Verbal Inspiration 

By John W. McGarvey, deceased 

(Editor's comment: This article should be read slowly and thoughtfully. It was first printed in the Christian Standard [July 23, 1904], and remains a classic essay in careful thinking and unanswerable logic - H. A. (Buster) Dobbs .)

The word "inspiration" has come to be used in a multitude of senses, and it is sometimes used with no sense at all. A striking example, which the reader may classify as he thinks best, is found in the introduction to Lobstein's work on the virgin birth of Christ, and the passage has been recently quoted with apparent approval in the Biblical World. This introduction was written by W.D. Morrison, and the passage reads as follows: 

The literal inspiration of the Bible, that is to say, the inspiration of the exact forms in which the religious truth is expressed in Holy Writ, has been abandoned by all thoughtful Christian teachers as an utterly untenable position. The inspiration of the Bible is confined to its eternal religious substance, and does not extend to the external forms in which the Bible expresses religious truth (pp. 13­14). 
As is usual with this class of writers, this author expresses himself in a style that is vague and intangible. I would be glad to ask him what he means by "inspiration of the exact forms in which religious truths are expressed in Holy Writ." For example, here is a religious truth: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." What is the exact form in which this religious truth is expressed, the inspiration of which has been abandoned by all thoughtful Christian teachers as utterly untenable? Here is another: "If Christ has not been raised, then is our preaching vain, and your faith also is vain." What is the exact form in which this truth is expressed, the inspiration of which has been abandoned? I might go on to specify hundreds of other examples, but evidently the writer, in making the remarks which I have quoted, had no particular religious truths in his mind. Had he thought of the specifications necessary to the support of his proposition, it is probable that he would not have written it. It is only when making a wide sweep at the whole Bible, with no particular passage of it in view, that such a sweeping declaration could be made. Again, I would like the privilege of asking what is meant by "the eternal religious substance." as distinguished from "the external forms of expression." I would like for Mr. Morrison, or some other scholar with a dim conception of inspiration, to tell us what is meant by the exact form and what is the eternal substance of the truth, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;" and then I would like to have the same distinction made with respect to the statement, "If Christ hath not been raised, our preaching is vain, and your faith is also vain." And if satisfactory answers respecting these two passages were obtained, I presume we should have these two truths expressed in better forms than those employed in the Scriptures. There would be an improvement on the phraseology of Jesus and Paul. We should have "the inspired eternal substance" of these two statements unencumbered by the "uninspired forms" in which they are expressed. What a great blessing it would be to have the whole Bible released from the bondage of its uninspired forms of expression, leaving us only its "inspired and eternal substance"! No wonder that several gentlemen have suggested the idea of a new Bible; and I wish that some of them would hurry up and give us a few chapters as specimens in advance. I am anxious to see them. 

The trouble with all these loose thinkers on the subject of inspiration is that they totally disregard the statements on the subject found in the Scriptures themselves. It might sober the minds of many of them if they would "read, study and inwardly digest" the following statements by the apostle Paul: 

Things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, and which entered not into the heart of man; whatsoever things God hath prepared for them that love him; but unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God: for who among men knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the things of God none knoweth save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God, that we might know the things which are freely given to us by God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Spirit teacheth (1 Cor. 2:9­13). 
If these gentlemen have sufficient respect for the apostle Paul to believe what he here says in regard to the words in which he and other inspired men expressed the truths revealed by the Spirit, they should pause upon this passage and give it due consideration. I think it would also help to clarify their thought on the subject, if they would duly consider certain statements made by the Lord Jesus himself. 

For example, "The Comforter, even the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26). Was this promise fulfilled? If it was, why all this questioning by mystified critics as to whether the words of Jesus were correctly reported by these apostles? And if all things He spoke to them which their natural memory did not retain were thus recalled after many years by the Spirit within them, what kind of inspiration was this? 

Again: "When they lead you to judgment, and deliver you up, be not anxious beforehand what ye shall speak: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour that speak ye; for it is not ye that speak, but the 

Holy Spirit." Are we to understand from this statement that the Holy Spirit in the apostles had nothing to do with the exact forms in which religious truths were expressed by them? If so, how can we account for the exact forms in which Jesus expressed these promises? If he did not mean exactly what he said, what did he mean, and what means have we of ascertaining what he meant? When a man writes or speaks about inspiration, if he does not allow such passages as these to guide and control his thought on the subject, he is lost in the fog, he is at sea without chart or compass, and what he may say is no more to be regarded than the idle wind. If there was such a thing as inspiration, it consisted in a direct action of the Spirit of God upon the spirit of inspired men. Anything else than this, or anything less than this, is not the thing. The very beginning of inspiration in the experience of the apostles was when they spoke in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. This is a complete refutation of all the vague and intangible theories of inspiration which these loose thinkers have furnished us with, and one of the clearest evidences of this truth is found in the efforts made by them to explain away the facts in this case, which are represented by Luke in language that is as unmistakable as any to be found in the New Testament, or in any other book. 

It would be well for all of our teachers and preachers to make a new study of the Scripture statements on the subject of inspiration. If we speak not of the inspiration that is set forth in the Scriptures, let us drop the word and have nothing more to do with it. 


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Published April 1996