In a very helpful essay on “The Adequacy of Human Language” J. I. Packer says that Jeremiah 1:9 (“I have put my words in your mouth”) provides the “theological paradigm” of what is involved in inspiration: “God causes His message to enter into a man’s mind, by psychological process that are in part opaque to us, so that the man may then faithfully relay the message to others.”

He points out that inspiration took different psychological forms for different writers at different times:

The dualistic inspiration of prophets and seers produced in them a sustained awareness of the distinction between their own thoughts and the visions and specific messages that God gave them.

This is psychologically different from the state of mind resulting from the didactic inspiration of the biblical historians, wisdom teachers, and New Testament apostles. For them the effect of inspiration was that after observation, research, reflection, and pray they knew just what they should say in God’s name, as witnesses and interpreters of His work.

Also, it is psychologically different from the lyric inspiration of the poets, who write the Psalms and the Song of Songs in responsive celebration of what they had come to know of God’s goodness in creation, providence, and redemption. Subjectively, as all versifiers and hymn writers know, the experience of a poem “coming on” (cf. Pss. 39:3; 45:1), of its gradually taking form in consciousness, differs both from the way in which an oracle is received and from the way didactic certainty is given.

But—and this is the point to note—in the Bible writers’ view, which almost all the church shared from apostolic days until quite recently, the theological reality of inspiration is the same in each case. God so controlled the process of communication to and through His servants that, in the last analysis, He is the source and speaker not merely of biblical prophecy but also of biblical history, wisdom, and doctrine, and also of the poems, whose giant-size delineations of adoration and devotion set worshipers of every age a standard for what their own praise and prayer should be. . . .

Whether spoken viva voce or written, and whether dualistic or didactic or lyric in its psychological mode, inspiration—that divine combination of prompting and control that secures precise communication of God’s mind by God’s messenger—remains theologically the same thing.

—J. I. Packer, “The Adequacy of Human Language,” in Inerrancy, ed. Normal L. Geisler (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), pp. 198, 199; emphasis added.

You can find a helpful outline summary of Packer’s article here.

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5 thoughts on “Packer on Three Ways God Inspired the Biblical Authors”

  1. Ian Paul says:

    I wonder how on earth it is possible to reconstruct the psychological states of the authors from the texts..?

  2. Ken Stewart says:

    Packer first introduced this threefold distinction as to ways in which divine inspiration functioned in his small book of 1965, _God Speaks to Man_ p. 70. It is remarkable that both then and in 1980, his use of such distinctions did not stir up opposition inasmuch as conservative Protestants had been coached to reject such distinctions since the 1840′s release of _Theopneustia_ by the Swiss evangelical theologian, F.S.L. Gaussen. Gaussen had insisted that evangelical belief in inspiration is only secure if we maintain the position that inspiration operated in a uniform manner. His doing so involved what could be called ‘procrustean’ methods, inasmuch as it involved insisting that something like prophetic inspiration characterized all the biblical writings (whether historical, poetic, or oracular). This legacy lived on until at least mid-20th century.

    Packer’s welcome change of emphasis restored an 18th century viewpoint, traceable to Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) that divine inspiration had entailed ‘degrees’ of intensity. In every case, there was a human and a divine component; but in some cases (notably the oracular) the divine component was more intensive and pronounced. An errorless Scripture was ensured by each of the three ‘degrees’. The beauty of this understanding (and Packer’s adaptation of it)is that it allows readier acknowledgment of the human element in the composition of Scripture.

    Those curious to know the trajectory of controversy over these questions from the 1840′s forward, can read about it here:
    “A Bombshell of a Book: Gaussen’s _Theopneustia_ and Its Influence on Subsequent Evangelical Theology” in _Evangelical Quarterly_ 75.3 (2003, 215-237. The article is readily available online through Google or EBSCO.

