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Inspiration and Inerrancy

By R. K. McGregor Wri, Th.M., Ph.D.

Note: Words that appear in bold in the text are explained in the glossary at the end of the article. Terms that are defined are listed in the glossary in order of their appearance in the article.

Scripture Passages

The key passage regarding the inspiration of Scripture is in Paul’s referring Timothy to the Holy Scripture which he had known "from childhood." II Tim. 3:16 says "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." The last five words (in the KJV) represent one Greek word, an adjective describing "all Scripture" or "every Scripture." Literally the term means breathed out from God or God-breathed.

Notice that it is the Scripture text itself, and not the human penman, which is so described. The process of inspiration, however mysterious in itself, terminates upon the text. The Bible is breathed out "from God" (as Peter confirms in II Pet. 1:21), and is not just the product of an inspired life or human genius such as the music of J.S. Bach or the plays of Shakespeare.

The Peter passage also adds valuable insight to the Bible’s doctrine of inspiration. II Pet. 1:17 notes from Peter’s own experiences, as recounted in the Gospels, that when Jesus was baptized, the Father verbally identified him as the Messianic Son directly out of heaven. Literally, it was "a voice borne from heaven"(v. 18). Then in v. 19 it is added that this testimony to Christ confirms the written prophecies (the "prophetic word"), and should cause us to attend to it.

Verse 21 makes the startling statement that the human will was not the cause of the prophetic Scriptures. Rather than being produced by the human will, they were "spoken from God" by men "carried along by the Holy Spirit." The word moved (KJV and NASB) is also found in Acts 27:15. Look it up!


The text is inerrant because its Author is infallible. Strictly speaking, the word infallible means incapable of error, and is a much stronger claim than mere inerrancy. A human secretary can produce an inerrant text without much effort. Any number of human texts actually contain no errors, and no miracle is required for this.

Behind all human knowledge is God’s exhaustive and therefore infallible knowing from eternity to eternity. Because the Bible claims to be the Word of God written (1Cor. 14:37), infallible (Luke 1:4), non contradictory (John 10:35 and II Tim. 2:13), the Truth (Ps. 119:142), the very words of God (Matt. 4:4), life-giving (I Pet. 1:23-25), powerful, searching the heart (Heb 4:12-13), capable of informing the whole of life (II Tim. 3:16-17), and preserved in heaven forever (Ps. 119:89), it would follow from the character of its Author that it must be without error.

A Trustworthy Text

Since the product of inspiration is a text, God has carefully preserved this text down to our own day. As early as 1881, when Westcott and Hort published the text behind the English Revised Version, they noted that despite many details of manuscript variation, these variants "are but secondary incidents of a fundamentally single and identical text." If trivialities like misspellings are ignored, the words still subject to doubt "can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament."

In those days, Westcott and Hort had only about 1400 manuscript sources to work with. Today we have about 5000. No wonder they said even then, that "in the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings."

In other words, the NT is by far the most heavily attested ancient literature in existence. They also added that "fidelity to the exact words of Scripture" motivates the scholar’s concern for accuracy. The same must be said of course, of those many faithful souls who copied the text down through the years until the invention of the printed page, in the mid-1400s.

Words or Ideas?

It is often suggested that God inspired the ideas of the Bible’s saving message rather than the words themselves. This is a confusing departure from orthodoxy and needs to be clarified.

Strictly speaking, there are no ideas in the Bible at all. The Bible is a text of words on paper. The ideas are not on the paper, but in the mind of God, and then—after the words are read—in the mind of the human reader. The function of the text is to be a symbol-system which mediates the revelation from the mind of God to our finite minds. It does this because God so controls the symbols ("breathes out" the text) that he can control the ideas (the truth-content of the revelation) which are to be evoked or created in the mind of the reader. In other words, even God cannot achieve an end without a means.

To control the end (producing saving ideas in the human mind), He must control the means (the words of the text.) It makes no sense to claim that God can inspire a set of ideas in a text without inspiring the words of that text. No inerrant text, no inerrant ideas. Erroneous ideas cannot constitute a divine revelation.

Jot and Tittle Inspiration

Jot and tittle inspiration is implied in Jesus’ claim in Matt. 5:18 that not the smallest letter or distinguishing mark on a letter will pass away until all be fulfilled. This must mean—at the very least—that God will preserve every letter of the original text in the surviving manuscripts. It does not require that I be able to tell whether John wrote "only-begotten Son" (KJV translation) or "only begotten God" (NASB translation following the newly edited Greek texts). See page 322 of the UBS edition on John 1:18., if you want to follow up on this.

Paul made his own exegesis of the Old Testament depend on whether a particular word was singular or plural in Gal. 3:16. And Jesus held the same high view of verbal inspiration as did the Pharisees; "The Scriptures cannot be broken" (John 10:35). Even the most difficult problem passages were faithfully preserved verbally intact.

