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In What Way is the New Testament Inspired by God?

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In this article, I’d like to offer some thoughts about the inspiration of the New Testament canon from a philosophical perspective. My aim is to make us think deeply about what inspiration is (within a theological context) and how this relates to the Bibles we read today.

A precursory remark is that I am not a scholar of New Testament textual criticism. As I explained in a recent article, this is a highly academic and specialised field, and scholars dedicate their whole academic careers to its study. The complexity of the subject is such that no one could become an expert by reading just a few relevant books. My reflections come after studying a book called Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (InterVarsity Press, 2019), which I highly recommend for a deep dive into the subject.

The term ‘canon’, if you weren’t aware, refers to a collection of books which are generally accepted as authoritative. There are 27 books in the New Testament canon accepted by most Christian denominations today.

The manuscripts from the early centuries of Christianity that have been discovered reveal a wide variety of writings sometimes contained in codices, which are like an early form of books. Before codices there were scrolls. While a codex allowed for books to be compiled in a way scrolls couldn’t be, it’s important to point out that just because a codex contained a particular selection of books this doesn’t mean it solidified a canon. Codices often contained books that would not today be considered ‘inspired’, along with others that would.

So how did the faithful of Christian history come to know what to regard as the official New Testament canon? What scholars usually do is refer to lists of books cited in the works of the early church Fathers (for example, Origen, Eusebius, Cyril, Athanasius, and many others). The books the Church Fathers listed as canonical varied, and there are books some of them listed which are not included in the New Testament canon generally accepted today (for instance The Shepherd of Hermas and The Apocalypse of Peter).

According to the information presented in Myths and Mistakes, the Church Fathers (at least those discussed in the book) were generally in agreement in respect of the majority of New Testament books. So, for instance, the Gospels and the Pauline epistles have almost unanimous attestation.

What interests me for the purposes of this article is that what scholars appear to be doing is resting the authority of the canon on these lists produced by the Church Fathers. But doesn’t this mean that what they are saying is that it is these lists which are ‘inspired’, rather than the books themselves? (bear with me, I’m going to elaborate!)

In order to answer this question, we need to look more closely at the idea of inspiration. I have heard Christians often justify the inspiration of the Bible by referring to a single scripture, 2 Peter 1:21, which says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. If the justification for inspiration is that an author is ‘carried along by the Holy Spirit’, what does this mean? And if this is the criteria for ‘inspiration’, how did the Church Fathers (from whom we derive our canon) know which authors were ‘carried along by the Holy Spirit’ and which were not?

On the subject of what exactly the Holy Spirit is, I wrote an article about that. I highly recommend giving that article a read if the subject matter of this post is of interest to you.

So why are some writings considered to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and others not? From the perspective of my own philosophy, God’s omnipresence means God is in control of everything that happens. If this is true, it means that anything anyone writes is inspired by God. God works through human beings as the animator of all our actions. What makes the ‘inspired’ writers of Scripture different? Did they enter into a trance-like state while they were writing? Or did they perhaps see the words they were to write in their minds in a unique way? To the best of my knowledge, the Bible doesn’t explain the way in which the Biblical writers were inspired.

It is true that Christians believe we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptised. Acts 2:38 reads, “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” The Holy Spirit, in my experience, is reflected in a personal relationship with God — God talks to us directly and makes us constantly (or at least, a great deal more than previously) aware of His existence and His presence. But that’s the case for all Christians and doesn’t explain how the Biblical writers were different.

If the writers of the 27 books of the New Testament canon were not inspired in a unique way, this would allow us to lend extra weight to the many books from the early centuries of Christianity that were not included in the canon. The canon can then be seen as a series of books chosen by committees and councils to fulfil their purposes, rather than being in themselves inspired and authoritative in a unique way. The New Testament is certainly not inspired in the way the Qur’an claims to be in Islam, where the words of the Scripture are believed to be written on a preserved tablet which God keeps with Him.

In general terms, I believe a ‘closed canon’ can be perceived in two ways. One is that human beings made a decision regarding which books should be considered canonical. The other is that God made this decision, and by His providence worked through human beings to ensure the 27 books of the New Testament that are widely accepted today are canonical. The truth might well be that these two perspectives are not incompatible, and that both are true. When you read a Bible, God has placed that particular version in your hands for the purposes He wishes to accomplish. And perhaps that’s good enough assurance for the majority of Christians.

22 comments

  1. Don’t forget the most important verses dealing with inspiration, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which say that scripture is inspired or “God-breathed.” Any concept of inspiration has to take this into account.

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      1. I only bring it up as a friendly critique of your post. It seems difficult to say in what way the Bible can be considered God-breathed in the sense the author of 2 Timothy means it if the inspiration is not unique.

