Monday, August 6, 2012

Peter, Paul, and Inspiration

Peter Enns has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University, has taught at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) for 14 years, was a Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation, and is currently on faculty at Eastern University teaching courses in Old and New Testaments.

In other words, Enns is no slouch. In fact, I have appreciated the limited interaction I have had with him. He is cordial and helpful, as well as intellectually honest (which has left me asking many questions). To be sure, the depth and intensity of these recent questions have been rivaled only by my introduction to Calvinism many years ago, and my (sort of) recent interactions with hell (if so inclined, you can also read my review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins).

Part of the recent din surrounding Enns is the discussion over the historicity of Adam. This discussion has undoubtedly held a prominent place within the blogosphere over the last few months (not least by Enns, Scot McKnight, and Kevin DeYoung). And yet, amongst these various discussions, I have not yet read anything on the doctrine of inspiration as it relates to Pauline and Adamic studies (which I know could simply be my own oversight).

What might be most helpful is to define inspiration:

By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers which rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or which resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God.[1]

And, of course, inspiration is a consequent of revelation:

God created thoughts in the mind of the writer as he wrote.[2]


While revelation is the communication of truth from God to humans, inspiration relates more to the relaying of that truth from the first recipient(s) of it to other persons, whether then or later. Thus, revelation might be thought of as a vertical action, and inspiration as a horizontal matter.[3]

And, herein lies a critical question: If we believe Paul’s writings were inspired (2 Tim 3:10), that they were supernaturally influenced, are we not attributing error to God if we attribute error to Paul? This question stems from Enns’s assertion in The Evolution of Adam that Paul’s assumptions about human origins might not necessarily display a unique level of scientific accuracy (95). Simply put, if Enns thinks Paul was wrong about the historicity of Adam, is this not also an affirmation that man’s error can supplant God’s sovereignty in revelation and inspiration?[4]

It seems that this is where Enns is headed. In his writings on inspiration, a major theme is accounting for the incarnational aspect(s) of inspiration (i.e., the human-ness of the authors). Accounting for the human element is necessary (God is not a puppet-master), and yet, I feel a sense of unease focusing too much on the humanity of scripture (although we must understand that the text was written in a specific historical and cultural context). For instance, it seems most appropriate to affirm that God himself took on human form rather than a man becoming divine.

Paul Helm puts it nicely:

[I]f the account of his deity is controlled by data about his humanity – including his physical and mental growth, his bodily weakness, his ignorance, his emotional life – the result may be a Christ who is very different from a Christ whose divine nature is given priority.[5]

This is also, at least for me, the appropriate interpretive process for the Bible; namely, the Bible is breathed by God and authored my humans. Bruce Waltke, in his review of Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation, states, “To be sure, the Scripture is fully human, but it is just as fully the Word of God, with whom there is no shadow of turning and who will not lie to or mislead his elect”.[6]

So, what are we to think?

Is Paul wrong?

Is Enns Wrong?

What do we have the right to conclude about the nature of revelation and inspiration?

How should revelation and inspiration affect our interpretive process?

These are some of the questions I am currently working through…

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 225.
[2] Ibid., 213.
[3] Ibid., 225-226.
[4] Enns has appropriately pointed out that this syllogism only works if the above definition of inspiration is affirmed. But, converesely, Enns’s affirmation that God’s purposes in revelation and inspiration will not be supplanted by the human element is only true if we accept his definition of inspiration. 
[6] Bruce K. Waltke, “Revisiting Inspiration and Incarnation,” The Westminster Theological Journal 71, no. 1 (2009): 94.


  1. I think Gregory Beale deals with your question about the nature of revelation and inspiration in "Can the Bible be completely inspired by God and yet still contain errors?" which was published in the Westminster Theological Journal in 2011. You might also read the essays in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic published by the faculty at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.

  2. There are many issues involved here, but I think one of the most important is that of methodology, which I don't hear many people talking about. I agree with Enns when he points out that people who profess to be committed to the authority of the Bible, refuse to accept the "plain facts" of what is there and force their own meaning on the text through their theological constructs. For example, I once argued with a guy about Paul's use of the term "refuse" which would better be translated "shit" to give the same effect in English that it would have had in Greek. My friend objected that the Bible wouldn't do that because (I'm assuming), "good Christians don't swear". To bring this back around to inspiration, how much of our doctrine of inspiration is manipulating the text to be something it's not? It might be worth asking, based on your definitions of revelation and inspiration noted above, could one say that Paul's writings were inspired but not revealed? It would thus carry the weight of authority we think it should, but it gets God off the hook without relying on Enns misuse of the idea of incarnation (it only happened ONCE!). Actually, I think I would make one clarification of "revelation." Could we restrict it to the historical events and sayings of God and not God creating the "things" he wanted the writers to write down? The latter seems to flatten revelation and inspiration as being two sides of the same coin (i.e., they are equal, the only difference is the form it is in [e.g., mental or written]).

