Theology in 3D

The Men Who Wrote Scripture Were Led by the Spirit

Greg Stiekes | February 10, 2021
New Testament, Theology

Read previous post, The Men Who Wrote Scripture Were Not Inspired by God.

When Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, literally, that all Scripture is θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), or “God-breathed,” it does not mean that the human authors were “inspired” but that the Scripture itself, the product was, as we have been taught to say, “inspired.”

But how did the divine Word come to us from the inner being of God, as he breathed it out? If 2 Timothy 3:16 speaks to the product, then 2 Peter 1:21 speaks to the process.

“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” A more exact rendering of the Greek form of the second clause would be, “… but by the Holy Spirit being carried/led, men spoke from God.” In other words, the Holy Spirit was the divine Agent who carried or led or conducted the authors of Scripture so that what they were writing was God-breathed Scripture.

The Greek participle translated “carried” (φέρω, pherō) simply means to bring something like an object or a message (hence, “carry”) or lead someone from one place to another. But because the word “spirit” can also mean “wind” or “breath,” authors have sometimes suggested that Peter is thinking that the authors are like ships driven by the Spirit who filled their sails.

John MacArthur is relying on this tradition when he explains,

As those godly men were carried along by the Holy Spirit, He superintended their words and used them to produce the Scriptures. As a sailing ship is carried along by the wind to reach its final destination, so the human authors of Scripture were moved by the Spirit of God to communicate exactly what He desired. In that process, the Spirit filled their minds, souls, and hearts with divine truth— mingling it sovereignly and supernaturally with their unique styles, vocabularies, and experiences, and guiding them to produce a perfect, inerrant result (Strange Fire, 2013, p. 223).

Amen to that!

But, still, the idea of men being led by the Spirit to write God-breathed Scripture does not tell us much about how that process took place. Many people, I think, imagine that the Spirit’s “filling their minds, souls, and hearts with divine truth” means that these men simply sat down one day with a blank papyrus roll and filled it up with what the Spirit was whispering in their minds. But if we read the Bible carefully, we discover that the process was a lot more complicated and sometimes messier than that. For me, it raises a lot of questions about the process.

I often wonder, for instance, when reading a beautifully constructed, rhythmic psalm in the Hebrew language, with perfect parallelism, how many times the author said to himself in the composition process, “No, that phrase doesn’t work” or “that word doesn’t fit” and change the text. (Have you ever tried to write poetry?) And then there are the acrostic psalms (Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145) or the acrostic book of Lamentations. What masterful works of art! In Psalm 119, for instance, there are 22 stanzas, one stanza for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the 8 lines in each stanza starts with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet that stanza represents. (In Psalm 119:1–8, all of the lines start with the Hebrew letter aleph; in 9–16, all start with bet; etc.) If you have taken at least a year of Hebrew, you should try reading Psalm 119 sometime and see how inventive the author is in order to make the whole psalm read this way. Just as in English, some Hebrew letters are harder to start sentences with than others. How many times did the psalmist pace the floor, trying to think of a word that starts with a rarer letter? Did he ever call out to his wife, “Honey, what’s another word that means …?” Or maybe there were a group of godly scribes who collaborated on the project. And then, how did this particular psalm come to be organized in the book of Psalms, so that we have a collection of 150 psalms in the canon in that particular order?

What about that prophecy in Jeremiah 36 (LXX 43) that Baruch wrote as Jeremiah dictated it? King Jehoiakim cut up that scroll three or four columns at a time and threw them in the fire as they were read to him. So Baruch had to write the lines again with “many similar words added to them” (Jer 36:32). Which part of that prophecy is in Jeremiah? Was the first scroll God-breathed Scripture? Was the second version identical to the first?

What about Daniel chapter 4, which appears to be written by King Nebuchadnezzar himself! Did Daniel simply take a copy of Nebuchadnezzar’s proclamation and put it in his book of prophecy? Did he edit it first? Did he combine the letter with some of his personal knowledge of the situation?

Coming to the New Testament, how did we get the Gospel of Matthew? Ancient sources (Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Jerome) believe that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew or at least in a Hebrew dialect (Aramaic), but we have ancient manuscripts of Matthew only in Greek. Ancient sources also tell us that Mark composed his gospel from listening to Peter’s preaching and taking sermon notes (Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome). Luke confesses in his introduction that he composed his gospel through compiling sources and appears to rely on previous Gospels, maybe Mark or Matthew, basically doing the work of an ancient historian (Luke 1:1–4). We can discern, for instance, that Luke likely interviewed Mary, the mother of Jesus. How else would he have known about the intimate meetings Mary had with Elizabeth, Anna, and Simeon, or what Mary was thinking about in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51)? Also, when Luke writes Acts, he is obviously relying on second-hand reports as well as personal experience as he travels with the apostle Paul and invests in the ministry (see the “we” passages in Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–37; 28:1-16).

And what about the letters of the apostle Paul? All of them were written in response to situations that came up in the life of the church or to individual leaders in the church. Was Paul aware that he was producing Scripture? Paul did not even write these letters himself, but dictated them after the conventional fashion (cf. Rom 16:22), then took the stylus in hand to write his own greeting at the end of the letter (noticeable, for example, in 1 Cor 16:21–24; Gal 6:11–18; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17–18). Then, if Paul followed the normal convention, he would have examined the letter and asked the scribe to produce a duplicate so that he would have one to keep and one to dispatch. In some cases, Paul perhaps did not bother or have time to make a second copy, which may be the reason we are missing two of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9 and 2 Cor 7:8). When Paul asks Timothy to bring him the “rolls” and “above all the parchments,” the former may refer to the Hebrew Scriptures while the latter may refer to Paul’s own letter collection. The word “parchments” (μεμβράναι; membranai) referred to loose-leaf sheets which may have contained the copies of Paul’s letters. Peter seems to recognize a letter collection of Paul (“all his letters,” 2 Pet 3:16). These observations are what we would expect if Paul wrote letters the conventional way. Did he know he was writing Scripture? If he retained a copy of his letter, was the copy he retained identical to the one he sent out? And which was considered the autographa (the “original,” God-breathed Scripture), and which was the copy?

That God used this kind of “occasional” activity to breath out his divine Word is really remarkable. B. B. Warfield comments,

“If God wished to give His people a series of letters like Paul’s, He prepared a Paul to write them, and the Paul He brought to the task was a Paul who spontaneously would write just such letters” (The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 1948, p. 155).

We could continue to go down this road of Scripture-writing history and talk about John the apostle who was instructed by the Lord Jesus himself to write the things he was hearing and seeing. And this would turn us back to the many instances of amazing visions and other means by which God spoke through his writing prophets in the OT.

There are many questions that will remain unanswered. But one thing we do know for certain. Whatever the exact process, whatever the situation, however the men came to write God-breathed Scripture, the Holy Spirit superintended the process so that we would have exactly the Word God wanted us to have.

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