The Nature of the Influence by Which Inspiration is Accomplished
The evangelical Christian churches have never held what has been stigmatized the ‘mechanical’ theory of inspiration, despite the charges often made to the contrary. Instead of reducing the writers of Scripture to the level of machines or typewriters we have insisted that, while they wrote or spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, they nevertheless remained thinking, willing, self-conscious beings whose peculiar styles and mannerisms are clearly traceable in their writings. If their native tongue was Hebrew, they wrote Hebrew; if it was Greek, they wrote Greek; if they were educated, they wrote as men of culture; if uneducated, they wrote as such men would write. We do not separate the divine and human elements, but insist that the two are united in perfect harmony so that every word of Scripture is at one and the same time the word of God and also the word of man. The writers themselves make it plain that in this process the divine influence is primary and the human secondary, so that they are not so much the originators but rather the receivers and announcers of these messages. Hence what they wrote or spoke was not to be looked upon as merely their own product, but as the pure Word of God, and for that reason it was to be received and implicitly obeyed.
The fact that we can so easily trace the peculiar style or manner of expression through the writings of Paul or John or Moses shows that the Scriptures were given in a way which made allowance for human personalities. If it were otherwise the Scriptures would then be reduced to a dead level of monotony, and we would indeed have a mechanical theory of inspiration in which the writers were little more than automatons. It lies in the very idea of inspiration that God would use the agents which He employs according to their individual natures. One type of man would be chosen to write history, another type to write poetry, and still another type to set forth doctrines, although these functions might overlap in some writers. And back of that we are to remember that throughout the entire life of the prophet God’s providential control had been preparing him with the particular talents, education and experience which would be needed for the message which he was to give. This providential preparation of the prophets, which gave them the proper spiritual, intellectual and physical background, must, indeed have had its beginning in their remote ancestors. The result was that the right men were brought to the right places at the right times, and wrote the particular books or gave the particular messages which were designed for them. When God wanted to give His people a history of their early beginnings, He prepared a Moses to write it When He wanted to give them the lofty and worshipful poetry of the psalms, He prepared a David with poetic imagination. And since Christianity in its very nature would demand logical statement, He prepared a Paul, giving him a logical mind and the appropriate religious background which would enable him to set it forth in that manner. In this natural way God so prepared the various writers of Scripture that with the appropriate assistance of His directing and illuminating Spirit they freely and spontaneously wrote what He wished as He wished and when He wished. Thus the prophet was fitted to the message, and the message was suited to the prophet. Thus also the distinctive literary style of each writer was preserved, and each writer did a work which no one else was equipped to do.
On some occasions inspiration amounted to little if anything more than a process of dictation End spoke and man recorded the words: Gen. 22:15-18; Ex. 20:1-17; Is. 43:1-28, etc. On other occasions the writers functioned as thinkers and composers with all of their native energy coming into play as they deliberated, recollected and poured out their hearts to God, the Holy Spirit exercising only a general super vision which led them to write what was needful and to keep their writings free from error, e.g., Luke 1:1-4; Rom. 1:1-32; Eph. 1:1-23, etc. In narrating simple historical facts and in copying lists of names or numbers from reliable sources this superintendence was at a mini mum. Perhaps in some instances they were not even conscious of the Spirit’s directing influence as they wrote.
In the main, however, we can say that the words of the prophets express not merely something which has been thought out, inferred, hoped or feared by them, but something conveyed to them,– sometimes an unwelcome message forced upon them by the revealing Spirit. They naturally shrank from giving messages which foretold destruction for the people or for the nation. Yet they were not at liberty to say either more or less than what had been given to them, for he who is entrusted with a message from the King is not at liberty to omit or change any part of it but must give it out just as he has received it. Isaiah, for instance, immediately after his glorious vision and official appointment, was sent with an unwelcome message to his country men, and was even told beforehand that the people would not hear, that the effect of his preaching would be further rebellion and further hardening of their hearts. Yet he was not able to change the message, but could only inquire, ‘Lord, how long?’ (Is. 6:9-13). Ezekiel like wise was sent to a rebellious people and was told that they would not hear (3:4-11) But whether they would hear or whether they would forbear, they were to know that a prophet of the Lord had been among them (Ezek. 2:5). Much as the prophet might like to speak otherwise, he could only give the message which had been given to him. If the people failed to heed the warning the responsibility rested on themselves (Ezek. 33:1-ll). The objectivity of the message is further shown in that sometimes the prophets themselves did not under stand the revelations which were given through them (Daniel 12:8, 9; Rev. 5:1-4).