For example, in the very first verse of the Bible, although the Jews were strict monotheists, and the Hebrew verb for created is singular, the subject of the sentence (God) is nevertheless preserved in its plural form of Elohim, even when combined with the name Jehovah repeatedly, as in Genesis 1-3. The Jews had too much respect for the words of the Word, to change Elohim to the singular Eloah or El.

The Perfections of Scripture

The perfections of Scripture are its classically recognized principal attributes. They not only include the Bible’s inerrancy, but also its unity, sufficiency, necessity, perspicuity and more comprehensively, its authority. One could also speak of its objectivity or historicity, for one of its most important qualities is its intimate connection with history and its complete preservation to the present moment. Each one of those qualities or perfections deserves further development on these pages, for much false religion is tied up in their rejection.


Conclusions must be based on the intimate connection between the Author of Scripture and its authority. The Bible’s claim on our intellect rests in the coherence of its truth as "the mind of Christ" (1Cor. 2:16). We have spoken of "the Bible’s view of itself." For a further statement of its power in the life of the believer, read Psalm 119, whose main subject is the function of God’s Word in bringing the believer to spiritual maturity.

The Bible is indeed "words…which the Holy Spirit teaches" (1Cor. 2:13).


Inspiration — That process initiated by God whereby he breathes the text of his revealed Word into and through the human recipient in such a way that the resulting text is exactly as he would have it.

Scripture revelation from God. — The text of the Bible; written revelation from God.

Messianic Son — Jesus of Nazareth, who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies that a "Messiah," or anointed prophet of God would come to redeem His people.

The will, (or choice) — Usually, the capacity to voluntarily decide upon or embrace a course of action.

KJV, NASB — The King James Version of 1611, and the New American Standard Version of 1963.

Inerrancy — The property of a text when it contains no errors.

Word of God (God’s Word) —
1) The second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.
2) The verbal revelations of God, particularly the Scriptures.
3) The ordered structure of the Cosmos as God’s creation, partly known to us as natural "Laws".

Orthodoxy — Lit.,"right doctrine," or the standard central teachings of historical Christianity.

Revelation — The content of what God has communicated to us, either in the Creation (general revelation,) or in the Bible (special or verbal revelation).

Jots and Tittles — The smallest letter (yod) and the little ears or horns on some letters in the Hebrew alphabet which distinguish similar letters.

UBS — The United Bible Society, which publishes the most recent edited Greek New Testament.

Exegesis — The process of determining what a text says by using grammar, comparing vocabulary uses, and noting the style and contextual setting of a sentence. Merges into the larger task of Hermeneutics.

Hermenutics — The task of explaining the implications of the meaning of a text in terms of its immediate and wider contexts.

Pharisees — The most influential and strictest of the First Century Jewish sects.

Monotheism — The doctrine that there is only one god existing; for Jews this is Jehovah, creator God of their Old Testament.

Elohim — The commonest word for God in the OT, literally "great Ones."

Jehovah — The personal name of God in the OT, literally "He who exists."

El, Eloah — Singular forms of "Elohim," literally "great One."

Unity — The quality of being a coherent whole, rather than being made up of contradictory fragments and opinions.

Sufficiency — The quality of not requiring any other source of revelation.

Necessity — The quality of being an unavoidable link in the chain of divine activity that saves the individual to eternal life. Indispensable for salvation.

Perspicuity — Clarity, transparency. The Scripture can be savingly understood by anyone who wants to know the Gospel, and who makes the effort to use the normal means (such as taking the time to read it!) The central message is clear enough to be understood apart from any other authority. It is largely self-explaining.

Authority — The quality of requiring to be heard and believed because of the status or character of the speaker.

Objectivity — The Bible is an "object" of history which cannot be ignored, and requires explanation. Its continuity and influence must be accounted for. Its there whether the unbeliever likes it or not, and it demands our attention.

Mind of Christ — An expression in I Corinthians 2:16, often assumed to mean Jesus’ attitudes and understanding, but which more probably means the content of revelation, or God’s interpretation of reality.

Suggested Reading

Geisler, Norman (ed.) Inerrancy (Zondervan, 1980).
Biblical Errancy; An Analysis of Its Philosophical Roots (Zondervan, 1981).
Woodbridge, John D. Biblical Authority (Zondervan, 1982).
Warfield, B.B. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1948 and often reprinted).
Broadman (eds.) The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy, (1987) in the Southern Baptist Denomination (Broadman Press, 1987).
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture (IVP, 1988).
Van Til, Cornelius. The Doctrine of Scripture (Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Col., 1967).

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The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1991.
It was posted on this website in March 1997.

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