The Agony and Ecstasy: How Was Scripture Inspired?

Ezekiel had his fantastic vision of fire, wind, and four living creatures. John ate a sweet-and-sour scroll out of the hand of a giant angle. Isaiah had his lips scorched by a burning coal from the heavenly altar. Paul was in a catatonic state for three days. Then there’s the agonized lament of Jeremiah:

You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
All day long I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I must cry out,
violence and outrage I proclaim;
The word of the Lord has brought me
reproach and derision all day long.

I say I will not mention him,
I will no longer speak in his name.
But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding back,
I cannot!

We tend to forget what an extraordinary thing is signified by the doctrine of biblical inspiration. Quite simply, what is sitting on your bed stand or holding pride of place on your bookshelf is the greatest literary miracle—ever. It is also the greatest human literary achievement—not a book really, but more a library, as scholar Jacques Barzun noted—that tells the greatest stories of all time, including the story of time itself, and contains words of poetry and prose to rival any other.

How did they do it?

Too rarely do we wonder how this happened. We know that the individual books of Scripture had human authors who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. That’s what the Church teaches us and we move on to other things. Even many biblical scholars are surprisingly uncurious about the fine print of what this means.

Not only should the doctrine of biblical inspiration arouse our curiosity and wonder but it’s also something we should care about too. No, we do not believe, as the Protestants do, in Scripture alone, but Scripture is nonetheless of enormous importance to us. We would do well to understand the genesis of how we got it a little bit more than we do.

Over the history of the Church a number of theories have been developed to explain the ‘mechanics’ of inspiration. It’s worthwhile to look at several of these, in order to better understand the one that prevails in the Church today.

Before we jump into it, it helps to have some criteria in order to evaluate them as we go along. Of course, we ultimately lean on the judgment of the teaching authority of the Church but if we want to understand how the Church arrived at that judgment a set of criteria might be useful.

For theologian Aidan Nichols, Scripture itself points the way. In his book, The Shape of Catholic Theology, he says two verses are key. First is 2 Timothy 3:15 which states that all Scripture is ‘divinely inspired’—or, literally ‘God-breathed.’ On the other hand there is 2 Peter 1:21 where the apostle says that the biblical writers were ‘propelled’ by the Holy Spirit, a word which, Nichols notes, implies a sailing metaphor: the writers were moved by God as the wind blows a sail. (Nichols’ book by the way is a key source for much of what follows, including both structure and content. Any direct quotations will be marked as such.)

We can see an analogy with the Incarnation here: both a human and a divine element are affirmed. Much like our understanding of the Incarnation itself, we don’t want to over-emphasize the human aspect such that the divine, sacred character is obscured. Nor do we want to go to the opposite extreme of highlighting the role of the Holy Spirit as author such that any human role is minimized. With that in mind, here are some of the main theories:

1. The hypnosis theory.

An early theory of inspiration held that the biblical authors wrote Scripture while in some trance-like state. This was popularized by the early Church writer Athenagoras who describes it this way:

If we satisfied ourselves with advancing such considerations as these, our doctrines might by some be looked upon as human. But, since the voices of the prophets confirm our arguments—for I think that you also, with your great zeal for knowledge, and your great attainments in learning, cannot be ignorant of the writings either of Moses or of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the other prophets, who, lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute-player breathes into a flute.

This theory falls into one of the main pitfalls we want to avoid: divine authorship is affirmed, but the human author—his own style, ideas, and other particularities—are far too diminished. The minds of the biblical authors were more than empty vessels into which the Holy Spirit poured Scripture. How else to account for the varieties of style and substance we see, as Nicholas notes. Plus, it starts to become meaningless to attach individual names to books if the author had no ‘constructive’ role, which Nichols says must be affirmed.

2. The dictation theory.

This theory is what it sounds like: the Holy Spirit dictated to the biblical authors Scripture, word for word. This might sound like a good traditional theory on which to hang our hats, but it still goes too far in undermining human authorship. In fact, individual biblical writers are more stenographers than authors under this theory. In fairness, there are variants of this theory and some do more justice to the concept of authorship than others. But no matter how one cuts it, the dictation theory cannot bring us to fully-fledged human authorship.

3. Subsequent approval.

This theory starts with human authorship, as Nichols notes. The basic idea is that a holy man sets out to write a historical account, a poem, or a prophecy of future things which is then reviewed and ‘approved’ as part of the canon by the Holy Spirit operating through the Church. In this account, the words start out as human and then are made divine. We can readily see the manifold problems with this theory. Foremost among them—Scripture seems to have its origin not with God but man and only later ‘becomes’ sacred. That is deeply problematic on so many levels. Not the least of these is the complete conflation of inspiration with canonicity, as Nichols notes.

4. The protection theory.

In this version, the role of the Holy Spirit is again very limited. Essentially it comes down to protecting the human author from making an error of faith and morals. Otherwise, the work of the human author stands on its own. This theory too is rife with issues. Scripture is not really Scripture according to this understanding and biblical inspiration has been confused with what the Church teaches about the Magisterium.

As Nichols notes, the First Vatican Council ruled out the above two options as making Scripture all too human. (See its dogmatic constitution Deus Filius.) So must we revisit the first two? Attentive readers may note that both theories seem to have basis in Scripture, particularly in the excerpts at the beginning of this article. The prophets indeed were caught up in ecstasies and they also write about being told to write. There may be elements of truth in the hypnosis and dictation theories but these are ultimately inadequate. The prophets were not so enraptured by the Spirit that their human faculties were overwhelmed. They retained their powers of observation and recorded what they saw as best they could. We can see this at work especially in Ezekiel as he struggles to describe what he saw.

The same goes for the dictation theory. Sometimes text was dictated, but usually this seems to be in the context of a longer prophetic text in which the voice of the human author is manifest too. We must do a better job of accounting for the human element, otherwise, it really becomes meaningless to speak of ‘inspiration’ or there being any human ‘authors’ at all.

One other theory is worth briefly noting because, while also inadequate, it does help bring us closer to the truth.

5. Content inspiration.

This theory, advanced in the nineteenth century, holds that the ‘content’ or ‘ideas’ of Scripture came from God, while the words were supplied by human authors, according to Nichols. This has some merits, but there’s a huge problem here. The words you use matter a lot. They both express meaning and affect it. To accept this theory would vastly diminish the importance both of biblical exegesis and meditative prayer through Scripture—both of which involve close attention to even individual words. As St. Basil of Caesarea said,

Every deed and every word of our Savior Jesus Christ is a canon of piety and virtue. When thou hearest word or deed of His, do not hear it as by the way, or after a simple and carnal manner, but enter into the depths of His contemplation, become a communicant in truths mystically delivered to thee,” (cited by John Henry Newman).

Although Basil is here speaking about the gospels and, more specifically Christ, we can see how this principle extends to all of Scripture. For example, Genesis says man was created in the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of God. Entire theologies are stand or fall on those two words. If they were mere human words, we’d have to doubt if the author really is communicating what God intended. We’d end in doubting whether we are even created in the image of God in the first place.

6. Plenary verbal inspiration. 

So we need a theory that both accounts for human and divine authorship and also explains how not only the content was inspired but also the words. Nichols ultimately does not decide on any one theory in his textbook. Fortunately, the Church has not left us hanging. Here is what the Second Vatican Council said on the matter:

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted (Dei Verbum, 11).

There are a few things to note about this description. First, it states that Scripture in its ‘entirety’ and ‘with all’ its ‘parts’ is inspired. To this writer, that sure sounds like both content and words. Second, the last sentence has a beautifully simple description of the process this entails. The human authors were real authors, imprinting the text with their word choices, ideas, and literary structures and styles but God was acting through them in making all these choices.

There’s a certain simplicity to this that makes one think previous theologians over-thought inspiration. Inspiration is exactly what it sounds like: there were human authors who were inspired by God to write. There’s a paradoxical element here that must be embraced. This seems to resemble how the Church arrived at the doctrine of the Incarnation, in which it ultimately declared that Christ was fully human and fully divine. I think we must do the same with Scripture: it is fully human in the sense that the authors had their distinctive styles and ideas yet it is fully divine in that these both were ‘inspired’ by God.

Although neither Nichols nor the Second Vatican Council use the phrase, this theory of inspiration seems to closely resemble the theory of ‘plenary verbal inspiration’ that conservative evangelicals advocate. ‘Plenary’ communicates this notion of fullness and ‘verbal’ confirms that this fullness of inspiration extends to the words used (I’m especially indebted to this site for this explanation.)

This theory has the added advantage of leaving some room for mystery. There is a drama to inspiration. To adopt the words of the famous Irving Stone novel about Michelangelo which stand at top of this article, Scripture seems to be a matter both of human agony and divinely inspired ecstasy that compels our awe and wonder, remaining beyond the grasp of our full comprehension.

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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