Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Can we distinguish inspiration from canonization?

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8 minutes to read Inspiration and canonization are two components in the larger, holistic process of inscripturation.

This is an old post I’m finally publishing. An Eastern Orthodox commenter prompted me to write it a while back, after giving me a hard time about the canon. That’s where Traditionalists-with-a-capital-T, such as Orthodox and Roman Catholics, like to rootle around in search of delicious fallacy-truffles they can expose in the verdant soil of Protestantism.

Mind you, even if they could show that Protestantism has a problem with a “fallible collection of infallible books”—as John Gerstner infamously put it—replacing this with a fallible collection of infallible traditions doesn’t seem like a promising way to solve the problem.

But there is a larger issue here which I haven’t seen either side give much consideration to, and that is the question of how inspiration and canonization are related.

To see what I mean, let’s sketch out the components of inspiration.

What is inspiration?

Broadly speaking, inspiration is a combination of:

  1. Ordinary human discourse
  2. God’s special action

God providentially sets up events so that, in the course of ordinary human discourse, the right man for his task is in the right place, writing the right things, at the right time. From our perspective this is all a result of simple, everyday causes. The process of writing Scripture itself is no different as an everyday procedure than my process of writing this article.

The difference is that God not only providentially arranges these human actions, but that he then also specially acts so as to direct this human activity to speak on his own behalf. The Holy Spirit “carries men along” (2 Peter 1:21). Yet this special action is not like a voice in the author’s head, or a “hijacking” of the ordinary process of discourse; indeed, there is no reason in principle that the writer should be aware of it at all. It simply issues in what might perhaps be called an unusual veridicality of thought, recollection, and belief. Special action does no injustice to ordinary discourse; it rather perfects it.

This is not to say that God did not speak directly to at least some authors of Scripture. But his doing so is distinct from their recalling it and writing it down. Compare John 14:26a to John 14:26b.

Inspiration in action

Now, the question I want to raise about canonization becomes apparent when we start getting a bit more specific about what inspiration often looks like—about how certain parts of the Bible were written. We often oversimplify inspiration by taking simple examples as paradigm cases. An epistle, for instance, was dictated by one man who had thought through the issues he was writing about and perhaps received instruction directly from God; all the questions of ordinary discourse and special action line up neatly. We can say, “This man was carried along by the Holy Spirit as he engaged in a simple form of discourse, and the immediate result was an inspired document.”

But when we start to characterize the process of inspiration for other parts of the Bible, the sequence is not nearly as neat.

Inspiration in action with Luke/Acts

Take for example Luke’s writings. These were compiled from multiple sources. Luke had to interview eyewitnesses. He probably made copies of any notes or journals they had written nearer to the time of the events he was researching. He would have compiled and cross-referenced various reports, weighing discrepancies and distilling the essence of the events into a single coherent account—even though he had not been personally present. He probably had copies of Mark or the mythical Q to refer to as well.

This research phase could have taken years. Then he had to compile all his notes into a rhetorical structure and logical sequence that suited him, and polish and edit it into a final copy that could be transcribed for use by the congregation.

But think about how ordinary human discourse, and God’s special action must have lined up in this sequence. Many Christians suppose that Luke was carried along by the Spirit as he churned out the autographs of his gospel and Acts—and that’s where it ended. But in fact, the ordinary course of human events had to line up perfectly for all the witnesses he interviewed, and God’s special action had to be in play as Luke compiled his records.

Furthermore, there is a serious question about how special action works with the eyewitnesses Luke interviewed. Luke’s writings are only as good as the records he received; if all the witnesses he interviewed made mistakes, he would include such mistakes in his writings absent direct intervention from God (and such intervention would make the whole process of ordinary discourse pointless). So it seems reasonable to infer that not only was Luke carried along by the Spirit, but so were his sources—at least sometimes.

Inspiration in action with Jeremiah

Take another example. People assume that the book of Jeremiah was written by Jeremiah. But it switches several times between a first and third person perspective. However, whereas with Luke this switching is caused by a single author writing about events in the lives of many people, some of which he personally witnessed, and some of which he is reporting second hand, for Jeremiah it appears to be two authors—Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch—writing about events they personally witnessed in the life of Jeremiah.

Discovering that parts of Jeremiah were not written by Jeremiah makes many Christians very anxious. They feel that inspiration is threatened—because they have a highly artificial, “stylized” understanding of what inspiration is. The idea of a scribe taking the raw prophetic writings of Jeremiah, and shuffling and editing and adding to them with his own observations and interjections, doesn’t gel with what they understand inspiration to be. Yet this appears to be how Jeremiah was written, and it is indeed an inspired book.

