In following Millard Erickson’s categorization, this study will begin with the liberal Theory of Intuition. Erickson states that the Intuition Theory views divine inspiration as “ . . . the functioning of a high gift, perhaps almost like an artistic ability but nonetheless a natural endowment, a permanent possession.” Here, there is essentially no difference between the writers of Scripture and other religious thinkers and philosophers such as Plato and Buddha. The Hebrew culture could be said to have a “gift for the religious” just as some cultures are gifted in mathematics or the sciences. This view gives little if any credit to the divine, other than for the natural endowment of religious genius. “The Bible then,” as Erickson explains, “is great religious literature reflecting the Hebrew people’s spiritual experiences.”
The Illumination Theory maintains that the Holy Spirit was influencing the authors of Scripture in that they were gifted with a “heightening of their normal powers.” In combining this theory with the Intuition Theory however, Olson contends that, “the biblical writers were religious geniuses who cooperated with the divine Spirit (or self-expressive activity of God) so completely that their writings achieve an inspiring quality and effect seldom if ever noticed elsewhere.” Olson’s explanation suggests that the divine exists in the cooperation; whereas, Erickson says, “The Spirit’s effect is to heighten or elevate the author’s consciousness. It is not unlike the effect of stimulants students sometimes take to heighten their awareness or amplify the mental process.” However, Olson’s approach agrees with Erickson’s final assessment that, “The result of this type of inspiration is increased ability to discover truth,” whether the illumination is through corporation, stimulation, or both.
The Dynamic Theory argues that God gave the writers of Scripture the ideas and then they selected the best words to describe them. Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave explain that “ . . . God gave the thoughts to the men chosen, and left them to record these thoughts in their own ‘dynamic inspiration.’” Duffield and Van Cleave call this theory the ‘Inspired Concept Theory,’ which may serve to better explain it. Concepts then, are inspired while the word choices are not. John Calvin seems to have held to this view. This process is the combination of both the divine and the human in a way that differs from the Intuition and Illumination Theories in that God is divinely authoring the text in at least some capacity. For this reason, the Dynamic Theory is generally categorized as a conservative view.
Also known as the ‘Plenary Inspiration Theory,’ this view holds that even the words are inspired by God, pointing to 2 Timothy 3:16. God, in effect, directed the writer to each word of the text. Potentially the most popular view among Evangelicals, Erickson explains that, “ . . . God being omniscient, it is not gratuitous to assume that his thoughts are precise, more so than ours. Consequently, within the vocabulary of the writer, one word will most aptly communicate the thought God is conveying (although that word in itself may be inadequate). By creating the thought and stimulating the understanding of the Scripture writer, the Spirit will lead him in effect to use one particular word rather than any other.” While this may look like dictation, I. S. Rennie argues that, “Dictation is not involved; there is no violation of the personality of the writer. God had sovereignty and conclusively been preparing the writers for the instrumental task so that they willingly and naturally recorded God’s revelation in the way he required."
Few hold to the conservative view of Dictation Theory, also know as ‘mechanical inspiration’ or ‘verbal dictation.’ In fact, Olson suggests that this view is “unorthodox” and relegates the role of human authors to merely that of “secretaries of the Holy Spirit.” Explaining Dictation Theory, Duffield and Van Cleave write, “This theory states that every word, even the punctuation, is dictated by God, much as a business executive would dictate a letter to his secretary.” Erickson expands on this explanation further stating that proponents believe “Different authors did not write in distinctive styles.” However, Wayne Grudem points out that, “A few scattered instances of dictation are explicitly mentioned in Scripture.” Jesus instructs John to write to the various churches in Revelation (2:1, 2:8, and 2:12, for example). Grudem also suggests Isaiah 38:4-6 as another example. Moses’ dictation of the Ten Commandments could potentially serve as a third example.
Looking at the various ideas of inspiration, one can see that a text with atleast some nature of divine and human dual authorship is different than that of other philosophical writing. This type of writing, as Steven Smith articulates, is generally referred to as ‘Scripture.’ Second Timothy 3:16a reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God . . .” (ESV). While this passage is specifically referring to the Old Testament, it sheds light on the inspiration of Scripture. “The impression here” writes Erickson, “is that they are divinely produced, just as God breathed the breath of life into the human (Gen. 2:7).” The Greek word that the ESV translates to “breathed out by God” is theopneustos, which James Strong defines as, “God-breathed, inspired by God, referring to a communication from deity: given by inspiration of God.” Additionally, this is the only occurrence of theopneustos in the New Testament. James D. G. Dunn suggests that the use of this word clearly indicates the writer’s understanding of the process of inspiration. “To be noted” writes Dunn, “is the fact that it is the scripture that is ‘God-breathed,’ and not merely the prophet who is ‘inspired,’ unless by that is meant inspired to speak particular words (cf. 2 Pet 1:20).” Where Dunn fails to go with his commentary, Calvin boldly marches, writing, “This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God hath spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestions, that that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare.” Later in the same discourse, Calvin declares, “This is the first clause, that we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.”
