Inspiration is a special kind of guidance given by God to the writers of
the books of Holy Scripture and also to those who drew up the Canon or list
of the books recognized as inspired.
The Church has never defined inspiration,
and very different opinions about it have been held both in ancient and modern times.
Inspiration in this technical sense must be distinguished from inspiration
in its popular sense.
We speak of an inspired poet because the true poet, and indeed the artist of any kind, possesses a particular gift, which is not wholly directed by reason, but comes from the sub-consciousness.
The poet does not usually sit down to write a poem as a man would write a review or an essay.
The poem comes to him in a mysterious way, and he feels that he must write it.
This process may fairly be called inspiration,
though the inspiration does not always come from God.
But it is not inspiration in the theological sense,
though some of the writers of Scripture were inspired in both senses.
We call the books of Holy Scripture, and them alone, inspired writings because they are the records of God's revelation as no other books are.
The greatest of post-Scriptural writings,
such as the Te Deum, St. Francis, "Canticle of the Sun", The Imitation of Christ, and the Pilgrim's Progress,
are not regarded as inspired.
Though they were certainly not written without Divine help,
they do not rank with the books of Holy Scripture.
They are not among the sources of our religion.
We may well find The Imitation of Christ, for instance, more edifying than Esther or Ecclesiastes, but that is not the point.
The Canon of Scripture was not selected for its power to edify alone.
We cannot each make our own Bible.
All Christians have accepted the Bible we have for 1500 years,
and at that we must leave it.
The inspiration of Holy Scripture cannot be proved from Scripture itself.
Some of its books claim to be inspired, but not the most important ones.
On the other hand, a claim to inspiration has been made for many books from the Koran to the Book of Mormon, which we cannot regard as inspired.
The famous verse, "Search the Scriptures" (John
should probably be "Ye search the Scriptures",
and in any case refers only to the Old Testament.
So do II Tim.3.15-16 (which should read "All writing inspired by God is profitable");
II Pet.1.21; Rev.22.18-19 refers to the Apocalypse only.
We cannot make Scripture the authority for the Canon of Scripture for no list of books is contained in the Bible.
Our authority for the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible is the consent
of the Church.
The Bible does indeed bear witness to itself,
and the different books bear witness to one another;
but no formal doctrine of inspiration,
still less the formal distinction between inspired and uninspired books,
can be proved from the Bible itself.
For this reason no dogmatic definition is possible.
We have to accept the Canon of Scripture as we have received it.
It cannot be altered.
We are free to think that this book or that might well have been excluded from the Canon or added to it, but we must recognize that any such opinion is only a private opinion and is contrary to the consent of nearly all Christians in all ages.
The theory of verbal inspiration,
according to which God dictated the original words of Scripture to the authors,
has never been the formal doctrine of the Church,
though most of the Fathers and all the divines of the Middle Ages and of the Reformation period took it for granted.
The inspiration of the books of Scripture is not all of the same degree,
and we can trace development within it.
Some of the Greek Fathers recognized this,
but not the Latin Fathers or their medieval successors.
The method of mystical interpretation made popular by Origen (though we find it already in the New Testament e.g., I Cor.9.9), provided a way of accounting for the inspiration of those parts of the Bible which do not appear to have any religious importance, but its more extravagant forms required belief in verbal inspiration.
The leaders of the Continental Reformation set up the Bible as an infallible authority in place of the Church, and therefore had to lay greater emphasis on verbal inspiration; but many of them rejected mystical interpretation altogether.
(This is not true of the English Church.
See the headings to the chapters in the Authorized Version, especially in the Prophets, and compare the use of mystical interpretation by Bunyan.)
The Roman Communion has practically committed itself to the theory of verbal inspiration which is implied by the oath against Modernism imposed by Pope Pius X, and has shown itself, on the whole, very reluctant to accept even the most generally recognized results of modern criticism.
There is also a considerable body of Evangelical opinion, especially in America, which still adheres to verbal inspiration, now commonly called "fundamentalism".
To adopt this position logically one must insist on a rigidly uniform text
and forbid all translations, as is done by strict Moslems in the case of
If variety of readings is recognized, still more if translation into other languages is allowed, a human element liable to error is admitted.
The mistake of fundamentalism is its refusal to admit that there is a human element in Holy Scripture and therefore the possibility of error.
In reality the books of Scripture are not infallible, nor is their text
though it is probably more correct than that of any other ancient writings,
and no important doctrine depends on any doubtful reading.
But they are trustworthy enough for us to rely on them as a record of God's revelation sufficient for our needs.
The truth of that record is tested by the traditional teaching of the Church,
and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit given to the reason for those who study Scripture with devotion, intelligence, and humility.
The apostles received the teaching of our Lord by word of mouth,
and it was supplemented by the Holy Spirit.
