About CrossPollen || CrossPollen Main Page || CrossPollen e-mail

Another Look at the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspiration

Statement of the Doctrine

Verbal Plenary Inspiration is taught in virtually all Biblically conservative Christian churches.
A presentation of the doctrine may be found in the  widely-accepted "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" ( see http://www.geocities.com/Athens/5948/hermeneutics.htm), which contains the following statement:

"Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives."
Some 'Articles of Affirmation and Denial' from the Chicago statement are reproduced here:
"Article VI.
WE AFFIRM that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.
WE DENY that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole.

Article VIII.
WE AFFIRM that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
WE DENY that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.
Article IX.
WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.
WE DENY that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God's Word.
Article X.
WE AFFIRM that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
WE DENY that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
Article XI.
WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.
WE DENY that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.
Article XII.
WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
Article XIII.
WE AFFIRM the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.
WE DENY that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations."
One conservative commentator  (Stanley Jerickson, http://www.open.org/~mrdsnts/d00300.htm):
summarizes the doctrine as follows.
"Verbal, plenary inspiration is a very necessary doctrine. Verbal indicates that every single word is inspired. Plenary means that every part is from God. Every word and every part of the Word of God is the inspired Word of God. "

Consequences of the Doctrine of Verbal Plenary Inspiration

The doctrine essentially elevates ancient Hebrew and Greek to the status of holy languages, for only these texts contain the "very words of the original", which are supposed to be divinely inspired.  Only experts in these languages can read the original inspired words; so only they are "qualified" to be the ultimate authorities on the Word of God.

Besides contributing to the formation of an elite circle of "Bible authorities", the doctrine  has also  led to a species of Biblical exegesis where the interpretation of passages depends on particular connotations and  shades of meaning of the original words. After all, the reasoning goes, if the Holy Spirit inspired exactly that word, then the exact meaning of the word must have great spiritual significance.  Hence, an "expert" on the Scriptures must (besides knowing Hebrew and Greek) also be  closely familiar with ancient Middle Eastern culture,  for the nuances and connotations of  language are highly culture-dependent, and are subject to considerable change over time.

The doctrine validates and encourages Biblical exegesis which assigns spiritual significance to exact arrangements and numerical patterns of  letters and words.  One example of an interpretive "red herring" spawned by the doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspiration is the "Bible Code" hypothesis. Bible Code proponents claim that secret, divine messages are hidden in patterns of Hebrew letters in the original text.  Needless to say, their claim is based  the assumption that every word and letter of the original is divinely inspired.

Biblical Basis of the Doctrine

There are several Scriptures which seem to indicate the holy character of the individual words of the Bible, to wit:

… Man shall not live on bread alone, but on  every   word  that proceeds out of the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4, NASB)

The  words of the LORD are pure words; As silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times. (Psalm 12:6, NASB)

However, when we take "word" in these passages to refer to individual Hebrew words,  we are making an interpretive leap which is not warranted by  the Scriptures themselves. Consider the following passages:
For so it was commanded me by the word of the LORD, saying, 'You shall eat no bread, nor drink water, nor return by the way which you came.' (1 Kings 13:9, NASB)

The sons of  the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles thereon, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the LORD.(1 Chr. 15:15, NASB)

How can a young man keep his way pure? By  keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have  treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You. (Psalm 119:9-11, NASB)

In these and many other Scriptures, "word" evidently does not refer to the individual grammatical units which we ordinarily call 'words';  but rather to the Lord's entire utterance.  In fact, every prophetic message is  invariably  referred to as "the Word of the Lord", not "the WORDS of the Lord".

Biblical Inconsistencies of  the Doctrine

Plenary Verbal Inspiration is not consistent with the Bible itself in two important respects.

First, the doctrine is inconsistent with the way the New Testament writers use the Old Testament. The Old Testament is extensively quoted in the New, but rarely quote word for word.  It's always the sense, and not the literal words, which is represented.   Of course, the New Testament was originally in Greek, and the Old Testament was in Hebrew:  but even so, the New Testament writers did not quote the Septuagint (the accepted Greek version of the Scriptures in Jesus' day)  literally; neither did they give literal translations of the Hebrew.  One respected evangelical source (New Bible Dictionary, 2nd edition, J.D. Douglas et al,  Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1962) makes the following comment:

"The freedom with which the NT writers quote the OT (following LXX, Targums, or an ad hoc rendering of the Hebrew, as best suits them) has been held to show that they did not believe in the inspiredness of the original words.  But their interest was not in the words, as such, but in their meaning: and recent study has made it clear that these quotations are interpretative and expository—a mode of quotation well known among the Jews."
I agree that the practice of free quotation does not call into question the New Testament writers' reverence for the Old Testament.  However,  it does clearly demonstrate that they did not consider the  inspired content of the Scriptures to be  tied to the exact choice of words.  Otherwise, they would have taken great pains to quote as literally as possible as is the practice of most "fundamentalist" churches of today.

Second, the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration is inconsistent with God's stated purpose to make Himself most fully known to as wide an audience as possible, regardless of education:

For it is written, " I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.''  Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of  this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  … For  consider your  calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but  God has chosen the foolish things of  the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of  the world to shame the things  which are strong, and the base things of  the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may  nullify the things that are, so that  no  man may boast before God.(1 Corinthians 1:19-29, NASB)
It is not the "scholars" and "scribes" who have the deepest spiritual insight.  Did not Jesus choose unlettered fishermen to the initial bearers of His Gospel?

