The Method of Inspiration



Among sincere believers in the all-l>ervading inspiration of the Scriptures, there are minor differences of opinion. These differences have respect chiefly to the method in which the Holy Spirit wrought upon tho sacred writers. Some are unable to conceive of any inspiration which does not involve an external communication and reception. Richard Hooker, the great English Churchman of the sixteenth century, asserts that the anthors of the Bible "neither spake nor wrote any word of their own, but uttered syllable by syllable as the Spirit put it into their mouths." We may call this the dictation-theory of inspiration. There are undoubtedly instances in which this method was used by God. When Moses weut into the taberernacle, he "heard the voice speaking to him from between the cherubim." When John was in the Spirit on the Lord's-day, he was bidden to write certain definite words to the seven churches. But we conceive that this theory rests upon a very partial induction of Scripture facts. It unwarrantably assumes that occasional instances of direct dictation reveal the invariable method of God's communications of truth to the writers of the Bible.

There is another far larger class of facts which this theory is wholly unable to explain. There is a manifestly human element in the Scriptures. There are peculiarities of style which distinguish the productions of each writer from those of every other,— witness Paul's anavoloutha and his bursts of grief and of enthusiasm. There are variations in accounts of the same scene or transaction, which indicate personal idiosyncrasies in th^ different writers,—witness the descriptions of Mark as compared with those of Matthew. These facts tend to show that what they wrote was not dictated to them, but was in a true senso the product of their own observation and thought. They were not simply pens — they were penmen — of the Spirit. God's authorship did not preclude a human authorship also.

It has been sought to break the force of these facts by urging that the omniscient and omnipotent Spirit could without difficulty put his communications into all varieties of human speech. Quenstedt, the Lutheran theologian, declared that "the Holy Ghost inspired his amanuenses with those expressions which they would have employed, had they been left to themselves." We are reminded of Voltaire's idea that God created fossils in the rocks, just such as they would have been had ancient seas e isted. A theory like this virtually accuses God of unveracity. In nature he ha3 not made our senses to deceive us. Much less in his word has he led our minds astray by fillins; it with illusory ind.cations of intellectual actuity on the part of proi>hets and evangelists.

» i'rinted in the Examiner, Oct. 7 and Oct. U, 1880.

We must remember, moreover, that large parts of the Scriptures consist of narratives of events with which the writers were personally familiar. It is inconsistent with any wise economy of means in the divine administration, that the Scripture-writers should have had dictated to them what they knew already, or what they could inform themselves of by the use of their natural powers. That Luke made diligent inquiry as to the facts which he was to record, he expressly tells us in the preface to his Gospel. If, after all this gathering of materials, Luke still required to have his Gospel dictated to him word for word, it is difficult to see the need of the preliminary investigations. Why employ eye-witnesses of the Saviour's life, like John? Might not the Gospel which proceeded from his pen have been equally well written by one who never saw the Lord, nay, by one who lived a thousand years before his coming?

It is sometimes said that these considerations, convincing as they may seem, can weigh nothing against the plain assertion of Paul that he speaks "not in the words which man's wisdom tcacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth." A careful examination of this passage, however, will show that there is not only no dictation here, but that all such mechanical influence is by implication excluded. In what way are we to suppose that "man's wisdom teacheth?" By dictating word for word? Not tit all. It is rather by so filling the writer's mind, that he uses words addressed to the merely natural tastes and opinions of men. So the speech "taught by the Spirit," or "learned of the Spirit," as we may better translate the phrase, is not the utterance of words dictated one by oue by the Holy Ghost, but simply the expression of the thought with which the Spirit has filled the mind, in words of whose adequateness and appropriateness that same Spirit furnishes the guarantee. The passage teaches nothing more than that the general manner of discourse was ordered by God, so that the writers joined to the matter revealed by the Spirit words which they had also learned from the Spirit how to employ. In what precise way the Holy Spirit secured a right use of words we may or may not be able to determine. It is certain that this particular passage does not inform us,— much less does it constitute a direct affirmation of the dictation-theory of inspiration.

