Evangelical Views of Inspiration

With the recent hullabaloo over a three minute clip of a twenty minute presentation by a noted evangelical pastor, perhaps it is timely to think about what is an isn’t an evangelical view of Scripture.

The truth is that the most contentious issue in defining evangelicals doesn’t have to do with worship style, Christology, or any number of important theological topics. To get evangelicals all hot and bothered just bring up their book: the Bible.

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe it is inspired and authoritative.

This has been one of the more agreed upon positions within evangelicalism historically.1 There are many points to this discussion, but the one which might be worth camping out on concerns the inspiration of the biblical text. Inspiration refers to the supernatural process whereby the author(s) of Scripture were moved to compose the texts of the books which make up the canon of Scripture.

One of the statements I’ve made in the past, and continue to hold to, is that there is not a consensus view of inspiration of Scripture among evangelicals.

To get into this discussion, let’s look at a chart detailing some views of inspiration in all theological conversations:

The six views represented here have unique meanings:2

  • Intuition – the authors have a proclivity to grasping divine action but there is little no influence from an external force in the process of writing the words of Scripture. Christian Scripture is no different from other religious writings. (Bultmann, Tillich)
  • Illumination – the Holy Spirit is involved in the process of inscripturation, but only existentially and there is no communication of information to the authors. (Bruggemann, Kaufmann)
  • Dynamic – the emphasis here is on the inspiration of the authors more than the words they actually penned. The Holy Spirit inspires the authors in guiding their thoughts, focus, and concepts while allowing the personality and cultural context of the authors to be evident. (Berkouwer, Strong, Mullins)
  • Verbal plenary – as the Holy Spirit inspires the authors it moves from the concepts anddirectly to every word that is written in the Bible. The human element is not overridden, aspects of the authors’ personalities and context still are evident, but they are divinely sanctioned elements. (Warfield, Grudem, Henry)
  • Dictation – as the authors of Scripture sat to write the Holy Spirit filled them and removed all traces of personality and context and the authors became the stenographers of God’s revelation. (Rice, Dodd)
  • Multimethodological approach – this is the idea that different texts of Scripture are inspired differently, but that all of Scripture is equally inspired. Here various approaches listed above are evident in different books of the Bible. (Goldingay, Marshall)3

I have not added one or two views (the neo-orthodox and Roman Catholic views for a host of reasons4 ) but in these which are listed above, you can easily see the spectrum of theologies they represent. Several of these views are clearly outside the realm of evangelicalism. Both intuition and illumination develop a text which is bereft of divine sanction, influence, or meaningful authority. In these views the text of Scripture is not separated much from other religious texts (the Qu’ran, Bhagavad Gita, etc.)

Of the remaining three primary views (I’m going to remove multimethodological for now) it is possible for an evangelical to embrace any of these three.5

It is most easily noted that the verbal plenary view established a large middle ground for evangelicals. This has been the default view since the evangelical emergence following World War II. However, because of the influence of fundamentalism6 dictation theory has remained part of evangelical views of inspiration. In that same way the dynamic view, often called the dynamic theory, of inspiration has been an effective leftward boundary for the view among evangelicals. Through the influence of several theologians and those evangelicals who are less than convinced of inerrancy, preferring infallibility, the dynamic view has maintained in evangelicalism.

Perhaps the larger challenge here is in that watchword for many evangelicals: inerrancy. When we consider the history of this  word in evangelicalism we are reminded that it has, for many, become a kind of “Maginot-line” in the fight for biblical authority and theological conservatism.7 Some authors have suggested that anyone who does not affirm inerrancy is not an evangelical.8 Others have pointed out the challenge of establishing this kind of litmus test for the category.9

If one takes the three categories for inspiration and evaluates how they influence the doctrines of inerrancy and authority, you find there are acceptable limits in these three categories. You can affirm inerrancy while holding one of these three categories of inspiration.10

So why the attempt to confine the evangelical view to verbal plenary inspiration?

Well, perhaps it is because of the theological traditions that one finds themselves within. Though many conservative evangelicals ultimately must appeal to the concept of “mystery” to explain their view of inspiration, that same appeal by other segments of evangelicalism is called out by those same individuals. The reality is, historically, that while verbal plenary inspiration has held the wide middle ground in evangelicalism, there have been others who make legitimate claims for their positions.

One of truths that we must recognize in this discussion is that if we do accept some aspect of mystery in our definition of inspiration. (Does anyone really want to claim they absolutely know how inspiration works? Well other than a dictation theorist?) We must default to the central question: where does it leave your view of biblical authority? Is the Bible authoritative in your position?

Evangelicals have a wonderful tradition of upholding an authoritative and divinely inspired text. Part of this is because the divine inspiration gives validation to the authority. However, the evangelical view takes the Bible seriously and applies a rich historic tradition that is, in fact, Scripture’s own view of itself.  As George Eldon Ladd has said, “Furthermore, the evangelical accepts the Bible’s view of itself as the inspired, normative, authoritative Word of God (I Tim. 3: 16; II Pet. 1:21).”

Our view of inspiration should leave us with a text that is divinely inspired and part of a process whereby the Holy Spirit uniquely and directly influenced the authors of Scripture to produce a series of texts that accurately tells the story of God’s redemptive plan across the actual history of mankind from creation to consummation at the end of the age.

If your view of inspiration removes the Holy Spirit from uniquely and directly inspiring the authors, you simply do not have an evangelical (and I might say biblical) view of inspiration.

Inspiration should leave us with a Bible that is clearly from God and an act of His providence.

  1. 1 See Mark Noll’s essay, “Evangelicals and the Study in the Bible” in Evangelicalism and Modern America ed. George Marsden pgs 103-121 

  2. 2. I’ve drawn from two primary sources, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology and Steve Lemke’s chapter “The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture” in Biblical Hermeneutics 2nd Edition edited by Corley, Lemke, and Lovejoy. As a side note, both texts were written by professors at Southern Baptist seminaries. 

  3. 3. Each of these listed individuals next to a view is, to the best of research, appropriately noted. Please let me know if you think otherwise. 

  4. 4. Here is a pretty comprehensive list presented a well researched post from James Sawyer

  5. 5. Also, there are some wonderful historical treatments on views of inspiration. I’d particularly point out David Dockery and William Evan’s respective pieces. 

  6. 6. Particularly from the early set of volumes called The Fundamentals, in which there is featured James M Gray’s essay on inspiration

  7. 7.  Many times in the history of evangelicalism the greatest battles have been over this text, how to understand, and the theology around it. FF Bruce once referred to this issue as “The Maginot-line mentality where the doctrine of Scripture is concerned.” Quoted by Robert Johnston in Evangelicals at an Impasse 160, n5 

  8. 8. See Harold Lindsell Battle for the Bible, 1976 

  9. 9. Specifically Bernard Ramm After Fundamentalism. One additional, I am a happy member of the Evangelical Theological Society and sign my statement affirming my belief in biblical inerrancy every year. 

  10. 10. One test would be to take the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and consider articles VI through X as it relates to this conversation and these categories.