1902 Encyclopedia > Inspiration


INSPIRATION is the Latin equivalent of 0¤oirvevo-ria, and is used to express the fact that holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Spirit of God. The idea is not exclusively Christian or Jewish; pagans have had their inspired speakers and writers and their ideas of inspiration, and these earlier pagan notions have had their effect on some of the forms which the Christian doctrine l\as assumed.

The classical languages contain many words and phrases expressive of this idea, e.g. 9eo<f>6poi (iEsch., Agam. 1150), #eo7n/ewToi (Plut., ii. 904 sq.; cf. 2 Tim. iii. 15), Oeoirpoiroi 'Iliad and Odyssey, passim), ivdeoi (Plato, Phmdr. 244), jiicwo/xEvot, divino numine afflati, divino s-piritxi instincti, inspirati, furentes. Artistic powers and poetic talents, gifts of prediction, the warmth of love, and the battle frenzy were all ascribed to the power of the god pos-sessing the man inspired. And these words were taken over into Christian theological writing, and used to describe what Jewish and Christian divines have called inspiration. This transference of terms, which was unavoidable, pro-duced, however, a certain confusion of thought; for pagans and Christians meant by inspiration two different things. When a pagan described inspiration, he did so by stating the marks of the state into which the inspired person fell when the fit seized him; a Christian theologian on the other hand was chiefly concerned with the result of inspira-tion. What the inspired person said or did or commanded was of less moment to the pagan philosopher than the fact that he was possessed, that he was passive in the hands of the inspiring deity, that he was no longer himself but the god who for the moment dwelt in him and used him as he might an inanimate instrument. But in Christian theology inspiration always has to do with the belief that God has " wholly committed to writing" His reve-lation, and the psychological character of the state of inspiration is of small account compared with the fact that inspiration, whatever it may be, has for its result that God's revelation has so been committed to writing that men have it permanently, fully, and in an infallibly trust-worthy way. In pagan literature fleera-yeno-ros is applied primarily to men who have been possessed; in Biblical and ecclesiastical language its primary use is to denote the writings which are the result of inspiration. The words in the mouth of a pagan mean primarily the psychological state, in the mouth of a Christian they mean the charac-teristics of a book or set of writings.

The doctrine of inspiration in Christian theology contains very little reference to the psychological state of the persons inspired, and when it does enter into such details we may generally trace their presence back to the influence of pagan ideas or words; it has to do with the characteristics of the writings which have been inspired. In short, the problem of inspiration in Christian theology very much comes to this :—In the Bible we have God's revelation wholly committed to writing; what are we to infer from this about the Bible 1 And the varying answers given to this question form the history of the doctrine. Theology distinguishes between revelation, inspiration, and the canon of Scripture. Revelation is the objective approach of God to man, God entering into human life and history for man's salvation; Scripture is the record of this revelation, and inspiration provides that the record is complete and trustworthy ; while the canon of Scripture gives the list of inspired writings.

It does not belong to an historical article like this to describe more minutely the doctrine of inspiration or its basis in Scripture and in the Christian experience; all that can be done here is to state as concisely as possible various answers made to the main problem involved.

1. Jewish Tlieologians.—Our knowledge of the opinions of ancient Jewish thinkers about inspiration comes chiefly from the Apocrypha, from Josephus, and from Philo Judseus. The writers of the Apocrypha do not give us any theory or doctrine of inspiration, but it may be easily gathered from what they say that they regarded the Scriptures of the Old Testament as the word of God, and therefore worthy of all reverence. It is in 1 Mace. xii. 9 that the expression TO. /3tf3k'a ra ayia is first used of Old Testament books; and it is evident that the Pentateuch or the books of the law were held in special reverence, but beyond this we do not find a doctrine of inspiration. Nor does Josephus formally state or discuss the dogma in his writings, but his language shows that he and his contem-poraries believed that the Old Testament Scriptures were the word of God. The Old Testament he calls prophecy, and he declares that down to the time of Artaxerxes there was a regular succession of prophets which since then has ceased (Contra Apion., lib. i. c. 8.). It is Philo who first seeks to give a theory of inspiration, and he does so by bringing' the reflexions of Plato upon the pagan inspiration or /xavta. to explain the Jewish doctrine. Following Plato, Philo says that inspiration is a kind of " ecstasy," and he seems to imply that the degree of inspiration is greater in proportion to the unconsciousness or at least to the passivity of the man inspired. The prophet, he says, does not speak any words of his own, he is only the instrument of God, who inspires and who speaks through him {Be Specialibus Legibus, § 8); but lie says that there are degrees of inspiration, and that all portions of Scripture are not equally inspired, or at least have not the same depth of inspiration. Moses has the first place in the scale of inspired writers ; he is apxt7rP0^"?T,?s, while others are Mowcreojs Irolpoi, jxaOrjTai, OLOLCTZTCU, tfyoisrryrai, yveopifioi ; but this idea of degrees of inspiration, a conception borrowed from Plato, does not seem to prevent Philo from thinking that the very words of the Old Testament were all inspired of God (Tit. Mos., 2, § 7). It was also a common opinion among the Rabbins of the early Middle Ages that the inspiration of the Old Testament required that, not merely the thoughts and words of Scripture, but even the vowel points and accents were themselves of divine origin; but this idea seems to have been com-patible with the theory that there were three degrees of inspiration, the highest being the inspiration of the Penta-teuch and the lowest that of the Hagiographa.