By way of transition to what seems to us a more reasonable conception of the general method of inspiration, we may add to all the preceding objections still one more. The theory of word-for-word dictation contradicts what we know of the law of God's working in the soul. The higher and nobler God's communications are, the more fully is the recipient in possession and use of his own faculties. To Joseph's dullness of perception God speaks in a vision of his sleep, but to Mary the angel of the annunciation delivers his message in her waking hours. We cannot suppose that the composition of the Scriptures, that highest work of man under the influence of God's Spirit, was purely mechanical. On the contrary, it seems plain to us that Psalms and Gospels and Epistles alike bear indubitable marks of having proceeded from living human hearts, and from minils in the most active and energetic movement. But, in order clearly to present our own view of God's method, it will be necessary to say a preliminary word with regard to the general matter of divine and human cooperation.

There are those who conceive of God's working and man's working as mutually exclusive of each other. They cannot comprehend the possibility of an act's having man for its author in the most complete sense, and yet being in an equally complete sense the work of God. Yet just such cooperation of God and man is brought to our view in the apostle's injunction: '' Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure." Even regeneration and conversion are respectively the divine and the human aspects of a change in which God and man are equally active, although logically speaking the initiative is wholly with God. But the highest and most wonderful proof and illustration of such union of divine and human activities is found in the person of the God-man, Jesus Christ. There surely the fact that a work is human does not prevent its being also divine, nor the fact that a work is divine prevent its being also human.

It is the great service to theology of Dorner, the distinguished German writer, that he has reiterated and emphasized this truth that man is not a mere tangent to God, capable of juxtaposition and contact with him, but < >f no interpenetration and indwelling of the divine Spirit. Every believer knows that the effect of God's union with his soul is only to put him more fully in possession of his own powers; in truth, he never is truly and fully himself until God is in him and works through him. Then only he learns how much there is of him, and of what lofty things he is capable. Now in this truth, as we conceive, lies the key to the doctrine of inspiration. The Scriptures are the production equally of God and of man, and are never t;> be regarded as merely human or merely divine. The wonder of inspiration — that which constitutes it a unique fact — is in neither of these terms separately, but in the union of the two. Those whom God raised up and providentially qualified, spoke and wrote the words of God, not as from without but as from within; and that, not passively, but in the most conscious possession and the most exalted exercise of their own powers of intellect, emotion and will.

Inspiration is a unique fact, and in attempting to illustrate our meaning, we run the risk of misleading. But let us run this risk, and trust to subsequent explanation to correct any false inferences from our illustrations. What dictation is, we know without any example. The merchant dictates a letter by word of mouth, and after it is written reads it over, and if it is correct authorizes the sending of it. It is his letter, though not a word of it is in his handwriting. This is the first method — a method employed, as we grant, in Scripture, though, as we also believe, only in rare and exceptional cases. There is a second method which may conceivably have been employed. In an interview with his confidential clerk, the same merchant may give the clerk a general idea of the letter which he desires to have written, but may leave the words and even the method of treatment in large degree to the clerk's discretion. Still it is the merchant's letter, not the clerk's. In fact, it would be to all intents and purposes his letter, had he given no special directions to his secretary, but had left him to be guided in his writing by what he knew of the general spirit and business methods of his employer,—that is, it would be the employer's letter, if it were accepted by that employer and sent forth by one authorized to act in his name. Now it is possible that the Scriptures might be the word of God, even though the relation between the divine and the human authors should in some cases be no more close than this. God might raise up men and providentially prepare them for this special work; he might specially call them to it by inward impulse or by the outward certification of miracle, and though there should be no dictation and no suggestion of anything more than the general idea to be expressed, his acceptance of their work and publication of it as his own might constitute it as fully his word, as it would be if he had dictated every part.