Nor is the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiration to be considered any more mysterious than His work in the spheres of grace and providence. The first exercise of saving faith in the regenerated soul, for instance, is at one and the same time a work induced by the Holy Spirit and a freely chosen act of the person. And throughout the Bible the laws of nature, the course of history, and the varying fortunes of individuals are ever attributed to God’s providential control. ‘Jehovah hath His way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet,’ Nahum 1:3. ‘He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust,’ Matt. 5:45. ‘The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will, and setteth up over it the lowest of men,’ Dan. 4:17. ‘It is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for His good pleasure,’ Phil. 2:13. ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of Jehovah as the watercourses: He turneth it whithersoever He will,’ Prov. 21:1.
Inspiration must have been somewhat like the touch of the driver on the reins of the racing steeds. The preservation of the individual styles and mannerisms indicates as much. Under this providential control the prophets were so governed that while their humanity was not superseded their words to the people were God’s words and have been accepted as such by the Church in all ages.
That the writers of Scripture often used other documents or sources in the composition of their books is apparent to even the casual reader. For instance, the thirty-seventh chapter of Isaiah and the nineteenth chapter of II Kings are exactly alike. Hence Isaiah and the writer of II Kings must have had access to the same source materials. Many of the accounts in the different Gospels are told in almost identical language. If it be definitely proven, for instance, that the Pentateuch consists of different parts which in turn are based on older documents, our doctrine of inspiration can accept that view. In dealing with historical or legal data especially the writers of Scripture may have used sources as naturally as do present-day writers, with this difference: that the Holy Spirit supervised their work in such a way that they selected out only the material which God wanted given to the people, and set forth that material in such a way that it was free from error. We are not so much concerned with the method by which they wrote as we are about the value and authority of their final product. The more naturally and the less mechanically this writing took place, the better.
It is not to be expected that we should give a full explanation as to how the divine and human agents co-operated in the production of Scripture. Suffice it to say that in most cases it was something much more intimate than what is commonly known as ‘dictation.’ The trouble with us is that oftentimes we seek full explanations for those things which in their deeper aspects should only be adored as mysteries, such as the Trinity, the atonement, the relationship between the sovereign of God and the freedom of man, and the inspiration of the Scriptures. The modernist with his naturalistic basis easily solves these problems by ignoring the Divine, but is unaware how superficial he is. Evangelicals have truly grappled with these problems. They have acknowledged both the Divine and human elements and have brought about a partial solution while confessing that the human mind cannot fully comprehend the deep things of God.
It is, of course, not to be assumed that inspiration rendered the prophets omniscient. Their inspiration extended only to the contents of the particular messages which were given through them. In matters of science, philosophy or history which were outside their immediate purpose they stood on the same level with their contemporaries. They were preserved from error when speaking the Lord’s message, but inspiration in itself no more made them astronomers or chemists than it made them agriculturists. Many of them may have believed with their contemporaries that the sun moved around the earth, but nowhere in their writings do they teach that it does. Paul could not err in his teachings, although he could not remember how many people he had baptized at Corinth (I Cor. 1:16). We have already observed that Daniel and John did not fully understand all the revelations given through them. Isaac unwittingly pronounced the prophetic blessing on Jacob instead of his favorite son Esau, and when he later discovered that he had been deceived he was utterly unable to change it. when Moses recorded the promise that Abraham was to be the father of many nations, he little realized that in the later era all of the Gentile Christians were to be included in that promise and that eventually it would embrace the whole world ( Gal. 3:29; Eph. 2:13, 14; Rom. 4:13; Acts 13:17).
Nor does the doctrine of inspiration imply that the writers were free from error in their personal conduct. Moses wrote voluminously concerning the early history of Israel and is commonly considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets; yet at the waters of Meribah he took to himself the glory which belonged only to Jehovah, and for that offense he was not permitted to enter the promised land (Nu. 20:7-13). Balaam spoke certain great truths, and Saul was among the prophets. Peter likewise was infallible as a spokesman of the Lord, and yet on at least one occasion he fell into serious error in his personal conduct and it was necessary for Paul to resist him to the face, for he stood condemned (Gal. 2:11-14).
Furthermore, we find that inspiration was flexible enough to allow for some personal matters, as when Paul asked Timothy to come to him shortly and to bring his coat and certain books which he had left at Troas (II Tim. 4:13). It includes personal advice in regard to Timothy’s health, I Tim. 5:23), and personal concern for the treatment accorded to the returned slave Onesimus (Philemon 1:10-16).
Hence we see that the Christian doctrine of inspiration is not the mechanical lifeless process which unfriendly critics have often represented it to be. Rather it calls the whole personality of the prophet into action, giving full play to his own literary style and mannerisms, taking into consideration the preparation given the prophet in order that he might deliver a particular kind of message, and allowing for the use of other documents or sources of information as these were needed. If these facts were kept more clearly in mind the doctrine of inspiration would not be so summarily set aside nor so unreasonably attacked by otherwise cautious and reverent scholars.