Inspiration is a difficult concept for Christians. What or who is inspired? Evangelical Christians will certainly say that the Bible is inspired. However, this is a very problematic position. Often such claims do not even refer to the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible but to the English translation, preferably the so-called King James translation from the 17th century. As far as the original text of the Bible is concerned, it is extant in many ancient manuscripts with thousands of variant readings, of which many are still debated among text-critical scholars.
The writings of the New Testament do not provide any basis for the claim that the Bible is inspired. There is only one passage in the New Testament that speaks of the inspiration of Holy Scripture, 2 Timothy 3:16: “Every Scripture is inspired and useful for instruction.” At the time at which this was written, there was not yet any “New Testament,” that is, a book consisting of the Gospels and the Epistles. “Scripture” in this statement refers to the Old Testament, that is, the scriptures of Israel, especially the Five Books of Moses. The belief that these scriptures were divinely inspired was very widespread in early Christianity. However, where this belief is spelled out in more detail by the second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr, it is evident that inspiration is not ascribed to the Hebrew writings but rather to their translation into the Greek language. Not the original Hebrew text itself but the accuracy of their translation into Greek is believed to be due to divine inspiration.
What about the New Testament itself? The Gospels never claim to be inspired by God. On the contrary, the treatment of the earliest Gospel, namely Mark, by the later writers Matthew and Luke shows clearly that they do not consider the Gospel of Mark as an authoritative and inspired text. Both Matthew and Luke demonstrate that the text of their common source had to be altered in various ways. Some sections are omitted altogether, many of Mark’s sentences are changed, and often the stories of Mark are abbreviated or put into different contexts. Moreover, writers of the second century, notably Justin Martyr and his student Tatian, introduced many changes to the texts of the Gospels and composed harmonies of the Gospels that became very popular and were distributed widely.
The letters of the apostle Paul also never claim that they are themselves inspired writings. Occasionally, Paul says that he also possesses the spirit and that his opinions should therefore be taken seriously (1 Corinthians 7:40). But it is only one of several authorities to which Paul appeals. Indeed, the spirit is a rather ambiguous authority, as the lengthy discussion of the prophets (in 1 Corinthians 14), who speak in the spirit, demonstrates. In many instances Paul will refer to the law and to the prophets as authority, occasionally to a saying of Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:10), or to “nature” (1 Corinthians 1:14) or to a generally accepted custom (1 Corinthians 11:16).
If the writings of the New Testament are not inspired, where does the spirit appear in the Bible? The answer to this question is quite clear in the New Testament: The Christian believers are inspired. “We are all baptized in one Spirit into one body,” says the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:13. In Galatians 3:2 Paul asks the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit from the works of the law or by believing what you heard [the preaching of the Gospel]?” This inspiration has provided different gifts to each of the baptized Christians. Not only those who speak in tongues and prophesy and accomplish healings are acting by the spirit, but also those who help others and those who are in administrative positions exercise their gift of the spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28). In Romans 12:6–8 Paul lists among the gifts of the spirit not only prophecy but also ministry, teaching, exhortation, the giving of charity, leadership and acts of mercy. All these are signs of the inspiration of the Christian believers.
That the Spirit inspires people is especially evident in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is the agent of many important events in Luke’s gospel. John the Baptist is announced as “filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth” (Luke 1:15), and when he is born Luke says, “his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy” (Luke 1:67). The Holy Spirit is the agent in the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:34); Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” when she meets Mary (Luke 1:41). Jesus’ ministry is initiated by the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1, 14). However, the book of Acts demonstrates that not just special people are inspired; rather, first the apostles (Acts 1:5, 8, 2:4) become inspired and speak in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8), then their followers (Stephen: Acts 6:5, 10) and then all those who are baptized receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 8:17 etc.), and it is the Holy Spirit who 048legitimizes the acceptance of the Gentiles, into the church (Acts 11:15–18, 15:8, 28–29).
Christians who want to follow the teachings of the New Testament about the Holy Spirit should discard the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. It has no support in the Bible. To be sure, as the authors of the New Testament speak, they are members of communities that try to live their lives according to the power of the Holy Spirit. But that does not imply that their words are eternal and inerrant truth. Rather, whatever they say is as much conditioned by their cultural environment as our own attempts at formulating what is true. Not speaking, but life and conduct reflect the presence of the Holy Spirit. The sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community is nowhere stated more clearly than by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22–23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Inspiration is a difficult concept for Christians. What or who is inspired? Evangelical Christians will certainly say that the Bible is inspired. However, this is a very problematic position. Often such claims do not even refer to the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible but to the English translation, preferably the so-called King James translation from the 17th century. As far as the original text of the Bible is concerned, it is extant in many ancient manuscripts with thousands of variant readings, of which many are still debated among text-critical scholars. The writings of the New Testament […]