In this way it is not the doctrine of inspiration, but its primacy as a doctrine of scripture, that is the problem. I find it quite interesting how Webster fixes many of the complaints about the doctrine of inspiration by making it depend upon sanctification!

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