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Asbury Bible Commentary – Theories of Inspiration
Theories of Inspiration

Theories of Inspiration

Among Protestant evangelicals, theories of inspiration have developed that involve both deductive and inductive methodologies. Trembath examines several examples of each approach, concluding that deductivists begin with a particular doctrine of God and man that requires that all communication from God must be inerrant in its form. Inspiration, then, must be understood by examining the form of the Bible itself. Inductivists, on the other hand, evaluate inspiration by examining the effect it brings to the believing community. The effect they look for is the experience of salvation.Kern Robert Trembath, Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 45, 70, 71. Trembath sees examples of the deductivists as Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, John Warwick Montgomery, and E. J. Carnell. The inductivist examples are Augustus H. Strong, Bernard Ramm, and William J. Abraham. “Inspired” texts are, simply speaking, those through which the Spirit works to communicate faith and salvation.

According to Trembath's evaluation of the deductivist theories of inspiration, they base their arguments on an a priori presupposition that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the character of God and the truthfulness of the Bible. They assume a basic theological claim about the meaning of inspiration and then attempt to deduce from this assumption what the Scripture must be. Norman Geisler illustrates the argument for this position:

(1) Whatever God utters is errorless (inerrant).

(2) The Words of the Bible are God's utterances.

(3) Therefore, the words of the Bible are errorless (inerrant).Norman Geisler, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1968), 53.

When inspiration begins with such an understanding of the doctrine of God, it tends to be thought of as a passive process in which human beings are either vehicles for divine communication or passive receivers.Trembath, Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration, 8ff.; Abraham, The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture, 11-12. Trembath also analyzes the inductive approaches of Bernard Ramm and William Abraham, both of whom emphasize that the inspiration of Scripture from its effects in the redeemed life of the community. Ramm extensively develops the classical issue of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit in two books: The Witness of the Spirit, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959); and in Special Revelation and the Word of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961). In this view the process of inspiration is not concursive.

Randall Basinger and David Basinger challenge this method by contending that such an approach implies a dictation theory of inspiration and is inconsistent with a theology of free will. They note that if a concursive approach to inspiration is accepted, free human activity by the writers must also be accepted. These free human activities cannot be totally controlled by God without violating human freedom. If God creates free moral creatures, then he cannot totally control the words that they write and, therefore, he cannot guarantee inerrancy of the biblical text. In short, the Basingers are arguing that God cannot perfectly control the biblical writers without removing their freedom.Randall Basinger and David Basinger, “Inerrancy, Dictation and the Free Will Defence,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 55 (1983): 177-80.

Deductive theories of inspiration attempt to base their arguments for biblical inspiration on externals—categories of “objective” data—that carry considerable sway despite the faith experience of the reader. Inductive theories attempt the opposite. A. H. Strong, for example, asserts that God's work of inspiration is discerned in part when persons are inspired to faith through the Bible. He shows that inspiration is a part of the character of the Bible because of its effects in bringing people to faith. This contrasts sharply with the deductive approach of B. B. Warfield and others who locate inspiration in the “divine status” of the biblical words themselves. Strong also reasons that an individual will accept or reject the authority of Scripture in direct symmetry with whether one accepts or rejects its message. He defines inspiration in this way:

“Inspiration is that influence of the Spirit of God upon the minds of the Scripture writers which made their writings the record of a progressive divine revelation, sufficient, when taken together and interpreted by the same Spirit who inspired them, to lead every honest inquirer to Christ and to salvation.”A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1907), 196ff.

This emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in both the writing and reading of Scripture is consistent with John Wesley's view of the Bible as a means of grace. This view agrees with the concursive concept of the Spirit's role in inspiration as defined above. Furthermore, Strong's emphasis on the role of Scripture in leading readers to Christ is in line with Wesley's functional view of Scripture's authority and redemptive purpose.

Given the Wesleyan emphasis on the experiential work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, as well as the necessity of free will, a concursive or dynamic understanding of inspiration seems more consistent with a Wesleyan theological point of view. Wesley's emphasis on the saving function of Scripture (reliability) and the internal testimony of the Spirit place him firmly in the orthodox Patristic and Reformation traditions. His use of reason is always in relationship to tradition and experience in the context of Scripture. Thus, his theological position on salvation, the inspiration of Scripture, and the pragmatic role of experience is incompatible with the rationalistic/deductive systems of establishing theological authority and biblical inspiration. A Wesleyan view of inspiration should reflect a cooperative, redemptive, interpersonal process that is validated by an existential spiritual encounter with the Holy Spirit. Experiential and observable redemptive effects of the Scripture, which function as a means of grace to believers, attest to the reality of the spiritual encounter.It should be noted that a view of inspiration such as has been described does not preclude the validity and contribution of historical and critical studies of Scripture. Indeed, when the presuppositions of the practitioners of critical methodologies are not antisupernaturalistic, these methods contribute essential foundations for understanding Scripture. See William Abraham, Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982); Robert W. Lyon, “Evangelicals and Critical Historical Method,” Interpreting God's Word for Today, vol. 2, Wesleyan Theological Perspectives series, eds. Wayne McCown and James Earl Massey (Anderson, Ind.: Warner, 1982).