Renewal Theology
featuring the works of theologian J. Rodman Williams

Renewal Theology


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A Theological Pilgrimage

The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today

Ten Teachings

The Pentecostal Reality

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Prophecy by the Book

Scripture: God's Written Word

The Holy Spirit in the Early Church

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Scripture: God's Written Word
Chapter 5 - The Inspiration of Scripture

It is apparent, from what has been said, that inspiration extends to the whole of Scripture. "All Scripture is inspired by God."

A. Plenary

The word "plenary"—or "plenary inspiration"—is the term frequently employed to affirm that the whole of the Bible is God’s written word. All Scripture, not some, or part, or most of Scripture, but the totality of Scripture is the word of God. The Bible is the word of God throughout.

In this connection a number of questions are often raised. First, what about statements of Paul wherein he claims to be speaking, not the Lord? In writing the Corinthians—I Corinthians 7—Paul says: "To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord" (verse 10). But thereafter he adds: "To the rest I say, not the Lord" (verse 12). If Paul in the last of these two statements disclaims that he is speaking from the Lord, is it proper to view the words that follow as inspired, i.e., the written word of God? Do not Paul’s own words contravene any idea of plenary inspiration, since at least in this chapter a number of statements would seemingly have to be omitted (particularly verses 12 to 40)? The answer to these questions, I believe, is to be found primarily in recognizing that by the title "Lord" Paul is referring to Jesus Christ; thus in the latter two of these instances Paul claims to have no direct word from the Lord Jesus, whereas in the first case the Lord had already spoken on this in His ministry (compare I Corinthians 7:10-11 with Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18). So Paul is by no means disclaiming that he speaks God’s word in the latter instances; indeed, the climax of the last verse (40) is Paul’s words: "and I think that I have the Spirit of God."42 Indeed, later on in the same letter Paul bluntly says: "the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment" (14:37 NASB). There is divine authority all through—hence, plenary inspiration.

Second, what about the portions of the Bible that seem invalidated or superseded by other Scriptures? For example, the Old Testament law reads "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Deuteronomy 19:21); however, Jesus, quoting these words, adds: "But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil" (Matthew 5:39). Ecclesiastes asserts: "he who is joined with all the living has hope ... For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward" (Ecclesiastes 9:4-5); however, Paul declares: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (I Corinthians 15:19-20). Job’s "comforters" make long and wordy speeches; however, they are told by God: "you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (Job 42:7). Does inspiration actually extend to the words just quoted from Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, and many of the speeches in Job?

The answer again is in the affirmative; however, at least two things need to be recognized. First, there is the matter of progressive revelation43: the gradual unfolding of God’s truth in the Bible. Hence, the words of Jesus do not invalidate the words of Deuteronomy at the time they were given, nor their basic thrust which is in the direction of justice to prevent overly harsh retaliation. Jesus’ words are not therefore an abolition or contravention of the old law but a fulfillment. So did He declare: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17). This means, accordingly, that the Old Testament is to be read in the light of the New. In the next instance above, Ecclesiastes and Paul, this again is patently the case, since life after death was not fully revealed until the New Testament period. Second, the inspiration of Scripture does not mean that everything stated therein is true, but that it is truly and accurately recorded. Ecclesiastes says many other things as well that, rather than declaring God’s truth, demonstrate the searching of one whose announced philosophy is "Vanity of vanities ... All is vanity"44 (1:2). Ecclesiastes is God’s written word in that all this human search—in its vagaries and vicissitudes—is faithfully recorded as well as the final climax where God’s truth is declared: "The end of the matter…Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (12:13). In the case of Job's comforters, the words spoken are "not right" about God, hence not God’s truth; but they do express, in marked fashion, the views of many who are convinced that all human suffering must be due to human sin and God’s punishment upon it. That such views, contrary to God’s higher truth, are set forth in Scripture by no means invalidates them as being a part of God's written word. Rather do they demonstrate that God wants us to hear such reasonings and arguments so that we might be better prepared to receive His own truth.

