IBRI Research Report #52 (2004)

A Re-Presentation of “Are the Bibles in Our Possession Inspired?”
Research Report No. 5 – 1981, by Robert J. Dunzweiler


Elaine A. Phillips

Copyright © 2004 by Elaine A. Phillips. All rights reserved.


Following a descriptive definition of the doctrine of inspiration, the biblical bases for the doctrine are presented, and necessary qualifications proposed.  The concept is then lodged within the wider framework of revelation, and the applicability of inspiration beyond the autographs is considered.  It is proposed that a quality of inspiredness, the result of the act of inspiration, inheres in the apographs to the extent that they faithfully approximate the autographs.  The practical consideration of the nature of the biblical text as we have it today is sketched by following the text through seven stages from God’s revelation of the Word to its proclamation, noting possible sources of error.  It is concluded that we may properly speak of proclaiming God’s Word today.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 


Dr. Elaine Phillips
Dr. Elaine Phillips is currently professor of biblical studies at Gordon College (since 1993).  After receiving an MDiv from Biblical Theological Seminary, she and her husband Perry studied and taught in Jerusalem from 1976-79.  Upon returning to the US, she taught at Pinebrook Junior College outside Philadelphia while pursuing her PhD from The Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning.

NOTE: This is a revised and updated version of Report 5.

A Re-Presentation of “Are the Bibles in Our Possession Inspired?”
Research Report No. 5 – 1981, by Robert J. Dunzweiler


As a student of Professor Dunzweiler, I deeply appreciated his consistently thoughtful and careful treatment of contemporary theological issues.  His monograph (IBRI Research Report #5) on inspiration is one example of such exploration and I have used it with my own students for more than a decade.  Because, however, it was written to address statements and arguments that were part of the discussion in the late 1970’s, some parts of it resonate less successfully with this generation.  In addition, as I have taught this material at an introductory level, I have made some modest changes to the definition of inspiredness, have expanded the section on the issue of language and revelation, have revised rather significantly two of the “steps” which form the second part of the original presentation, and have added references to and reflections on several more contemporary hermeneutical issues.  At the same time, because Professor Dunzweiler’s consistently logical and precise manner of analysis is so compelling, I have attempted to preserve both the overall conceptual structure of the work as well as significant sections in his own words, particularly in regard to his analysis of the biblical texts, the initial presentation of the elements and effects of inspiration, and the development of the concept of inspiredness. The result is an odd combination that rests on the edge between “major revision” and “separate work.”1

The Inspiration and “Inspiredness” of Scripture:  A Proposal

The Concept of Inspiration

To claim that the biblical text is “inspired” opens a veritable Pandora’s box of interpretations and speculations on just how the process might have occurred.  These range from assuming it is a reflection of human spiritual exaltation and insight, on the one hand, to asserting that God actually dictated the very words of the biblical text, at the other extreme.  What has been termed the Organic View of inspiration maintains the Bible is the unique Word of God revealed to humankind by infallible supernatural guidance of the human faculties of chosen individuals.  This position has been advocated by such notable proponents as B.B. Warfield, William G.T. Shedd, Charles Hodge, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Louis Berkhof.  

For the purposes of this presentation, inspiration is defined as:

a special act of the Holy Spirit by which He guided the writers of Scripture so that their words should convey the thoughts He wished conveyed, should bear a proper relationship to the thoughts in the rest of Scripture, and should be kept free from error in thought, fact, doctrine and judgment.2

This special, extraordinary, supernatural act of the Holy Spirit pertains specifically to the autographs, the writings originally penned.  Nevertheless, there are significant implications regarding the subsequent copies, versions or translations, all of which are called apographs.  In fact, the key biblical texts that are supportive of the doctrine of inspiration address the character of the apographs of the Old Testament that were in use in the first century of the Common Era.

In the past quarter century, there has been considerable discussion among evangelicals on the questions of the nature and implications of inspiration.  The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) initiated a decade of work by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, the intent of which was to defend the concepts of inspiration and inerrancy against less rigorous understandings of the composition of Scripture.  In the context of this discussion, the terms inerrancy and infallibility have taken on significant implications and the choice to use one as opposed to the other is a statement in itself.  There are those who hold that “evangelical” must include a belief in the comprehensive inerrancy of the biblical autographs; others would affirm that the Scriptures, both the autographs and the apographs, are infallible with regard to matters of faith and practice.  They will accomplish God’s purposes without fail, but they are not necessarily entirely free from error.

If a concept of inspiration which implies inerrancy is such a crucial issue to evangelical Christianity, we ought to be able to find it in Scripture.  Therefore, the first order of business is to investigate the biblical text to see what it says about its own inspiration, both in terms of the elements included in the act of inspiration and the effects resulting from the act of inspiration.

The Elements Included in the Act of Inspiration

All Scripture is God-breathed.  In other words, the Source is God.  This element in found in 2 Timothy 3:16.  There we read, “pasa graphe theopneustos kai ophelimos pros...”  The subject of the sentence is graphe which means “something written” and in this case refers to the sacred texts that would have been available to those who taught Timothy (2 Tim 3:15), notably his mother and grandmother (2 Tim 1:5), as well as to Timothy when he was a young man.  Clearly, this referred to apographs of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings and may have included some early components of the New Testament canon as well.3   Whether or not they used the Old Testament in Greek translation we cannot say. 

