Should the Bible’s inspiration be described as “verbal plenary”?

Q. I have been taught that the correct description of how the Bible was inspired is “verbal plenary.” Is that supported by what the Bible actually says about itself, or is there a more accurate description? Is “verbal plenary inspiration” what orthodox Christians (a majority? a minority? a fringe?) have held to throughout history? Thanks!

Those who hold to the “verbal plenary inspiration” of Scripture believe that every  word throughout the Bible was individually inspired by God. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Bible’s inspiration was first described this way by Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield in their article “Inspiration,” which appeared in The Presbyterian Review in April 1881. In that article, they stated their conviction that “the divine superintendence, which we call Inspiration, extended to the verbal expression [i.e. words] of the thoughts of the sacred writers, as well as to the thoughts themselves.”

So to answer the last part of your question first, this is not a belief that orthodox Christians have held to throughout history, at least not under that name. Rather, Christians in all times and places have held more generally to the belief that, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “all Scripture is inspired by God.” Many translations now render this phrase as “all Scripture is God-breathed” or “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” reflecting the Greek term theopneustos. (The English word “inspired” is itself based on the root for “breathe.”)

So Christians believe that in some way the Scriptures are the “breath of God,” that is, something that emanates directly from Him. But they have always held various views about on what level inspiration actually resides. Some indeed believe that it is effective on the level of the words of Scripture (verbal plenary), while others believe that it’s the biblical authors intended meaning that is inspired. Still others say that the story of God’s saving actions in human history is what is inspired within the Bible. There are other views as well.

So the specifics of where inspiration resides seem to me to be a matter on which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, can legitimately differ. As a result, I think any Christian would be well advised to be “fully convinced in their own mind” on the matter, but at the same time to be charitable towards those who hold different views that nevertheless respect the Bible as “breathed out by God.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

One thought on “Should the Bible’s inspiration be described as “verbal plenary”?”

  1. God inspired the writers of scriptures with his super knowledge that in later days all this will be consolidated into one Book of Inspiration.

    Reading from the book of Genesis we find Rebecca the mother of Jacob and Isau betraying his firstborn son by hijecking his blessings to Jacob. It sounded evil of Rebecca.

    But the actions of Rebecca inspired the coming true of the prophecy of the Lord that ‘elder brother will serve the younger brother’.

    Everything we do in life either evil or Holy spirit guide us.

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