Are some parts of the Bible more the “Word of God” than other parts of the Bible? For example: are the gospels (and within them the words of Jesus) more inspired by God than the Psalms or the historical books or the Apostolic epistles?
A related question is: Are some parts of the Bible more important than others?
A Canon Within the Canon
The word canon means the “measuring rod”, the “standard” by which other things are measured. This is the word the church has used to describe the collection of 66 books which are considered authoritative because they are uniquely inspired by God and are treated as “holy scripture.”
In 2 Timothy 3:16, we are told: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
(For a discussion of which Scriptures Paul was referring to here, see: Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?)
Although the Christian church as a whole officially recognizes this written canon, every denomination, local church and individual Christian has their theology shaped by greater reliance on some parts of the canon than others. This creates, in practice, a “canon within the canon”; certain parts of the Bible which are considered more authoritative, or even more inspired by God, than other parts of the Bible.
While this is very common, we must challenge ourselves by asking whether this is appropriate, and whether it is congruent with our understanding of what it means that the Bible is “inspired” or “breathed out” by God.
How was the Bible “Inspired”?
When it comes to understanding what it means that Scripture is God-breathed, on the one end of the spectrum are those who believe that God dictated the Bible word for word in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and the writers were simply secretaries who recorded those words. At the other end of spectrum are those who believe that God inspired the writers in the way that an artist, musician or author feels “inspired” by a sunset or something else which “inspires” them to create a masterpiece.
The problem with the “dictation” view of inspiration is that the writing styles of the various human authors are very apparent in what they wrote. Paul’s very long complicated sentences are very different than the short simple sentences of 1 John or the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of John recounts the life of Jesus in a very different way and from a very different point of view than that of Matthew or Luke. Furthermore, many of the Psalms are cries of imperfect people who are voicing their complaints to God – or expressing sentiments which are not God’s heart.
The problem with the artistic view of inspiration is that the Bible clearly tells us that Scripture is not just a great human book, but the “Word of God”; a message which has been conveyed from God to us. 2 Peter 1:21 puts it this way: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” and Romans 15:4 says that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.”
So, what is the correct understanding of Biblical “inspiration”?
Dynamic Verbal Plenary Inspiration
The biblical writers conveyed God’s message in terms of their own personalities and historical circumstances, and yet they transmitted the message fully and exactly as God desired.
As opposed to the idea that God only inspired the thoughts of the writers, or gave them the “big ideas,” which they then wrote down in their own words, we know that God’s inspiration of Scripture extends even to the words that were used.
For example, in Galatians 3:16 Paul wrote, “the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” By making this distinction about the significance of the particular word that was used in the Scriptures, he is making the point that God’s inspiration of Scripture is to be understood as “verbal,” i.e. that God inspired certain words to be used instead of other words in order to convey His particular message.
In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is here affirming that the smallest details of the Scriptures are inspired by God. If the punctuation is inspired, how much more so the very words?
Plenary means “complete or full,” and when used to describe the inspiration of the Scriptures, it means that all parts of the Bible are equally of divine origin and equally authoritative.
Dynamic Verbal Plenary Inspiration acknowledges that the Bible is both a human book and a divine book. To put it simply: The Holy Spirit so guided the writers of Scripture so that they gave us, in their own unique manner, exactly the message God intended.
This begs one final question: Just because all parts of the Bible are equally authoritative, does that mean that all parts of the Bible are equally important?
Are all parts of the Bible equally important?
While all parts of the Bible are divinely authoritative, there are some parts of Scripture which we can say are more important, or at least more relevant, than other parts.
The progressive nature of revelation
Hebrews 1:1-2 says: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
God’s revelation has had a progressive nature throughout history, culminating in Jesus’ coming, his teachings and his life, death and resurrection, along with his explanations of the significance of these things (see Luke 24:13-49).
Therefore, books like Romans and Hebrews contain a later and fuller revelation of the gospel, the core message of the Bible, than do books like Ecclesiastes, for example. Ecclesiastes, I would argue, can only be fully understood in light of Jesus and the significance of his life, death and resurrection.
Thus, while all parts of the Bible are to be understood as authoritative and of divine origin (this, by the way, was the criteria for the solidifying of the canon at the early church councils), we understand that the progressive nature of revelation means that some books will be more relevant than others, or that some earlier books must be understood in light of what is revealed in later books.
The Bible is God’s gift to humanity; our guide for life and eternity. It is the only book that is “God-breathed,” and it is important that we be careful to avoid creating a “canon within the canon.”