Following graphe there are two adjectives, the syntax of which has occasioned problems for translators.  These adjectives are theopneustos and ophelimosTheopneustos means “God-breathed” and ophelimos means “profitable” or “valuable” or “useful” or “beneficial.”  There is, however, some ambiguity in the grammatical arrangement of these adjectives.  The translation could be any one of three possibilities:  1) “All God-breathed and profitable Scripture (is) for teaching….”; 2) “All God-breathed Scripture (is) profitable for teaching…”; or 3) “All Scripture (is) God-breathed and (is) profitable for teaching…”  The first translation is extremely awkward, since “profitable” is a word which seems to need completion (“profitable” for some purpose), but these words of completion (“for teaching”, “for rebuke”) are separated from “profitable” by “Scripture”.  The second translation, though possible, is in need of justification, since it makes one adjective attributive and the other predicative.  The third translation, which renders both adjectives in a uniform manner, would appear to be both smooth and consistent.  It also has the most comprehensive implications – all Scripture is God-breathed.

In regard to the distinction between autographs and apographs, it is not exegetically defensible to interpret verse 16 as saying, “all Scripture I inspired, and I profitable.”  Therefore, it is not theologically sound to understand the first predicate adjective “inspired” to refer solely to the unique act of inspiration in the past, and the second predicate adjective “profitable” to refer to a constant quality characteristic of Scripture in the present.  Rather, Paul is saying that all Scripture – both the originals and the copies – is characterized by the constant qualities of “inspiredness” and “profitableness”.  It would not make a great deal of sense for Paul to have said that the Scriptures which Timothy did not have – the autographs – were God-breathed and profitable to equip him for every good work.  Thus, these statements were made with regard to the apographs available both to Timothy’s teachers at a young age and to Timothy himself as a young pastor.  Whatever books could properly be called Scripture at that time, bore the quality of inspiredness.

The writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  This element is found in 2 Peter 1:21, where we read, “For not by human will came prophecy at any time, but being carried along by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God.”  That this does not refer to oral prophetic declarations may be seen from verse 20, where the propheteia of which Peter is speaking is written, the propheteia graphes, the “prophecy of Scripture.”  Among other things, this verse tells us that the initial impulse to record both events and the interpretations of those events in the history of revelation came from the Holy Spirit of God. The focus here is initially on the autographs, although the revealed Word in those autographs was to be heeded by subsequent generations (2 Pet 1:19) as they read and heard the message preserved in the apographs.

In one sense, the individuals who wrote Scripture did not write from themselves.  This is the implication of the first part of 2 Peter 1:21 – “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of human beings…”  Instead, those who wrote the prophetic words “spoke from God.” 

In another sense, those who wrote Scripture did write from themselves.  This element has reference to all those aspects of writing included under the general term “style.”  The writers of Scripture display varied styles, evincing their social, cultural, educational, and vocational backgrounds.  They employ varied vocabularies, use different grammatical constructions, prefer distinct types of discourse (narrative, descriptive, explanatory or argumentative), and even display differing degrees of psychological and emotional depth.  Thus their writings reveal something of the human authors, as well as something of the divine Author of Scripture.

It is worth noting that both Paul and Peter were writing these letters quite late in their respective apostolic ministries.4   That would mean that a fair amount of what would become New Testament canon had already been penned and was received as authoritative by the hearing and reading audiences.

The Effects Resulting from the Act of Inspiration

All Scripture is the Word of God.
  Because all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), the effect of God’s breathing out Scripture is that all of it is His Word.  This seeming truism takes on meaning as we consider that Scripture includes statements made by Satan, by demons, by ungodly people, and by godly individuals speaking foolishly, as well as the record of ordinary, garden-variety history.  But (and this is what is important) as a result of inspiration, all of Scripture is the Word of God.  The apostle Paul echoes this effect when he tells the believers at Corinth, “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor 14:37).

All of Scripture is profitable for the complete equipping of God’s servants for life and godliness.  This effect is found in 2 Timothy 3:15-17, where we read:

…from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for refutation of error, for correction of faults, for discipline in righteousness, so that the person of God may be fully qualified, having been equipped for every good work. 

This matter of profitableness occasions further questions.  Are there degrees of profitableness and authority?  And if some Scriptures seem “less profitable,” does that make them “less inspired”?  At this point, it is helpful to make some distinctions regarding inspiration, accuracy, authority, and value.  With respect to inspiration, either Scripture is inspired (God-breathed), or it is not.  Either the human authors spoke from God, or they did not.  With respect to accuracy, either this account in Scripture is historically true (i.e., factual), or it is not; there are no degrees involved.5   With regard to normative authority, the matter becomes slightly more complex.  While Old Testament laws, exhortations, and pronouncements were binding for the covenant community of Israel, there are some differences of opinion as to the applicability of specific stipulations for today.  Nevertheless, the normative authority of the moral law and of the principles behind the civil and ritual laws is inviolable.  With respect to value, however, it may be permissible and proper to speak of degrees in Scripture.  Although no portion of Scripture is more inspired than another, yet some portions of Scripture have more value than others, depending on the context of study and application.  A text which states a basic condition of salvation may be more valuable for a needy soul drawing near to God than one which mentions an obscure location in a tribal enumeration.  The latter, however, has significant value for the student of historical geography!  2 Timothy 3:16 indicates that Scripture is profitable for teaching, refutation of error, correction of faults, and discipline in righteousness.  Clearly, each of these needs will be best met with particular passages that would not serve as effectively in other contexts.
Not one truth of Scripture can be set aside, nullified, or omitted.  This effect is found in John 10:34-36, which reads, “Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your law, I said, you are gods?’  If he called them gods to whom the word of God came, and the Scripture is not able to be set aside, are you saying to the one whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming!’ because I said I am the Son of God?”