But let us hasten to say, however, that the method of "general instructions" suggested by the illustration just given seems to us equally insufficient to account for the facts with the method of dictation previously spoken of. The only parts of the Scripture that could with any semblance of probability be thought of as composed in this way would be those portions which most closely resemble secular literature, such as the books of the Chronicles, or certain of the Psalms, or the Acts of the Apostles. But even here, the loftiness of tone, the absolute freedom from all proved historical error, the incidental inculcation of profound doctrine, the important significance of slight shades of expression, render it impossible for the Christian reader to avoid the conclusion that over the whole process of composition a wisdom higher than the wisdom of this world, even the wisdom of the Holy Ghost, must have presided. While we reject the dictation-theory of inspiration as an explanation of the general method in which the Scriptures were written, we reject as entirely and unqualifiedly the theory that God simply put his ideas into the minds of the sacred writers, and then left them, in independence of himself, to the hazardous and stupendous task of furnishing the whole method of treatment and the entire means of expression.

Is there a middle ground between these two extremes? Or rather, is there not a higher point of view from which nil the truth which is in each of these theories may be grasped, while the error is excluded? We believe that there is. A third illustration will prepare the way for stating it. There are occasional experiences in the ministry of a faithful preacher of Christ's gospel, when the word of his master seems fulfilled: " It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you." After thorough and prayerful preparation, he appears before a public audience to utter God's truth with regard to sin and to salvation. As he proceeds in his discourse, the order of thought upon which he had fixed in his study seems like a track illumined with the clear light of heaven. All the surroundings and suggestions of the hour are lines converging toward his chosen end — the impressing of a definite truth upon the minds of his hearers. And that truth takes possession of his very soul; he feels its unutterable greatness, it* supreme claims; he is dying to utter it — aye, the struggle of his nature is so great that he almost dies in the uttering of it — his very life seems to go out with his words. Such new powers of thought and feeling are roused to action within him, that he wonders at himself; and as for expression, it seems like the full flowing of an irrepressible fountain — words fit themselves to thought with an exactness and grace, a persuasiveness and power, of which he never deemed himself capable. In short, he becomes possessed with the truth, and he proclaims the truth, in a state of insight and exaltation that puts to shame all his common moods, and gives almost a taste of the knowledge and love and power of seraphs before the throne. And tho -e who hear are moved, at first they know not why; the speaker seems lost to sight, and God draws near; it is as if, like Moses, they were admitted to the inner sanctuary of the Almighty, and heard his voice from between the cherubim.

The sermon is ended, but not the thoughts of the preacher. What are those thoughts? If he be, as we have supposed, a true man of God, they will be thoughts of the deepest awe and humility. He will say: "God spoke, not I." He will praise God, and wonder that God has so distinguished hiin as to make him his mouth-piece and ambassador. But at the same time he will say: "To-day I was myself. I became aware of hitherto undiscovered powers. How great a thing it is to be a man, and to use my whole humanity for him who redeemed me!" Passivity, loss of consciousness and will, absorption in God till the human element becomes a merely selfless instrument and organ of the divine, these are precisely what his experience is not. Now the whole-souled movement of the man under the influence of the indwelling Spirit — this seems to us to be the best earthly analogy for the understanding of the fact of inspiration. As we have already intimated, this illumination of the preacher by the Holy Spirit is not itself inspiration, nor at the best does it furnish anything more than a partial illustration of one principal feature of that unique work of God. For inspiration may involve revelation of new truth, while illumination is never more than a quickeuing of man's cognitive powers to perceive the old; inspiration qualifies the subject of it to put God's truth into permanent and written form, while illumination merely enables the man to unfold and utter the word that has been written abeady; inspiration gives absolute and final authority, illumination confers an authority that is only subordinate and relative. But the preacher's illumination by the Holy Spirit furnishes a true analogy to inspiration in this one respect, namely, that it involves a complete union of divine and of human activities, in distinction from the independent working of two equal parties on the one hand, or the mere mechanical influence of dictation on the other.

