Sunday, February 17, 2008

Inspiration: Word for Word or Thought for Thought?

My daughter is a student in a Bible college, and she came home recently with a bee in her bonnet about one of the topics of discussion in her Christian Beliefs class. The lesson was on the inspiration of scripture.

Every fundamentalist Christian believes that the entirety of the scriptural canon is without error and is inspired by God (2 Peter 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:16). The actual process by which Scripture came to be inspired is sometimes debated.

My daughter’s professor (whom I know and in whom I have confidence) stated emphatically that scripture was dictated word-for-word (WFW) from God to those who wrote it, or in the case of authors who had scribes, those who spoke it. He warned that believing in thought-for-thought (TFT) inspiration allowed for too much human interpretation of what God intended. Note that I am getting his position second-hand, but I'm only using it to introduce the topic, not argue against him. He may well have excellent supporting arguments I have not heard.

My daughter’s position was simple. When she reads the Bible, she sees the personalities of the authors in each of the books. John doesn't have a style that is anything like Luke’s, the Psalms are poetry written by different people, and the Chronicles read like a history book. Each book bears the unmistakable imprint of a human author writing for a purpose he clearly understands, and yet each book also bears the unmistakable imprint of God's in-breathing. This seems to point to a TFT process of inspiration where the Holy Spirit introduces the topic and preserves the author from error while he records God’s ideas for us. The Bible doesn’t read as though it were given by dictation.

To test her a bit, I pointed out that her argument did not necessarily prove her point because God could have used WFW inspiration and at the same time expressed those words in the author’s personal style. She gave me a look like I had stretched a point too far, and she was right. The outcome of this kind of WFW inspiration could not be distinguished from TFT inspiration, making it a distinction without a difference.

My wife pointed out that there are internal evidences in Scripture for TFT inspiration. In Revelation 1:19 the resurrected Christ tells John, “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.” Jesus gives him the vision, but seems to leave it up to john to put it into words. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel all had similar experiences. My wife also pointed out our pastor’s citation of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:6 “But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.” Here the Holy Spirit did not directly dictate the words to Paul, unless one were to contend that Paul was being dictated to without knowing it. Yet those words were preserved from error and became Scripture when they were written down.

Another argument on this topic comes from 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul is chiding the Corinthian church for their chaotic church services. He asks them to use self control and to defer to others in the service. Then in verse 32 he reminds them, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” This agrees with the general principle that God does not take direct control of our human will or physical faculties in order to bring about His will. A method of inspiration whereby God literally moved the writer’s hand or spoke words through his mouth would clearly be unprecedented.

All this makes WFW look doubtful. But there is one more thing to consider. If God gave the Scriptures thought-for-thought and not word-for-word, it implies that the thoughts could have been expressed with different words. No two words, though, have the same definition. This means that in any given language, once a thought is committed to words, changing any one word is highly likely to change the thought. If the received Scriptures are inspired, wouldn’t each word be important?

If we were to say that God gave scripture by TFT inspiration, but preserved the authors from error, how would He do so? Would it not be by making sure the authors used the correct words? How then does this differ from word-for-word inspiration? Have we set up another distinction without a difference?

Well, one way to look at it is to review God’s intentions for His words. We can see from the Great Commission and the book of Acts that God wanted the Gospel to spread throughout the world, across language and culture barriers. Word-for-word inspiration would imply that God intended that His words would be transmitted, studied, preached, and shared exactly as He gave them. This would mean that the converts would first have to learn Hebrew, Chaldean, Aramaic, and Greek before they would have God’s words.

But, since languages rarely have words with identical meanings, word-for-word translation is impossible. All translations (even those that claim to be word-for-word) are an attempt to convey the thoughts in the original passage into the target language. People have read these translations, believed the Gospel, grown in grace and knowledge, and died in the faith without being able to read a single word of Greek. They were able to do so because God’s thoughts transcend the words.

So, what did I tell my daughter? I lean toward thought-for-thought inspiration with the understanding that the Holy Spirit preserved the authors from error in expressing those thoughts. In practice, this means that in some places, the Holy Spirit gave the writers the actual words to use. In other places, He let them express their thoughts in their own unique ways while He overshadowed them and kept them from error.

The result for us is the same either way. We have the complete, sufficient, inerrant, and unchangeable Word of God.