This reference to the “law” is found, not in the first division of the Old Testament (the Torah), nor in the second division (the Prophets), but in the third division (the Writings), specifically in Psalm 82.  The implication is that all of the Old Testament had the force of law, i.e., was binding upon the faith and obedience of the Israelite.

In Psalm 82 we find God pronouncing judgment on the human judges of Israel who are perverting judgment.  Because they are doing this, all of the fundamental structures of society are out of order.  God commands these judges to make righteous judgments; and He warns them that, although He has called them gods, yet they will die like humans.  The Psalmist calls upon God to intervene and judge the earth righteously.

Jesus uses this portion – part of verse 6 – to argue for the propriety of calling himself the Son of God.  Properly understood, this is not a clever bit of sophistry on Jesus’ part in an attempt to avoid the charge of blasphemy.  It is rather a traditional argument, employing an appeal to incontrovertible authority.  Jesus was simply saying, “If it is proper for God to call human judges ‘gods’ (because they stand in the place of God, judging in the name of God, and exercising the divine prerogative of life and death), is it not more proper that I, who really am God, should call myself the Son of God?”  Thus Jesus uses Psalm 82:6 to support the propriety of his own title, the Son of God; and in doing so, he lays down a principle which the Jews would not dare to controvert:  The Scripture is not able to be set aside.  Now, to what Scripture was Jesus referring?  To the autograph of Psalm 82 or to the copies the Jews had in their synagogues, whose words they could check and read for themselves?  Most probably the apographs.  Incidentally, this text would argue not only for the inspiredness (and thus the truth and divine authority) of copies, but would also argue for the uncorrupted preservation, in the apographs, of the truths of the autographs, in spite of possible errors of transmission. 

The truthfulness of Scripture has not been conditioned by the fallibilities of its human author.  This is implicit in 2 Peter 1:20-21.  “…no prophecy of Scripture came into being by one’s own interpretation.  For not by the will of a human being came prophecy at any time, but being borne up by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God.”  Thus the human writer’s proclivities did not supercede the work of the Holy Spirit.  At the same time, every capability and gift was enhanced, not squelched, by the Holy Spirit.6

The truths of Scripture are lasting, certain and reliable confirmations of observable phenomena.  This effect may be found in 2 Peter 1:16-19 which says:

For we were not depending on pseudo-intellectual myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but became witnesses of that one’s majesty.  For (he) was receiving from God the Father honor and glory, such a voice being borne to him from the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’  And we heard this voice borne from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have more certain the prophetic word, to which you do well to pay close attention, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.

The “power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” in this context refers to Christ’s first coming, and to that specific event in our Lord’s ministry when he was transfigured before Peter, James and John (Matt 17: 1-5; Mk 9:2-8; Lu 9:28-36).  Peter says that they did not build their accounts of Jesus on sophistical myths, but saw his majesty and heard the voice of God giving Jesus honor and glory.  That voice uttered the same words that were heard at Jesus’s baptism (Matt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Lu 3:22) when the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.  Significantly, this declaration drew together Psalm 2:7, a messianic psalm attesting to the kingly role of One who is God’s Son, and Isaiah 42:1, referring to the tasks of the chosen Servant of the Lord.  It established in their hearing the certain fulfillment of the prophetic Word.  The truths of Scripture were foundational to the experience of the transfiguration, and were confirmed by the heavenly voice.  In turn, the experience itself was definitively tied to the Word of God and recorded as such.  Therefore, Peter exhorts his audience to pay close attention to the comprehensive prophetic Word; it is light shining in the darkness of the world.

The truths of Scripture will be understood by those who are “taught by the Spirit”.  This matter of illumination will be addressed further below but, at this point, it is important to note the assurance that the Spirit who searches the deep things of God is also the Spirit who has taught the apostle Paul and will give understanding to those who have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:10-16).

Inspiration and the Apographs

It is quite clear from the preceding survey that the apographs of Scripture are considered the Word of God, true, authoritative, and infallible (in the sense of being unable to fail to secure God’s purpose).  How is this so if we remove the factors of direct inspiration and resultant inerrancy from them?  How can they still retain the other vital characteristics of Scripture?

To address this challenge, it is helpful to think of the term inspired as including two sub-categories – inspiration as an act, and inspiredness as a quality.  Inspiration refers to the act of the Holy Spirit, operative only in the original inscripturation of revelation. Inspiredness refers to a unique quality, inherent in the autographs in a primary, immediate, absolute sense, but also retained in the apographs in a derived, secondary, meditate and relative sense so that truth is preserved and effectiveness assured.  As a result of the Holy Spirit’s unique act of inspiration, the quality of inspiredness is found in the autographs absolutely and in the apographs relatively. The large category inspired would then include both autographs and apographs.

From Revelation to Proclamation

The Challenge to Proclaim God’s Revealed Word Effectively

It is important now to place these concepts in the broader scheme that constitutes God’s verbal revelation of truth and the human reception, interpretation, and application thereof. 
It seems eminently fitting that the apostle Paul, having written the profoundly significant words at the end of 2 Timothy 3 about the nature and purposes of God’s Word, should proceed directly to the following exhortation:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom:  preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction (2 Tim 4:1-2).