2. The Church Fathers.—The early Christian church seems to have simply taken over the Jewish views about the inspiration of the Old Testament; and, when the New Testament canon was complete, they transferred the same characteristics to the New Testament writings also. It is evident that the early fathers of the church wished to teach that the complete knowledge of the salvation of God revealed in Christ was to be found in the Holy Scriptures because they were the book of God, but it is difficult to gather any consistent doctrine of inspiration from their writings, and when they do speak of inspiration it seems as if they were thinking more of the psychological process going on in the mind of the inspired man than of the result in the character of an inspired book. It was perhaps difficult for men educated in the principles of heathen philosophy to avoid applying their early belief about the pagan fxavia. to explain or define the Christian idea of inspiration. At all events we find the doctrine of inspira-tion described under such metaphors as the Platonists were accustomed to use : the inspired writer was the lyre, and the Holy Spirit the plectrum ; the writer was the vase, and the Spirit filled it; and Montanus could appeal to the almost unanimous idea of the church that prophecy implied both passivity and ecstasy. This view of inspira-tion was strengthened by the Apologists, who were accus-tomed to plead for the credibility of the inspiration of the Scriptures by appealing to the oracle of Dodona, to the supernatural character of the Sibylline books, and to the universally accepted fact of /xavia. Origen, who so fre-quently anticipates later criticism, was one of the earliest theologians who really attempted to construct a theory of inspiration. He said that the Scriptures contain the plenitude of the Holy Spirit, and that there was nothing in the law nor in the gospel which had not come down to us from the fulness of the Divine Majesty. Inspiration, he declared, preserved the writers from any faults of memory, and made it impossible to say that there was anything superfluous in Scripture. He got over difficulties either by allegorical interpretations, or by declaring that God, like a teacher, accommodates Himself to the degree of civilization in various ages. But the church of the early centuries was hindered from considering the doc-trine of inspiration on all its sides by two influences. Throughout the early church the common opinion pre-vailed that the Scriptures were of great practical import-ance and promoted the edification of believers. But the church scarcely set itself seriously to ask how the Scriptures edified believers and in what their practical importance consisted; yet these questions bore upon a right understanding of their inspiration. It seems evident, however, that ever since the early conflicts with Gnosticism the church was tempted to look upon Scripture as primarily a means of information, and not so much a means of grace. The Scriptures edified because they instructed, and were of importance because they gave information not otherwise attainable; and so inspiration, whatever else it was, came to be regarded as the means whereby that information was kept correct. It had been always held that the divine agent in inspiration was the Holy Spirit, but the precise function of the Spirit was not clearly defined. The early theologians, when discussing the inspiration of the apostles, forgot the writing in describing the writers, and enlarged on the powers communicated to them by the Spirit of God to guide the church, to work miracles, and to foretell the future. The promise of the Spirit, however, was not confined to the apostles ; all believers were to share in it. Justin Martyr speaks of the miraculous powers of the apostles, and of the spiritual gifts of all Christians, as if the two were the same; and Tertullian, while he does draw a distinction between the inspiration of the apostles and that common to all believers, declares that the difference is one of degree, the inspiration of believers being only partial inspiration. Out of these conflicting tendencies there emerged in due time a double doctrine of inspiration. The Scriptures were inspired to teach infallible truth, and believers were inspired also with something of the same kind of inspiration to interpret this infallible truth. For though it was not distinctly stated, yet still there were intimations of what was to come. Whenever the Bible is looked on as altogether or even chiefly a means of know-ledge, and not as a means of grace also, the intellectual aspect overcomes or drives into the background the concep-tion of the Bible as a grace-giving power, and there is need of infallible interpretation as well as of infallible delivery of the propositions which convey the knowledga In short, the doctrine was in such a state that at any moment it might crystallize into a theory that would practically deny to the ordinary believer the saving use of Scripture as a means of grace. The occasion was furnished by Montanism, which revived within the Christian church the old pagan idea of /xavia, and applied it not to the original Scriptures but to the infallible interpretation of Scripture. The Montanist prophets claimed to be possessed of the Spirit as the Old Testament prophets had been, but this inspiration they used, not so much to give additional Scriptures, as to give authoritative exposition of the Scrip-tures already delivered to the church. Theologians rejected the Montanist fiavta, denied that passivity and ecstasy were marks of inspiration, but none the less did the real essence of Montanist prophecy find its way into the church, for the result was a double doctrine of inspiration, —the inspiration of Scripture, which insured that the knowledge they communicated was correct, and the official inspiration of the church, which insured that the knowledge infallibly communicated was infallibly understood. This brings us to the scholastic period,