 Many if not the majority of conservative Christians  recognize that God has designed the Scriptures to be equally accessible to the unlearned and the scholar.  The express purpose of Bible translator William Tyndale (the acknowledged "father" of the King James Version)  was to enable any plough-boy to be as familiar with the Bible as the "experts".  If the words of the original text are individually and specially inspired, then it is impossible for non-experts to gain equal familiarity with the Scriptures, unless the translators are endowed with the same level of inspiration as the original writers were.  Some English-speaking Christians indeed do consider the King James Bible to be word-for-word inspired, like the original.  However, they offer no consolation to speakers of other languages.  For them, English is a third holy language, along with Hebrew and Greek.   I have met American  missionaries in China who distribute King James Bibles rather than Chinese translations to students with minimal English comprehension.

Refining the Doctrine

Let us look more carefully at the "inspired" nature of the Scriptures.  Most Christians (and Article VIII of the Chicago Statement quoted above) agree  that the Bible is not a dictation, and that the personalities of the individual writers influenced their writings (in contrast to the orthodox Muslim view of the Koran).  Dr Jerickson (quoted above) illustrates his view of Biblical inspiration with the following example:

"II Pet. 1:21 states, "For the prophecy came not at any time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." Moved is the term "Phero" which means to "bear" or "uphold." It is used in Acts 27:17, "Which, when they had hoisted it, they used helps, undergirding the ship; and fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, struck sail, and so were driven." In this verse the term driven is used of a ship driven by the wind.

"I have always been drawn to pictures of the old Tea Clipper ships that roamed the Seas many years ago. They are so graceful being driven by the wind under full sail. The sailors worked with the wind to produce the transportation of their product. The authors of Scripture were borne along by the Holy Spirit to set down the record that God desired us to have, yet within the confines of their own writing style, time and emphasis.

"The tense of the term in II Peter is passive showing that the ship was driven by the wind - something that was acting on the ship, thus when we apply this to the authors of Scripture, we can see that they had nothing to do with the influence. They were carried along as the sailors of the ship were driven by the wind. The sailors were free to do what they would on the ship but the wind and the sea determined their course. The authors of scripture were carried along and their course was determined by the Holy Spirit yet they were free to use their own style and language."

Though this picture is graphically clear, the comparison it makes is somewhat ambiguous.  For while the wind and waves do indeed determine the overall course of the ship,  the sailors still have some measure of local control.  They may deflect their course by turning the rudder; they may even attempt to tack against the wind (though in a hurricane such attempts are doomed to failure).     The question is, What measure of local control was possessed by the writers of the Bible?  Did God give them sufficient autonomy that they were capable of including factual errors into their writings?

The New Bible Dictionary has this to say about Biblical inspiration:

"Psychologically, from the standpoint of form, it is clear that the human writers contributed much to the making of Scripture – historical research, theological meditation, linguistic style, etc.  Each biblical book is in one sense the literary creation of its author.  But theologically, from the standpoint of content, the Bible regards the human writers as  having contributed nothing, and Scripture as being entirely the creation of God."  (New Bible Dictionary,  op. cit., page 517.)
Should we consider that the "theological content" of the Scriptures includes the perfect and error-free recording of every detail and dimension?  Or should we regard that God allows inspired individuals to make factual slips to be in itself a theological truth with profound implications?


The Word of God is fully translatable, because God  intended to make His Word fully available to people of every nation. God does NOT rely on subtle nuances or fine particularities of  word meanings in conveying His message, because He is not esoteric. He does not communicate through connotations which vary  from culture to culture, and over time within any given culture.  He relies instead on features of language which are readily translatable, and  are robust to language changes associated with cultural and social evolution.

We should not attempt to probe to fine levels of philological distinction in order to more deeply understand the meaning of the Scripture.  Instead, we should recognize that  the deepest meanings of Scripture are readily extracted from any translation, and are robust to variations, including variations introduced by translators' bias.   In fact, interpretations based on  philological hair-splittings have historically produced much more partisan squabbling  than genuine spiritual edification.  The deeper the truth, the greater the pains God has taken to ensure that the truth shall be accessible to all peoples of all lands in all ages.

Inspired does not necessarily mean infallibility in all details, even in the original texts.  Ages of individuals may be wrong.  Details and numbers may be slightly off.  Gospel narratives may not be strictly chronological.  Attempts to exactly reconcile every detail lead to a wrong focus and misapplication of Scripture.

Let me strongly emphasize that this discussion does NOT call into question the historical occurrence  of different Biblical events (such as the Creation, the Flood, etc).  We have been talking about details and niceties -- it would be a mistake to extrapolate our conclusions to entire passages and accounts.  I do not question the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, which the Scriptures themselves repeatedly affirm.  I only object to the prevailing view that divine inspiration imparts a  wholly inerrant character to each individual letter and pen stroke of the original manuscripts.  This view, in my opinion, is a long step down the road to Bibliolatry, and away from the worship of God "in spirit and in truth".

Prayer:   Father, please teach us through your Holy Spirit to rightly divide Your Word of Truth.

©2001 CrossPollen. CrossPollen articles may be copied without permission from the author AS LONG AS (1) the article content is not changed (2) the original copyright notice is included. If you have been stimulated or challenged by these articles, please consider making a financial contribution to CrossPollen."Do not muzzle the ox who threshes the grain... If we sowed unto you spiritual things, is it a great matter if we shall reap your carnal things?"(1 Corinthians 9:9-11) Please contact us via e-mail. Thank you!

e-mail: thornroot@juno.com
Copyright © 2001 CrossPollen
Last Revised: December 28, 2001

CrossPollen Main Page || top of page  || CrossPollen e-mail