The Possibility of Error in the Steps of Transmission

At this point, we return to an important qualification and the questions that it raises.  Inspiredness, though it is a product of inspiration, does not require the quality of inerrancy.  Therefore, at what point(s) does error enter the picture, what precisely constitutes “error”, and how much error can the quality of inspiredness accommodate before we reach a point at which we are no longer able responsibly to call the copies and versions of Scripture that we use “the Word of God?” 

The problem of how much error the quality of inspiredness can accommodate could be dealt with summarily, simply by denying the applicability of the term “Word of God” to the copies of Scripture in our possession.  This would amount to a frank (if a bit precipitous) admission that one of two possibilities is true.  Either any degree of error makes the term “Word of God” inapplicable to our copies, or so much error has piled up over the centuries of repetitious copying that the Word of God has become hopelessly irretrievable in the tangled mesh of truth and error.  The first possibility (that any degree of error makes the term inapplicable) is plainly negated by the fact that Christ, Paul and Peter all speak of errant copies in terms of the “Word of God.”  The second possibility (that so much accumulated error makes the term inapplicable to present-day copies), must be examined to see just how much error has entered the process of transmission of the Word of God from its original state as given by God to its present state as received by us.

Step One:  Revelation

The first step in the transmission of God’s Word is revelation itself. Here we must ask, “What does that mean and how can and does God reveal truth to finite human beings?”  Presupposed in this discussion are that God exists; that He is perfect, infinite, holy, good, and personal; that revelation is initiated entirely by God; and that God reveals Himself to accomplish His purposes.  Revelation, then, is the divine disclosure of truths that are otherwise unknown and it compels a response. 

Systematic presentations of theology characteristically begin by addressing the standard categories of general and special revelation. General revelation (also called natural revelation) has been articulated as God’s revealing His divine attributes and power in creation such that humankind is left without excuse.  Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18-20 are the premier passages to substantiate the doctrine.  Of greater import for this discussion is that special revelation which is God’s verbal statement of truth disclosing His character and will, the meaning of human existence, the nature of the spiritual realm, and the purposes of God for humanity.   

Recognizing the dynamic, complex and ongoing inter-connection between what God has done and does, and the interpretation thereof, theologians also present the matter in terms of revelation by mighty acts and prophetic word.   The “mighty acts” include not only observable creative and sustaining processes but also God’s providential and supernatural interventions, all of which are interpreted by the prophetic and apostolic Word.  The very act of creation itself was initiated and accomplished by means of the divine Word. The creation and existence of humankind, within the sphere of general revelation, provide the locus for special revelation.  Adam would become the “vehicle” for words, prophetic words, and ultimately the Incarnate Word.  Words and language are foundational to the entire enterprise. 

The implications of this claim for human comprehension of truth are stunning. Creation by the Word of God means that there is something fundamentally unifying between an observable object and the language that signifies it. It further means that there is a universal basis for knowledge of created reality and for knowledge of the Creator. As creatures made in God’s image, we have the necessary apparatus to receive God’s truth presented in the media of words, language and ultimately texts.7   In this regard, it is not a mere poetic accident that, when God created humankind, He breathed into His creature the breath of life (Gen 2:7), and when He produced His Word, it is described as “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). 

In sum, truth can be and is conveyed in language systems that both “re-present” the natural phenomena of general revelation and present the supernatural via abstraction and metaphor. This reaches its redemptive fulfillment, of course, in the Incarnate Word.  The implications of the connections surface as we reflect on Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:1-18 and Proverbs 8:22-31.

There are, however, those who would claim, “Yes, God can reveal truth concerning himself and His world, but what He has revealed is not inerrant when it is presented in human language; it is only generally trustworthy” – with the implication that God’s revelation includes error.  An equally challenging position declares that the Scriptures are inerrant only in regard to matters of faith and practice.  In regard to other issues, such as historical events and observations of the natural world, the biblical text does not claim inerrancy for itself and to do so on its behalf oversteps the intentions of God as divine Author.  These call for additional brief reflection on the nature of God and His revealed Word.

If God revealed error, then either He must have done so deliberately or He could not help doing so.  If He deliberately revealed error, that would be tantamount to deception, something that is contrary to the nature of God as it is revealed in Scripture.  The Bible itself repeatedly tells us that God does not lie (Num 23:19; Hebr 6:18; Titus 1:2).  If, on the other hand, God could not help revealing error, then either He is not omniscient (i.e., He was ignorant of the fact that He was revealing error) or He is not omnipotent (He was simply unable to communicate without error).  Neither of these alternatives fits with the comprehensive witness of Scripture to God’s nature. 

It was established in conjunction with the discussion of 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture is the Word of God.  The biblical text is not, therefore, the product of religious communities that managed to include the Word of God as part of their written heritage.  To claim that the biblical text only contains the Word of God leaves it subject to dissection into aspects that are judged relevant to “faith and practice” and those that are not.  Instead, in keeping with Paul’s declaration, the descriptive adjectives, “God-breathed” and “profitable,” apply to the Scriptures in their entirety.

Having reaffirmed the truthfulness of God’s character and the unity of His word, it is noteworthy that God’s revelation was made to a world that is distorted and twisted by sin, where intellectual processes are limited and where falsehood is often part of verbal interaction.  Among other things, revelation is about the effects of sin in the world.  Thus, God’s revealed Word will reflect the complexities of human perception of and existence in this world.