The possibility of such working of God in the soul of man can be denied only by those who regard man's soul as a region so sacred and independent that God would not enter it if he could, and could not enter it if he would. There is a striking similarity between their view of inspiration and their view of miracles. In both cases they hold that the laws of nature are suspended or violated; in both cases the second causes are reduced to passivity. The attraction of gravitation must be annulled, in order that Elisha may cause the axe to float upon the surface of the water; the spiritual life of Paul must come to a temporary stand-still, that he may write the Epistle to Philemon. We consider these views to be based on a radically incorrect conception of the relation of God to the two worlds of matter and of mind. God is in nature and in mind already,— he can by special exercise of will transcend the liowers of both, while yet these powers are working in full intensity. As gravitation is in operation even while the hand of God keeps the iron from sinking, s> all the laws of man's mental and moral nature are in operation at the same time that God uplifts and guides them in inspiration.

The opinion which we have been controverting has been cherished by many excellent men, from a conviction that it alone befitted the majesty of God, and secured the sacred writers from errors arising from their merely human methods of thought and expression. But when we consider that man was originally made to be inhabited and energized by God, it seems more in accordance with God's plan that he should speak through man, than merely to him. The exaggeration of the divine element seems to us as serious an error as the exaggeration of the human. Dorner well calls it the docetio, view of inspiration. It virtually holds that not the writers, but only the writings, were inspired. When we lose sight of the real human authorship of the sacred books, we incur a loss comparable only to that which we should sustain by letting go the human side of our Redeemer's persou. A great part of the power of the Bible over us, like the attraction of Chri«t, arises from its coming to us with the voice and the sympathies of our common humanity. Inspiration took into account this fact. It therefore did not remove, but rather pressed into service, all the personal peculiarities of the writers, together with their defects of culture and literary style. In fact, every imperfection not inconsistent with truth in a human composition may exist in inspired Scripture. The Bible is the "word of God," but we may also say of it, in a peculiar sense, that it is the "word made flesh." It presents to us truth in human forms. It is a revelation, not for a select class, but for the common mind. And rightly understood, this very humanity of the Bible is one of the best proofs of its divinity.

Precisely how much of new knowledge and power was added to each particular Scripture writer by the fact of his inspiration, it is not necessary or possible for us to determine. In our judgment, the chief source of error in common treatises on inspiration is the assumption thut the Holy Spirit must always have wrought in some uniform measure, or by the use of some uniform means. On the other hand, that seems to us the best definition of inspiration, which defines nothing as to the extent or manner of the influence of the indwelling Spirit. It is enough to say that inspiration is that special influence of God upon the minds of the Scripture writers, in virtue of which their productions, apart from errors of transcription and when rightly interpreted, together constitute an infallible and sufficient rule of faith and practice. So long as inspiration is regarded as an influence upon the minds, in distinction from the hands, of the writers, we may grant as unlimited variety in the means used by God to enlighten them, us there is in the means he uses for enlightening a sinner at conversion. Inspiration is not to be defined by its method, but by its result. It is a general term, including all those kinds and degrees of the Holy Spirit's influence which were brought to bear upon the minds of the Scripture writers in order to secure the putting ink) permanent and written form of the truth best adapted to man's moral and religious needs. Inspiration may often include revelation, or the direct communication from God of truth to which man could not attain by his unaided powers. It may include illumination, or the quickening of man's mind to understand truth already revealed. Inspiration, however, does not necessarily and always include either revelation or illumination. It is simply the divine influence which secures a correct transmission of the truth to the future; and, according to the nature of the truth to be transmitted, it may be only an inspiration of superintendence, or it may be, at the same time, an inspiration of illumination or of revelation.