3. The Schoolmen accepted the doctrine of inspiration as it came to them from the fathers, and methodized it. They held that the Bible, which was the word of God and there-fore inspired, was the source of doctrinal truth; and so this inspiration of the Bible came out in the fact that the doctrinal truths contained in it were infallibly true. The Schoolmen also recognized that a revelation which is primarily doctrinal, and that only, requires infallibility in interpretation as well as infallibility in delivery; and so the inspiration of the church was as important as the infallibility of Scripture. As time went on the infallible interpretations were collected, and side by side with an infallible Scripture was the infallible tradition or the official interpretation of Scripture. The logical Schoolmen, however, perceived, what was not so distinct to the fathers of the church, who were accustomed to think in pictures rather than in propositions, that if the Bible was altogether a communication of doctrinal truth there was much in the Scriptures which had not at first sight that appearance. The long histories, the tables of genealogy, did not contain doctrinal statements, or give rules of holy living. Were these portions inspired ] The question does not require to be raised if we believe that inspiration implies simply that God has fully committed His revelation to writing, and that revelation is above all things God entering into human life and history for the salvation of His people; for then the whole course of the history, with all the facts as well as the doctrines, contains the revelation. But if we take revelation to be only the delivery of doctrines, the question arises and disturbs our theory of inspiration. The fathers solved every difficulty here by appealing to allegorical interpretation, for allegory will turn the driest statistical details into a moral or doctrinal code ; but the Schoolmen were too dryly logical to be quite content with this explanation. They accepted the allegorical senses of Scripture, but many of them held, like Thomas Aquinas (Summa ii. 2, qu. 1, art. 6 ; qu. 2, art. 2), that there were two kinds of inspiration in Scripture, the direct, which is to be found where doctrinal and moral truths are directly taught, and the indirect, which appears in historical pas-sages, whence the doctrinal and moral can only be in-directly evolved by the use of allegorical interpretation. Many different opinions, however, were held about the details of the doctrine. Gregory the Great called the writers of Scripture the calami of the Holy Spirit, to denote how entirely the Bible was the work of God; while Agobard of Lyons asserted that the inspiration of Scripture did not exclude the presence of grammatical errors. Thomas Aquinas was content to say simply that God is the author of Scripture (Summa 1, qu. 1, art. 10) ; but elsewhere he discusses at some length the psychological aspects of the inspiration of the prophets.

4. The Reformers placed the authority of Scripture above the decrees of popes and councils, above the opinions of the fathers, above the whole digest of official interpreta-tions of Scripture which made tradition. They regarded Scripture as the judge in all controversies in matters of faith and doctrine, and as the source whence came every article of belief; but besides this they held that Scripture was a means of grace, a principle of salvation, a means of awakening the new life in the hearts of God's people. This was the real gist of the Reformation doctrine of Scripture; this was the main part in the contribution which the Reformers made to the doctrine of the word of God. The fathers had spoken of the practical importance of Scripture and its power for edification, but they had placed these qualities in a secondary position, and in the scholastic period Scripture came to be regarded as little more than a quarry for doctrines. The Reformers insisted that all doctrines must come from Scripture; they held that the Scripture was the book of the all-wise God, and was therefore the touchstone in matters of religious controversy, but they also held that above all the Scripture was the sword of the Spirit, and that its main use was to pierce the heart and conscience. According to the Reformers, the revelation of God was fully committed to writing in the Scriptures, and the inspiration of Scripture lay in this fact; but they held that the special nature of inspiration must be derived from the purpose of God in this matter. God fully committed His revelation to writing, they argued, not merely to impart new knowledge to men, but also and principally to awaken His people to a new life; and this purpose must appear in the statement of the doctrine of inspiration. Thus the Reformation doctrine of inspiration, while capable of statement in terms somewhat similar, was really different from the patristic and mediaeval theories, and it became more closely allied with the written Scrip-tures, and paid less attention to the writers. It taught that Scripture as a whole, and the parts of Scripture looked at as parts of the one whole, were designed to be a means of grace, to awaken a new life in God's people, through the work of the Spirit, and thus the doctrine of inspiration was at once brought into connexion with and yet clearly separated from the spiritual illumination shared by all believers. It is allied because both the inspiration of Scripture and the enlightening work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers are parts of the plan of God whereby by His means of grace through the work of the Spirit He gathers believers into His kingdom; it is quite distinct, for by it God wholly commits His revelation to writing, and so makes the Scripture able to appeal with the very power of God to the hearts and consciences of men. In this way the doctrine of inspiration was advanced a stage beyond what it had before reached, and indeed was raised to a higher platform. It was now seen that inspiration secured that the Scriptures should be instinct with God's power for salvation, as well as full of the knowledge which God has pleased to communicate to man. And thus in the hands of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli the doctrine of inspiration had for its correlative the doctrine of the Testimonium Spiritus Sancti ; the two doctrines supported and explained each other. The second raised the first out of the region of mechanical dictation, the first prevented the second degenerating into a mystical enthusiasm. The Reformers were content to leave the doctrine of inspiration without much further definition, but they took the full advantage of the spiritual form of the doctrine to use great freedom with the letter of Scripture. Their successors acted otherwise.