    Sorry for the stream-of-consciousness response. These are some good questions that may help us get back to the fundamental issues and not get caught up in the hubbub that this discussion creates.

  3. I think it's possible to manipulate the text to make it mean something that it is not, but could that not also be true of how we define inspiration (i.e., the non-traditional definition)?

    Also, how can Scripture carry the weight of authority (horizontally) if it has not been revealed (vertically)?

    1. Dan,

      1) If by, "could that not also be true of how we define inspiration," you mean that we define it by the data of the text with the possibility of it be misconstrued through poor exegesis, then yes. But I'd rather take my chances with that than the other way around. I'm actually not sure what your first paragraph was getting at.

      2) Did God reveal that all Cretans are liars? ;) One option is to say that it has God's divine stamp of approval. "My name is YHWH and I approve of this message." Doesn't mean he revealed all of it, but that he is willing to attach his name to it. It has authority because of it's approval by God, not because of anything inherent within the text itself. This is probably the weakest option, but I think it does bring out an important point, which is that the authority of Scripture is derived from God, not the quality or character of the text. In the past, many evangelicals staked the authority of the Bible on it's character (i.e., it's authoritative because it doesn't error), and this may be what Enns is trying to fight against. Maybe were at a Euthyphro type dilemma.

      I also want to press again that what seems to be your understanding of the relationship of revelation and inspiration flattens out the ideas making them essentially one thing. From your perspective, can anything act that God does in history count as revelation or is revelation ONLY God creating the content of the inspired text in the minds of the authors (which also raises problems when you look at the history of a text like Jeremiah where the older Septuagint version is in a drastically different order than the later MT version)? If it includes the historical events, then how do those historical revealed events related to the inspired text? Specifically, can the author use chronological disjunction in the text (which is prevalent in both OT and NT, but more so I would say in the OT) without violating your proposed rules for revelation and inspiration (sorry, I don't like that phrase but it's all I could think of; I hope you get my point)?

      If I were to answer your question (which I'm avoiding in good political fashion), I would probably take the position of A. T. B. McGowen found in his book, "The Divine Authenticity of Scripture" which basically says that what we have (warts and all) is exactly the way God wanted it. We don't know why God did it in that way, but we must trust that he knows what he is doing. It's kind of like Origen saying that the Holy Spirit purposefully put mistakes in there so that we wouldn't be content with the literal sense but would dig deeper for the spiritual meaning; but without the later part. :)

  4. Hey, man. Thought-provoking post.

    Your statement, "For instance, it seems most appropriate to affirm that God himself took on human form rather than a man becoming divine." seems right on the money but the analogy can only go so far. How, then, do we deal with the difference between the Incarnation and Scripture, namely that Jesus was perfect, infallible humanity and the human writers of Scripture were neither perfect nor infallible? We have to account for how imperfect, fallible humans were able to produce (humanly speaking, of course) writings that were infallible and without error.

    Also, is one able to affirm authority and also believe that human error crept in? (I think you were alluding to this at one point.) We're willing to give Joshua the benefit of the doubt in Joshua 10, but can we stretch that accommodation to the creation account and if so, how far can we go?

  5. As much as I appreciate the writings of Millard Erickson, I think we immediately get off on an unsure footing if we satisfy ourselves with a view of inspiration that defines it merely as "a supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers."

    I don't mean to sound nit-picky here, but technically speaking, Scripture does not present itself to us primarily as the product of inspired writers, but as an inspired text (2 Timothy 3:16). The reason for this is plain: we are to focus on the fact that God was the origin of the text, and thus the fact of its sufficiency to equip us for faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:17), rather than try to pin down the nature of the human agency involved. Even when Peter goes so far as to briefly describe the human role in inspiration (2 Peter 1:21), his purpose is to point us back to the text and dissuade us from questioning its authority.

    I think it especially befuddles the issue to characterize " a vertical action, and inspiration as a horizontal matter." This does not do justice to how both Paul and Peter describe inspiration. And Erickson sounds almost Barthian when he tells us that "inspiration relates more to the relaying of that truth from the first recipient(s) of it to other persons, whether then or later." So the text "becomes inspired" only after it is written and as it is communicated to others?

    The definition of inspiration presented in Article VII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) is both accurate and precise in its summary of what the Bible teaches about itself:

    "We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us."

    To make even well-meaning statements as Erickson does when he writes, "God created thoughts in the mind of the writer as he wrote," are attempts to demystify the mode of revelation. As exercises in speculative theology they may have some validity, but such statements cannot be be raised to the level of dogmatics.

    I have recently summarized the doctrine of inspiration in a video on my web site, which you can also access at I hope you find it helpful.