Step Two:  Inspiration

This begins the process that God chose to accomplish His purpose specifically in regard to the texts that are presented in human language.  As we have seen above and will develop below, God’s Word was mediated through chosen individuals.  Nevertheless, even though the demarcation is artificial in a sense, it is important to distinguish God’s activities of “breathing” His Word and “bearing along” the human recipients in this process of communicating truth.  Because these activities were entirely His, the resulting products must be deemed perfectly truthful.

Step Three:  Inscripturation

Inscripturation refers to putting the inspired word of God into written form by the hand of human beings.  In other words, at this stage the process of revelation began to be entrusted to humankind and we recognize normal human intellectual activities in operation.  Luke researched; Paul responded to issues and questions; the prophets, psalmists, and authors of the wisdom texts raised questions; Ezra (7:11-26) quoted archives.  While the Holy Spirit was the operative force (2 Pet 1:19-21) and the Word was God-breathed (2 Tim 3:15-17), each author had his own talents, limiting chronological and cultural sphere, distinct purposes, and audience.  Because God was still the predominant Person at this stage of the process, Truth was infallibly recorded.  Nevertheless, the following also become evident at this step:  Selection and adaptation of material to fit best the needs of the audience; omission of much detail that we might like to see included; use of background-peculiar information; use of literary forms and figures that would strike a familiar chord with the audience but may sound foreign or incorrect to contemporary readers; and citation of sources available to the human author that may have contradictory aspects about them (see the example below). It is evident that choices repeatedly needed to be made as to what to include and how to say it.  These choices might have been for literary or sermonic reasons (using hyperbole to make a point), textual tradition reasons (use of the Septuagint or Samaritan text traditions as opposed to the Hebrew text) or socio-religious cultural reasons.

Two examples might serve to illustrate these varied challenges the authors faced.  A close reading of the details in Stephen's speech in Acts 7 with the record in Genesis indicates some intriguing differences.  Acts 7:16 is the most notable. The mention of a tomb purchased by Abraham at Shechem as the final resting place for Jacob and his sons is not what we read in Genesis 23:17-18; 33:18-20; 35:27; 49:30; and 50:13 (see also Joshua 24:32).  Nevertheless, even though the textual details do not match precisely, the key is to recognize that Luke’s mandate as a historian was to record truthfully what Stephen said to the Sanhedrin, rather than correcting it to fit the account in Genesis.  We can only speculate regarding the reasons that Stephen presented the material as he did.  It is also of interest that Luke would have acquired the text of this speech second-hand, perhaps from Paul, as he was not present himself.

Illustrative of a literary form that was evident in the wider culture is Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 to his being caught up to the “third heaven” which was Paradise.  Extra-biblical texts from the same general period indicate that the realms beyond earthly existence were often schematized as levels of heaven and that the third was identified as Paradise.  Each level had particular contents; the third level was the resting place for the departed.8   Whether this is the “truth” about heaven is not the point; it was a way of talking about that which was indescribable and yet so appealing to Jews during centuries of persecution.  Paul utilized that conceptual framework to make his point and Peter may have done so as well (1 Pet 3:18-19) as he challenged his audience to give an answer in the same manner as Christ did when he “preached to the spirits in prison.”  As it happens, the second “level” as it appeared in the extra-biblical descriptions held those rebellious angelic creatures who led people astray in the days of the flood.

These examples demonstrate the value of ongoing investigation of the text. Clearly, our interpretive work (Step Six) affects our understanding of the authors’ contexts and intentions as they appear in this inscripturation stage.  Above all, it is important to reiterate that all these factors are within, not outside, the sovereign working of God the Holy Spirit.

Step Four:  Preservation Via Transmission

The fourth step is the preservation of the text through the process of copying.  Here we must ask the question, “Has God caused His inscripturated revelation to be purely preserved in the apographs?”  To this question we must give a mixed answer.  If by “purely preserved” one means “inerrantly preserved”, then the answer is no.  But if by “purely preserved” we mean that the truths of Scripture are incorruptibly sustained, then the answer is yes.

The basis for making this claim lies in the discipline of textual criticism in which the extant Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are collected, organized into families representing textual traditions, and evaluated to determine what might be the closest approximation to the original text.  In the process, ancient translations (see below) and citations in early Church Fathers and rabbinic materials are also helpful. 

Clearly, there are factors that affected the transmission of the text; the overarching one is time.  Over the approximate period of 1000 years during which the Hebrew Bible was composed, the language changes included a complete transformation of the alphabet from Paleo-Hebrew to Aramaic square script, changes in spelling, grammar and syntax, and shifts in meanings of some words.  That is even prior to the subsequent processes of copying the whole text in the succeeding centuries. The New Testament Greek text was composed in a much shorter time frame, so that the language structures were more stable.  Nevertheless, there were different approaches to accuracy in text preservation and presentation in the early Church that produced distinct textual families. Time also resulted in the deterioration and destruction of manuscripts.  Finally, the humans involved could and did make errors that were unintentional, such as confusing similar letters, leaving out letters or words and repeating words or phrases.  In addition, there were occasionally intentional efforts to harmonize materials, smooth out difficult readings and eliminate objectionable expressions.

Having noted those factors, it is important to make some observations regarding the results of textual criticism for both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament.   There are more than 600 partial and complete manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, including texts from the Masoretic tradition, from the Dead Sea communities (Qumran, Nahal Hever, Masada), from the Samaritan tradition, as well as individual fragments such as the Nash Papyrus and a silver amulet discovered in the Hinnom Valley.  The Masoretic text is particularly important because of the extreme care with which the Hebrew scribes, later called Masoretes, preserved the masora (text tradition).  They counted the letters, words, verses and paragraphs in entire biblical books, found the middle words of books, noted peculiar forms, and had an elaborate system for checking and marking the text. These careful records are represented both in marginal notes and in a separate volume that is the equivalent of end notes. Because the text itself was sacred, they did not emend it; instead they made copious annotations.  In addition, because the Hebrew text had been primarily based on consonants, they added vowel marks in order to preserve the pronunciation. What is striking is how closely that text tradition, the earliest example of which dates from the end of the ninth century CE, corresponds to the Dead Sea biblical texts that are about a thousand years older.  This gives us confidence that the text has indeed been preserved in a remarkably accurate manner. 9

There are more than five thousand partial or complete manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.  These include approximately:  1) 100 papyrus manuscripts, dating as far back as the second century; 2) 260 parchment manuscripts (uncials), dating as far back as the third century; 3) 2700 cursive manuscripts, dating from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries; 4) numerous lectionaries, containing selections from the New Testament for use in church services; and 5) a number of ostraca and amulets.  In addition to this manuscript evidence, a number of early Church Fathers included significant numbers of citations of the New Testament in their writings.  The first five of the Fathers noted below died before 255 CE and the sixth died in 340 CE.  The number of citations included in each of their writings is as follows:  1) Irenaeus, 1819; 2) Clement of Alexandria, 2406; 3) Origen, 17,922; 4) Tertullian, 7258; 5) Hippolytus, 1378; 6) Eusebius, 5176.10   Thus, the challenge for New Testament textual criticism is to systematize and evaluate the wealth of data.  The largest number of variants is due to differences in spelling followed by omissions of small Greek words or changes in word order.  These are not factors that affect the trustworthy nature of the truth being communicated.

While there might be an occasional longing to have an autograph reassuringly at hand, it is instructive to recall the temptation that such an item would be for those who possessed it.  It would not be the first time that humans would display their penchant for making an idol of something that initially had been beneficial.  Note what the Israelites did with the bronze serpent of Numbers 21.  Hezekiah had to destroy it as part of the reformation because they had begun to worship it (2 Kings 18:4).

Step Five:  Translation

Several distinct factors must be addressed in regard to this stage in the text’s journey.  First, the goals of translation from the original to the receptor language are accuracy, appropriateness, and preservation of form as much as possible.  There are, however, obstacles to overcome in the matter of translation, just as there were factors affecting the transmission of the text.  Each language system is different in terms of grammar, syntax, and semantic range of words.  It is impossible to find exact equivalences in any of these categories. Translators need to determine how best to represent the original language text in the receptor language and whether to opt for a literal rendition, which seeks precise meanings of words and maintains given word order, or a free translation of the ideas and concepts.  The former can tend to be awkward and, paradoxically, may lose the meaning of the text in its excessively literal rendition.  On the other hand, the latter may lose some of the “flavor” of the original text.  In between, the dynamic equivalence theory of translation attempts to translate words, idioms, and grammatical constructions into appropriate equivalents in receptor language. As a practical matter in this regard, the careful student of the Bible will consistently consult multiple translations that have employed different approaches to translation and, if possible, examine the original languages.

Biblical Hebrew tends to uses extensive imagery, fewer abstractions, and compact syntax.  In addition, it has only two tenses, although there are variations and combinations in how these are used.  These factors are particularly apparent in poetry which comprises approximately one-third of the Hebrew Bible. When ambiguities arise in these contexts, the translator is faced with choosing among multiple options for rendering a given passage.  By way of contrast, Greek allows for both more precision and abstraction.  In light of this illustrative difference, it is instructive for our purposes that the New Testament writers who quoted the Greek Septuagint (instead of the Masoretic text tradition) as they cited the Old Testament clearly quoted it as Scripture and accorded it the full authority of the Word of God even though there were, in some cases, rather notable differences.  Nevertheless, it is apparent that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the text of the Greek translation served to communicate saving truth.

Second, it is important to address the value of the ancient translations as tools in establishing the best text (see previous section).  The Greek Septuagint is helpful as a resource for addressing challenging passages in the Old Testament.  Because it is the earliest extant translation (third and second centuries BCE), it is an important indicator of how words that were used only once or infrequently were understood by the Greek speaking Jewish communities.  It also can contribute on occasion to the process of determining the best textual rendition although the Hebrew manuscripts are the primary witnesses.  Aramaic translations, called Targums, are of less value to the text critic, but are of great interest to the interpreter.  Likewise, the Old Latin translation (ca. 250 CE) and the Vulgate of Jerome in the fourth century are of some value in working both with text criticism and interpretation.

We return to the basic question regarding this stage:  “Can the best attested text of Scripture be translated with sufficient accuracy that we can confidently call the resultant version ‘the Word of God’?”  The answer is unquestionably affirmative because translators who are thoroughly equipped and have had extensive experience working from original to receptor languages do accomplish the goals of accuracy, appropriateness, and continuity of form.
Step Six:  Interpretation

Venturing into the arena of hermeneutics is a monumental endeavor and these observations with regard to this sixth stage simply survey the bases for our confidence that we can understand the intended meaning of Scripture, note major factors that affect our interpretive efforts, and mention several current “hot” issues in hermeneutics.
Saving faith involves knowledge of, assent to, and trust in the redemptive truths of Christ’s incarnation, atonement and resurrection.  All of the essential elements of the Christian faith depend on our understanding of the Scriptures that point forward to them, that narrate the ministry of Jesus, and that interpret His life and ministry for the Church.  Because believers have been born again by the Spirit of God, they can understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:14-15).  Because they have this gift of spiritual understanding as effected by the Holy Spirit, they are able to perceive and discern truth (1 John 2:20-21, 27).  The Holy Spirit is both the infallible Author of Scripture and the infallible Interpreter of Scripture; therefore believers can have a correct understanding of the Word of God.

Having said that, it is evident that among professing Christians there are presuppositionalists and evidentialists; young-earth creationists, old-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists; Calvinists, Arminians, and open theists; Baptists and paedobaptists; dispensationalists and covenant theology adherents; pre-, mid- and post-tribulationalists; and numerous additional position labels.  In fact, there are even inerrantists and errantists!  How can we reconcile these differences of interpretation with the claim that it is possible to have a correct understanding of the Word of God?  Shall we simply say that all of these interpretations are correct, and that all of them are informed by the infallible Interpreter of Scripture, the Holy Spirit?

These disparities may be addressed by observing several key factors.  First, the finitude of human existence and the continuing effects of sin upon even regenerate human understanding mean that each interpreter will have his or her own perspective and it will not be a perfect one.  All too frequently, our own pride, covetousness or laziness shape how we choose to understand the text.  Furthermore, our interpretations are molded by our existence in a particular corner of the fallen world at a given time in human history.  Generations of experience will affect how readers in each context understand the Scriptures.  It is inevitable that finite human beings who are lodged in particular time and space frameworks will not have a complete grasp of all of reality.  Recognition that there is a distance between the author and the reader of any given text is vital.  Nevertheless, the gap is not unbridgeable; the text mediates between the cultural, geographical, and temporal “horizons”.11   Furthermore, these issues of context and perspective need not be viewed entirely as negative limitations.  Instead, a humbly receptive spirit that is inclined to learn from new approaches may come away greatly enriched. 

Second, there are differences in the systems of hermeneutics devised by biblical scholars.  Because reality is so wonderfully complex, any attempt to investigate aspects of it resort to systematization of some sort.  While the resulting frameworks allow for articulation of our findings in an organized manner, each inevitably omits some things, and gives more attention or priority to others.  The nature of the system selected or developed may well be shaped by agendas that are of vital importance for a given community of readers.  Interpretive frameworks that have been shaped by community experiences can easily become ideological tools utilized on behalf of that community.  That in turn can breed its own blind spots.  Exemplary of this are the particular challenges that have been raised by those who are both immersed in and critics of liberation theology and its various “offspring”.  The selection of particular “starting points” at the expense of others can affect ending points or outcomes; often the nature of the questions posed to a degree shapes the answers.12 

Related to this is our increasing awareness of the rich literary genres that comprise the biblical text.  Verbal truths about the nature of God, about those ineffable realms beyond our spatial and temporal existence, and about our lives in this world are woven into passages that instruct and exhort, narrate and record events, express praise, and pose doubts and questions.  Covenant instructions, lyric poetry, and apocalyptic texts, for example, all require keen perception and thoughtful reflection on the part of the reader and interpreter.13

Third, assuming that one’s interpretive theory is a credible one, there are frequent gaps between good theory and bad practice as we are all fallible practitioners, affected often by what we want to find in the text as opposed to what is there. 

Fourth, there is frequently a failure to distinguish essentials from non-essentials, or verities from distinctives.  Our pursuit of truth is all too often joined by the prideful desire to be right

It is, in fact, significant that in the steps subsequent to inspiration, increasing responsibility lies with human beings.  It seems that greater degrees of error are evident at each step as each successively moves further away from the text itself to our fallible treatment of the text.  We might surmise that the more the human intellect is turned loose, the greater is the temptation for pride as a motivating force in some way to become part of the picture.  Thus, perhaps it is God's providential control especially here which allows for sufficient disagreement to nudge us toward a healthy humility that seeks Him for wisdom.

In the midst of differences of interpretation, it is absolutely critical to acknowledge that our understandings, our hermeneutics, our practice, and our emphases are, by God’s grace, always remediable, always open to correction and modification.  In addition, all born-again Christians have more in common than they have in difference; they have a greater unity than they have diversity; there is more that should unite them than divide them.  This is often lost in the heat of debate.  It is important to celebrate the grace of God that has bought us from the bondage of sin. 

As the Westminster Confession (chapter I, section VII) states:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Step Seven:  Proclamation

At this point, we ask the question, “When, by means of exposition, illustration, application, and persuasion, we attempt to preach or teach a portion of Scripture, can we properly say that we are preaching or teaching the Word of God?”  In Acts 4:30 we find thousands of believers gathered together, and we are told that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the Word of God with boldness.”  In Acts 8:4 we are told concerning the scattered disciples of the church in Jerusalem, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the Word.”  And in 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul exhorts his son in the faith to “preach the Word!”  Thus, it is apparent that those who would be faithful followers of Christ were and are expected to bear witness by truthful proclamation of the Word of God available to them. 

This is a particular challenge in our contemporary environment because words have met their match in images.  The cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” is taken for granted.  To be sure, images and visual presentations of the Gospel are compelling and can be very effective, but their attraction often is solely emotional rather than engaging the audience in thoughtful reflection regarding the truth to be conveyed.  What has frequently been sacrificed in order to capture attention and entertain massive audiences is the matter of clarity and precision in the presentation of truth.  To accomplish the purposes of revelation, words and carefully chosen ones at that, are absolutely necessary.


It is evident from the foregoing explorations, that the potential for error in the transmission and practical use of the biblical text as we have it is noteworthy.  After all, when a copyist left out a word due to fatigue and eye-strain, that constituted an error in the transmission of the text.  Likewise, assuming that the Hebrew word karan literally meant that the face of Moses sprouted “horns” (Ex 34:35) was an error in translation and interpretation that resulted in some very famous and odd works of art.  These examples can be multiplied at each of the stages following inscripturation.  Nevertheless, while the task of dealing with the manifold complexity of these processes is indeed daunting, one of the beauties of the Christian community is its vital role in sustaining the incorruptibility of God’s revealed truth.  Infused by the presence of the Holy Spirit, the properly functioning Body of Christ can and should be the place where different text traditions, possible translations, and alternative interpretations are vigorously discussed and debated.  Contrary to what seems to be a popular longing for uniformity and absence of good argument, unity on the essential verities is not threatened by debate on issues that are more peripheral.  In fact, it is stimulating and good (cf. Prov 27:17) and leads to greater understanding of and appreciation for the richness of God’s Word and world.  It is in Christian community that we have the opportunity to practice the delicate balance of holding strong convictions and doing so with humility and willingness to recognize error.

To return to the text which is central to our convictions, we affirm that inspiredness is that supernatural, Word-bearing, Word-expressing, Word-retaining quality that guarantees that Scripture, subsequent to its inspiration, is a revelation from and of God.  This quality is a product of inspiration.  It means that truth is preserved and effectiveness assured, and it characterizes not only the text of the original manuscripts of Scripture, but also the texts of all copies of Scripture, to the extent and degree that the texts of those copies reproduce the text of the originals as faithfully as possible. 

Let us then take heart, realizing the remarkable providence that God has exercised in the preservation of His Word, and let us proclaim this living and abiding Word of God with all confidence, in the power of its divine Author, the Holy Spirit, and to the everlasting honor and glory of the incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus Christ!

Selected Bibliography

Fee, Gordon, and Douglas Stuart.  How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, third edition.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2003.

Henry, Carl F.H.  God, Revelation and Authority.  6 vols.  Waco:  Word, 1976-83.

Nash, Ronald.  The Word of God and the Mind of Man.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1982.

Thiselton, Anthony C.  New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1992.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.  Is There a Meaning in this Text?  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1998.

Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge.  The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible.  Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948.

 Wegner, Paul D.  The Journey from Texts to Translations:  The Origin and Development of the Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1999.

Wenham, John.  Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity, 1992.


1 I have avoided as too cumbersome the use of quotation marks or indentations for his words.  The reader is encouraged to access the original work at http://ibri.org/reports.htm.  Professor Dunzweiler delivered the contents of the monograph as two separate lectures for the 1977 Summer Theological Institute of Biblical Theological Seminary (MP3 and audio CDs of the Institute lectures are available in the IBRI catalog).  I have drawn the material together into one cohesive presentation.  I have requested and gratefully received permission from the Board of the Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute to present this as a revision of the original monograph.  As editor of the IBRI Research Reports, Dale Pleticha contributed very helpful comments and suggestions.

2  It is, of course, the assertion “free from error” that has engendered a hearty discussion among evangelicals who have wrestled with the definitions of inerrancy and infallibility and the implications of those definitions.  More will be said on these matters below.    The rest of the definition is significant in its emphasis on the unity of revealed truth and the moral efficacy of the Word of God.  “Judgment” indicates that the Word of God is living and active and fully capable of judging thoughts and attitudes (Hebr 4:12).

3 The issues regarding the New Testament composition and canonization are complex, but several factors merit attention.  If Paul’s second letter to Timothy was written in the mid-60’s, we can surmise that earlier Pauline letters were included here.  It is noteworthy that Peter referred to the writings of Paul in a manner that put them on an equal footing with other Scriptures (2 Pet 3:15-16).  Although the synoptic Gospels are often assigned a post-70 date, a case can be made that Luke and Acts were written prior to Paul’s release from Roman imprisonment in the early 60’s.  That would also suggest an earlier date for Mark.  See John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity, 1992). When Jesus promised the apostolic band gathered at the last Supper that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and remind them of what He had said (John 14:26), we have the assurance of the divine Source of their writings as well.  Finally, there are multiple references that put the apostolic testimony on a par with the prophetic word.  See Ephesians 2:20 and 2 Peter 3:2 as examples.

 4 The authenticity of both of these letters has been questioned in some circles and they have been dated even later than the lifetimes of Paul and Peter.  The position taken here is that they were written by Paul and Peter.

 5 Of course, a complicating factor at this point is the matter of intention; was this particular account intended to represent a historical event?  See further discussion below under “Interpretation”.

 6  See B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948) 154-158.

 7 This point is made repeatedly by Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1992).

8 See 2 Enoch 1-22 and 3 Baruch.

9  For excellent presentations of Old Testament textual criticism, see Allan A. MacRae, “Text and Manuscripts of the Old Testament,” Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, eds. Merrill C. Tenney and Steven Barabas (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1975) 5:683-697; and Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Text to Translations:  The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1999), chapters 11 and 12.

10  These data from Professor Dunzweiler’s original presentation have been modified slightly on the basis of Wegner, Journey, chapters 13 and 14.

11 See Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1992).

12 A very helpful treatment of these and other issues in interpretation is Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1998).

13 One of the most accessible treatments of this matter of interpreting the different genres found in the biblical text is Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, second edition (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1993).