5. The Protestant Scholastic for the most part treated the Reformers'doctrine of inspiration very much in the same way as the Schoolmen had treated the doctrine of the fathers. They did not deny the spiritual side of the doctrine; they maintained that Scripture was a means of grace, a power of God to salvation ; but they did not bring this side forward much in their discussions about inspiration. They dwelt on the fact that inspiration secured accuracy, rather than on the fact that it brought with it spiritual power. They asked, When Scripture is the word of the all-wise God, what does this imply ? And the answers were various. Gerhard held that it implied that the writers were the " pens," the " hands," the " amanuenses " of the Holy Ghost. We may with propriety, he says, call the prophets and the apostles " amanuenses Dei, Christi, manus et Spiritus sive tabel-liones sive notarios." Calovius and Quenstedt say the same. Quenstedt holds that everything in Scripture comes from the infallible divine assistance and direction, from a special suggestion and dictation of the Holy Spirit; and he says that because Scripture is inspired it is of infallible truth and free from every error; canonical Scripture con-tains no lie, no falsehood, not the very slightest error either in fact or in word; whatever things it relates, all and every one of them, are of the very highest truth, whether they be ethical or historical, chronological, topographical, or verbal; there is no ignorance, no want of knowledge, no forgetfulness, no lapse of memory in Scripture. The framers of the Formula Consensus Helvetica went further, and declared that the Old Testament was " turn quoad con-sonas, turn quoad vocalia, sive puncta ipsa, sive punctorum saltern potestatem, et turn quoad res, turn quoad verba tfeoVvewrros." On the other hand, Cappellus, led by his investigations into the antiquity of the Hebrew points, maintained that the inspiration of Scripture did not neces-sarily demand perfect accuracy in details; and he declared that such accuracy not only did not exist in such editions as we have now, but never did exist, for manuscripts show discrepancies which cannot be explained on the theory of wilful or involuntary mistakes of copyists.

The Socinians and certain Arminians, such as Episcopius, who started with the idea that the Bible is simply a com-munication of knowledge, and so revived the mediaeval idea, also resuscitated the scholastic doctrine of partial inspira-tion. They did not admit the allegorical method of inter-pretation, and were therefore compelled to reject the " indirect inspiration " of Thomas Aquinas; but they held that inspiration was only required to communicate know-ledge which the writer could not otherwise obtain, and they usually asserted that only the doctrinal parts of the Bible were inspired while the historical were not. Calixtus in the Lutheran Church held a somewhat similar opinion.

6. In more recent times the doctrine of inspiration has assumed various forms, many of which have but slight connexion with either the Reformation or the mediaaval theories. All admit that the inspiration of Scripture implies that the revelation of God has been committed to writing. Those who hold naturalistic views of revelation reduce inspiration to a peculiar aptitude for and sympathy with religious and moral truth. Others, although believing in the supernatural character of revelation, hold that there is no warrant to suppose anything specially supernatural about the committal of the revelation to writing, and believe that God left His revelation to be recorded in the natural course of providence by men who had perhaps a larger share than their fellows of the spiritual enlightenment common to all believers. Others again have revived the old Thomist doctrine that parts of the Bible are inspired and that parts are not. To meet such theories, orthodox theologians have invented the terms plenary inspiration and verbal inspiration, but the phrases are neither very exact nor very enlightening. Meanwhile it is interesting to observe that a number of modern theologians, among whom may be named the late Adolphe Monod of Paris, have sought to revive the old simple Reformation form of the doctrine divested of its 17th century subtilties.

See Sonntag, Doctrina Inspirationis ejusque ratio, &c., Heidelberg, 1810; Hagenbach, History of Doctrines; Baur, Vorlesungen über die Christliche Dogmengeschichte ; Schaff, History of the Creeds of Christendom ; Bannennan, Inspiration; Gaussen, Theopneustie ; Lee, The Inspiration of the Holy Bible, &c. (T. M. L.)

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