What Does Biblical Inspiration Mean, Really? (Part 1)



The inspiration of the Bible depends upon the ignorance of the gentleman who reads it. – Robert Ingersoll

Make no mistake – I believe the scriptures are inspired. My understanding of what it means for them to be inspired, however, may be different from how many people like to define it.

Although there are many nuances to how biblical inspiration can be defined, the most commonly held form, what I call the modern sense of inspiration, is something like the following: The authors and editors of the scriptures were led or influenced by God in such a way that everything written in (at least) the original manuscripts was intended by God; that is, although there may have been a human element in the process of the dictation of the scriptures, that had no bearing on the (especially theological) veracity of the things written – it is all completely truthful.

Let me share some preliminary thoughts.

For most people who believe that bibles are inspired in the sense above, it would be good to realize and acknowledge that the reason they believe that is because of the tradition they grew up in. It’s because the people around them told them that they are inspired that way, not because they carefully examined all the evidence and came to a conclusion. At the very least, they initially believed it because they were told so, and were then gradually strengthened in that belief not primarily because they confirmed it through an accumulation of evidence but by getting used to thinking of it as “obvious” and anything otherwise as “heretical.” Further, when they have positive experiences reading bibles, their belief in its inspiration is reinforced. They may have questioned this belief at some point in their life and began looking for answers, but often this is pointless because of confirmation bias (the way humans tend to only look for what will confirm what they already believe). Moreover, most people are satisfied with pat answers such as, “Well, little Johnny, see this verse here? It says that the scriptures are inspired. Proved!” It doesn’t matter that the answers were shallow because the people around them seem to be okay with such answers. Why should they think otherwise? “Surely it is not the case that so many people are mistaken,” they reason. So they take comfort in numbers. But, as history bears out, majority opinions have never been a reliable source for truth.

With that in mind, be prepared to reconsider what you believe about inspiration.

Part 2


The Religiosity of Sacred Writings

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In this post I want to take a look at the concept of sacred writings – writings designated by people as special in a way that other writings are not. For example, the Old and New Testaments in Christianity and the Quran in Islam would be considered sacred writings.

Sacred writings are usually believed to be texts that reveal truth. As such, they are also often considered to be a special way by which deities communicate with humans. This is particularly the case in the Jewish tradition and the subsequent Christian tradition.

Here are the propositions concerning the Torah (scriptures) from the Jewish “13 Principles of Faith,” which those belonging to Orthodox Judaism were obliged to believe in.

  • I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
  • I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.
  • I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.
  • I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.

(Note: there was and is significant variation in Jews’ understanding of what constituted revelation as it relates to the scriptures, but I think the above was and is pretty universally held among them.)

Notice that the claims above are all assumptions. They are not even statements that God made to the Jews.

The concept of sacred writings originated in the Old Covenant. It began with the giving of the Law, which, supposedly, was a word for word download from God to Moses.

Later, however, the Jews decided to add to the scriptures, not God. They created a canon (a collection of writings considered as sacred) and included in it whatever they wanted to. In other words, even if it is true that God spoke through prophets, inspired the authors of the Psalms, etc., God himself never commanded that those writings be considered inspired or be added to the canon. Rather, they were human decisions.

The closing of the canon was also a decision that the Jews made. God never said, “there will no longer be any written revelation.” Rather, some people decided to place God in their box labeled “God doesn’t speak anymore.”

M. James Sawyer nicely summarizes the Jewish view of their scriptures:

The Jews viewed Revelation as complete in Moses. The Torah was seen as having emanated in its entirety from God, every verse and letter. This revelation was complete and final; the Rabbis had no conception of progressive revelation. The Prophets and the Hagiographa were seen to add nothing to the Torah given to Moses. Rather these later writings served to reinforce, repeat, amplify, and explain the Torah.

But the Jews were wrong.

Jesus was the greatest revelation of God.

He was the fulfillment of the Torah. But their doctrine regarding sacred writings hindered them from seeing that reality.

The same is still true today. Jesus is still the greatest revelation of God, and he has made his home in us. It is the person who is the revelation, not the book about him. Yet bibles are often treated as the ultimate source of truth or the number one way God speaks to people.

Back to the Jews, let’s look at the broader perspective of God speaking in general.

God has always wanted to communicate regularly and directly with humanity. This is what he did with Abraham; he just straight up talked with him. The same way of relating continued with Abraham’s descendants until Moses came along.

After God gave the ten commandments to the Israelites, they “trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die’” (Exodus 20:18-19). Notice that the people were wrong because God had just spoken to them and yet they had not died. They chose to become afraid of direct communication with God.

jesus never saidThus, the idea that only special people could communicate with God was born.

