The Sacred and Inspired Page

A Proper Understanding of Biblical Inspiration

St. Matthew and the Angel, by Vincenzo Campi (1588).

In recent years, there has been a renewed discussion on biblical inspiration. “The key concept for understanding the Bible as ‘the word of God in human words’ is certainly that of inspiration.”1 This statement by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, is clear: inspiration is the key to understanding the divine and human authorship of the Bible. Pope Benedict continues in Verbum Domini:

The Synod Fathers … stressed the link between the theme of inspiration and that of the truth of the Scripture. A deeper study of the process of inspiration will, doubtless, lead to a greater understanding of the truth contained in the sacred books. As the Council’s teaching states in this regard, the inspired books teach the truth: “since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures. Thus, ‘all scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work’” (2 Tim 3:16-17, Greek). Certainly, theological reflection has always considered inspiration and truth as two key concepts for an ecclesial hermeneutic of the sacred Scriptures. Nonetheless, one must acknowledge the need today for a fuller and more adequate study of these realities, in order better to respond to the need to interpret the sacred texts in accordance with their nature. Here I would express my fervent hope that research in this field will progress and bear fruit both for biblical science and for the spiritual life of the faithful.

Starting in April 2009, Pope Benedict began to address the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) on the topic of “inspiration and the truth of Scripture.” Since then, he has spoken on two other occasions to the PBC, encouraging the study of biblical inspiration.2 These statements of the Pope signified a renewed discussion within the Church on the topic of inspiration.3 In the Volume 6, 2010, edition of Letter and Spirit, theologian Dr. Matthew Levering wrote, “The Inspiration of Scripture: A Status Quaestionis,” in which he outlined the discussion on biblical inspiration for the past two centuries.4 Dividing his work into four sections, Dr. Levering gives special attention to the perspective on inspiration found in the document Dei Verbum—Vatican II’s 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. (In October of 2012, Dr. Levering organized a conference in Dayton to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, where the primary topic was biblical inspiration.)

Following the example of Dr. Levering, and in light of Pope Benedict’s express call for a “fuller and more adequate study” of the topic of inspiration, this essay will present a simple approach to understanding the Church’s teaching on inspiration. Using the work of Paul Synave and Pierre Benoit, I will examine how the term “inspiration” ought to be used in understanding the composition of the Scriptures by their human authors.5 After discussing the relationship between divine and human authorship, I will comment on the proper use of instrumentality in describing God’s inspiration of men in writing the Scriptures. Dei Verbum will be used throughout the essay as a guideline for following the Church’s teaching on biblical inspiration.

What Is Scriptural Inspiration?

The question is often raised today of how God can be the author of a series of texts that make up the Scriptures when the Bible has such a variance in style, character, and narrative technique. If the answer lies in the diversity of human authors, then how are the Scriptures any different from other written works of literature, poetry, and history? In order to answer these fundamental questions, the meaning of “scriptural inspiration” needs to be examined.

In their work, Prophecy and Inspiration, Paul Synave and Pierre Benoit define “scriptural inspiration” as (1) a supernatural impulse from God, (2) given to a human author, (3) which stimulates the will and directs the practical judgment of the author, (4) for the specific purpose of composing a text.6 Certain books of the Bible make clear the intentions of their authors, such as the prologue to Sirach, the books of the prophets, the prologue to St. Luke’s Gospel, and St. Paul’s epistles.7 But each of these texts reveals differences in its narration, language, diction, and form. How can God, therefore, be claimed as a common source of authorship? From the first century through the Second Vatican Council, the Church has always held that God is the true author of Sacred Scriptures, affirming that their composition occurred under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit.8 The Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum, reaffirms this teaching, stating that the Scriptures are handed on to the Church as texts “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” with “God as their author.”9 Due to the inspiration by the Holy Spirit, the sacred writers were able to conceive with certitude what God wanted them to write, and were given the right will to do so faithfully, along with the ability to express the truth infallibly—having, as the source of their inspiration, the First Truth who is God himself.10

Dei Verbum continues by quoting the words of Sts. Peter and Paul, affirming that all Scripture is “God-inspired” (θεόπνευστος) because the sacred writers were moved or compelled (φερόμενοι) by the Holy Spirit to compose the texts of the Bible.11 In his introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the Sacred Scriptures were produced, not merely by human reason, as are the other sciences, but also through the inner working of divine inspiration.12 By inspiring a human author, God really intervenes in the sacred writer’s mind, shedding divine light on the writer’s practical judgment, which God elevates and strengthens through a supernatural grace. Dei Verbum explains that, while men were employed by God to make use of their powers and abilities in writing the sacred texts, God acted “in them and through them,” consigning them to write “everything and only those things which he wanted.”13

By influencing the human author, however, the Holy Spirit does not engage in a type of divine dictation that would contradict the diversity of style and the human element of the Scriptures. Nor is the inspiration by the Holy Spirit merely a “negative assistance” from God that preserves the human author from writing error.14 Nor did God somehow “adopt” the writings of the human author once they were composed.15 Instead, God really communicates an interior light to the mind of the sacred writer, allowing him to form correct judgments about the revealed subject matter.16

Man as God’s Instrument

But if God played such a strong role in illuminating the minds of human writers, in what sense were they really authors of the Bible? In the third chapter of Dei Verbum, the Council Fathers speak of the human writers as “true authors.”17 How, then, are the human writers real and true authors, while still being inspired by God? In using the phrase, “inspired by the Holy Spirit,” Synave and Benoit distinctly mean the grace which moves the human mind while respecting its own proper mode of action.18 God strengthened, illumined, and elevated the minds of the sacred writers, so that, in their speculative and practical judgments, they might see more clearly the truth, about which, God had called them to write.19 In inspiration, the human author’s mind is given a new, supernatural perspective through which he may form judgments in accordance with God’s purposes.20

But the important distinction is that God does not form judgments in the place of the human author, but only causes the sacred writer to judge correctly through the writer’s own human nature.21 These judgments, even if only possible through the supernatural light of the Holy Spirit, are still made by the human author himself. God may inspire the writer’s ideas and words, and even strengthen and elevate the mind of the writer. But the human author is still free to exercise his own intellectual faculties. The human author, therefore, receives a divine light, but reacts by an act of knowledge which is truly his own. He forms his own concepts and judgments which are elevated and strengthened by God. Therefore, God elevates, but does not replace, the natural intellect of the human author—allowing the personality of the author’s own mind to shine through in his writing.22 This is what Dei Verbum means when it states that God works in, with, and through the human authors of the Scriptures.23

A Balancing Act?

It may seem that there is a contradiction between the roles of God and man, in the act of inspiration and the composition of the Scriptures. Can man and God really be authors of the Scriptures in the same respect? Even if both agents take some share or part in producing the Scriptures, doesn’t man’s action in one way exclude God’s action at least in the same sense? To answer this, it is helpful to think of this dual relationship between God and man as one between principal and instrumental causes. In question 62 of the third part of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas refers to an instrument as (1) “that which does not have the source of its movement in itself, (2) yet acts according to its own nature, (3) but only insofar as it is moved by the principal cause, whose power passes through it and makes use of its activity.”24 Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is the principal cause of the inspiration of the sacred writer’s mind. The sacred writer acts as the instrumental cause, who can compose the inspired texts only insofar as he is moved by the Holy Spirit, and given a divine light.25 Nevertheless, the human author’s inspiration and action as an instrument are accomplished through a strengthening and elevation of that author’s own human judgments, and not through any faculty foreign to his human nature.26 In inspiring the sacred writers, God moved them in such a way as not to suppress or replace their natural mode of action, but to utilize what was proper to their human nature.27 Therefore, in inspiring a human author, God respects the writer’s natural activity, and moves him by his divine power, without inhibiting the author’s own natural faculties.28 Dei Verbum echoes this relationship of instrumentality when it speaks of the human authors composing the sacred texts through “their own powers and abilities”; yet doing so with God acting “in and through them,” as the principle cause of their activity. God speaks in Scripture “through men in a human fashion,” and by means of the sacred writers’ words, God communicates to his people.29

The Dual Agency of God and Man

It is important to understand that the distinction made between principal and instrumental causation does not lead to a separation of two spheres of activity in composing the Bible. It is not as if God and the human author were working on two separate steps or parts of the same biblical text.30 Rather, there is one effect, which is the written text, and two causes: a principal cause, God, and an instrumental cause, the human author. This one effect is the work of both causes—the instrumental subordinated to the principal—with both contributing to the production of the text, yet each according to his own manner of acting.31 The Sacred Scriptures are a physically written text, designed for the purpose of evangelizing men about mankind’s redemption from the slavery of sin, and the indwelling of Christ in our hearts. It is only fitting that men, sharing in this redemption, should be involved in the texts’ composition. But in order to write concerning the breadth, length, height, and depth of this revelatory message, the sacred writers needed a supernatural source that came from God himself.32 The entire text, therefore, from its form, content, words, and ideas, is the result of this double activity by God and the sacred writers.

