A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese
THE DOCTRINE OF INSPIRATION
The process of inspiration, of men "being carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21) is explained by Paul in the classic passage found at 1 Corinthians 2:9-16.
First, Paul declares to the intellectuals in Corinth that the message spoken by the apostles has not come from human reason, but by divine revelation. He begins the treatment of this subject by telling the Greeks that neither scientific investigation nor human reason has ever been able to discover a sure foundation upon which a religious system could be built (“It never entered into the heart of men ...,” verse 9). The message brought by God’s envoys was not something that mere human thinking had conjured up.
Then, Paul proceeds to describe the three successive steps in the transmission of truth from the heart of God to the heart of man.
- REVELATION, the act of the Holy Spirit imparting to God’s messengers truth incapable of being discovered by man’s unaided mind (verses 10-12).
- INSPIRATION, the act of the Holy Spirit enabling the messengers to speak in God-chosen words, infallibly, the truth revealed (verse 13).
- ILLUMINATION, the act of the Holy Spirit enabling believers to understand the truth given by revelation and spoken by inspiration (verses 14-16).
The remainder of this study assumes, since there is no cogent argument against the conclusion, that what is said in these verses in 1 Corinthians 2 about the speaking of the apostles would hold equally true of their writing, especially when what they were writing were the same truths they had been speaking.
Paul explains that the Bible did not come by way of scientific investigation and human reason, but that it came in another way, by revelation (verse 10). Then, by use of pure logic, Paul proves to these Greeks the impossibility of discovering God’s Word through scientific investigation or human reason (verse 11). The first step, therefore, in the transmission of truth from the heart of God to the heart of the believer is revelation. God must reveal His mind if men are to know His thoughts and will.
II. VERBAL INSPIRATION
After the Bible writers had been given the truth by means of the act of the Holy Spirit in uncovering that truth to them, the apostle says they were not left to themselves to make a record of it. It is one thing to know a certain fact. It is quite another to find the exact words which will give someone else an adequate understanding of that fact. This is where the need of verbal inspiration comes in.
Paul first makes the negative statement, “Which things we speak [i.e., put into words], not in the words taught by human wisdom.” That is, the words which the Bible writers used were not dictated by their own human reason or wisdom. The Bible is not (as some men say) a record of man’s search for God.
Then the apostle makes the positive statement, “but in words taught by the Spirit.” He says that the words which the Bible writers used were taught them by the Holy Spirit. That is, as they wrote the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit who had revealed the truth to them now chose the correct word out of the writer’s vocabulary, whose content of meaning will give to the believer the exact truth God desires him to have.
However, this does not imply mechanical dictation nor the effacement of the writer’s own personality. It is not that the Holy Spirit used the writers as if they were typewriters. Perhaps an example of how the Holy Spirit worked is found in Acts 16:6-10. In that passage the Holy Spirit guided the missionary party. It would appear that He didn’t do anything as long as they were going toward the right town. But the moment they began heading in the wrong direction, the Holy Spirit somehow hindered them (we are not told exactly how). It is likely in the same way that the Spirit worked in the matter of inspiration.
Thus, we have in the original Hebrew and Greek autographs of our Bible manuscripts the very words that God taught the writers to use as they recorded the truth, which they had received by revelation. This is what is meant by verbal inspiration.
In the words of verse 13, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual words” (ASV), Paul explains this process of choosing the right word in each case. This is the procedure which the Bible writers went through in writing their books. As led by the Holy Spirit, they searched through their vocabularies for the exact word which would adequately express the truth they wished to record. By the process of comparing the word with the truth they wished to write down, they rejected all those words which the Holy Spirit showed them would not correctly express the thought, and finally chose the word to which the Holy Spirit led them.
Not only did the Holy Spirit have something to do with the revelation and the inspiration of the will of God, but He also helps the hearer to understand it. In verse 14, Paul says that “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” The “natural man” is the man who is devoid of the influence of the Spirit of God; he is the man who is governed by his physical nature alone. Paul then finishes by saying that spiritual things are Spiritually discerned. In other words, when one hears (or reads) the Word, and in his heart really desires to understand it, the Holy Spirit will aid him in his quest. The Holy Spirit works through the preached word (written word) – not directly on the heart (apart from the word).
We should be heedful to distinguish carefully between revelation and inspiration, so that we do not mix up or conflate the terms. “Revelation” is God making His will known. “Inspiration” is the help that God gave the Bible preachers (and writers) to speak the exact words that would convey the truth He wanted men to know.