After this incident, direct communication with God generally ceased. The people preferred to have Moses as a mediator.

Yet later in history, a few caught a glimpse of the heart of God and began communicating with God directly again. Many of these people were known as prophets (although there were others such as David as well). It is a common occurrence in the scriptures for God to speak through prophets.

But have you ever noticed how there were no prophets until Israel began to become an institutional religion instead of simply being a community of God’s people? This is because prophets are only among people who believe they cannot communicate with God themselves and need someone else to communicate for them.

Yet another shift took place after the Jews were sent into exile. This time the mediator became writings instead of people. The general idea was, “God had already said all he wanted to, so we just need to look at what he has said in the past.”

[The post-exile Jews] hung the whole weight of their identity on the text itself…The time of the Exile and afterward is most likely the period of the final editing of the interpretation of the text as the task that lay closest to the bone of their identity. Most notably of all, it was during [the post-exile] period that the Synagogue was first invented – and it was now that the Synagogue replaced the Temple as the center, for all practical purposes, of Jewish life. Tradition replaced institution as the binding force; and the rabbis, who became the expounders of that tradition, replaced the priests and prophets as the authenticating voices of Judaism. – Robert Capon

Thus, the writings became sacred, the very words of God himself (and doctrines such as the inerrancy and inspiration of the scriptures also emerged with it).

This narrative demonstrates the religiosity of sacred writings.

religious books

What I mean when I say that sacred writings are religious is that they bypass relationship. Written documents replace (or at least take precedence over) God speaking to us through his Spirit in us. Ritual replaces relationship.

Some people claim that God doesn’t speak to us through the Spirit anymore and instead only speaks through the scriptures. Others say that God still speaks through his Spirit but that what he says will always line up with what is written in the scriptures. Ironically, neither of these claims can be found in the scriptures themselves (in fact, they seem to say the opposite!).

We must stop using the Bible as though it were a potpourri of inerrant proof-texts by which we can bring people into bondage to our religious traditions…We must no longer use the Bible as the Pharisees used the Torah when they gave it absolute and final status. Christian biblicism is no different from Jewish legalism. It is the old way of the letter, not the new way of the Spirit. – Robert D. Brinsmead

The Law is now written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). Making the scriptures sacred is creating a replica of the system of Law in the Old Covenant (like has been wrongly done with the sacrificial system and the theory of penal substitution, the limited priesthood and the modern clergy, temples and church buildings, tithes and pastor salaries, etc.).

Claiming that the canonization process was valid is one thing (although even that is questionable). Saying that there should be an established collection of sacred texts in the first place (which is necessary for there to even be a canonization process) is quite another.

The whole idea of having sacred texts was born out of the human desire for a feeling of certainty. People want something absolute to believe in, something tangible as their foundation. This is also why the Israelites built the golden calf, for example, even right after God had performed the crazy miracle of splitting the red sea for them.

We have to keep in mind that the idea of having sacred writings are a Hebrew invention. God never commanded it. It is a man-made tradition. Further, the Jews were only following the pattern they observed in the a nations around them (just like they wanted a king). Indeed, this is born out in pretty much every religion (at least where its adherents are literate). Sacred writings are a mark of religion. But Jesus came not to start a new religion but to bring an end to all religion.

Elevating the status of the scriptures to “sacred” is a rejection of the mystery and uncertainty inherent in relationship. It is a return to religiosity.

Us Christians are unreservedly scared to become “free thinking” and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow where it wants. We crave a written guideline (just like Israel craved a king to rule over them) in order to prevent us from straying. We want to have a “standard” that draws a line in the sand between what we believe and what other religions or even other Christians believe. We seek a physical, tangible object we can hold in our hands and look at so that we won’t need to be utterly reliant on the Spirit. It makes us cringe to think that we can only have Christ as our Head. Christ without the Bible is a dangerous, perilous road that is doomed to lead to deception and bound to end up in a cult. I wonder what Jesus (who had no Bible Himself) would have to say about this? – André van der Merwe

Let’s not repeat the history of how Israel related with (or, more accurately, failed to relate with) God.

Don’t base you relationship with God on a book.

Let it be based on the only trustworthy foundation, the cornerstone.


Is “The Word of God” a Book or a Person?

“The bible is the word of God.”

We’ve all heard it before. But today you’re going to hear something different. The opposite, in fact.

The bible is not the word of God.

Some of you just wrote me off as a heretic, but I hope you can restrain any assumptions as to what I mean by that statement and keep reading to understand what I am and am not saying.

