More on inspiration

Following my previous discussion on inspiration here I finally got round to purchasing Hodge and Warfield’s classic 1881 text on biblical inspiration, under the mistaken impression it would be a weighty tome. In fact it was only a paper published in the Presbyterian Review and turns out to be available free online here, for your edification.

I won’t review thoroughly what, after all, is not a long read. But a few particular points struck me. You’ll be aware, perhaps, that much Liberal Evangelical criticism of biblical inerrancy is little more than a dismissal of the straw man that Scripture is divinely dictated. Perhaps it will be surprising to some that Warfield, more or less the father of the modern concept of inerrancy, dismissed such a “dictation” view out of hand.

In fact, I can detect two principal motivations in this article. The first is that, of all Evangelical theologians, Warfield saw theology as a scientific discipline, and so sought to define inspiration in a technical way that could give precision to the term. The second motivation was that, for the first time in Christian history, the authority and reliability of Scripture was being called into serious question. It’s often said that there was no doctrine of inerrancy before the nineteenth century, but that’s for the same reason that there was no doctrine of the incarnation until controversy and heresy made it necessary for the Church to formulate one in the Definition of Chalcedon.

Patristic, Mediaeval and Reformation theologians had always simply assumed Scripture’s authority – using predominantly the terms “infallible” and “inerrant”, as Mark Thompson describes in his chapter of Hoffmeier and Magary’s Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (see Books we like).

“Inspiration” literally, as is well-known, comes from the Greek for “God-breathed” in 2 Tim 3.16, where it really indicates the end result: a text made living and active by the breath of God. But Warfield and Hodge use the term for the whole process by which the “divine element penetrates and glorifies Scripture at every point.” And they expressly use the word concurrence in connection with this process. It includes:

…very various ways, natural, supernatural and gracious, through long courses of providential leading, as well as by direct suggestion – through the spontaneous actions of the souls of the sacred writers, as well as by controlling influence from without.

In brief, this concurrence encompasses a high view of providence in which the lineage, birth, life circumstances, interests, education and free choices of the Bible writers are all, ultimately, in his hands. The net effect of this in inspiration is put as a contrast by the writers: it is about superintendence, not just influence:

It summoned, on occasion, a great variety of influences, but its essence was superintendence.

In previous posts I have stressed how God’s concurrence in secondary causes – whether to do with predictable law-like events, chance happenings, or human decisions – works within and through these things in their own character, and so cannot be considered as coercion, interference or meddling. So taught Aquinas. This, too, is our authors’ view of inspiration:

This superintendence attended the entire process of the genesis of Scripture, and particularly the process of the final composition of the record. It interfered with no spontaneous natural agencies, which were, in themselves, producing results conformable to the mind of the Holy Spirit. On occasion it summoned all needed divine influences and suggestions, and it sealed the entire record and all its elements, however generated, with the impramatur of God, sending it to us as his Word.

The authors go on to refer specifically to how the writers’ own purposes, cultures, personalities, biases, style, and proneness to human error were all encompassed in this process to ensure the truthful result God intended. They make due allowance for genre on precision of speech, metaphor and so on – and I’m sure would welcome the new insights of scholarship into the literary forms of ancient times just as they welcomes the insights of positive critical scholarship in their own time.

Their section on claims of factual errors in the Bible – and their propensity to be overturned by further research – is every bit as true today as then: archaeology and other disciplines have continued to turn up problems at about the same rate as they have provided vindications. The nineteenth century, too, had its “minimalists” and “maximalists”, informed more by their presuppositions than the strength of evidence.

I want just to compare this approach to inspiration with the “incarnational model” being propounded by some Evangelical scholars nowadays. The latter view runs something like this: the Son became truly man, and men have limitations in their understanding and are prone to error. Ergo Jesus must have had the limitations of a first century Jew. Ergo we should see Scripture as being similarly limited and prone to error, seeking to find the divine gold amongst the human dross.

The first thing to say is that this view, unlike Hodge’s and Warfield’s, lacks any real description of the actual process of inspiration. It would be fair to say that it proposes no more than some indeterminate “divine influence”. And that, I would suggest, is because its proponents are committed to the “mere conservation” view of reality. God does not interfere with his world – that rules out divine dictation as crude and meddlesome for a start. But, like the parallel ideas in “free process” creation, there really is no other way available for God to act – his providence does not extend (how could it?) to ensuring the circumstances of a prophet’s birth or his personality, let alone his words.

