A Brief History of Biblical Inspiration

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 3

By Reta Halteman Finger

Origen Adamantios
Image from a French book of the 16th century.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In our last lesson, I quoted the late Jerry Falwell, who insisted that the biblical writers copied God’s words “verbatim, but through their own personalities.” Where did this idea come from? Much of the historical outline below is from The Bible: An Introduction by Jerry L. Sumney (Fortress 2014, 2nd edition), which I am presently using in a class at Eastern Mennonite University.

Where did the idea of biblical inspiration come from?

The concept of texts as divine revelation was not an important issue until the 6th century BCE, over 400 years after King David. By then, not only had the kingdom of Israel broken into two separate kingdoms, but both of them had been conquered by different enemies. The Northern Kingdom of Israel (composed of ten tribes and retaining the name Israel) had been swallowed up by Assyria in 722 BCE. And by 587 BCE, the Southern Kingdom of Judah (composed of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with Jerusalem as its capital) had succumbed to the Babylonians. The upper classes were taken into exile at Babylon (now in Iraq).

Bereft of their promised land, their temple, and their priesthood, the Judeans confronted searching questions about why their God had let this happen. Relying on oral memory and various texts they had brought with them, they then began shaping the material into a coherent history and theology. Through worship and study, the written word became divine revelation to them. By the time some of them returned to Jerusalem from exile (permitted by the Persian ruler, Cyrus, beginning in 539 BCE), they had a collection of writings that became guides for their priests, prophets, and all the people of Yahweh (see Nehemiah 8:1-12).

Adjustments in the early church

These writings became the scripture of the early Christians, but they believed God also spoke to them through their members who had the gift of prophecy. Rather than predicting the future, Christian prophets spoke messages from God addressed to their particular situations. Think, for example, of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, other speeches in the book of Acts, or Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14.

As the Spirit came upon many non-Jewish converts (e.g., Cornelius in Acts 10:44-48), the church was forced to seriously re-evaluate their scriptures. Acts 15 records the debate over whether to accept male Gentile converts without circumcision. A novel interpretation of Amos 9:11-12 from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) marked a shift away from this major Torah command. Even the Apostle Paul did not read the Bible for its literal sense. Galatians 2:15-21 and Romans 14 are vivid examples of how the example of Jesus and the activity of the Spirit trump the letter of the law.

Pros and cons of allegory

Paul and later interpreters like Origen (185-250 CE) and John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) used allegory to explain certain scriptures. (See how Paul uses Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-31). Various Christian interpreters used allegory—taking something concrete to represent an abstract or spiritual meaning—to make sense of commands they did not keep, as well as to explain factual or historical mistakes in their Bible. Even inaccuracies could reveal a true spiritual message. Sumney calls this “plenary inspiration,” meaning that the text was full of God’s word, even when not factually accurate (p 37).

But during the 16th century Reformation, both Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected allegorical interpretations because of the way some texts were abused and misrepresented. Luther did allow a “spiritual” interpretation of some texts, but Calvin rejected the allegorical method and insisted on the literal meaning of Scripture. Nevertheless, a contradiction exists between claims that scripture is infallible and must be read literally, when there are obvious historical and factual errors.

Challenges to an infallible Bible

During the 18th century Enlightenment in the West, questions about biblical inspiration increased. Emphasizing human reason, some interpreters denied the existence of miracles and considered some of the Bible stories legends. As older copies of Hebrew or Greek biblical texts turned up, so did many more variant readings. People would wonder which reading of a text should be considered infallible. By the 19th century, says Sumney, such questions “made it difficult to maintain the ideas of inspiration and inerrancy that had developed since the Reformation” (p 39).

Enter fundamentalism

But greater use of human reason and historical criticism aroused strong reactions throughout the 19th century, especially at Princeton Theological Seminary. Calvinist professors like A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, and B. B. Warfield saw the above questions as attacks on the Bible. They defended the Reformation definition of Scripture as infallible. Responding to variants in texts, they insisted that the wording of the “original autographs” were without error of any kind (even though no original autographs of any biblical text have ever been found.)