Inspiration in action with Moses

Take a third example. Suppose that Moses compiled the early books of Genesis from much older accounts (some kind of toledoth theory or variant on the Wiseman hypothesis). That would require not only that ordinary human discourse and God’s special action lined up for Moses, but also that they lined up for whomever wrote the source tablets to begin with, along with anyone who added to them or edited them. Moses was merely the final redactor in what might have been quite a long chain of scribes—many of whom may not have been prophets, nor even perhaps have known that God was acting to preserve them from error.

But so what? We know that Moses didn’t write every part of the books of Moses anyway, since they record his death. Presumably he did not write from the grave, and there’s no reason to imagine those parts must be prophetic rather than later additions.

Inspiration as an “ordinary” process

What I’m angling at with these examples is that inspiration is not, as most evangelicals imagine, a purely or even primarily supernatural process. Rather, it is a natural process, superintended by the supernatural but often invisible action of God. We might say inspiration “supervenes” on ordinary human discourse. Because it is a process of ordinary human discourse, it is often indistinguishable from what happens when writing and editing any other text—even though the end result is quite different because of the Holy Spirit’s involvement.

In other words, inspiration is not a situation where God zaps the writer and he goes into a trance and comes out of it a few hours later with a new book of Scripture. Indeed, even in the obvious cases of “zappage”—prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John—they used the ordinary means of dictation and writing to record their visions afterward. The visions didn’t supernaturally inscribe themselves onto parchment as they occurred.

I get the very strong impression that evangelicals don’t think about inspiration this way. The ordinary human actions involved are minimized or even completely ignored, and inspiration becomes a kind of supernatural whammy that spontaneously produces new scriptural material. This is perhaps a natural overreaction to liberalism, which swings completely the other way and denies any supernatural involvement in the authorship of the Bible at all. But it is not an accurate or sensible view of how God produced the Bible.

Something to think about on your own time: how does understanding the authorship of Scripture as a process rather than an event affect our concept of “autographs”?

Canonization as extended inspiration

This brings me to my central thesis. Given that inspiration is typically indistinguishable from the ordinary human activity of writing and redacting texts, where precisely should we say that inspiration ends, and canonization begins?

What I mean is, inspiration is ordinary human discourse, superintended by the special action of God—but canonization is also ordinary human discourse superintended by the special action of God.

Sure, the precise components of the discourse tend to differ. You can point to certain features distinct to both—inspiration involves research and writing and redacting among a few people, while canonization involves reading and discussion and recognition of Scripture among an entire covenant community. But those are only component events in what appears to be a holistic, overarching process.

This is usually not so clear because we tend to think of inspiration as involving one person (the biblical author), and canonization as involving the whole church.

Where inspiration and canonization intersect

While I’ve illustrated that this process is not so clear-cut, I think the difficulty of distinguishing inspiration and canonization does become particularly stark when we focus on the biblical authors—whoever they may be.

Let’s take Paul as an unambiguous example; the words went straight from Paul directly onto parchment, with no research or redaction process evident.

Now, did Paul know at that point that his words were Scripture?

However we answer, notice what kind of question it is. It is a question of whether the text should be included in the Bible. In other words, it is a question of canonization.

Now this question would apply equally to anyone who was redacting a text—whether that was Baruch or Moses or some anonymous unsung scribe who helped put together some part of the Bible.

In fact, it would be hard to do redaction without having an opinion on whether the various components of text you are working on are inspired or not.

If you are Baruch, and you’re saying, “I need to compile the visions of Jeremiah into a coherent work that can be added to our scriptures,” you are in the process of canonization as well as the process of inspiration. They are one and the same process at that point. They begin to diverge as the rest of the covenant community becomes involved, but right at that point they are indistinguishable.

Put simply, canonization is simply part of the inspired redactive process. It may therefore be more helpful to think of inspiration and canonization as two complementary and comingled elements within the larger, holistic process of inscripturation.


steve hays

There’s a common failure to distinguish between direct revelation and inspiration. The former includes the latter, but not vice versa.

In Calvinism, inspiration can be an extension of special providence.


All very reasonable.

Kruger has written in some depth on canon issues.

I think inspiration includes at minimum prevention form error. It probably also means God getting the author to include that which God wants to be in there.

The Spirit drives men (2Pe 1:21) to speak.

Tangentially, Wiseman was wrong about the toledoths, they are introductions not endings. I am uncertain about the why for Wiseman’s thesis but I note that tablets from the ANE have endings. Perhaps this is (unwisely) used to influence how ANE scholars infer the origin of Genesis from sources? But the structure of Genesis clearly shows that these are introductions.

I think that Moses wrote (edited) Genesis. I assume you think he wrote it, though you are open to him editing it? If so, then passages in Genesis that are anachronistic to Moses may point to him editing it as that is evidence of an original. (Of course non-anachronistic passages are not helpful as they could either have been authored that way by Moses or edited out by him.)