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          1. I think it’s important to distinguish between when a writing becomes scripture and when it becomes canonical. If you believe, like I do, that 2 Timothy is scripture, then I would say it became scripture the moment it was written because it was God-breathed, but it didn’t become canonical, i.e. recognized by the whole church as God-breathed, until later. Also, it’s interesting that 2 Peter 3:16 claims that Paul’s letters are scripture, so there’s some indication that these letters were accepted as scripture very early on. (If you accept that Paul and Peter were the writers of these letters, this becomes even more forceful.)

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            1. Yes, that is an important distinction. Although doesn’t your point suggest that there is Scripture that is God-breathed but not in the canon?

              I suppose one of the purposes of my post is to question what the experience of writing ‘God-breathed’ words is exactly. You could put it down to a mystery of God, but I’m curious. I wonder if Paul wrote letters that didn’t make it into the canon, and if they were inspired? If not, what was the difference exactly between Paul’s ‘God breathed’ writing and his other writing?

              2 Peter 3:16 is another good reference, thanks for sharing that with us.

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            2. It does leave that possibility open in the definition alone, but I believe that God providentially guides the church and he gave us all the scriptures he wanted us to have. Although it’s possible that there would be more, I would think it very unlikely because why would God inspire a writing and then leave it unknown to the church?

              I think by God-breathed, I mean similar to what Millard Erickson says in his Christian Theology, “By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers that rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or that resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God” (169).

              Admittedly, this definition needs a lot of working out, but I think God inspiring the scripture writers was neither a matter of dictation or general providence but somewhere in between, whereby he worked concurrently with their wills to have the writers write exactly what God wanted while still keeping intact their own style and mental faculties (they wrote exactly what they wanted too).

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            3. Also, Paul likely did write other letters. The difference would be that one was guaranteed to be exactly and fully the word of God, while the other would be a letter that did not hold this promise of infallibility.

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            4. I think the argument you’re making (and I could be wrong) is that we know the epistles are inspired because they are in the canon. I understand this perspective and I think it’s fair (I guess that’s what I was getting at in my closing paragraph).

              I suppose what fascinates me, and one of the main motivations for my post, is to understand what it means to be ‘carried along by the Holy Spirit’, because it seems that Biblically this is what marks some writings out as being inspired, while others are not.

              Perhaps you feel there’s no experiential difference between the writing of an inspired epistle and any other letter written by anyone, and what makes writing inspired is simply the way God uses the writing in history. This I can understand. But (to me at least) this doesn’t explain the idea of some writers being carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). What does that phrase mean in your understanding?

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello, just finished reading your article. Comprehensive in its subject matter, however, if I might humbly point out one thing you said, that I believe is not “exactly” correct. The line reads….”On the subject of what exactly the Holy Spirit is.” I humbly submit to you the line should read, “On the subject of WHO exactly the Holy Spirit is,” reflects the fact He is a person and not a what. Overall, I enjoyed your article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Russ! Thank you very much for your observation in relation to what I wrote about the Holy Spirit. Actually, I’m not sure whether you took a look at the article I linked in the post about the Holy Spirit, but in that article I discuss the fact that the Holy Spirit is generally understood as a person in trinitarian Christianity. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I think when we logically start breaking down scripture in an educated way we run the risk of losing the spirit of the message. This is what the teachers of the law did in Jesus’ day. All I can say is that God-breathed scripture resonates. It stirs your spirit and touches your heart in a way that only God’s truth can. I do not believe these canonized books are the last God- breathed messages to guide his people. I recognize clearly when I hear God in the words of others. Many of these books were canonized because they contain accounts from credible sources like Jesus’ disciples and Paul who encountered the resurrected Jesus. The epistles offer guidance on how to follow Jesus in a world that does not believe. There is no need for an excessive number, but I believe there are many non-canonized inspired writings. Only with the help of the Holy Spirit are we given the ability to discern.

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  4. Wow! You certainly achieved your goal. A great article Steven, thank you for taking the time to write this. I want to address so much in your article that I do not know where to begin. I suppose I would first like to know your definition of “solidified” in the context you used it. I think you are saying that because the book or group of books are in a Codex, it does not establish that Codex as being authoritative or inspired. Would I be correct in that definition?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello! Thanks for reading. I couldn’t think of a better word than ‘solidified’, but yes I just mean that codices allowed for a collation of different writings and therefore it would be easy for the group of writings in a codex to be considered an authoritative unit, whereas this wasn’t necessarily the case. Hope that makes sense!

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  5. Makes sense Steven, I will write a “reply” article to yours and provide you the link when it’s posted. There is much in it I think I can clear up, and I would like to hear your thoughts after you read it. Interaction is the reason I joined this site. I am eager to engage with others intellectually, learn and share thoughts and insights and on occasion to agree to disagree.
    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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