Revelation, Inspiration, and Illumination
A summary of information from Norm. F. Geisler and William E. Nix's A General Introduction to the Bible.
© 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino
Revelation: From God to man (man hears what God wants written)
Inspiration: From man to paper (man writes that which God wants written)
Illumination: From paper to heart (man receives that which God has written)
We know that God spoke to man, but how did He speak? Hebrews 1:1 says that
He spoke to the fathers and prophets in many portions and many ways:
1. through angels (Gen. 18; Gen. 19; Dan. 9:21-27; Luke 2:8-14; etc.)
2. through a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:11, 12; Ps. 32:8)
3. through nature (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 10:18; Acts
4. through a loud voice (Gen. 3:9-19; Ex. 3:14)
5. through dreams (Gen. 28:12; Matt. 1:20; Matt. 2:12)
What is involved in transferring the voice of God into the vocabulary of man?
There are five different areas to be considered: (1) various theories of inspiration; (2)
scripture texts on inspiration; (3) implications of inspiration; (4) importance of
inspiration; (5) completion of inspiration.
The term inspiration is found only once in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16,
17: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for
reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be
complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."
The Greek word is theopneustos and literally means "God-breathed."
Theories of Inspiration
The natural theory--the Bible writers were inspired only in the sense that a poet
or writer is inspired naturally. In other words, that spark of divine inspiration that
supposedly is in all men simply burned a little brighter in the hearts of the Bible writers.
However, 2 Peter 1:20 says, "no prophecy of Scripture is of any private
interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke
as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."
The mechanical theory--God coldly and woodenly dictated the Bible to his
writers as an office manager would dictate an impersonal letter to his secretary.
The Bible is the story of divine love, and God is anything but mechanical or cold
concerning inspiration. The Holy Spirit never transgressed beyond the limits of the
writer's vocabulary. We can see this because the highly educated Paul used a larger,
more complicated vocabulary than the fisherman, Peter. The Church has never held
what has been stigmatized as the mechanical theory of inspiration. The sacred writers
were not machines. Their self-consciousness was not suspended; nor were their
intellectual powers superseded. Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy
Ghost. It was men, not machines; not unconscious instruments, but living, thinking,
willing minds, whom the Spirit used as His organs....[T]he sacred writers impressed
their peculiarities on their several productions as plainly as though they were the
subjects of no extraordinary influence.
The content theory--Only the main thoughts of the Bible are inspired. This is
the position of the liberal theologian who would cheerfully accept those portions of the
Bible which deal with love and brotherhood, but quickly reject the passages dealing
with sin, righteousness, and future judgment. But this is contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16
(quoted above). Charles F. Baker writes,
A certain bishop is purported to have said that he believed the
Bible to have been inspired in spots. When asked for his authority for
such a statement, he quoted Hebrews 1:1, stating that this meant that God
spoke at various times in varying degrees. Thus, some spots were fully
inspired, others were only partially inspired, and still others were not
inspired at all. The bishop was embarrassed when a layman asked: "How
do you know that Hebrews 1:1, the one scripture upon which you base
your argument, is one of those fully inspired spots?
The spiritual rule only theory--The Bible may be regarded as our infallible rule
of faith and practice in all matters of religious, ethical, and spiritual value, but not in
other matters, such as some of the historical and scientific statements found in the
Word of God.
Jesus said, however, "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe,
how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"(John 3:12).
The verbal-plenary theory--All (plenary) the very words (verbal) of the Bible are
inspired by God. Matthew 4:4 says, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every
word that proceeds from the mouth of God." First Corinthians 2:13 says, "These things
we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit
teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual." Jesus says in John 17:8, "For I have
given them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and
have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent
Me." Jesus says in John 6:63, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.
The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life."
Scripture Texts on Inspiration
2 Peter 1:20, 21; Hebrews 1:1; John 10:35; Matthew 5:18; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter
3:2; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 15:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:15; and the verses already referred
Note: Some people say that when Paul was speaking on divorce in 1 Corinthians
7, he differentiated between what was scripture and what was his own opinion. What
is actually the case is that Paul was directly quoting Jesus in the first part, but was
"merely" prompted by the Holy Spirit in the second part.
Implications of Inspiration
As one carefully considers the subject of inspiration, he is led to the following
1. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not each that all the parts of the Bible
are equally important, but only that they are equally inspired.
2. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not guarantee the inspiration of any
modern or ancient translations of the Bible, but refers only to the original
Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (the autographs).
3. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not allow for any false teaching, but
it does on occasion record the lie of someone (for example, Genesis 3:6).
Therefore, we have an accurate record of the devil's words. As one reads
the Bible, he must carefully distinguish between what God records and
what He sanctions. Thus, while lying, murder, adultery, and polygamy
are found in the Word of God, they are never approved by the Word of
4. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not permit any historical, scientific, or
prophetical error whatsoever. While it is admitted that the Bible is not a
textbook on science, it is nevertheless held that every scientific statement
in the scriptures is absolutely true.
5. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not prohibit personal research. The
New Testament writer Luke begins his gospel with the following account:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account
of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from
the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word
have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me, as
well, having investigated everything carefully from the
beginning, to write it out....(Luke 1:1-3 NASB).
6. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not deny the use of extra-biblical
sources (see Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12; Jude 1:14, 15).
7. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not overwhelm the personality of the
human author. The Bible writers experienced no coma-like trance as do
some mediums today during a seance, but, on the contrary, they always
retained their physical, mental, and emotional powers. See Isaiah 6:1-11,
8. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not exclude the usage of pictorial, symbolic,
hyperbolic, or summary language. This is to say the Holy Spirit does not
demand that we accept every word in the Bible in a wooden and legalistic way.
For example, a case could not be made that God has feathers like a bird in Ps.
91:4. Here the thought is simply that the persecuted believer can flee to his
heavenly Farther for protection and warmth.
9. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not mean uniformity in all details given in
describing the same event. See Matt. 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, and John
19:19, about the superscription on the cross.
10. Verbal-plenary inspiration assures us that God included all the necessary
things He wanted us to know and excluded everything else. 2 Tim. 3:15-17.
Importance of Inspiration
Of the three tools involved in the making of our Bible, the tool of inspiration is
the most important. This is true because:
1. One may have inspiration without revelation. For example, rather than
supernaturally telling Luke what to write in his gospel, the Holy Spirit led him
to carefully check out all of the records.
2. One may have inspiration without illumination. Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:11)
that the Old Testament prophets did not always understand everything they
Completion of Inspiration
Is inspiration still going on today? Yes, inspiration is still going on today, but
with the close of the apostolic age, God led the church fathers to canonize what we
know today as the Old and New Testaments. We have all of the information we will
ever need regarding God, our relationship to him, and our salvation straight from God
If someone claims to have a revelation from God, we must check to be sure that
it is in harmony with God’s word that has already been revealed.
We have already stated that without inspiration, no scripture would have ever
been written. We may now claim that without illumination, no sinner would have ever
been saved. Illumination, then, is that method used by the Holy Spirit to shed divine
light upon all seeking men as they look into the Word of God. We need illumination
1. We are naturally blind because of sin. (1 Cor. 2:14, Matt. 16:16-17)
2. We are satanically blind. (2 Cor. 4:3-4)
3. We are carnally blind. (Heb. 5:12-14, 1 Cor. 3, 2 Peter 1)
There are two main results of personal illumination: that people are saved and then that
the saved people are matured.
Implications of Illumination
1. The Holy Spirit looks for a certain amount of sincerity before He illuminates
any human heart. We are quick to point out that sincerity is not enough to save
anyone, and so it is. However, it should be also noted that it is equally
impossible for an insincere person to be saved. This first implication is brought
out in John 4:24.
Furthermore, it should be stated that no Christian should ever look on
illumination as automatic. This is to say, God has never promised to reveal
precious and profound Biblical truths to any believer who will not search the
Scriptures for himself. See John 20:31, Acts 17:11, 2 Tim 2:15, 1 Peter 2:2.
2. The Holy Spirit often seeks out the aid of a believer in performing his task of
illuminating the hearts of others. See Acts 8:30, 31, 35, Acts 17:2, Acts 18:26,
For Further Reading
Bloesch, Donald G. Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible. Old
Tappan, NJ: Fleming J. Revell Company, 1984 ed.
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
Carson, D. A. And John D. Woodbridge, eds. Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.
Demarest, Bruce A. General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary
Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.
Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible.
Chicago: Moody Press, 1974.
Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible
(Revised and Expanded). Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.
George, Timothy, et. al., eds. The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration. Nashville, TN:
Broadman & Holman, 1995.
Trembath, Kern Robert. Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration: A Review and
Proposal. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Turretin, Francis. The Doctrine of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book
This essay is a summary of the information contained in Norm. F. Geisler and William E. Nix’s General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986 ed.). It is meant to outline the arguments brought forth in that book and was used originally as a handout in a class taught by the Passantinos using Geisler and Nix’s book as the textbook. Another approach to the issue is in Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology Volume One: Introduction and Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2002).
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1.