The liberal views of inspiration—intuition and illumination—present a challenge for the believer because although there is no indication of the ‘how,’ unlike the other three views that attempt to rest on Scriptural clues, the liberal views seem void of any scriptural support. “The liberal approach in Scripture,” writes Olson, “is heretical because it ultimately denies or completely undermines Scripture’s unique authority. The problem is not that liberal thinkers wish to do justice to the human quality of Scripture but that their model of Scripture’s inspiration cannot do justice to the Bible’s divine quality. In their hands the Bible becomes a historical novel or a powerful work of fiction that shapes manners and morals by creating a world to inhabit.” Both of the liberal views present a problem for D. Edmond Hiebert if inspiration is something of a natural ability or “stimulant” of the Holy Spirit. In reference to 2 Peter 1:19-21, Hiebert writes, “ . . . no prophecy arose out of the prophet’s own solution to the scenes he confronted or his own interpretations of the visions presented in his mind.” Heibert would then also take issue with the dynamic view.
Despite Heibert’s concerns, Paul’s statements that believers have been “taught by the Holy Spirit” and have “the mind of Christ” seem to support the Dynamic Theory of inspiration. And given that Paul does not say, “Thus says the Lord,” there is reason to think he was inspired by something other than a dictation or plenary verbal inspiration. It was not that Paul’s message was not divine argues Vern Sheridan Poythress, but “Rather, it is (largely) because he has so thoroughly absorbed the message into his own person.” Polythress argues that in the New Testament at least, the fact that Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit means we are not dealing with “bare” human nature. “We are already dealing with the divine, namely the Holy Spirit,” writes Polythress. But even in Paul’s writing, a biblical clue is present that suggests something other than dynamic inspiration. In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul clearly says that something he is saying is from the Lord and not himself and then in verse 12 he argues something that is “I, not the Lord” (ESV). In this case, it would seem that being “so thoroughly absorbed in the message” is not exactly what was going on here, at least with this part of the message.
If light falls on the eye though colored glass, it is modified by the medium through which it passes. None of the light comes from the glass itself. It comes from the source beyond the glass; yet it is all modified by the glass. So revelation that comes through the human personality is modified, and sometimes marred, by the medium through which it comes—colored by the false ideas and presuppositions of him through whom it is given. Yet all the revelation is from God. It therefore follows that not every inspired writers is on the same level, and our concern must be to know what God was saying through him to his contemporaries and to us.Rowely further argues, “We but dishonor God when we hold him responsible for every statement in the Bible.” At stake through this line of thinking is the divine authority of Scripture as well is its infallibility. In an effort to avoid this potential slippery slope, many Evangelicals have turned to the Verbal or Plenary Theory. But this theory is certainly not free of problems. Olson states that theologians that subscribe to the Dynamic Theory “simply cannot see how plenary verbal inspiration differs from dictation.” To combat this thinking, Erickson stresses that proponents of the plenary view must take great care to avoid slipping into a dictation model and often have to structure their articulation in the form of a defense. This is seen in A. N. S. Lane’s attack on the Dynamic Theory and support of the plenary view. Lane writes, “It must not be supposed that God merely put ideas into the minds of the biblical authors and then left them to put them into words as best they could. But claiming that words themselves are inspired it is not implied that human writers are not also their authors.” Olson also argues that, “The dynamic model has the advantage of accounting for the very different styles of the authors as well as for the many idioms, cultural forms and trivial asides one finds in Scripture. It is difficult to see how plenary verbal inspiration accounts for Paul’s poor grammar, including unfinished sentences!”
Why would those subscribing to the plenary verbal inspiration view diligently try to avoid being accused holding a strict diction view? Duffield and Van Cleave suggest it is because of its great weakness, that is, “that it eliminates any possibility of a personal style in the writings of the divinely chosen author—a phenomenon which is clearly observable.” Dictation seems to remove the humanity from the Scriptures. Duffield and Van Cleave further write, “Fundamentalists are often accused of subscribing to this method of inspiration, but only a small percentage of them actually do.” But what about passages in Scripture that seem to suggest dictation, such as in Revelation or Isaiah? To this question, Erickson says, “This is particularly true in prophetic writing and apocalyptic material, but the process described above was not the usual and normative pattern, nor is prophetic and apocalyptic material more inspired than the rest of the Bible.”
The dual authorship of the Bible is a complex matter. In order to develop a solid understanding, one must examine ideas of inspiration, authority, infallibility, the canonization of Bible, and the Scripture itself. As this is a topic with a long history in the community of the Church, a review of the many theologians’ work on this subject will also prove beneficial. In this limited space and scope, an examination has been offered, but it is certainly not exhaustive. It is this author’s hope that the reader will conduct further research on this matter.
Calvin, John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.
Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.
Duffield, Guy P., and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave. Foundations of Pentecostal Theology. Los Angles, California: Foursquare Media, 2008.
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Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.
Hiebert, D. Edmond. “The Prophetic Foundation for the Christian Life: An Exposition of 2 Peter 1:19-21,” Bibliotheca Sarca 141, number 562 (1984): 158-168.
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*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.