Here’s the heart of what I want to get at: Jesus is the Word of God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

“…His name is called The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13).

Now, before we go any further…

To those of you who are thinking that this is merely a matter of semantics – do not naively presume that this is merely another phrase used to refer to the bible. Language is a powerful tool that can be and is used to influence people’s thinking. And one of the reasons I am writing this is to help you see how the things you believe and the ways you think are affected by the way you hear Christians talk.

Even without any explicit mention, ideas such as the legitimacy and divine origin of the bible’s canonization, inspiration, authority, infallibility/inerrancy, that the bible is the greatest (or only) way God speaks to us, etc. are inherently connoted in the phrase “the word of God.”

Intentionally or not, this tradition of man has been used and has served to bypass critical thinking and generate a sense of credibility for such ideas. I’m not saying these ideas are necessarily wrong, but I am saying let’s help ourselves think clearly by not call something by a name that is reserved for someone else.

lewis(Note: Some say that the bible is at least the “written word of God.” But that is a presumption. The bible does not claim to be the “written word of God.” It doesn’t even say that a “written word of God” exists. People decided to make one. It is also a mistake to say that Jesus is the capital “Word of God” while the bible is the lower case “word of God” because the Greek language did not make capital/lower case distinctions.)

When you read a bible passage and come across the phrase “the word of God,” you will interpret that passage according to what you think “the word of God” means. You will derive your definition of “the word of God” from how you have heard other people use it. But if your definition is different than the original definition used when the author wrote that passage, your flawed definition will cause faulty interpretations which will in turn lead to misconceptions. (You can see this for yourself with a few verses I provide near the end of this post.)

I read the roughly 300 bible verses (NASB) that mention “word of God” or “word of the Lord” (some people refer to the bible as “the word of our Lord”). Here’s what I found: “word of God” (appears primarily in the New Testament) and “word of the Lord” (appears primarily in Old Testament) can refer to:

  • The Law
  • The voice of God
  • A prophetic word from God
  • The Gospel
  • A specific thing Jesus said
  • Jesus

Notice anything missing?

You can find “the word of God” being preached, proclaimed, spoken, heard, received, and spread, but you won’t find it being read.

In the bible, these phrases never refer to the bible or to the Old Testament as a whole (there are other Hebrew and Greek words reserved for this purpose). If you find this hard to believe, I encourage you to check it our yourself (click “word of God” and “word of the Lord” above).

Ultimately, the misuse of this phrase has distracted us from who the bible tells us is the Word of God: Jesus Christ.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39).

Jesus is a real person. He’s not just a historical figure you read about in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He is with you. He is in you. He is your greatest reality.

And all the bible does is point to him.

The habit of calling the bible “the word of God” exposes the modern belief that God doesn’t speak anymore; only the bible does. But the bible itself testifies that this is a lie.

word of godThis language blinds us to the reality that Jesus speaks to us outside the bible. Calling the bible “the word of God” at best undermines the significance of Holy Spirit speaking to us, and at worst denies his activity today.

When God speaks, that is the word of God. Holy Spirit can use the bible to speak to us, but, as he demonstrates all throughout the bible, he doesn’t need a book to communicate with us. The bible is good, but it can be given too high a place in our lives when it replaces the living Word and his communication with us.

God never said he would speak only through a book, nor does the bible ever claim that it is the primary way that God communicates with us, as is so often touted today. On the contrary, Jesus said that his sheep know his voice and that Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. The ultimate revelation of the Father is Jesus himself (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15). And I don’t mean the things written about Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We come to know God not primarily through a book, but through a living person whom we relate with.

God is forever seeking to speak Himself out to His creation. The whole bible supports this idea. God is speaking. Not God spoke, but God is speaking. He is, by His nature, continuously articulate. He fills the world with His speaking voice…And this word of God which brought all worlds into being cannot be understood to mean the Bible, for it is not a written or printed word at all, but the expression of the will of God is the breath of God filling the world with living potentiality…The Bible…is confined and limited by the necessities of ink and paper and leather. The voice of God, however, is alive and free as the sovereign God is free. – A. W. Tozer

Let’s finish by looking at a few passages that mention “the word of God.” I understand that it is natural for many to interpret these verses as referring to the bible, especially since that’s what many of us have grown up being told. But if you do believe these are talking about the bible, I’d encourage you to read the verses in context. You might be surprised with what you find.

“By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

“For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God…’the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23, 25).

“For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

“…I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:14).

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil…And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11,17).

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Enjoy living in the Word of God, and enjoy the Word of God living within you.


Also see:

The Danger in Believing the Bible is “The Word of God”


The Scriptures vs The Word of God


Biblical Perspective?