Third, what about passages in the Bible that touch upon scientific matters—astronomy, geology, biology, and the like? If some of these seem contrary to modern scientific understanding, does this not invalidate the claim that Scriptures are plenarily inspired? A number of replies, briefly, may be given: (1) The Bible is not a scientific textbook; hence while it does touch upon scientific areas, the concern is not to teach science but the "things" of God.45 That such "things" do often relate to the realm of science is apparent (no realm is excluded from God), but the focus is primarily on God and His ways. Thus one should not expect from the Bible detailed scientific understanding. (2) The Bible, while not being a scientific manual, is not unscientific. Hence, while not explicitly or in detail scientific, the Bible being throughout God’s written word does not go counter to genuine scientific fact. God, after all, is the God of the universe which the scientist explores. The truth of the scientist is God’s truth: it cannot contradict whatever truth God has disclosed in His written word. (3) Modern scientific understanding is not invariably the truth. No one can rightly question the immense steps forward in scientific knowledge—of the universe, earth, man, nature, and much else—but such progress does not guarantee that scientific understanding itself will always prove adequate or correct. Some things in the Bible may be contrary to contemporary scientific understanding; if so the fault could very well rest with that understanding. God’s truth in the Scriptures cannot contradict His truth in the observable operation of the universe.

B. Verbal

The word "verbal"—or "verbal inspiration"—is the term frequently employed to affirm that each individual part of the Bible is God’s written word. Verbal is opposed to general. The Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture not just in general but also in the choice and expression of words. Paul speaks of imparting truth "in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit" (I Corinthians 2:13). Consequently, each word is given by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the written word of God even in the minutiae.

By adding the word "verbal" to "plenary" it is emphasized that inspiration includes the details of Scripture. It is not enough to say that the Bible is broadly inspired; it is also the written word of God in every linguistic expression.

One of the most telling examples of this detailed inspiration is the passage where Paul declares a highly important theological truth based not only on a given word but also on a grammatical form of the word: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’46 meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’47 meaning one person, who is Christ" (Galatians 3:16 NIV). Another striking example is to be found in the use by Jesus Himself of an Old Testament verb and tense to make a crucial point about the resurrection to the Sadducees. He first tells these disbelievers in the resurrection that "you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God." Then Jesus adds: "And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:31-32). The present tense, "I am,"48 is the assurance that the dead are resurrected.

Now, again, questions are often raised. First, does not verbal inspiration imply dictation? Plenary inspiration, to some persons, seems a more adequate expression since it could suggest that whereas the totality of Scripture is inspired, the individual expressions, words, and details are left to the freedom of the writer. However, to reply, verbal inspiration by no means invariably connotes dictation, or the reduction of the writer to acting simply as a scribe. Indeed, quite the contrary, it only means that in the free choice by the writer of every word and construct the Holy Spirit totally superintends. As we have observed, Paul speaks of his words as "taught by the Holy Spirit"—therefore, not dictated. To Paul’s statement we might also quote again the words of Peter that "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Peter 1:20). The "moving" of the Holy Spirit always includes human freedom,49 and this applies to the free exercise of human faculties in every word set down as Scripture.50 Hence whereas some portions of Scripture may have been dictated by God,51 verbal inspiration itself in no sense means dictation.

Second, are the words of Satan inspired? This question—sometimes assumed to lay to rest any idea of verbal inspiration—may be answered quite simply: Yes, in that he truly spoke them, not that they were spoken truly. Hence, when Satan is recorded as saying to Jesus: "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread" (Luke 4:3), we may be sure, despite the words being totally contrary to God’s intention, that Satan actually spoke the words. This is the meaning of verbal inspiration: not that everything written is divine truth or positive direction for a godly walk,52 but that the words are there by God’s purpose and the Spirit’s superintendence. Furthermore, they belong to the totality of what God would have us know.53 Thus—we may conclude—the words of Satan are verbally inspired.

Third, how can one speak of verbal inspiration when words given in quotations and accounts often show variance? In the matter of quotations from the Old Testament in the New there is often a difference in wording. For example, Romans 9:33 begins: "As it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble.’" This is undoubtedly a quotation from Isaiah 28:16 that begins: "Therefore thus says the LORD God, ‘Behold I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone.’" It is obvious that Paul does not quote exactly from the Old Testament. We may also note similar words in I Peter 2:6 that likewise vary: "For it stands in scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious.’" Neither Paul nor Peter quotes verbally from Isaiah; does this not discount any idea of verbal inspiration? We may reply in twofold manner. First, the Holy Spirit is not bound to express Himself the same way on every occasion. Even as "as it is written" (referring to Old Testament) may come off differently in the New Testament, depending on God's intention. Second, again the diversity of human instruments (Isaiah, Paul, Peter) and the rather free way New Testament writers often quote the Old54 can make for some variation. In sum, variation and diversity in quotations by no means is contrary to verbal inspiration; it only demonstrates an important point, namely, the non-rigid, dynamic character of biblical inspiration.55

