The Nature of “Inspiration”


Can we say that something that is the result of long study and intellectual deliberation is “inspired?”  Or do we hold that inspiration must be something more instantaneous and immediate?


I love blogging.  I love the freedom and spontaneity of it: the ability to simply dash off your thoughts and then, in the click of a button, make them available to every internet user in this whole, wide world.   But this freedom has a down side.   When you are as free as all that, you run the risk of turning in on yourself and writing stuff that has not much meaning to anyone other than yourself.  That is one of the great things about having an actual, real-world class that you are teaching.  It happens now – if one is smart enough to listen and give people time to comment – that you may get questions that challenge you and draw you out of yourself a bit.  So much the better for everybody.


That happened to me at the close of last week’s class session.   We’ve been studying the Book of Revelation for a while now and in the last few weeks I have pointed to the notion – supported by both commentaries we’ve been using (Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder and Vern Poythress’s The Returning King) that the “sea beast” pictured in Revelation Chapter 13 is a direct reference to the beasts envisioned in the seventh chapter of the book of Daniel.  When the two passages are read together, it is very hard to ignore the similarities and when one accepts the idea that the Old Testament vision is a precedent for the New Testament vision, the meaning of the  New Testament vision becomes a bit more obvious.

In fact, it is express in the very text of the book of Daniel that the beasts in his vision represent kingdoms.  If, then, we accept the idea that John’s beast is an amalgam of those beasts in Daniel’s vision, we can say that the sea beast in Revelation is a symbol of government – of earthly political power.  That fits nicely into our whole theory about the book of Revelation – that it was a message to persecuted churches of the first century to give them a heads-up on what they were going to experience (suffer) at the hands of the world.

But such a reading and interpretation of the book also implies much about how the book was composed.  If we accept this idea that John’s beast is based on Old Testament scriptures and is intended to carry a message similar to that implied in that precedential, Old Testament passage, then we must think that John’s composition of this book was a studied and deliberate process.  That is, that John considered how to get his message across to his intended audience and made deliberate use of the scriptures that he knew his readers would understand as he understood them.

But, here is the problem, brought home to me gently but firmly by one of the members of the class:  Does the idea of such a deliberate, calculated and studious composition of the book really jive with the text of the book itself?  Look at how John himself describes his own writing of the book:


 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”


Moreover, throughout the text of the book we see John make references to what he “saw” and “heard” from the Spirit .

Wow.  If we take this at face value we might think that the book was literally dictated, word for word, by the Spirit of God to John and that John’s whole person – his knowledge of the scriptures and his whole history of experience, first-hand, with Christ during His earthly life had nothing to do with the writing of the book.   If we view it this way, we might think that John himself may not even have understood the meaning of all he was shown in the visions.  And such a view undermines the notion – important to us as we’ve studied the book – that John knew exactly what he was saying and what his message would be understood to mean to those to whom it was originally addressed.


No matter how we view John’s experience – whether we think of it as something that happened in an instant, given to him directly and expressed without regard to his own vocabulary and understanding; or whether we believe it to have been the result – the coming together as the situation demanded – of John’s entire experience as a Christian and Apostle – all of his study of the scriptures and all of his personal experience with Jesus Christ over the now decades-long life of John himself – we must agree  that the words, the message conveyed here, is a message from God.  That is, no matter if John’s composition of this book was simply a matter of recording what he heard – like a good tape-recorder; or whether the process was longer and more deliberate and involved John’s whole person – his whole intellect and understanding and vocabulary – we must agree that this message is from God.

This brings us to the whole question of the nature of inspiration.  Can we say that something that is the result of long study and intellectual deliberation is “inspired?”  Or do we hold that inspiration must be something more instantaneous and immediate?


We do accept that the four Gospels themselves are “divinely inspired.”  That is why we venerate them as scripture.  That’s why they are in the Bible.  And yet there is overwhelming evidence that these writings were the result of careful editorial deliberation.  That is, they were not written down in a fit of ecstasy but were rather the result of long thought – remembrance of the words and acts of Jesus Christ and anticipation of what questions and assumptions and understandings the readers would have in mind as they read.


However we view the sort of inspiration that John experienced as he composed this book, we must agree that inspiration itself – even divine inspiration – may be the result of – or may use and incorporate – the personality, intellect, deliberation, and understandings of the earthly writer.

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