Not all proponents of inerrancy went that far. Falwell’s statement is probably typical of many fundamentalist church leaders who insist the biblical writers recorded every word as coming from God, yet somehow allow for the expression of human personality. This is usually called “plenary verbal inspiration.”

But scholarly definitions of inerrancy are often misused among lay Christians. To some, the King James Bible is the Word of God without error. Newer English translations using older and better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are viewed with deep suspicion. Fundamentalists strongly opposed the Revised Standard Version (1946) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) when they were published.

The next lesson will deal with inerrancy in more detail: its political influence in the U.S. and its inherent weaknesses. Later we will discuss its connection to evangelicals, Christian feminists, and the current turmoil over homosexuality.

Questions for discussion or reflection:

1. What is your view of biblical inspiration in relation to the views presented above?

2.  Have you ever had a discussion/debate/argument with a Christian holding a different view of inspiration?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.


  1. I like your series.

    My understanding of Acts 10, Acts 15, and Rom 14:14 is different than yours, not sure if you want discussion yet or not. If you do, I am willing to engage.

  2. Donald,
    I am sorry not to have checked this sooner. Feel free to share your understanding of these texts in Acts and Romans.
    Reta Finger

  3. My understanding is that Peter, Paul, etc. were Jews and what they taught and wrote did not negate or trump any earlier Scripture, but assumed it and built upon it. In Acts 21 Paul claims to have not forsaken Moses nor taught any Jew to do so, so when I come to some text that seems like he did, I suspect I am misunderstanding it somehow and need to dig deeper. For example, the Greek word nomos is often translated law or Law, but it can refer to many different things in Scripture, it might be a pagan or Jewish law (singular) or it might be the Pentateuch (Torah of Moses) or it might be the Tanakh (Written Torah, the OT) or it might be the so-called Oral Torah of the Pharisees. If the latter case, Jesus said such traditions were merely human inventions and when they negated Scripture, they were to be ignored. Figuring out exactly which law/Torah is being referred to in a verse is then a necessary part of understanding it, but if one does not even know the possible meaning, one is in a much harder place to figure out what it means. Peter pointed out that Paul was hard to understand in the 1st century, how much more is this true in the 21st.

    On Acts 15, I see this as a realization by the Council that gentiles (as gentiles, not converted to Jews) were always included in God’s plan for redemption, per Scripture. As a general statement, believing Gentiles have no requirement to keep the Jewish identity type commandments, like males getting circumcised, keeping Sabbath, eating kosher, and keeping the Biblical festivals, etc.

    Gal 2 is where Paul talks about righteousness. Righteousness in Scripture is always by faith in believing God’s promises as they have been revealed to you, this is why Paul can use Abraham as an example for believers, even though he knew nothing about Jesus. In any case, obeying the Torah for a Jew does not result in righteousness, that is not its purpose.

    Rom 14 is about disputable matters. Unfortunately, many translations make a mistake in their translation in Rom 14:14. The Greek is koinos, which normally means common or profane, but it is often translated as unclean in this verse. For Paul a Jew to claim that something was only unclean because one believed it so would have violated Torah, yet this is often used as a proof text to claim that Paul overrode Scripture. What is going on is a little more complex than often thought. Scripture teaches 2 distinctions, (1) clean and unclean and (2) holy and profane. Something that is unclean can never be holy, but something that is clean might be holy or profane, there is an overlap. One way to profane something was to offer it to an idol, for a Jew, this meant it was not to be eaten. So I think Paul is saying if someone THINKS it might have been offered to an idol, one should not eat it. This is partially confirmed by Rom 14:21 discussing wine, which is obviously from plants as plants are always clean for food in Torah. So the only way wine might be forbidden is when it had been profaned, for example, by offering it to an idol.

