What is “divine inspiration?” How does it happen?

When we hear the word “inspiration,” we usually think of the artistic kind; that is, the moment when creativity reaches maximum heights in an author’s life. The inspiration of a biblical writer (called a prophet) has some similarities, but there are essential differences compared to artistic inspiration.

Revelation and inspiration

If revelation is the process by which God reveals information and/or concepts to the biblical author, inspiration refers to the processes by which the received message is transmitted to third parties. In other words, revelation is a cognitive process, while inspiration is a linguistic one.[1] 

The claim of biblical authors is that their words were God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16); that none of their writing “had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

The purpose of the inspired prophet is not necessarily to write an artistically beautiful text, but one that best conveys the meaning, the idea, the concept that God revealed in the prophet’s mind. The process of inspiration is fully overseen by the Holy Spirit—that is why the image of the inspired prophet is that of a human upon whom God breathes His truths, as we see in the verses quoted above.

Unlike artistic inspiration, the prophet does not claim that the origin of the message lies in his own brilliance or that it should be appreciated according to its aesthetics (the aesthetic value being decisively influenced by the writer’s talent, education, and abilities). The prophet’s concern is to faithfully convey God’s message, in the form in which it is best understood by the target audience.

Therefore, the prophet uses the most appropriate methods to draw the attention of the recipients to the divine will: they use writings (letters, narratives, descriptions, verses, etc.), dramatisations (for example, Jeremiah carries a yoke—Jeremiah 27:12), parables, or does the work of research, selection, and editing (Luke 1:1-4).

In other words, the perfect divine message is transmitted through human means, which, by definition, are limited and imperfect. Nevertheless, God’s truth is fully communicated to people. The central theme and the ultimate goal of the content of Scripture is to reveal God’s character in such a way that humans trust in Him, draw closer to Him, and thus are saved.

We cannot say that we learn all the details of inspiration from the Bible, but we read the claim and the certainty demonstrated over time regarding the supernatural origin of the Bible: “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). One cannot speak of parts that are more inspired than others. The authority of the Bible over the life of faith is thus supreme and total: the whole Bible is inspired and the whole Bible is God’s message to me. 

How inspiration works

How inspiration works and what exactly is inspired—the written word itself or the mind of the prophet—is the subject of intense discussions in Christianity. The debate may be technically interesting, but less important since our access to the sacred text is mediated by the translations we use. Any translation is an attempt at adaptation. What is important is that the meaning, the idea, the message is transmitted as faithfully as possible and is understandable to the readers.

The same valuable concepts were translated both in the language of several centuries ago (which we find hard to understand) and in contemporary versions. Even the people of the New Testament, the apostles and especially Paul used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. This translation was considered divinely inspired and quoted as such (1 Timothy 5:18).

Speaking of translations and of text variants, of course the fallible human dimension makes for differences, omissions, or small errors. However, scholars confirm that when they do occur (very, very rarely), they are insignificant with respect to the central message of Scripture.[2]

Life experience tells us that sometimes we can better understand a text or a book when we know its author. Knowing what the author is like, what their passions, priorities, and concerns are, we can understand better, more deeply, the meaning of the words that are often read correctly and sometimes between the lines.

Our Saviour Jesus tells us that if we get to know God intentionally, methodically, we will deepen the meaning of Scripture to a level we had not anticipated (John 7:17). This knowledge is effectively realised when humans live out the received teaching. This is how we can experience God’s counsel and recognise the value and effectiveness of divinely inspired truths (John 10:38). Perhaps this final exhortation is the most “inspired” conclusion to the entire article.

[1]„Fernando Canale, “Revelation and Inspiration,” in Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, ed. George W Reid (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2006), pp. 47–74.”
[2]„See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, pp. 21–133.”

„Fernando Canale, “Revelation and Inspiration,” in Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, ed. George W Reid (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2006), pp. 47–74.”
„See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, pp. 21–133.”