The Inspiration of Scripture

Part 1
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal statement on the nature of the Bible has been referenced elsewhere on this website. However, to recap, the UM Articles of Religion say concerning the Bible:

The Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

This statement puts the Bible at the center of our Theological Task -- we are called to read and interpret the Scriptures so that we might know what is “necessary to salvation.” The Scriptures tell us about Jesus Christ, about what He did for us, about God’s love for us which goes beyond our ability to comprehend. The scriptures outline for us what we must believe and do, and they limit what may be required for salvation. Put simply, they contain the Word of God for us.

While the Scriptures contain the Word of God, they also contain the words of human beings. God inspired the Bible, true, but God did so through the instrumentality of human beings, with human words and human thoughts and human experiences playing a large in the writing. The human authors, through whom God worked in the writing of the Scriptures, were still human beings as they wrote; they had human failings, human opinions, human agenda, human dreams and desires. They didn’t stop being human, nor did they give up their identity, their ingenuity, their personal characteristics, when they wrote. We are often tempted to view the process of Inspiration as a suspension of the human will and identity in order to take some kind of “Divine Dictation.” However, any balanced, open-eyed, reasonable approach to the Biblical record will reveal that such a complete take-over of human identity simply didn’t happen. Each of the canonical books shows clear and unmistakable signs of its human author: the author’s character, humor, political and historical opinions, biases and bigotries all come through in each and every book of the Bible. While we affirm that God had an important and unmistakable role in the writing of the Bible, we do the Scriptures an injustice when we fail to recognize that they are a collection of Divinely Inspired, yet human, reflections upon the human encounter with God, as well as human reflections and opinions upon what we, as a people of faith, should be doing in response to God’s Grace and Peace.

So, again, we ask: what do we mean by “Inspiration”? If we don’t mean a suspension of human will and identity, then what do we mean? Well, perhaps one of the best ways of illustrating what we mean by inspiration is to take a look at other ways we use the word.

For example, we often say that a sunset, sunrise, or other sight of great beauty, will “inspire” us to write a wonderful poem or paint a remarkable painting or compose a powerful song. The sight so “moves” us, so “compels us,” so “empowers” us, so “inspires” us that we put our emotional and intellectual response into creative action and we produce a work of art that contains, within it, a degree of the beauty and emotion that originally “inspired” us. That, my friends, is certainly a kind of inspiration, and it is one of the ways in which we may, indeed, view the inspiration of the Bible. God so moved in the lives of the Biblical authors that their response to God’s presence and action was to write their reflections upon these events and upon what they believed God was trying to say to and through them. Is this the only form of inspiration present in Scripture? No ... I don’t believe that this is the only kind of inspiration we find in the Bible, but it is a major form that is often overlooked.

© 1999, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.