  4. Just a couple brief comments:
    Your first statement about Acts 15 is probably true–that the Council members accepted James’s statement and quotation from Amos as that God’s plan for redemption always included gentiles as gentiles. However, James was using the Septuagint (Greek) version of Amos 9:11-12, which is quite different from the Hebrew, which doesn’t seem to say this as far as I can see.

    I cannot tell from most of the OT writings that God’s plan always included this–at least as far as the biblical writers were concerned. During the time of the judges and kings, it seemed like it was a big enough job just keeping the Hebrew people worshiping Yahweh alone. Rather than any missionizing to the nations around them, people like Josiah or Ezra tried to keep them separate by knocking down altars to Baal/Asherah/etc or giving up non-Hebrew wives.

    On Romans 14, those “disputable matters” were pretty major. If “judging one day to be better than another” includes the Sabbath, which it appears to, that’s a big deal for Jews. No doubt eating kosher was as well–compounded by the fact that “eating together” was part of their whole worship experience, as we can see in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Paul wanted to Jews and gentiles in Rome to get along with each other and use forbearance with each other–and that seems more important to him than arguing over some important Jewish practices.

    Peter’s vision in Acts 10 seems to be a radical change from the past. If God was indeed saying in the vision that unclean foods were now clean, and the point being believing gentiles would for now on be accepted as gentiles–that seems like a huge hurdle for observant Jews at that time. Regardless of what it might have looked like from God’s point of view, it certainly looked like a major theological shift from the perspective of the early Jewish believers.

  5. Acts 10 is a passage that has different interpretations, my take is this is because most readers are not familiar the Tanakh, what Christians call the OT. My take is that Peter was a observant Jew all of his life and never ate unclean or profaned animals both before and after his vision in Acts 10 and not even inside the vision. In the vision in Acts 10 Peter declines to eat three times, which is a Hebraic way of saying this was a deliberate act or decision, not an accident. Peter is then puzzled about what the vision means and Acts then explains it three times that it means gentile inclusion.

    The challenge is then in trying to map the details of the vision to the (explicitly stated) meaning being gentile inclusion. Here is how I do it. The Jews recognized that there were a subset of gentiles called God fearers who were (theoretically) on the path to converting to Judaism, but then some of them decided for whatever reason to just stay there. They were in an in-between state, they were not pagan gentiles, they were welcome to be in synagogues in order to learn and allowed in the temple in the court of the gentiles, but they were not (yet) Jews until they had completed the requirements to become a Jew including accepting all the rules for Jews found in the Tanakh that applied to them.

    So what was going to happen to them? Many Jews thought that they had a share in the “world to come” that is, they would be declared righteous, as they were clearly no longer pagan and accepted the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the one true God. But what about right now (in the 1st century)? They in in effect a 2nd class of believers in God, according to Jews, since they did not have all the responsibilities of Jews, they also did not have all the rights of Jews. So here is the mapping: 1) Pagan gentiles correspond to unclean animals (never holy), 2) God fearing gentiles correspond to clean animals that are common (not kosher or profaned in some way) and 3) Jews correspond to clean animals that are prepared in a kosher way (holy).

    When using this mapping, the key verse is then Act 10:15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

    What this is saying is that gentile believers are not 2nd class in the Kingdom, every believer is first class (Jew or gentile), there is no second class of believer.

    The other conclusion is that the vision has nothing to do with possibly changing kosher food laws for believing Jews like Peter.

  6. Exo 12:38 A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.

    I understand gentiles to be included in this mixed multitude, because later verses explain how some gentiles must be circumcised in order to eat the Passover sacrifice.

    Also, in the promises to Abraham, many nations will be blessed, including gentiles.

  7. On Rom 14 and Sabbath, yes I understand Paul to be referring to Jews and gentiles, with Jews claiming some days are special. The point is not to look down on another that thinks differently.

    On believing gentiles and Jews eating food in common, one of the principles of the Kingdom is to submit to others; in this case, those with lesser food restrictions would submit to those with greater food restrictions. When I go to a Messianic Jewish Passover celebration, I do not expect to eat pork nor do I bring any, rather, I have table fellowship with them under their food restrictions.

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