ORAL TRADITION came before the writing of the New Testament
[That is, teaching not written down, but delivered by word of mouth.]
(I Cor.11.23; 15.3; Gal.1.12; cf. Luke 1.1).
The books of the New Testament form the earliest layers of the only tradition to which we have any access.
In the second century the controversy with the Gnostics,
who claimed to have a secret tradition of their own
different from and superior to that of the Church,
led to the erection of two safeguards:
the CANON OF SCRIPTURE,
and the SUCCESSION OF BISHOPS.
Whatever was not found in the recognized books
could not be part of the revelation of God;
and the teaching of Scripture was supported by the teaching of the bishops,
especially the bishops whose sees were believed to have been founded by apostles.
The principle that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation was held by all the Fathers.
Thus Origen says,
In the two Testaments every word that appertaineth to God may be sought and discussed;
The holy and Divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves to the discovery of truth;
Believe those things that are written, seek not the things that are not written;
Whatsoever ye hear [from the holy Scriptures], let that savour well unto you; whatsoever is without them refuse.
St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Hippolytus, St. Cyprian, St. Cyril of Jerusalem,
St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Hilary, St. Jerome,
St. John of Damascus, and many others agree.
Two or three passages in St. Basil, St. Epiphanius, and St. John Chrysostom, which appear to teach the opposite, really when examined turn out to refer not to necessary doctrines but to customs and rules of discipline which cannot all be found in Scripture.
See especially St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 66; and compare Philaret's Longer Catechism of the Russian Church, questions 23, 24.
The Council of Trent,
in order to enforce the medieval system of doctrine and practice,
laid down that there are two sources of necessary doctrine,
Scripture and tradition,
which the Roman Communion interprets as meaning that tradition alone,
is a sufficient basis for a necessary doctrine.
This principle has, as we shall see, opened the door to many new dogmas which cannot be proved by Scripture. (See p. 313.)
The Anglican Communion requires all its priests to declare at their ordination that they
are persuaded that the Holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity to eternal salvation
and that they are determined
to teach nothing, as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which they shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture.
The same principle is laid down in Articles 6 and 20.
It is summed up in the saying, "The Church to teach, the Bible to prove".
As we have seen, the Anglican Communion has the unanimous agreement of the Fathers in support of this principle,
but it is not accepted by the Roman Communion and forms one of the main differences between the two Communions.
The Orthodox Eastern Communion has not defined any formal dogma like
that of Trent on the relations of Scripture and tradition;
but as it possesses a body of unbroken tradition which has never been interrupted or even criticized, it lays much more stress on tradition than the Anglican Communion which was forced in the sixteenth century to reject many medieval traditions and to establish a principle on which they could be rejected.
On the other hand, the development of tradition in the Orthodox Communion has not gone so far as in the Roman Communion, nor have the Orthodox churches hardened their tradition into dogma to the same extent as Rome did at the Tridentine and Vatican Councils.
Both Scripture and tradition are subject to the criticism of reason.
[Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, 3. 8, 14.]
Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are the threefold cord which cannot quickly be broken (Eccles.4.12).
At one time some circles in the Roman Communion, especially in Italy, were
fond of emphasizing the "sacrifice of the intellect";
unthinking obedience was required of the faithful who were to be like the Light Brigade in Tennyson's poem:
"theirs not to reason why, theirs not to make reply".
We cannot too strongly deprecate such an attitude.
We are to "love the Lord our God with all our mind".
No doctrine of the Faith is too holy to be criticized,
for the test of criticism makes our acceptance of every doctrine much stronger.
Our reason is given us to be used.
The noblest use of it is to apply it reverently and humbly to the things of God;
and the greatest divines of the Church, notably St. Thomas Aquinas, have always treated the reason as a trustworthy instrument for the criticism of religious teaching.
We cannot, even if we wish to, get rid of the right and the power of private
Even the most narrow minded Romanist, who places his entire confidence in the infallible authority of the Pope, is using his private judgment in doing so.
It is by the continued use of his private judgment that he denies private judgment and remains subject to the Pope.
Private judgment is therefore inevitable.
We are responsible to God for learning how to use it.
Neither Scripture nor Tradition is to be interpreted
as teaching what Reason shows to be certainly untrue.
God cannot utter contradictions;
and if Scripture or Tradition and Reason contradict each other,
we must find some way of reconciling them.
In nothing, for instance, were all Christians more completely agreed,
until two or three generations ago,
than in the belief that Adam was a historical person,
and that the first five books of the Old Testament were written by Moses.
It is now difficult to find any educated man who believes these things.
[Outside the Roman Communion.]
Yet our denial of them has not weakened the Christian faith,
but on the contrary has greatly strengthened it.