Theology in 3D

The Men Who Wrote Scripture Were Not Inspired by God

Greg Stiekes | February 2, 2021
New Testament, Theology

Can I take a minute to correct a misunderstanding that I commonly hear when students are talking about the doctrine of inspiration? They often refer to the fact that the authors whom God prepared in his providence and led through the Holy Spirit to write Scripture were “inspired by God.”

I was reminded of this misunderstanding this past week as I read student discussion posts. One student wrote, “The scribes were not inspired but only the original authors were inspired.” Another said, “The Bible was written under inspiration.” Yet another, “I believe that the original authors of Scripture were inspired by God in the original documents that they wrote or dictated.”

Now, I suppose that what I’m about to say all of these students would agree with. So this may be simply a call for greater clarity when we articulate something as important as the “doctrine of inspiration.” Nevertheless, when it comes to inspiration, it is not the authors who were “inspired,” but the living Word itself that was inspired.

The misunderstanding that the authors were inspired is perpetuated, however, by the very term “inspiration” itself, which appears in the traditional English translation of 2 Timothy 3:16. “All Scripture was given by inspiration of God” (KJV and NKJV). Many of the revised or newer translations that have come about over the last century were closer to the original Greek text, but still retain the word “inspired.” For example, “All Scripture is inspired by God” (NRSV, NASB, HCSB, and several others).

But the idea of “inspire,” at least the way we think of it today, is actually absent from 2 Timothy 3:16. The Greek phrase in question is simply three words: πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος (pasa graphe theopneustos), or “All Scripture (is) God-breathed.” This, in fact, is the translation you will find in the NIV and a few lesser known versions like the Berean Study Bible. The ESV amplifies the text slightly, with “All Scripture is breathed out by God.”

As every seminary student should be able to tell you, the Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos) is a combination of “God” (θεός; theos) plus “breathed” (πνευστος; pneustos), from the verb meaning “breath or blow” (πνέω; pneō). In other words, the action in question is not “inspiration,” but “spiration”; not a breathing in, but a breathing out.

So what does the phrase in 2 Timothy 3:16 mean then? Simply this, that the Scripture came from God himself. That’s it. It was breathed out from his inner being. The Bible is, through and through, literally, God’s own Word. That simple fact itself is profoundly significant. But we clutter it up by thinking that the phrase speaks to the process of God’s breathing out his Word. And it does not. It does not say anything about how God gave his Word through the human authors, through visions or through direct communication or through angels or sometimes through writing to correcting an errant church. Neither does the term God-breathed say anything about the copies of the original Word (the “autographs”), nor the later translations in various languages, and eventually the English language. The phrase tells us that, when God caused his divine word to be written by human authors, he breathed it through them.

We will, no doubt, continue to use the phrase, “doctrine of inspiration,” even though we have to go out of our way to explain it every time we use it. That is because the word “inspiration” has a deep-rooted history in our theological jargon. It’s like the term “virgin birth.” Even though the phrase “virgin conception” is far more accurate, you could never convince people to start using it rather than the former. But if we’re going to continue to speak of the “inspiration of the Bible,” we should be careful to mean only that. Only the Word of God itself is “inspired.”

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3 responses to “The Men Who Wrote Scripture Were Not Inspired by God”

  1. Marilyn. Lennard says:

    The older I get. ( I’m 85 now). The more I believe what Vance Havner had to say..” put the cookies on the lowest shelf so all the children can reach them”.

  2. Excellent post, Greg. For 20 years of teaching I’ve been trying to correct this misconception. Pedantic a distinction as it may seem to some, I think that if the teachers and preachers of the Church were consistently more biblically precise in their use of language and definition of doctrine, there’d be far less dry tinder lying around for starting pseudo-doctrinal brush fires. I also try to clarify that “God-breathed” doesn’t mean that God “blew” in some kind of mysterious influential way; it means simply that God spoke (put your hand in front of your mouth and you can feel breath with every word). So what Paul or John or James or Mark wrote, God spoke concurrently through them.

  3. Anca says:

    A man wrote that a wife should submit to the will of the husband in everything and you are telling me that those words came from God himself? Those passages justify male selfishness and pride and allow the man to have his way in everything. I take no comfort in the cheap assertion that the husband is doing what’s best for his wife or leading her in any way because that is purely assumption. How to you gauge that the husband’s intent is to do what’s best for his wife and not simply his own preference in the matter? Why does a fully capable woman need another person to decide what’s best for her unless of course the purpose of it is to demean the status of the woman to that of an infant so that the husband can elevate his own status in contrast to her and feel better about his own self worth. In other words the male written scriptures has a given the husband a grandiose status of importance where only he knows what’s best. Since when are your own PERSONAL preferences and desires in private life a service or qualification of leadership for another? These scriptures were clearly inspired by men with a selfish agenda behind them. Manipulation is behind the scriptures, they are man breathed.

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