  3. Ian Paul says:

    Thanks for the link, Ken. What I am slightly baffled about is both the need to articulate the mechanics of the process of inspiration in order to affirm inspiration. I am unclear why the first is logically necessary for the second. But I am also baffled as to, methodologically, how it is possible to arrive at such an articulation of the mechanics. A moment’s reflection on my own experience of ordinary speaking and writing, as well as the process of being open to the prophetic (for example, in preaching) suggests that such mechanisms are something of a mystery—and certainly cannot be deduced from the writing itself…

  4. Ken Stewart says:

    Ian,
    Thanks for your interest in this subject. I myself think that the question about the operation of inspiration is a natural one which arises in the mind of the thoughtful reader as he or she asks the question “What kind of divine assistance was required to compose this part of the Bible?”. That is a question that can be answered, to a considerable degree, by induction (you speak of deducing). We can begin with the parts of the Bible which acknowledge their dependency on pre-existent writings. The most obvious example (but hardly isolated) is Luke’s Gospel, which discloses in its opening verses something about Luke’s researches of existing accounts. The book of Genesis, to take a separate example, speaks of the book of generations at 5.1, while 2 Sam, 1.18 alludes to the book of Jasher. We face inductive questions of a similar, though distinct kind when we consider that some of the Wisdom Literature (notably Proverbs) have direct parallels in NE Literature. The question is not whether any or all of our Bible’s contents is inspired, it is instead the question of “by what route did this come to be written?”
    Perhaps the inspiration was exercised in guiding the research of those who wrote, rather than in suggesting the material to them

    At the other end of the spectrum, our Bible present material to us that has been furnished by a direct initiative of heaven involving disclosure. In such cases, revelation and inspiration are especially tightly joined. The Revelation given to John surely belongs to this category, as do so many of the oracles given to the Prophets and statements embedded in the Psalms (such as 110.1)

    Between these two (the pensive reading of pre-existing material and the penning of material furnished rather directly from heaven, we have a large middle body of material which is either narrative (think of Acts) or history (think Kings and Chronicles) or the four Gospels. These all report true happenings but with the ‘plus’ of a historical perspective which we accept to have been furnished by the Lord. Inspiration in such genres ensures not only that the facts are got straight, but that the story is told from a perspective which is compatible with God’s purpose.

    Packer has not only addressed these questions in _God Speaks to Man_ and the 1980 volume on _Inerrancy_, but as well in his classic, _Knowing God_ where he points out that God communicates with us through our Bibles which are composed of law (command), promise, and testimony (narrative) (112,113). Feel free to correspond off-list.

  5. Ian Paul says:

    Dear Ken

    Thanks again for your detailed and considered answer. For me, this continues to raise important questions. As you say, there is a natural question which arises: ‘by what route did this come to be written?’ But I’m not just not sure we can answer this.

    For one thing, as I reflect on my own processes of writing and speaking, I don’t think I can answer this question even for normal human speech. As I reflect on my experiences as a charismatic Evangelical Christian, and think about times when I had a very strong perceived sense that I was acting under the direction of the Spirit, the process is even less amenable to analysis.

    For me, this means that the form in which the biblical writers present their writings doesn’t necessarily give any clues to the inner dynamics. I’m not clear, for example, that because Luke looks as though he is very much writing an early form of Christian history, there is any less sense of the involvement of the Spirit compared with either impulsive Mark, or reflective John.

    Revelation is an interesting case in point. The view that you mention is a very common one amongst evangelicals, that the book is a record of what might you might describe as a more or less direct revelation, so that the human element is at a minimum. But following the work of Richard Bauckham and others, it is clear from a literary point of view almost the exact opposite is the case. Revelation is extraordinarily carefully structured, with intricate word repetitions, internal structuring, extensive use of the old Testament, and interweaving of contemporary historical and cultural motifs.

    But my underlying concern in these kind of analyses is that the model suggests that inspired writing is a strange admixture of the human and the divine in different proportions–the more human, the less divine, and vice versa. should be rather understand that God’s speaks in and through the human word, rather than alongside it?

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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