The Holy Spirit & Biblical Inspiration

It has often been said that churches tend to choose between being Word churches or Spirit churches. What is meant by this saying is that those churches that most emphasize the Word seem to underemphasize the Holy Spirit, while those churches that most emphasize the Holy Spirit seem to underemphasize the Word. While this is a broad blanket statement that is obviously not universally true, most would agree that it rings true in light of common experience. Yet, as common as it is for a church to separate the Word and the Spirit in this manner, it is both strange and unnecessary.

The Holy Spirit is not in any way at odds with the Word. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit was intimately involved in the ancient composition of the Word and is intimately involved in the contemporary reading of the Word. In the case of the composition of the Word, the Holy Spirit worked through inspiration, while in the case of reading of the Word, the Holy Spirit works through illumination. In the first half of this series, we will look at the act, extent, and implications of inspiration.



The sixty-six canonical books of Holy Scripture are often referred to as the “Word of God” (John 10:35) because they are just that. Scripture identifies itself as “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), meaning that everything we find in the Bible is there because God himself put it there by his Holy Spirit. That is not to deny that human beings actively composed the sixty-six canonical books. It is to say that as the various human authors composed the sixty-six books, they wrote exactly what God, through his Holy Spirit, wanted them to write. The Apostle Peter describes the process in 2 Peter 1:20-21 

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though humans, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Theologians refer to this process as “inspiration.”

While the Holy Spirit utilized each human author’s unique personality (such as David’s love for music in composing the Psalms) and experiences (such as Paul’s lifelong Judaism in composing Galatians), he was not in any way limited by them. Oftentimes, the human authors were not even aware of the precise referent of the words they wrote. Peter explains in 1 Peter 1:10-11: 

The prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 

Moreover, in most cases the human authors were personally aware that what they were writing was not coming from them but from the Holy Spirit. For instance, Paul introduces his teachings in 1 Timothy 4:1 with the phrase, “the Spirit clearly says…” much as the Old Testament prophets introduced their proclamations with the words, “Thus says the Lord” (Jeremiah 26:2, Ezekiel 5:5). They also recognized that the other authors of Scripture were inspired in the same way. One case in point, Paul attributes the words composed by Isaiah to the Holy Spirit when he says, “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet…” (Acts 28:25).

@@The Holy Spirit used each biblical author's personality & experience, but He was not limited by them@@


On the basis of this evidence and much more, evangelical Christians have historically affirmed what is called a “verbal plenary” view of inspiration. To say that inspiration is “plenary” is to say that every portion of the canon is equally inspired. It is to say, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” as is taught in 2 Timothy 3:16. To say that inspiration is “verbal” is to say that the Holy Spirit inspired, not just the ideas communicated by the human authors, but the precise words they used to communicate those ideas. Evangelicals do not hold this view of Scripture merely because of tradition, which is often helpful, but sometimes wrong. They hold this view of Scripture because Jesus held this view of Scripture, and he is never wrong.

In arguing with his opponents about the reality of the resurrection, Jesus bases his entire argument on the tense of one verb from the Old Testament.

“But about the resurrection of the dead,” he says, “have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Mathew 22:31-32).

Jesus notes that Moses did not quote God as saying, “I was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” but “I am" (Editorial emphasis). He says that this is sufficient proof of the resurrection, showing that he is convinced that the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration extends to the very words the human authors used.

In Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, he goes even further and teaches that the Holy Spirit inspired not only the words, but each and every movement of the human author’s pen. He assures his audience, “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).

While Jesus is clearly speaking of the Old Testament in both passages above, he promises that the Holy Spirit will work in the same way in inspiring the authors of the New Testament. Speaking to his Apostles on the eve of his death, he assures them,

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you (John 16:12-15).



The implications of Jesus’ verbal plenary view of inspiration are astonishing. The first implication is that whatever the human author is saying in the text is what the Holy Spirit is saying in the text. To state it differently, every letter in the Bible should be a “red-letter” because every word of Scripture is God’s Word, having been inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means that Paul’s words in Scripture, for example, are just as trustworthy and just as authoritative as the words of Jesus without even the slightest distinction.

The second implication is that whatever the human author is doing in the text is what the Holy Spirit is doing. In this context “doing” is not referring to a physical action like “doing the dishes.” Rather, it is referring to what the author is doing with his words. All speech does something. The human author’s words may be “doing” rebuke, blessing, command, promise, sarcasm, warning, encouragement and so on. What the author is precisely doing in the text can only be discerned by reading the words in context. For instance, the phrase “this is getting old” could be an observation, a complaint, a rebuke, a request for a newer version, or any number of things. Only context will reveal which is intended. Since the Holy Spirit is responsible for every word in Scripture, he is responsible for the context of every passage in the Bible. Thus, he not only determines what is said, but what is actually effected when it is said. This means that when the human author gives a harsh rebuke or uses biting sarcasm, it is not due to any imperfection in him but due to the perfection of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the human author is doing in the text is what the Holy Spirit is doing in the text.

The third implication is that the Holy Spirit accomplishes what he wishes through the human author's intent and rhetoric. All speech brings about some sort of result. The result may be informing, encouraging, moving to worship, bringing to repentance and so on. Sometimes the intended result is implied, and other times it is stated directly, as it is in John 20:31 and 1 John 5:13:

“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

Authors choose their words based on their intended result. Since the Holy Spirit is responsible for every word in Scripture, he is also responsible for the intended result of each passage. This means that each portion of Scripture will accomplish what it was intended to accomplish, considering the Holy Spirit, being God, affects change at will. This always includes the author’s intention and oftentimes goes beyond it.

The fourth implication is that when we read any portion of Scripture, composed by any human author, in any given genre of biblical literature, we encounter God himself. Since the Holy Spirit inspires the words that are used, the way in which those words are used, and the purpose for which those words are communicated, the Holy Spirit is responsible for every conceivable part of the Biblical text without exception. Thus, he is not merely revealing ideas or truths; he is revealing himself just as all human beings reveal themselves through the words they use, the way in which they use those words, and the result of the words they communicate. This is the greatest implication of the doctrine of inspiration.

Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook