What Is Inspiration?

Kevin Bauder


When people think about the inspiration of the Bible, they tend to imagine it as a process. They think of inspiration as a way of stating how the Bible got to be what it is. Trying to answer the how question is one of the reasons that we are surrounded by so-called “theories of inspiration.” Some theories suggest that God gave ideas to the writers, which they then expressed in their own words. Others argue that God simply dictated every word of the finished text. Still others speak in terms of inspired writers rather than an inspired text. Some talk about documents other than the Bible being inspired to some degree, and some see the Bible as inspired to varying degrees. To clear up these misunderstandings, our doctrine of inspiration should rest firmly upon the Bible’s own use of that term.

The only biblical passage that speaks directly about the inspiration of the Bible is 2 Timothy 3:16. Unfortunately, the older translations tend to obscure the meaning of the text. Both the King James and the New King James versions read, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable….” In this translation the first verb is given, which does not even appear in the Greek text. Alternatively, the American Standard Version of 1901 reads, “Every Scripture inspired of God is also profitable….” This translation seems to imply that some Scriptures are inspired while others are not, and that only the inspired scriptures are profitable.

This verse is critical for defining a biblical doctrine of inspiration. Given the variety of ways in which it has been interpreted, how should we understand it? The answer is that we will grasp its meaning correctly only if we pay close attention to its grammar and structure.

The first thing to notice about the verse is that the Greek text does not contain a verb. That is not an uncommon occurrence: Greek sentences have ways of implying verbs rather than stating them outright. In this case, the implied verb must be some form of the verb to be. The verse is stating that every (or all) Scripture is something.

But what is it? The verse contains two adjectives: inspired and profitable. This is the point at which a problem arises. Are both adjectives to be understood as predicates of every Scripture? Or is inspired a qualifier that narrows the scope of the Scripture that is in view? In other words, should the verse be translated, “Every Scripture is inspired and profitable,” or should it be translated, “Every inspired Scripture is profitable”? The first usage is called the predicate usage; the second is the attributive usage.

As shown above, Bible translations have gone in both directions. How, then, is an interpreter to make a choice? The hard work has already been done. During the late 1970s Daniel Wallace wrote his Th.M. thesis for Dallas Seminary on this problem. He later published the results as, “The Relation of Adjective to Noun in Anarthrous Constructions in the New Testament,” Novum Testamentum 26 (1984) 128-167. Wallace decisively showed that in constructions like that of 2 Timothy 3:16, both adjectives must be taken as predicate adjectives.

In other words, the verse is predicating two properties that apply equally to every (or all) Scripture. The first is that all Scripture is inspired. The second is that all Scripture is profitable. For the moment we can set aside the discussion of what the verse means when it says that all Scripture is profitable. What we want to do is to explore the meaning of all Scripture being inspired.

The Greek term translated inspired is a compound word that Paul appears to have coined just for this occasion. The word is theopneustos, which means something like God-breathed (see the New International Version for this exact translation). What the verse affirms is that every Scripture possesses the quality or property of being God-breathed.

The meaning of the text is not that God has breathed something into Scripture, as if Scripture might stand on its own as a human product apart from being God-breathed. Instead, the verse is teaching that every Scripture is itself breathed by God. A more interpretive but very legitimate way of translating this verse is to say that all Scripture is “breathed out by God.” Indeed, the International Standard Version uses just that language.

Inspiration, then, does not answer a how question but a what question. It does not tell us how Scripture came into existence but what Scripture is. It is God-breathed. It is the product of God, something that proceeds from God himself.

Inspiration, then, does not answer a how question but a what question. It does not tell us how Scripture came into existence but what Scripture is. It is God-breathed. It is the product of God, something that proceeds from God himself.

To state it differently, the subject of inspiration is the Scripture itself. Scripture is inspired—all of it. The writers are not inspired. The ideas are not inspired. The scriptures (i.e., the writings) themselves are inspired.

Since inspiration applies to the writings, not the writers, then it must involve the words. One cannot have writings without words, sentences, grammar, and syntax. If the writings are inspired, then all these matters are included within the orbit of inspiration. This teaching is sometimes called verbal inspiration.

Furthermore, since inspiration applies to all Scripture (the entire Bible), then there are no degrees of inspiration. Either a writing is inspired or it is not. Either it is breathed by God or it is not. Consequently, the whole of Scripture—the entire Bible—is inspired. This teaching is sometimes called plenary inspiration.

Finally, if all Scripture is God-breathed, i.e., it is the product of God and proceeds from God Himself, and if God is incapable of error, then Scripture must include no error in anything that it affirms. Of course, the Bible might inerrantly record the errors that others have committed (and it does), but the Bible does not affirm those errors. A necessary consequent of verbal, plenary inspiration is the inerrancy of Scripture.

2 Timothy 3:16 provides a very strong statement of the divine origin of Scripture.

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