“A Bible class teacher recently made the statement that the Scriptures possess ‘plenary’ inspiration, but that it may not be claimed that the sacred volume is ‘verbally’ inspired of God. Can you clarify the difference in these terms?”
We must respectfully (though firmly) disagree with the teacher cited. “Plenary” inspiration and “verbal” inspiration cannot be separated. The term “plenary” simply means “full, complete, entire.” Generally, the term is employed to emphasize that all of the respective components of the Scriptures were given by God. This means that the Bible’s historical depictions are true, that incidental scientific references are factual as well, and, in a word, that all biblical documents are completely accurate. There are no qualitative differences between the various kinds of scriptural components.
The term “verbal” brings the issue into sharper focus. Verbal inspiration has to do with the actual formation and use of the words themselves. It involves the employment within sentences of nouns, verbs, prepositions, articles, etc. This “verbal” concept of inspiration contends that the Spirit of God guided the holy writers so that the very grammatical modes they employed were divinely orchestrated in order to convey subtle meanings of truth. While biblical scholars acknowledge that God used the individual talents and personalities of the holy writers, nonetheless it must be recognized that divine supervision was present so that the exact messages that Heaven intended were given.
The case for verbal inspiration can be argued in a variety of ways. The following, in brief, are some of these.
If the Bible is inspired in any sense, it must be verbally inspired. Surely there is no inspiration in leather, paper, or ink. It is the message of the sacred text that is inspired, and that message was conveyed by means of words. To suggest that the Scriptures are inspired in a “sense,” but not in “sentence,” represents an illogical absurdity.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16-17; KJV).
Paul’s explicit affirmation is that the Scriptures are “inspired of God.” The term “scripture” (graphe) is the noun form of the Greek verb grapho, which means “to write.” Since that which was “written” in the ancient records consisted of words, one must conclude that the very words of the Bible are inspired.
The Old Testament prophets claimed that the words of their messages were from God. David, for instance, declared that the words of his divinely-given communications were words provided by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:16).
“The Spirit of Jehovah spake by me, And his word was upon my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2).
Compare this with Acts 1:16.
“Brethren, it was needful that the Scripture should be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spake before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was guide to them that took Jesus.”
Jehovah informed Jeremiah that the words of his mouth had been placed there by the Lord himself.
“Then Jehovah put forth his hand, and touched my mouth; and Jehovah said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.” (Jer. 1:9).
Christ’s View of Inspiration
Christ endorsed the concept of verbal inspiration when he noted that man does not live by bread alone, but by every “word” that proceeds from the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4). If those words from God are not embodied in the Scriptures, where, pray tell, are they to be found?
Jesus, in contesting certain teachings of the Sadducees (who denied the bodily resurrection of the dead) called attention to the fact that Jehovah once had said to Moses, "I am [not “I was”] the God of Abraham?" (Ex. 3:6). The present tense form of the verb reveals that the Lord was still Abraham’s God, though the patriarch had been dead for four centuries. The Savior’s argument turns upon the very tense of a verb. That is verbal inspiration!
When Christ asked the Pharisees why David referred to his own offspring (i.e., the Messiah) as “Lord” (see Psa. 110:1; Mt. 22:41-46), they could not answer. The point is — Jesus grounded his argument on a single word, “Lord,” within the Old Testament text.
When certain Jews were offended by the fact that Jesus claimed to be the “Son of God,” the Lord constructed an ad hominem argument designed to highlight their inconsistency. If Christ’s adversaries conceded the appropriateness of certain Old Testament men being designated as “gods” — because they were instruments of divine revelation — surely they ought not to object to the appellation “Son of God” being applied to him. He had been sent by the father, and was especially set apart for his magnificent role in human redemption (Jn. 10:34-36). Again, though, the force of the Savior’s argument depends upon a single word in the Old Testament text — “gods” (Psa. 82:6).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated that not a single “jot” or “tittle” of the Mosaic law would pass away until all things be accomplished (Mt. 5:18; cf. Lk. 16:17). The “jot” was the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the “tittle” was a tiny stroke added to certain letters. The Lord’s affirmation was that it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest portion of the written law to fail before it realized its fulfillment. It has been noted that the use of the terms “jot” and “tittle” can be explained,
“only by recognizing that Christ regarded the individual words of Scripture as inspired and authoritative, for the change of a letter might well change the whole word and its meaning” (Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, Eds., Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999, p. 962).
Paul on Inspiration
Aside from the apostle’s statement to Timothy regarding the divine origin of the words of the Scriptures (as mentioned above — 2 Tim. 3:16), there are other indications in the writings of Paul that reflect his confidence in the verbal inspiration of the biblical documents.
In one of his Corinthian letters, the apostle contends that just as one cannot know the content of another person’s mind, unless that person reveals such, even so, no one can know the “things of God” except as those things were conveyed by the Spirit of God (as made known through inspired communicators of the first century, e.g., the apostles). Paul says, “...which things (i.e., the things of God) also we [inspired men] speak.” Then he adds, “...not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches...” (1 Cor. 2:13). Beyond dispute is the fact that the apostle here declares that the first-century gospel was conveyed in Spirit-given words. No clearer affirmation of verbal inspiration could have been framed.
In a letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul thanked God that these brethren had received “the word” of his message, not as “the word of men,” but rather, “as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thes. 2:13). It is not without significance that the term “word” is used. Everywhere the Scriptures speak of inspired “words”; the concept of mere inspired “thoughts” is alien to the Bible.
A Concluding Consideration
If the Scriptures are not verbally inspired, why do men consume such great amounts of time in composing grammars, lexicons, and word studies pertaining to the ancient text? Do scholars spend their energies doing detailed grammatical analyses of The Wall Street Journal, or old copies of the Sears and Roebuck Catalog? Do critics parse the words of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind?Yet, entire books have been written dealing a solitary Bible word. This is a telling phenomenon indeed.
The careful and honest Bible student must acknowledge (and defend) the proposition that the Scriptures constitute the verbally inspired Word of God. These writings are, therefore, authoritative for human belief and practice.