There is also frequently a variation in accounts that refer to the same situation or event. In the Old Testament, parallel accounts in Kings and Chronicles often differ considerably; in the New Testament, the same is frequently true in the Gospels. One illustration, among a great many that could be mentioned, is that the words of Simon Peter in reply to Jesus’ question about His own identity. They are recorded in Mark 8:29 as "you are the Christ," in Luke 9:20 as "The Christ of God," in Matthew 16:16 as "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." It is apparent that Peter could not have said all these. Possibly it was the Matthean version, reduced in Mark and Luke, or it may have been the Markan account expanded in Luke and Matthew, or something else. In any event, can one still affirm verbal inspiration when the words differ considerably? The answer is not too dissimilar to what has just been said about biblical quotations, namely, that there is both the freedom of the Spirit and that of the individual writers: variation is to be expected. However, in this instance the matter may seem more difficult than that of a variation in quotation because these are reports of what Peter said to Jesus; he could not have said all three. We reply thus: Exactly what Peter said is not the issue in relation to verbal inspiration,56 but that all the accounts, in their diversity, are God’s written word. Each conveys the truth of God, and even gives additional insight into the mystery of Jesus’ identity; e.g., to be "the Christ" is to be God’s Messiah, hence "the Christ of God," and to be God’s Son, hence "the Son of the living God."57

We conclude this section on the inspiration of Scripture by once more affirming that Scripture both in the whole and in each part is the written word of God: hence the plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture. It should be added that this affirmation about Scripture makes of biblical study an exciting challenge. The study of every word, the consideration of variant readings, the most minute exegesis, all become a thrilling pursuit, for we know that every gain draws us that much closer to the very mind of God. And as we increasingly plant our feet upon the written word of God in all its breadth and depth, the Holy Spirit will lead us into greater and greater knowledge of the truth.


42 Paul’s words, "I think," should not be viewed as expressing uncertainty. According to the Expositor’s Greek Testament (New York: Doran, n.d.), the "I think" is "the language of modesty, not of misgiving. The Apostle commends his advice in all these matters, conscious that it proceeds from the highest source and is not the outcome of mere human prudence or personal inclination" (Vol. II, p. 838). Notice also Paul’s use of "I think" in I Cor. 4:9, where there can be no question of Paul’s being uncertain, or having misgiving, about what he is saying.

43 "Progressive revelation" does not mean a movement from error to truth but from lesser to fuller disclosure of truth.

44 Or Futility of futilities….All is futile" (as in the NASB).

45 Recall the Purpose of Scriptures as previously discussed.

46 Greek: spermasin.

47 Greek: spermati.

48 Greek: ego eimi.

49 "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (II Cor. 3:17).

50 William Shedd, in speaking of verbal inspiration, puts it well: "This is wholly different from dictation. Dictation separates thought and language; verbal inspiration unites them" (Dogmatic Theology [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980 reprint], Vol. I, p. 90.).

51 As earlier noted.

52 We have already noted illustrations from Ecclesiastes and Job that portray inadequate, even faulty, understandings of God’s way and truth.

53 Satan’s words, however misleading they are (one might also recall Genesis 3:1—"Did God say…?"), by being included in Scripture are a continuing warning against his wiles. Hence, they belong in God’s written word for our ultimate good.

54 This is true in many other places in the New Testament.

55 It also shows how inadequate is any view of verbal dictation.

56 Perhaps this statement seems to contradict what was earlier said about Satan’s words to Jesus. The comment was made that verbal inspiration refers to the fact that Satan truly spoke the words, not that they were God’s truth. But here I am stating that exactly what Peter said is not the issue. There is no contradiction, however, for it is the case that exactly what Satan said was, and is not, the issue. Indeed, in the parallel account in Matthew the recorded words of Satan are, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread" (4:3). In Luke’s account, as before quoted, it is "this stone" rather than "these stones." So the fact that Satan spoke the words (in whichever slight variation) continues to be the important fact.

57 There are many other accounts in the Gospels where Jesus’ own words in the same situation differ from Gospel to Gospel. By no means can it be said, as above, that they necessarily express additional important insights. In many cases it may be simply that the Holy Spirit utilizes whatever expression the writer chooses (especially in quite minor variations or terminology). However, the variation, even seemingly minor, may serve some important purpose, such as to give some additional understanding. Thus—in terms of exegesis—it is important to handle the text as given in each case with extreme care and consideration.

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Content Copyright ©1998 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.