Since the first century, Christians have claimed that the Bible is inspired by God. Nowadays, we use the word inspired for almost any creative feat—a poem, a song, a lecture, even a touchdown. While we use the word for things we think are outstanding, Christians traditionally used it to describe the divine authority of the Bible.
A classic text for discussing the inspiration of Scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed.” Here Paul uses the Greek word theopneustos, a compound of theos (“God”) and pneō (“to blow or breathe”). In other words, men wrote the books, but they were inspired, in-Spirited, breathed out, by God. The words are human, but the breath is divine.
Paul saw it that way, and so did Peter (2 Pet. 1:21) and the Prophets, who frequently said things like “the word of the Lord came to me.” That’s how Jesus saw the nature of Scripture, too. The week before his crucifixion, Jesus asked the Pharisees: “Whose son is the Messiah?”
“Easy,” they replied, “David’s.”
“Okay, but David, by the Spirit, calls the Messiah ‘Lord.’ How can the Messiah be his son?”
Silence. No one could answer. From then on, we are told, nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions (Matt. 22:41–46).
Notice the way Jesus talks about the author of the Psalms: “David, by the Spirit.” This, more clearly than anything else in the Gospels, shows how Jesus understood the inspiration of Scripture and the relationship between the human and divine authors. The text is both fully divine and fully human. It’s not as if David were speaking just from his own viewpoint. But nor is it divine dictation, as if God proclaimed words that David slavishly copied down, or wrote words in the sky. Rather, it’s inspiration: God working through the human. “David, by the Spirit.”
This may seem strange, especially if we are used to thinking of the Bible’s origin as either human or divine. But if we consider the language of inspiration—breath, wind, Spirit—then helpful illustrations abound. God is the wind; David is the sail. God is the breath; Moses is the balloon. God is the musician; Isaiah, Paul, and Peter are the various instruments he plays, each with its distinct sound.
Nobody listening to Louis Armstrong playing in a jazz club would have asked whether it was Louis or his trumpet making the music. The breath and tune came from Armstrong, but the trumpet was the instrument through which his breath flowed in order to become audible. Likewise, the biblical authors are instruments of revelation—a trumpet here and an oboe there—each making its own sound. But the musician, the skilled artist who fills them with his breath and ensures the tune is played correctly, is the Holy Spirit.
While this is an imperfect analogy, it resolves several difficult issues regarding the Bible’s inspiration. First, it helps us see that the divine and human aspects do not cancel each other out any more than Armstrong’s musicianship cancels out the role played by his trumpet. And it’s not as if the trumpet’s role increases as the musician’s role decreases. Nor is the sound 50 percent musician, 50 percent instrument. Far from it. The more inspiration the trumpet receives, the louder and more distinctively trumpet-like it becomes. It’s not 50/50, but 100/100.
Second, it helps us understand some of the “clashes” in Scripture. Whatever you call them—tensions, contradictions, paradoxes, difficulties—certain texts in Scripture, undoubtedly, seem to pull in different directions: Paul and James, Luke and John, Samuel and Chronicles. Some interpreters think dissonance disproves divine inspiration: If the same God inspired all these texts, then they all should sound the same and never clash.
Not necessarily. Imagine you are listening to a talented jazz musician who can play multiple instruments and record them in layers. The instruments not only make different sounds but also play clashing notes, often for some time, resolving only later in the piece. If you had never heard jazz before, you might think the musician was incompetent when you heard a C-sharp clash with a D. But when you trust the musician knows what she’s doing, you can enjoy the piece. You can assume she wanted you to hear both notes, recognize the clashes for what they are, and trust that they will resolve in the end.
That’s how I read the Bible. It is difficult yet beautiful, puzzling yet coherent, God-breathed and glorious. And it all highlights the excellence of the one whose breath fills its pages. It is inspired and true, like jazz.
Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and author most recently of Unbreakable.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.