How did the process of inspiration actually work, so that the Bible simultaneously had input from both God and man? While we don't know the precise mechanics, this page explores some possibilities, and suggests that the process may have worked a little differently for the different parts of the Bible.
This page explores the creation and early life of the Bible texts – a topic which we don’t know a lot about in terms of historical or archaeological evidence, but which we can explore in a preliminary way with the help of some internal Bible clues and a little common sense. The working assumption here is that the Bible is divinely inspired (a proposition explored on other pages of this site). This page builds on the concept of inspiration discussed on the page Who wrote it?
The process of composition and inspiration is perhaps easiest to grasp with the prophets. Many of them saw visions from God which they proceeded to write down – perhaps the following morning, perhaps at some later date; who can say? Sometimes it seems as though God spoke to them without necessarily any visual accompaniment, but once again, the message was written down pretty promptly. Often what we have recorded is a narrative frame in which the prophet goes to the people to whom he has been sent and announces: ‘The word of the Lord, came unto me, saying…’ or ‘Thus saith the Lord…’ On these occasions we don’t really know whether the message was delivered in advance, or whether God is feeding the prophet his words ‘line by line’ as it were, at the very moment of speaking (such that the prophet works something in the manner of a simultaneous interpreter or translator). On other occasions, the prophet records the moment of reception of the message rather than the moment of delivery: ‘Go to the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘Thus saith the Lord…’’.
It seems that most of the prophets were writers as well as speakers – or that they gave dictation to scribes who wrote for them (Jeremiah, for instance, used a scribe named Baruch for some of his work). Many of them speak of themselves in the first person. Their books as we now have them were not necessarily created end to end, however, at a single point in time. The prophecies in Jeremiah, for instance, are clearly not chronological in some instances, and span a long period of time. It seems therefore that the inspired work of writing down God’s messages and the activities of His prophet was subsequently accompanied, at least in some cases, by another inspired work of collation and editing. This may have been done by the prophet himself, or it may have been done by others; it does not really matter, and it does not affect the status of the writings.
It is increasingly being realised by scholars that the collating and editing work was done in a very deliberate and intricate manner (as you would expect if you believe the Bible to be inspired). There was a time when scholars spent a lot of their time pulling Bible texts apart to show alleged ‘editorial fractures’, but it is increasingly being recognised that this is not only highly speculative and ultimately unproveable, but also that it misses a lot of pattern and deliberate organisation that has been put into the creation of these texts. There is too much intricacy and beauty in the texts as we have them for it to be credible that they were ignorantly cobbled together.
So much for the prophets. What of the historical books? We know that there were various different historical records circulating in the Biblical period, because the Bible itself cross-references some of them (see for instance Numbers 21:14; Joshua 10:13; 2 Chronicles 20:34). Its authors and editors, though inspired by God, were aware of and used these other documents while they were creating their own under the hand of God.
Our ignorance of the process here is much greater than what we know with a certainty. It is possible, for instance, that God dictated to Moses the words that God and Abraham had spoken hundreds of years before, and that Moses wrote them down. It’s equally possible that there were other ancient documents of those events which Moses was inspired to use. They themselves may have been inspired, but God has evidently decided not to preserve them. Little editorial insertions like ‘as it is to this day’ (where the ‘day’ in question seems to post-date Moses) and other points of clarification are occasionally added to the text which suggests a process of creation rather than a one-time event. It may also be that narratives were handed down orally, and that the eventual creation of a printed document containing them was the point when inspiration came into play. All of these are possible, and people may take different views about which they feel more likely and the extent to which earlier sources were or were not involved. But if we accept the basic premise that the Scriptures in their final form are inspired by God, then these discussions are merely intriguing rather than critical.
When we come to the wisdom literature like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or Psalms, things get quite interesting. Presumably King Solomon sits down to deliberately create and write down wise sayings for posterity. But as he does this, God is working through him inspiring what he writes. After all, Solomon’s great wisdom itself had been a gift from God, according to the Bible account. The book of Proverbs is a clear example of a book that contains within it a number of separate collections which were assembled together at a later point. We know that some was done by Hezekiah and his servants (Proverbs 25:1), and it is possible that Ezra the scribe and other figures from the post-exilic period were also involved.
And so to Psalms. This is especially interesting because the book of Psalms contains human prayers and songs to God, which are nevertheless divinely inspired! In some cases the Psalmists are very explicit in criticising and questioning God, so the concept of Him inspiring words which do this is challenging. These are genuine and heartfelt prayers of God’s servants (this is what they really felt, in other words, rather than what God ‘told them to feel’ despite themselves, as it were). Yet despite this He has a hand in controlling and influencing the words that are used to express these thoughts. In this way, and in the very preservation of these prayers within Holy Scripture, God is presumably telling us by implication ‘these are the sorts of prayers that you (the reader of the Psalms) can and should be praying.’ ‘Should’ is an interesting one – many of the Psalms express doubt and problems with God. The point is not that we ought to doubt (clearly it would be better if we did not!), rather that if we doubt (as we probably shall at some point or other), then we should tell God about it. Through the inspiration of the Psalms, God shows us ways in which it is appropriate to express that doubt – and to express even the rage that we may feel against God, provided we do it in an appropriate way. Fascinating.
New Testament Letters
Finally, perhaps a comment on the New Testament letters. There are many of these, and it has been a deliberate strategy of God to preserve and use them as a communication tool to believers through the ages, even though they were originally written to address very specific, time-bound historical circumstances. It might be worth thinking through an example. Paul knows about the problems at the church in Corinth (for instance), and he sits down to write a letter to address them. He would have done that anyway (one presumes), with or without inspiration. So it makes sense to assume that there is intentionality and thought on the part of Paul as the writer. But God chose to inspire his words as He wrote and chose to preserve the letter for posterity because of its power go be extrapolated and applied to other problems in other churches in very different times.
In sum, while there may be much that we do not know about the mechanics of inspiration, the Bible assures us of its reality, and urges us to accept its teachings as the life-giving Word of God. This is the bottom line. The precise way in which it worked may be unclear in some respects, but this is what really matters.