It should also be recognized that when the human authors are acting as instruments and are subordinated to God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, their natural faculties are in no way inhibited.33 As Dei Verbum clarified, it was the natural powers and abilities of the human authors that God used in, with, and through, the authors themselves. Here, it is important to realize what it means for something to be used as an instrument. If an axe were used as an instrument to cut a tree down, then, this action should involve everything proper to being an axe: it should be held properly, with a sharpened blade that faces the tree as it cuts. Any other handling of the axe would be to use it improperly as an instrument. In the same way, if a man were used as God’s instrument in composing the Bible, it would necessarily involve everything proper to man’s nature—which involves a free and intelligent act done in a voluntary manner. An inspiration by God, which elevates the natural faculties of man, should not, therefore, inhibit these faculties. In fact, inspiration elevated the faculties of sacred writers to judge, think, and perceive more clearly the matters about which God wished them to write.34 Although it is done in a human fashion, the sacred writers’ composition of Sacred Scripture was, in no way, just another normal human act—nor was it just an ordinary act accomplished with the ordinary help which God normally gives to his people.35 By the inner working of the Holy Spirit, God inspired the sacred writers’ minds in a special and supernatural way, so that they might write with a clarity and certitude that would not be possible without a special grace from God.

Summary and Conclusion

God, therefore, is the author of the Scriptures because he, through the activity of the Holy Spirit, is the inspirer of the human authors of the Bible. Through this inspiration, the sacred writers received the divine light that elevated and strengthened their own natural judgments. As instruments subordinated to God, acting in full accord with their own nature, the human authors apprehended and judged the truth in human fashion, while being illuminated by the divine light for the purpose of writing the sacred texts.36 The Bible, therefore, has a dual authorship that is both human and divine. This should make us rejoice. For God has gone so far in adapting his language to our human nature—all to reveal himself and his loving plan of redemption.37 Just as Christ, as the divine Word of the eternal Father, took on our human nature and became man, so too, Sacred Scriptures possess a dual causality which makes them both the words of men, and the inspired word of God.

  1. Verbum Domini (VD) No. 19.  
  2. The dates for Pope Benedict XVI’s addresses are April 26, 2009, April 15, 2010, May 2, 2011. 
  3. Recently, Francis Etheredge has written for HPR on the importance of the Scriptures in his article Scripture is a Unique Word (Jan. 2012). 
  4. Letter and Spirit, vol. 6 2010. 
  5. By human author or sacred writer I mean any author or editor of an inspired writing found in the canon of Scripture, (Synave, Paul & Benoit, Pierre, OP, Prophecy and Inspiration, New York, 1961, p. 107). 
  6. Ibid., p. 110. 
  7. Sir. prologue, Jer. 1:7, Lk. 1:1-8, Rom. 1:1-7. 
  8. See the Council of St. Damasus, Vatican I, Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII in 1893, Divino Afflante Spiritu by Pius XII in 1943, and Dei Verbum in 1965 3.11,12. 
  9. Dei Verbum (DV) 3.11 
  10. Synave and Benoit, p. 90, II-II q. 1 a. 1.  
  11. DV 3.11, 2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:21. 
  12. St. Thomas’s Introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David
  13. DV 3.11. 
  14. Nichols, Aidan. The Shape of Catholic Theology, Collegeville, 1991. IX, 114-120. 
  15. Synave and Benoit., p. 88. 
  16. Ibid., p. 104. 
  17. DV 3.11. 
  18. Ibid., p. 105. 
  19. Synave and Benoit, p. 96. 
  20. Ibid., p. 96, II-II q. 174, a.2. 
  21. Ibid., p. 97. 
  22. Ibid., p. 108. 
  23. DV 3.11. 
  24. Ibid., p. 77. III q. 62 a 1. 
  25. Ibid., p. 77. 
  26. Ibid., p.81. 
  27. Ibid., p. 105. 
  28. Ibid., p. 95. 
  29. DV 3.12. 
  30. Ibid., 91. 
  31. Cf. C. Gent, III 70. 
  32. Eph. 3:18. 
  33. Synave and Benoit., p. 95. 
  34. See Origen’s Against Celsus VII. 3-4. 
  35. Ibid., p. 70, 91. 
  36. Ibid., p. 98. 
  37. St. John Chrysostom In Genesis 3,8 (Homily 17,1): PG 53,134; “Attemperatio”. Footnote 11 in DV ch. 3. 
Fr. Athanasius Murphy, O.P. About Fr. Athanasius Murphy, O.P.

Fr. Athanasius Murphy, O.P., a native of Long Island New York, entered the Order of Preachers in 2010, being ordained a priest in 2016. A graduate of Providence College, he is currently assigned as an associate chaplain at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.


  1. This paper by Brother Murphy shows exactly how God and the human author interact and cooperate in these 72 books of the Sacred Scripture Thanksgiving to God for this gift. which inspiration extends to secretaries and disciples of the main author .


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