Unfiltered Fridays: Inspiration Was a Process, Not an Event

Because the Bible says quite clearly that it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), Christians tend to think of inspiration as some sort of otherworldly event. In the course of many years of teaching biblical studies (and chit-chat that happens at church) I’ve heard some pretty strange explanations of inspiration—about how God took control of the hand and mind of the writer, or how the authors slipped into a heaven-sent trance state, or how the Spirit whispered the precise words into their minds (or maybe just “impressed” them into their consciousness). Frankly, all of that sounds more like an episode of The X-Files than biblical theology. And it absolutely doesn’t reflect what you actually find in Scripture upon close examination.

There are some transparent examples of why the “paranormal event” view of inspiration makes no sense. There are four gospels in the New Testament. Three of them (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) overlap with respect to the events they include about the life of Jesus. But those events may be dissimilar in the level of detail[1] or arranged in a different sequence.[2] Dialogue within shared episodes also diverges in vocabulary, length of statements, and who speaks when. And even when the dialogue (in English translations) appears identical, it isn’t. In the Greek text writers can use different lemmas, verb tenses, noun cases, conjunctions, and participles over verbs. If the stories of Jesus were “whispered” to the writers or downloaded into their semiconscious minds, divergences like these are the last thing one would expect. Would the Holy Spirit really want to yank our theological chains like that? I doubt it.

There are a lot of other phenomena in the biblical text that tell the careful reader quite clearly that inspiration wasn’t an event. Most biblical books show signs of editing. One of the best examples is the first four verses of the book of Ezekiel:

1 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), 3 the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the LORD was upon him there. 4 As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north. . . . (ESV)

The first verse uses the first person in two instances—indicated by bold underlining. The first person language creates the expectation that Ezekiel is writing about himself. But in verse three there is a switch to the third person (boldface without underlining). Now the writer is clearly not Ezekiel, but is an anonymous author referring to Ezekiel in the third person. Verse four switches back to first person. These switches are the tell-tale signs of an editor. The Holy Spirit is not suffering from schizophrenia. This material is clearly not dictated or downloaded or the product of automatic writing.

Instruments or puppets?

While God does speak to people in Scripture, the passages that describe how biblical authors produced what they did never cast it in anomalous terms. According to the Bible, Scripture is the result of divine influence and the very normal human activity of speaking and, by extension, writing (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet 1:16-21). Writers report events and record feelings. They build arguments. They express themselves in poetry. They use sources. They borrow thoughts. They (or other hands that followed) rewrite and refine what was written. Authors are sensitive to genre, structure, literary devices, word choice, poetic parallelism, and narrative art. There is word play, irony, and premeditated structuring of plot. The books we have in our Bible are the result of work and careful thought. Biblical books were not slapped together. No part of any biblical book just “happened” out of the blue.

God’s role is no less significant and intentional. God chose a wide range of people and providentially prepared them all their lives for the moment he would prompt them, either by his Spirit or by someone else’s influence, to write something down for the posterity of God’s people (or to collect and edit material from a prophetic figure). God put them in situations that would lead to the need for them to write the message God wanted preserved. He didn’t need to give put them into a trance and manipulate fingers like we do to little children when they’re learning their letters. They didn’t need hand-holding (or mind control). They were his instruments, not his puppets.

Embracing the Bible’s humanity

Why does any of this matter? Because minimizing (or denying) the humanity behind biblical authorship is a surefire way to undermine the doctrine of inspiration. Explaining the Bible as something dispensed from a super-intelligent deity from out of the ether is irreconcilable with what we see in it. On the other hand, defining inspiration as a long process guided unfailingly by Providence helps account for the phenomena of Scripture. Embracing the humanity of the Bible is enormously helpful for understanding what’s actually in the Bible—in terms of both its “untidiness” and its artistry.

[1] Compare Matthew and Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus: Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13.
[2] Compare events that follow the calling of the Twelve between Matthew, Mark, and Luke (begin in Matt. 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-15).

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Michael S. Heiser
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12 comments
  • Good morning, God bless you all:

    Inspiration is a process, that many times is triggered by a supernatural event.

    In Revelation 1:10-18, John describes “one like the son of man” that when described seems to be a combination of the two Beings described in Daniel 7:13, and which would make the fulfillment of Zechariah 14:9.

    But sometimes, within the description of the encounter with the divine Being, there are precise orders to write something in particular, e.g. Revelation 1:11, and that seems to me to be a dictational event, not a process of inspiration.

    The Bible was written to be a witness of God and Jesus, both appeared and let people know that existed, and allowed to have a view of what God’s character and will is.

    There is a great gap between the direct experience of God, and the tradition that tries to perpetuate the narrative of the encounter with that Divine Being.

    The ultimate goal is to encourage the believers to seek that particular encounter with the Divine Being, to be edified, guided, restored, etc by His presence.

    An interesting article that shows how direct encounter and preserving tradition relate can be found in:

    http://www.darc.org/connelly/religion1.html

    Look closely at the last paragraphs and the accompanying diagram.

    Kind regards, and blessings.