And so its very conception of “incarnation” is correspondingly weak. Somehow the supernatural Son insinuates himself into a natural world that was previously doing its own thing – he picks a suitable mother and a suitable embryo. The divine and the human are somehow rather unconnected – and indeed there seems little taste for the kind of distinction-with-indivisibility expressed in the Chalcedonian definition, in which Christ is seen as the perfect and infallible God-man, not as a Jew with a sticker saying “Now with Added Divinity!”

Hodge’s and Warfield’s incorporation of the classical Christian teaching of concurrence, however, makes for a view of inspiration much more in keeping with a high view of Christ’s incarnation. To the Bible writers, every single one of the generations of Jesus’s ancestors was providentially governed by God in preparation for his coming. It occurred at the moment in history which God had sovereignly brought to fruition to enable not only the events of Jesus’s birth – the census, the oppression of Herod and so on – but to enable the Gospel to spread around the world in a way that only the Pax Romana made possible.

Mary may not have been sinless or immaculately conceived, but she and her whole context were prepared as a vessel to receive the Christ-child, just as Joseph was to educate him in godliness (as Luke’s childhood narratives stress so strongly). The miracle of his divine conception, then, was only the culmnination of an entire sequence of providences that were equally a part of what “incarnation” means.

And in the same way, the idea of God’s exerting some shadowy influence over the ideas and writing of some priest or prophet, so that God’s thought is “in there somewhere”, does no justice to the fact that even when God speaks directly through a Moses (as I argued specifically with reference to the covenant stipulations of the Law), he also makes him that prophet from birth, ensures his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household equips him with the necessary knowledge and attitudes, and so on… so that “inspiration” is not just a divine act, but the culmination of God’s superintendence of the world towards the end that his word should be a reliable guide.

And that’s why the psalmist in Ps 19 makes a comparison between God’s torah and his constant management of the natural creation:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

Of course, if you don’t believe God gets involved in the way the world itself goes, then this psalm itself will have to be judged on a lower view of inspiration than Hodge and Warfield promoted. I’m not quite sure what will be left of it then.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to More on inspiration

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    An excellent discussion on Scripture is found in Thomas’s Summa, Section 1, Articles 8-10. It is an extraordinary treatment of the subject; I would say the following to all of this. Understanding scripture also requires guidance and grace through the Holy Spirit. As Thomas says elsewhere, this aspect of Sacred Doctrine is in one sense the hardest to argue against those who would oppose it, and in another sense the most authoritative and secure ( in some places he uses the term ‘certitude’, which pleases me greatly).

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    As you say, the Spirit as the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture is difficult to defend against skeptics, though it stands four-square with teachings of Jesus and Paul, at least. The accusation of “subjectivity” is bound to come, and with some justification in that there are undoubtedly many individual variations of interpretation, even amongst Christians.

    Yet it’s in the same kind of compartment, really, as Polanyi’s “personal knowledge”, which as he shows is just the reality of all human knowledge. He was intrigued and exercised by the fact that his confidence in the truth of science, dependent ultimately on “personal knowledge”, but related to evidence and to the truthfulness of the scientific community, was in the end a faith commitment that could turn out to be largely misplaced.

    So, as Paul says, the man without the Spirit cannot understand the things of God – the study of the Bible cannot then succeed under the pretence of being an objective academic field. But perhaps that’s true of all knowledge, and is just more obvious when it comes to the inspired word.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      PS – Yes, Aquinas is (once more) astonishingly good on that- I liked especially the coherent treatment of dealing (or not) with the objections of unbelievers. Well worth reading. Thanks for the heads-up.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      I suppose we may draw a distinction between refuting accusations made against scripture (which is handled rather well by the Hodge and Warfield paper you have referenced), and the notion of personal knowledge (Polanyi’s tacit knowledge), which within these remarks may be taken to also mean the exercise of our reason, and using our knowledge of ‘objects’ (or what science provides) in understanding ourselves and the world around us. I like Thomas for showing that we may use our intellect, reason, but scripture can be understood by both those who may have philosophical training and abilities, and those who may not. The notion of revelation and that of what a human being is before God is, imo, not emphasised enough nowadays.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    The notion of revelation and that of what a human being is before God is, imo, not emphasised enough nowadays.

    Quite. Has largely to do with “autonomy” again, I think.

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