This seems to be the meaning of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, when he tells us that in Old Testament times God spoke to the fathers through the prophets in many parts and in many ways. Inspiration, therefore, may be best regarded as a bestowment of various kinds and degrees of knowledge and aid, according to need, sometimes suggesting new truth, sometimes presiding over the selection of preexisting material, though always guarding from error in the final elaboration. It did not always, nor even generally, involve a direct communication to the Scripture writers of the words they wrote. Thought is possible without words, and in the order of nature precedes words. The Scripture writers appear to have been so influenced by the Holy Spirit, that they perceived and felt even the new truths they were to publish as discoveries of their own minds, and were left to the action of their own minds in the expression of these truths, with this single exception that they were supernaturally held back from the selection of wrong words, and when needful were provided with right ones. Inspiration is therefore verbal as to its result, but not verbal as to its method.

Yet in all this work of preparation and composition, although the writers of Scripture used their natural powers and opportunities as fully as they would have done in purely secular composition, they were possessed and animated by the Spirit of God. Notwithstanding the ever-present human element, there is an all-pervading inspiration of the Scriptures which constitutes these various writings an organic whole. The Bible is in all its parts the word of God. Hence each part is to be judged, not by itself alone, but in its connection with every other part. The Scriptures are not to be interpreted as so many merely human productions by different authors, but also as the w'ork of one divine mind. In many an expression of prophet or apostle, that divine mind may have intended to communicate more than was present to the consciousness of the human author. Seemingly trivial things are to be explained from their connection with the whole. One history is to be built up from the several accounts of the life of Christ. One doctrine must supplement another. The Old Testament is part of a progressive system, whose culmination and key are to be found in the New. The central subject and thought which binds all parts of the Bible together, and in the light of which they are to be interpreted, is the person and work of Jesus Christ.

This, then, is the sum of what we have said: The Scriptures, except in portions of insignificant extent, were not on the one hand written from dictation, nor on the other hand composed by men who derived their general ideas from God, while they were left to themselves so far as the expression of those ideas was concerned. Rather must we hold to a possession and enlightenment of the writers in all parts of their work, yet such a possession and enlightenment as left them in the fullest exercise of their natural powers. When they wrote, they wrote in the method and vocabulary of their time, and out of their present conscious experience under the influence of the Spirit. Balaam could not have written the Gospel according to John, nor could Paul have indited the Pentateuch. When they made researches they were guided by God; when they committed the results of their researches to writing, he kept them back from error either in matter or in expression. When th<-y were called to prophesy of things to come, the Holy Spirit opened the future to them ; when they gave directions to the churches, they did it in the wisdom which only the Holy Spirit could impart. But in all this there was nothing blind, nothing mechanical, nothing passive. They were as truly the authors of what they wrote as was the Holy Spirit. As John Locke said: "When God made the prophet, he did not unmake the man."

Two questions need to be answered before this discussion can be regarded as sufficient. The first is this: Are all parts of Scripture inspired? We reply: All parts of Scripture are inspired in their connection and relation to each other. No statement of the Bible can be taken out from its context, and be called complete truth by itself. We read in Scripture the words: "There is no God ;" but we have no difficulty in holding these to be inspired when we take them as part of the verse: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." This principle is of universal application, and next to the principle of combined human and divine authorship, we regard this one. of the articulated and organic unity of all Scripture as the most important to au understanding of the fact of inspiration.— The second question is this: Are there degrees of inspiration? We answer: There are degrees of value, but not degrees of inspiration. Each part of Scripture is rendered completely true, when interpreted according to it« actual meaning, and completeness has no degrees. All parts of the human body have life, and all are indispensable to the perfect whole. Yet we should miss the brain more than we should miss the hair that covers it, and the heart more than the hand into which it sends its blood. For all this, he would talk absurdly who should speak of the different parts of the body as having different degrees of life. So the Gospels may be of greater value to us than the minor prophets, and yet the inspiration of the latter be as complete as that of the former.

Thus we have endeavored to set forth a connected view of the method of inspiration. We have approached the subject without controversial reference to recent discussions of it — with irenic, rather than polemic, intent. We are convinced that the contemplation of the theme from the point of view which we have chosen, however imperfect and fragmentary our own treatment may have been, will enlarge our conceptions not only of the mysterious greatness, but also of the genuine reasonableness, of the doctrine of inspiration.