    • Paul Connelly is a religious commentator that has no letters after his name, it’s a blog of Generalities of how humans perpetuate a set of religious beliefs and practices over time and the ground in which the seed of religion is planted: human nature, both biological and social. His words here say plainly what he believes…”We observe that the brain itself seems to possess some inborn faculties that make humans receptive to religious experiences and interpretations.”

      To me your posting is BUNK

  • I find it very interesting that you only find the NT commenting on scripture. Does the OT every comment about itself?

    • @Hanan,

      Yes, here are are instances where the OT comments on itself. Psalm 119:105 is one example. Also there are many instances where the DIRECT Word of God (i.e. PROPHECY) is considered authoratative without question. For instance, this self-verification can be seen when Daniel reflects upon the prophecy of Jeremiah, that the Bablyonian captivity would last 70 years. Daniel sees Jeremiah’s record of the prophecy God gave as being true TO THE LETTER. (Daniel 9:2, Jeremiah 25:12)
      But it may be that the strictest definition of “inerrancy” can only be applied to prophetic utterance (as per 2 Peter1: 16-21).The rest of Scripture is testimony of true historic events as recorded by truthful human authors (regarding God’s dealings with human beings at various points in human history.) Testimony however is not “dictation”. This leaves room for the minor “discrepancies” that we see in God’s Word. In short, minor points of “descrepency” should not cause us to doubt the authority of God’s Word. It’s still ALL true and thus ALL authoratative for formulating doctrine. (2 Tim 3:16).
      (Just my 2 cents as I have grappled with understanding the nature of what is meant by “inspiration of Scripture”.)

        • Thank you merrill,

          Do you see a difference between prophetic works vs. historical works? How does inspiration deal with books such as Jeremiah (which deals with prophecy and direct message of God) vs. a book like Kings (which is not prophecy, but recordings about Israel)?

          • @ Hanan:
            It’s hard to say. Both the prophetic books as well as the historical books contain records of history as well as prophecy and vise versa. For instance in the history book of 1Kings we have the prophecies of Elijah, etc. So I think there is a mixture of direct prophetic revelation as well as 1st or 2nd degree eye witness testimony in both types of Biblical literature (in most cases.)
            It’s interesting however to note that Jesus and the apostles never quote from the books of Ester, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ezra and Nehemiah. I wonder if it’s because these books do not contain prophecy? They probably have historical, moral, and practical value, but it leaves me to wonder if they should be part of what we consider our “inspired canon”.

  • Christians tend to think of inspiration as some sort of otherworldly event.”
    Christians think this because this is what the Bible says. (2 Peter 1:21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.)

    You propose as support for your aberrant view of inspiration writers who choose different details of an event to report as though it in some way supports your erroneous conclusion. The example you cite in Matt. 4:1-11 & Mark 1:12-13 these passages are in no way contradictory or mutually exclusive. The Holy Spirit, through each gospel writer, may have emphasized a different element of this event but each representation in the Gospels is completely accurate both on a spiritual level but also on a historically, geographically.

    Certainly each writer wrote in his own style, with his own vocabulary, and with his own personality. What makes inspiration “other worldly” is that God at the same time communicated perfectly what he wanted to communicate, down to the slightest detail of word choice (see Gal. 3:16; Matt 5:18). In addition, while human authors make mistakes, remember incorrectly, etc., the inspired writers supernaturally got it all right.

    You say, “Because minimizing (or denying) the humanity behind biblical authorship is a surefire way to undermine the doctrine of inspiration.” I would also add that minimizing (or denying) the deity behind biblical authorship is also a surefire way to undermine the doctrine of inspiration.

    • @ Roger,

      It’s the “slightest detail of word choice” (i.e.”dictation” or “verbal inerrancy” if you prefer) that I find can’t be reconciled with the differing (though minor) recollections the gospel writers give in certain instances. Yes, the gospel writers are all telling the truth. Yes, God has overseen these testimonies that have become a part of our Scriptural Canon.Yes, harmonization in many cases can be achieved. But does this mean that every single word that is in our Canon is a direct download from God (including for instance the book of Ester)?

      I think we need to do some rethinking of what is meant by “inspiration of Scripture” as per 2 Tim 3:16 (Note: I’m not talking here about 2 Peter 1:21as this is in reference to a different class/genre of Scripture. See my comment above to “Hanan”.)

      In my mind, there needs to be a more honest paradigm that affirms the authority of Scripture yet understands that it isn’t necessarily always via the man made doctrine of “verbal innerrancy” that this authority is derived. (And there are actually plenty of other reasons to believe in its authority. We just need to articulate them better!)

  • Regarding the reference to Ezekiel as a possible example of more than one author recounting Ezekiel’s visions, I (respectfully) don’t know if I see this. We see change from 1st to 3rd person (and vise versa) happening in many places all throughout Scripture. I may be wrong, but I always thought of this as an artistic/cultural literary devise rather than a literal changing of the speaker.

    Even in the verse verse cited in the OP we see an immediate switch again from the 3rd back to the 1st person:

    “the word of the LORD came TO EZEKIEL the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the LORD was UPON HIM [3rd person]. I LOOKED [ 1st person] , behold, a stormy wind came out of the north. . . . ” (Ezekiel 1:3-4)

    Any thoughts?

Written by Michael S. Heiser
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