What (or who) is inspired?

Posted on May 24, 2011

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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.

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